by Jason Micheli
Ezekiel 37, 1 Corinthians 15 (click to see Scripture text)
Easter begins at the grave.
Matthew reports two earthquakes in his Gospel. Upon the death of Christ on Golgotha, the earth quivered in Easter anticipation, trembling like a woman in labor.
Three days later the resurrection tips the Richter scale again, Matthew says.
This connection between resurrection and earthquakes originates in the graveyard the Lord reveals to the prophet Ezekiel in perhaps the Old Testament’s most important passage.
The Lord brings Ezekiel into the middle of a valley strewn with bones.
Bones detached from the bodies to which they once belonged.
Bones beyond any possibility of identification or reclamation.
The Lord informs Ezekiel that the many anonymous and forgotten bones in this mass tomb are the whole House of Israel.
That is, the entirety of the People of God.
In other words, you and me.
The hopeless, meaningless valley of the bones is our common fate.
Apart from the mighty work of God.
Easter begins at the grave.
The Lord leads Ezekiel all around the valley of the bones before asking him, “Tell me, mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel— he honestly does not know the answer, “O Lord God, only you know.”
And the Lord promises Ezekiel that there will be a ra’ash, a rattling of the earth, when the answer to the question comes upon us.
Can these bones live?
Does life have any other point but its own refutation?
My teacher, the theologian Robert Jenson, writes that all of scripture and the whole of the Christian message can be distilled down to the question God poses to Ezekiel in the boneyard and whether or not God has answered his own question by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
Easter begins at the grave.
And because Easter begins at the grave so too does the Gospel begin there.
According to the Apostle Paul, the Gospel has three correlative components:
1. Christ died for our sins.
2. Christ was buried. (i.e., He really was as dead as we’re going to be one day).
3. Christ was raised bodily from the tomb three days later.
Easter begins at the grave because the Gospel is God’s answer to his question, “Tell me, mortal, can these bones live?”
I was working double duty both as a pastor and as a hospital chaplain at UVA, where one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to meet the bodies of their loved ones.
One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see— view— her daughter.
She was waiting at the security desk when I found her.
Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.
“I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night,” she kept whispering to herself.
A resident doctor, a med student no older than I was at the time, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.
The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room. When the mother saw her daughter, she immediately lost her footing. And then she lost her breath.
Then after a long, stretched-out moment, she let out a bone-racking sob. I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything.
The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.
She put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said: “It’s alright. She’s not here. She’s slipped away. That’s just a shell…”
I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.
Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried: “It’s NOT alright. That’s my daughter. She’s not just anything. She’s Beth.”
Easter begins at the grave.
Easter begins in a particular place with the specific body of a certain crucified carpenter.
Easter begins at the grave because Easter is not a metaphor.
The Apostle Paul does not proclaim in verse three “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that as long as we remember him in our hearts it’s as though he is still alive among us.” No, that’s Bones in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That’s not Easter.
Easter begins at the grave because Easter is a message not a metaphor.
An announcement about something that has happened in history.
According to the Christian liturgical tradition, Easter is only a third of three great days.
By holding together these three days as one— Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; Cross, Death, and Resurrection— the ancient Church refused to allow us to slip into thinking that today is about a disembodied abstraction like “Love is stronger than death” or a pastoral metaphor for the natural order of things, i.e., “Springtime renewal.”
After all, for the majority of Christians in the world, Easter falls at the beginning of winter not spring.
Never mind that spring comes reliably ever year.
Resurrection comes only by the mighty act of God.
No matter what the Hallmark cards and FTD arrangements tell you, if the Good News is merely a good story, Love is not stronger than Death.
Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones and the Gospel’s promise of resurrection of the body is a far cry from what many of you have been led to believe about the supposed immortality of the soul.
As David King reminded us in his sermon last night, we get the immortality of the soul from Plato not from the Word of God.
The notion of an immortal soul innate to each of us that automatically lives on after we die— it might strike you as a nice idea but nevertheless it’s a pagan one.
And think about it:
Why in the world would God need to put on flesh, suffer and die as the substitute for my sinful self, and be raised up for my justification before a Holy God if the immortality of the soul was already programmed into the OS of Everything?
