Absentee Jesus on Easter

Mark16:1-8; 1Cor15:1-11; Acts10:34-43
There are four gospels, and three of ‘em have great stories with the resurrection: Jesus shows up to make huevos rancheros with blackened tilapia for a beach barbeque breakfast. Or he goes for a stroll incognito with a couple of friends, chatting and telling stories until—voila!—he is unmasked during supper’s “this bread is my body, given for you.” Or, in stuff we’ll hear next week, he suddenly appears behind locked doors blowing on his friends and letting them poke at his wounds, not to say “ew” but “wow!” Those accounts of meeting the risen Jesus are on the mark for our fleshy faith. We’re not just about angelic holograms or souls floating off to heaven, but about the here and now.

So I’m not saying that he was a live-fast-die-young kind of rebel, or that high cholesterol would’ve gotten him if the cross didn’t, but Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, of hanging out with sinners and partiers, which may sound familiar, like your kind of people. And that makes it only right that we enjoy lots of sweets today, ham and deviled eggs, good times with loved ones.

Coming at it from the other side, in harder circumstances we pray so fervently around hospital beds not because life is so miserably ungodly, but because with God we recognize how very good it is. Our Christian faith is nothing if not an affirmation of that. If we’re Jesus people, then sterile, bland, monotony won’t cut it, nor will disembodied escapism. We’re vivacious. We need good music (like we’re getting this morning!) and beauty (like the artwork of our new cross!) and delight. And we need it not to hoard, because trying to keep happiness to ourselves would just stifle it. We’re people who find our identity in sharing the love, in spreading the wealth.

Easter is that kind of holiday, the absolutely central mark that even when death tries to interrupt, when we’ve given all we can to our last breath, when obstacles try to deny its spread, even when sin threatens the worst, still God’s goodness breaks through for another beginning, for forgiveness, for new life. That’s not just going someplace when you die. In Jesus we see God’s commitment is not primarily otherworldly, but this-worldly. God cares for, loves, glories in, strives to preserve, and will tenaciously cling to this creation, and your place in it.

So resurrection stories of this being a bodily thing, details like dawn at the lakeshore, of close companions and compassion sharing tears, of being able to touch Jesus and eat with him and shoot the breeze and breathe the same air and getting fishing tips from him all are really true and valuable and essential for our faith.

Yet for those great stories in the other three gospels—one even with the promise “Remember, I am with you always”—today with the resurrection according to Mark, Jesus is not there on Easter, much less apparently with you always. In this version, Jesus is notable in his absence, where he doesn’t show up for repartee and hors d’oeuvres and there’s no gabbing with God moment, nor even the simplest reassurance that what has happened has indeed happened, that this whole resurrection business isn’t a figment of your imagination or a pious wish or a collective fiction. That’s the big benefit of those other versions, right? The crucified one shows up with a “Hello my name is Jesus” nametag and says, “Remember me? I’m back and better than ever!” We can grab him, take his pulse, fingerprint him. It feels like fact-checking, a verification, proof.

But Mark has emptiness, absence, vacancy. You go looking for Jesus where you last left him and instead find duct-taped to the tomb a sign that says “Room for rent.” He’s not there. We might, then, ask, “Well, where in the hell is he?” But that’s a question for yesterday, as our tradition has held it, when he descended to the dead, to preach to the spirits in prison. So instead we might now ask where in the world is he? We’ll get back to that shortly.

First, let’s consider what faith is. It says in one place, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb11:1). Or, in a similar vein, “who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom8:24-25). That’s plenty logical, if not festive or exciting or spectacularly triumphant. Compared with this missing person today, it’s much more appealing when the resurrected Jesus pops up behind locked doors or floats off the ground than this disappearing act in Mark. Or, to be accurate, I guess Jesus would first have to appear in order to disappear. Instead he’s just not there. No proofs. No tangible evidence. No CSI action on a shroud of Turin.

Yet this is what faith is about: the unseen. It’s about Jesus who doesn’t exactly show up when and how you want him. About a God’s blessings that don’t work like magic tricks or secret potions. Something that too often is quiet and unnoticed and, yes, unfortunately involving patience. This makes Mark’s version of the story a fit with our reality, leaving room for doubt, for this all being pretty unbelievable, and awfully uncertain.

Mark seems intentional about leaving such ambiguity and mystery, at least if we can trust the messenger dressed in white there at the tomb. And, as we’ll say again, we can only trust him. There’s nothing else to do. So that young man calmly explains where Jesus is off to. One commentator equated him with an administrative assistant greeting your arrival for an appointment by saying, “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry. You just missed him. He’s got better things to do besides hanging around a tomb all day.”*

So what’s he got that’s so important? Where did Jesus need to rush off to so early this morning? Well, it’s not that he was avoiding you. Neither is it heaven, at least not yet. It’s not that Jesus was sick and tired of this boring old world and wanted out. Just the opposite. In fact, Jesus goes rushing right back into this world he and his Father so love. The messenger boy declares that Jesus is going back to Galilee, back to his home turf, back to where it all began.

To be clear, though, he’s not just back from the dead and headed for his old haunts. It’s not homecoming at his old stomping grounds. This isn’t revisiting the good old days, only with them being the new better days.

What this is saying, what it is pointing you toward, is that Jesus is active in your life, in your everyday world, in all the regular places you find yourself. His resurrected presence is at work when you’re at home, when your family is dearly annoying you, when your friends fall apart, in the drudgery of daily work, in strivings and successes and failures, when your doctor shows up with bad news, and when all the news seems to be bad news. That’s where Jesus is headed and already at work. With this business of eternal life and abundant grace and unconditional love, he’s taking this show on the road.

Except, as we’ve said, it’s not much of a show. It’s not so much glitz and glamor as it is mostly quiet and patient and subversive. It’s in persistent love, in rampant care, in gradual healings of brokenness. With those life-giving creative blessings, Jesus is also destructive—in destroying death, in undermining hatred, in eroding the old barriers of trespassing, in shutting up former standards that said you were no good, or that said you could exclude others of your choosing. If anything, your religion isn’t about freedom to discriminate, but binds you to neighbors who are least like you or least liked by you. That’s the kind of strange work that Jesus is up to out in the world.

And that’s also why you’re here, to hear about it. Our typical phrase is that you have to see it to believe it. But with this tomb-abandoning, already-on-the-move, not-showing-up-where-you-try-to-pigeonhole-him kind of Lord Jesus, you don’t get the stunning revelations first, only to let you believe it afterward. Instead, the way our God works is the reverse: you have to believe it to see it.

Again, that’s why you’re here. Because faith and hope come from hearing. You gather in church, tuning in your ears so that your vision may be focused on finding Jesus active in the world around you. It’s the only way for it to work. The message came in that delivery boy sending the disciples back home to find resurrected Jesus. It came in Peter hanging out with those he wouldn’t have even looked at, declaring to them that Jesus is Lord of all, not just of some. It came in Paul’s preaching that this news is of first importance, the most vital thing not just for eternity but for right now. It comes even in my words for you: Jesus is up and on the loose, already ahead of you. He is at work, spreading life at all times and in all places. That’s what you’ve got to look forward to. Alleluia! Christ is risen!