Have you seen the movie or read the book The Color Purple? The main character is Celie, a poor black woman who has been abused all her life. But she has somebody in her life who loves her, her sister Nettie, who gets chased away by Celie’s violent husband. Her husband doesn’t let Celie ever see the mail, so Celie never hears from Nettie and starts to believe that her sister is dead. But Nettie isn’t dead. She has gone to Africa as a missionary and writes to Celie many letters over the years. She never gets a reply, but she keeps writing letters to Celie anyway.
Then, one day, Celie finds the packet of letters from Nettie that her husband has stashed away under the floorboards. “Dear Celie,” Nettie writes, “I know you think I am dead. But I am not. I been writing to you, too, over the years, but Albert said you’d never hear from me again and since I never heard from you all this time, I guess he was right. There is so much to tell you that I don’t know, hardly, where to begin….but if this do get through, one thing I want you to know, I love you, and I am not dead.”
I love you, and I am not dead. You may think that I am dead and that you are unloved, but I am not dead, and you are loved. If this message gets through, if the Gospel message is passed down through generations, if people still talk about this sort of thing, if it matters at all – on Easter morning God says to us, I love you and I am not dead.
But we expect death. Death and taxes, right? Renowned preacher Dr. Anna Carter Florence says, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on? Resurrection breaks all the rules, and while most of us might admit that the old rules aren’t perfect, at least we know them.”
The women at the tomb come to attend to the sad realities of death, grieving, walking in the dark, prepared to attend to the body and are surprised to find not death but life, and a Promise to share. It is likely these same women who stood watching from a distance as Christ was crucified, not able to get close, but standing by, watching and waiting, mourning and holding vigil for their savior’s death. Death was the expectation. After all, he warned them this would happen, didn’t he?
The rest of the disciples have fled, knowing death may come for them too. Perhaps not able to remain in the midst of so much violence, or threats of violence. It is the women, the first witnesses of the empty tomb – the first to hear the word of resurrection – the first to be sent to preach that promise to others – it is the women who are not believed. Luke’s Gospel places the most women at the scene. It is Luke who frequently lifts up the examples of women, and others who might be considered 2nd class citizens by some. It’s also Luke who describes the disciples as guys who need to be reminded of things more than once. Need to have things laid out for them and explained. The disciples in Luke aren’t portrayed as picking up what Jesus is putting down.
But also, only in Luke, are the women at the tomb REMINDED of what Jesus told them already. Remember what he told you!?? And it clicks.
Not only is death to be expected. Not only did Jesus speak openly with his followers about death – he also told them to expect something else. Something unexpected. He tells his disciples in chapter 9, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes.” And he tells them again in chapter 18, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.”
Were they just not paying attention? Selective hearing? Did Jesus feel like he was just constantly repeating himself – and then the kids, I mean the disciples were like – but Jesus, you never told me that….”
In that moment – in the dark, early hours of the morning, grieving and faced with an unexpected situation – the women remember. There in the garden, at the tomb, when all has been lost, and they come prepared to deal with death – the women are reminded of what they’ve known all along, but in midst of violent trauma had forgotten. The women remember. Jesus words and Jesus promises hit them right where they stand. I love you. I am not dead.
Easter comes to us – when we are surrounded by grief and death – and we are reminded of that love. When we are faced with the unexpected – and we remember Jesus’ words. It’s like finding that box of letters – remembering the love and hearing that good news of LIFE all over again.
Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. Every Sunday’s worship includes references to Easter morning. “On the third day he rose again,” we affirm in the Nicene Creed. “He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again,” says the Apostles’ Creed. “Christ has died, Christ is risen,” we call out during the eucharistic prayer. When we receive the dismissal, it is as if we are the women witnessing to the others: “Go in peace. Share the good news.”
This is what we are about EVERY Sunday. Because like those first disciples, we expect death. It’s what the world has conditioned us for. Especially in this time of confusion and mourning in our world, we do not need reminders that death and suffering are real. But we do continuously need a reminder that new life is real as well!
No matter what you came here expecting today – you will find new life.
No matter if you stuck around to attend to the body or if you fled and you were in hiding, you will find new life. No matter if you betrayed him or you denied him – you will find new life. Your suffering and your pain is real – as real as it was for Jesus. Your grief is real. As real as it was for the disciples.
But remember what he said – let me remind you this morning of the promise we proclaim each Sunday. The promise we proclaim each Sunday when we hear the words this is my body given for you – and remember that in this meal Christ is present with us. He loves us. He is not dead.