If you already have an immortal soul, then you have a superfluous substitute on the cross and raising him from the dead is an unnecessary exercise.
And notice in our passage today from Ezekiel—
Not only do we not have an immortal soul, when God raises us up from the dust from the earth, if we are to live again, God first must breath his spirit into us.
The Bible pays Death its due respect.
The desolate anonymity of Ezekiel’s boneyard is the ultimate end of all of us.
UnlessGod has answered his own question by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
Unless God raised Jesus as the first fruit of what God’s going to do for us all.
Easter begins at the grave because Easter is not a metaphor.
Easter is material.
“What we will be we don’t know exactly,” St. John writes, “but this we know when he appears we shall be like him.”
The resurrected Jesus Christ is not a disembodied, ethereal apparition.
The risen Jesus embraces his betrayers.
The risen Jesus cooks breakfast on the beach.
The risen Jesus kisses his friends and eats and drinks with sinners.
So today we proclaim, “Ditto for you.”
And this is why we celebrate the resurrection with things, material things, tangible, audible, beautiful things. Music and flowers. Candles and vestments and voices. Creatures of bread and wine—promises we can sink our teeth into and feel in our bellies.
Because the good news of these three great days is that the God who made you, the God who redeemed you, has resurrected every last bit of Jesus Christ as a down payment on what God has elected to do for each of you too.
Every last bit of you will be raised from the dead to dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
A friend of mine, Thomas Lynch, is a poet and a writer of fiction and essays.
One of his collections was nominated for the National Book Award.
Along with his sons and brothers, Tom’s workaday job is as an undertaker in Milford, Michigan.
Not long ago, Tom and I were talking about current events and he spoke about how he and his brother and many other undertakers from around the country were summoned to Newton, Connecticut following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “The funeral homes in Newton needed our help,” he said, “to put every piece of those grieving parents’s precious children back together so they could say their proper goodbyes to them.”
I didn’t know how to reply to such a holy undertaking so Tom kept talking:
“I’ve been an undertaker a long time. People like to say that bodies don’t matter, that it’s the spirit or the soul or the essence or the what-have-you that journeys on to the wherever that’s important, but in my experience such people stop singing that silly tune when the number comes due for their own dearly departed. If it can’t offer hope to mourners like those parents at Sandy Hook, the hope that they’ll enjoy every bit of their beloved again, then it’s not a promise that merits our full-throated alleluias.”
Easter begins at the grave because we are not messing around with metaphors today:
“Listen,” St. Paul announces today, “I will tell you a mystery! The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body will put on imperishability, and this mortal body will put on immortality.”
A few years ago, I was at lunch with a rabbi friend of mine. Dipping his pita into the bowl of hummus in the center of the table, Rabbi Brett said to me, “Sometimes I envy you Christians.”
“That sounds like it would be a problem for you.”
“What I mean— you all have evidence that at least part of your faith is grounded in reality. We’ve got the Passover meal, sure, but what we don’t have is any proof that God split the sea in two and saved us. We have to take it on faith. But not even Jews can argue the crucifixion did not happen. It must make faith easier to have some proof.”
I sometimes think we hang crosses on our altars and around our necks because there’s something comforting to us about the historical verifiability of the crucifixion.
The torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate may be ghastly but at least it’s a fact of history, corroborated by Jewish historians and backed up by Roman red tape.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is entirely a one-sided, trans-historical act of God.
By definition, it’s beyond any evidential basis.
Easter begins at the grave because this is the place where we mortgage the house, cash in the kids’s college savings, and push all our chips to the center of the table.
This is not the Jesus Memorial Society.
We are not the local chapter of the Kingdom movement begun by the dead Jesus.
If the tomb is not empty, if he’s not risen indeed, then we are all wasting our time.
No, it’s even worse than a waste.
The former Pharisee knows the stakes involved with getting God wrong. As Paul lays out the risks for the Corinthians, if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation is in fact the most grievous blasphemy, our faith is impotent, and we are still in the sins that condemn us.
