Monthly Archives: April 2011

Running Away from an Empty Tomb

Running away from an empty tomb seems to be a universal response. It can be either a harsh reaction clouded in bewilderment, fear, desperation, or rejection, or it can be a hopeful expression of astonishment, dawning faith, and joy. Both options are depicted in the gospel records of the first people to confront the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection.

A few women hoping to provide traditional funeral anointing for Jesus’ hastily entombed body were the first to find the grave disturbed. A torrent of mixed emotions gripped them. Mark tells about the women encountering an angel in the tomb who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. At his behest to go tell the disciples, they ran away from the empty tomb. But, as Mark observes, “The women were confused and shaking with fear, so they left the tomb and ran away. They did not tell anyone about what happened, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8 NCV) John says that Mary Magdalene went running away in shocked bewilderment to Peter and John to report, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2b NIV) Matthew also tells how fearful the women were after finding the huge stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb and Jesus’ body missing. Yet mingled with their fear was the dawning joy of new and different life through Jesus’ resurrection. The angel in Matthew’s account tells the women to go quickly and share the good news, “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matthew 28:8 NIV) Mixed powerful emotions fueled their running away from the empty tomb.

Others who had an encounter with the empty tomb quickly distanced themselves from it. Frightened and dazed, the guards assigned to secure the tomb that was suddenly empty hurried to the authorities to report all that had happened. (See Matthew 28:4, 11-14.) The suspicious religious leaders hatched a plot to cover up what they saw only as a curiously troublesome incident and to refute any claims made by Jesus’ followers. With word of the empty tomb spreading, some followers of Jesus decided to get out of town. Two of them headed for Emmaus. They repeated their skeptical report accurately to a man they met en route: “Today some women among us amazed us. Early this morning they went to the tomb, {23} but they did not find his body there. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive! {24} So some of our group went to the tomb, too. They found it just as the women said, but they did not see Jesus.” (Luke 24:22-24 NCV) Little did they know as they walked away from Jerusalem and this perplexing tale of the empty tomb that they were talking with the One who had recently left the tomb, himself – Jesus!

Two of the disciples actually went running toward the empty tomb, not away from it. Peter and John listened in amazement to Mary Magdalene’s story and bolted away to check the tomb for themselves. They didn’t know what to believe or what to hope for: “Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. {4} Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. {5} He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. {6} Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, {7} as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. {8} Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. {9} (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)” (John 20:3-9 NIV) Peter and John ran excitedly to the tomb, but they didn’t know just what to make of what they found.

One crucial event turned the tide for the faithful tomb runners. When each one met the risen Jesus, hope, joy, and exuberant faith overcame their fear, bewilderment, and despair. Meeting Jesus is the missing element from the guards’ story. Personal encounter with Jesus transformed the minds and emotions of his followers: “Suddenly Jesus met [the women]. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.” (Matthew 28:9 NIV) The dubious Emmaus duo recognized Jesus as he broke bread with them at suppertime: “They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:32 NIV) The disciples – who had doubted what the women and even Peter and John had told them about the empty tomb were transformed when they met the crucified but living Jesus themselves: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ [20]. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord”. (John 20:19b, 20b NIV)

People today who hear the Easter story seem to have similar reactions To the empty tomb as the first to see and hear about it. Many people are still running away from the empty tomb. Some scurry away in skeptical rejection of what they regard as an ancient folk tale that is not scientifically verifiable. Some may run away in confusion and fear, not comprehending how God’s love and grace could vanquish the power of sin and death by giving new life to his crucified Son, Jesus. Others may run away in confusion over competing truth claims of world religions, clamoring to find a religion that settles for less stringent faith. The essential element for stopping anyone who is fleeing the empty tomb in their tracks is a faithful, personal encounter with the risen, living Jesus. Direct, personal relationship with Jesus can transform our fear, desperation, and bewilderment into joy, hope, and faith.

Transformed by faith in the risen Lord, we are freed to run away from the empty tomb as elated witnesses. The followers of Jesus who came face to face with the empty tomb did not crowd around it worshipping the site as an empty holy shrine. They put their feet into obedience to Jesus’ directive given in his first meeting with the disciples after his resurrection: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.'” (Mark 16:15 NIV) Their faith that God raised Jesus from the tomb, so God could also raise them to new life sent them into all the world to tell the good news.

How are you responding to the empty tomb? Are you running away from it in doubt, disillusionment, and fear? Have you stopped in order to look and listen intently for a personal encounter with the risen, living Jesus? Have you told someone else the marvelous story of the empty tomb and helped them to share your joy of meeting Jesus? You, too, can run away from the empty tomb in the positive sense, proclaiming with those who have met the risen Lord, “Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed.”

Imagine what a spectacle if everyone who has met the risen Jesus would run away into all the world from our Easter celebrations of the empty tomb with those words on our lips!

– J. Edward Culpepper

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