“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Image: “Women arriving at the Tomb” by He Qi

by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens

We begin our Easter sermon with the cross. On a day in which symbols play an important role in our faith, the cross is one that is loaded with meaning. And as many interpretations as their are minds in the world. But I start with the cross, because  – in order to reveal in the glory of Sunday – we need to understand Friday. The joy of today, the brightness of today is nothing, if we do not remember the dark.

 Or as our choir sang:  “Then came the morning, night turned into day. The stone was rolled away, hope rose with the dawn! Then came the morning, shadows vanished before the sun, death had lost and life had won, for morning had come!” 

We begin at the cross and you may notice that Jesus is not here -it is not a crucifix. The Protestant cross is a Sunday morning cross. A “He is not here” cross. An Easter cross. 

So, as we hear again, the story of Easter, let us understand it in a new way – to see the individuals, their reactions, their take-aways, and then determine our own. What does Easter mean to us? Let’s look at the source, from Luke beginning in the last sentence of chapter 23 and into chapter 24: 

It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

Our text begins after the death of Jesus, at the crucifixion: Jesus had died, and one of the important rituals to be observed was preparation of the body for burial. So, in our opening line we are introduced to these nameless women, these first witnesses to the resurrection. But this one lines tells us a lot about  these women — whom Luke names later as Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary, mother James and Joses. 

“The women who had come with him from Galilee”  – These were not just some strangers or casual bystanders, not just women doing their work, fulfilling their gender roles: these were his followers, his disciples and supporters. In chapter 8, Luke describes them during Jesus’ work  of preaching and teaching.

Luke 8: 1-3

…He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Three women, who were disciples of Jesus, were there:

Mary Magdalene – who was she? 

Nowhere in the bible does it state Mary from Magdala was a prostitute. Nor does it say she was the women stoned for adultery. This is a background our history and our tradition has constructed for Mary, not something that is in the Bible. (see John 7:53–8:1) We do know that she and the other women supported Jesus and his work “provided for them out of their resources”. One theory is that she was never mentioned as being a wife or mother, so how would she have resources? She MUST have been a prostitute…. that’s an assumption that has smeared Mary for centuries. She was from Magdala, an ancient city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And our text says she had been healed of “seven demons” by Jesus.

Joanna – wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward.

As the wife of an important court official, she would have had sufficient means needed to travel and contribute to the support of Jesus and the disciples.

Mary, Mother of James and Joseph: 

The fact that two Marys in the story have sons with the same names (James and Joseph/Joses) shows the commonality of certain names in first-century Galilee. The name Mary, in particular, was exceedingly common in first-century Palestine, hence the need to distinguish between different Marys in the Gospels, whether by way of their hometown (Mary Magdalene) or in association with their husband (Mary of Clopas) or sons (Mary mother of James and Joses). (1)

These three women witnessed the crucifixion and went home to prepare spices, a practice usually performed by close friends and family members. But while they were preparing for the burial, the time got late, the sun went down, day turned to night and it was the Sabbath. Being faithful practitioners of the Jewish faith, they rested for a full day, waiting and praying….waiting and praying….honoring the commandment of the Lord. 

And at the first opportunity they had, as dawn broke that early morning after the Sabbath, they went to the tomb, carrying their spices. They went looking for the body and when they found instead – the entrance stone rolled away and an empty tomb – our text says, they were perplexed and then terrified… and suddenly two angels appeared and  – instead of offering them words of comfort, instead of saying “Do not be afraid…” Instead, they rebuked the women with this question: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’

At that site, looking into the empty tomb, hearing the words of the angels, the women understand that their friend and teacher was much more. He was the Christ that had conquered death! So they ran immediately to tell the other disciples, who didn’t believe them and called their story ridiculous. Only one dared to check it out:

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Peter did not go out and tell the rest of the disciples or the world about it. He went home. The disciples were not convinced of the resurrection until Jesus later appeared to the disciples directly, on the road to Emmaus and then again in the upper room. 

I want to return to the question asked inside the tomb, asked by the angels. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” What an amazing question. To those women, it was a direct, literal question noting that Jesus is not among the dead; he is among the living. For us, it is a different question: Where is Jesus? Where do we find the Risen Christ? Do we expect to find him in the “dead places” while missing his presence among the living?

Let me tell you a parable to explain this idea:

A rich man returned to the church of his youth, a small crumbling church in the midst of the city. Once it had been filled with people and song, children and excitement, but now he found only 3 people. Three older ladies, who had devoted their lives to the church, but now they were tired. The rich man was moved into action and decided to donate 3 million dollars to rebuild the church. He didn’t put any restrictions on the donation; instead he told them he was inspired by the words of the angels “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen,”  and directed them to rebuild the church. So the three ladies, who were the congregation, the church board and the decision makers, decided to split the money equally, giving each woman one million dollars to rebuild the church.

One woman lived in a care home and noticed that many of her friends and neighbors would gather around the piano in the gathering room to sing the songs from their youth; some folks, she noticed, were so lonely and never had even one visitor; some folks loved to help their neighbors, but didn’t know how. So the woman decided to use her part of the donation to hire a chaplain, who sang hymns with the people at their bedside; who visited the people just to talk; who encouraged and organized the residents into groups that studied and volunteered and helped one another.

The second woman lived next to a school and after school she noticed many kids would stand outside her front window, waiting for the city bus to take them home. For months she was irritated by these kids who were loud and energetic and bothered her quiet life, so she went to the principal of the school to complain. The principal told her the school bus had broken down so they were not able to provide the children with transportation. So the children were forced to take the city bus, and the bus stop was right in front of her house. The woman decided to use her part of the donation to repair the school bus and invest in a fund to help needy children with bus fare.

The third woman knew exactly what she wanted to do with her part of the donation: she was very concerned with those in their city who were homeless and without  a consistent food supply. She was a good cook, so she thought she could start a food program to feed all the hungry folks. But she was getting on in years and not able to cook meals for the hundred of people in the city that were in need. But she noticed that there was shelter in town that did have a feeding program. It was run by only a few volunteers but they cooked big meals with the meager supplies they had. So the third woman used her part of the donation to invest in the shelter and its food program, and with that money they were able to expand their reach into the community, hire full-time workers and provide meals to everyone who came through their doors. 

The rich man returned a year later to see how the church was able to rebuild with his generous donation, but when he walked through the doors of the small crumbling building  he found just the same three ladies! “I gave you three million dollars!” he exclaimed, “and nothing has come of it! The church is still crumbling and there are still only you 3 people! I gave you this money to rebuild the church!” 

The women explained, “Sir, when you said you were moved by the words of the angels, we went back and reread that lesson: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” the angels said. So we invested your money where Jesus was … among the living: In those who live in the care home, in the school children and their principal and in those affected by the work the shelter.”

“But you have not GROWN the church, you don’t have any more members that you did before the donation. You were supposed to bring life back into this place, to bring bodies and excitement. To make THIS place a part of the living.”

One woman understood the confusion, “Ah… When we read the passage, sir, we understood it differently. You wanted us to bring Jesus back here, but “He is not here. He has risen.” So we went where Jesus was, among the living. Not to say that our church is dead, we are not. Jesus is here, too, in us. But he is not ONLY here.”

Another woman spoke, “And we have grown our congregation! The chaplain and the folks at the care home; The children, parents and staff at the school next door; and those who are working at and those who are eating at the shelter. They are all our brothers and sisters, our congregation, ding the work of and worshipping the love of Christ. They don’t need to come to us. We go where Jesus is alive and active.” 

‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Maybe we are looking for Jesus in the empty tombs of our heart, rather than expecting him to be within us, within and among the living. Christ is Alive! Not walking around, washing our feet, sharing meals with us – alive, but here among the living! Where are the dead places in our lives that need to be buried, so that we can direct our attention to the places where Jesus is alive?

Today, on this Easter Sunday, may we too be like the women the tomb: discovering the miraculous fact that Jesus is alive!that Christ is risen! That joy and mercy and love and compassion exist in the world, among the living! May we be Easter people, not only today but everyday.Amen.

  1. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/women-empty-tomb/