Ultimately whether or not the Buddha actually sat under the Bodhi Tree and attained enlightenment is incidental to Buddhism because Buddhism is fundamentally a religion of philosophic teachings and spiritual practices.
Christianity, by contrast, is not even a religion really.
And if the claims we make about Jesus Christ are wrong, if it’s fake news, if someone someday finds a thorn-scarred skull somewhere in a garden tomb, then we would have to close up shop.
After first repenting.
Easter begins at the grave because what makes the Gospel unique is that the Gospel is potentially falsifiable.
You can’t falsify a metaphor.
Myths and spiritual insights are immune to refutation.
But testimony is always vulnerable to rebuttal.
By claiming that Christ is risen indeed, we open ourselves up to the possibility of the greatest habeas corpus case of all time.
However, just because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is, by definition, beyond reason, belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is NOT unreasonable.
As Paul says to King Agrippa in Acts, “these things didn’t happen in a corner.”
That is, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his bones.
If they had been there.
Christ appeared to over five hundred people, Paul says.
And among those hundreds of people, Paul writes, was James, the half-brother of Jesus who had not been a disciple of Jesus and who thought his brother Jesus was a total nut job while Jesus was alive.
But we know, from Roman historians, that James was eventually executed by the same chief priests who had condemned his brother.
James was condemned for worshipping his brother.
What would it take for you to believe your sibling is the Maker of Heaven and Earth made flesh?
Maybe something like a resurrection?
The resurrection is beyond reason, of course.
But belief in the resurrection is NOT unreasonable.
After all, how else do you account for the fact that Christianity is the only movement in history that began after the death of its leader?
The Gospels all concur that after the crucifixion the disciples ran away to hide because they feared for their own safety.
Is it reasonable to believe that in less than fifty days they popped out from behind locked doors to proclaim loudly the lordship of the crucified Jesus?
What could account for their three hundred and sixty degree boldness? Maybe an encounter with the Risen Jesus?
Speaking of lordship, if the tomb is not empty, then how else do you explain that so soon after Good Friday, faithful, obedient Jews began to willfully break the first and most important commandment by worshipping a man— a dead man at that, a man who had died in what their own scriptures defined as an accursed, godforsaken death— as God?
They even changed the day of their sabbath to reflect their worship of this crucified man as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.
Prior to Good Friday, across the empire, Rome had crucified tens of thousands of people.
Among them all, only the name of Jesus is known.
I am convinced that we never would have heard of Jesus Christ had God not raised him from the dead.
But I could never prove that to you.
So we begin today at the grave, with all our chips in the center of the table, not just because we must take it on faith but because the faith itself stands or falls on that grave’s occupancy status.
If he is not risen indeed, then we are, of all the people in the world, the most to be pitied.
But if the tomb is empty, then it’s not just good news.
It’s the only news that merits a full-throated alleluia.
Beth’s mother slapped the doctor across the face and cried, “It’s NOT alright. That’s my daughter. She’s not just anything. She’s Beth.”
And as the doctor rubbed her cheek, Beth’s mother added, “I don’t want any part of her to slip away because the God who made her and died for her has promised to give all of her back to me.”
Chastened, the doctor apologized and slunk away. I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair.
Mostly, I think I lingered because I was astonished. I had never heard the promise of the Gospel put so simply and so clearly as I had heard it proclaimed on this preacher’s grief-stricken lips.
Months later, Beth’s mother wrote to me. She’d looked me up. Evidently, there aren’t many Protestant pastors named “Micheli.”
In the letter, she wrote:
“I never told you that night in the hospital, the night Beth died, and I think perhaps I should have told you. In any case, I want to tell you now. The reason Beth was out that night, driving in the middle of the night, is that we had had a terrific, terrible fight. A blow-out, about some things she had done that she shouldn’t have done. And I said some things I should never have said.
If Jesus had stayed dead, I’m certain I would want to be dead right now. I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have no hope and only regret. I know Christ is alive because I’ve met him— I’ve been met by him. His tomb isn’t empty, not exactly. It’s filled with all our sins, and they’re all left behind there like Lazarus’s grave clothes when God raises him from the dead. My only hope is that God will give all of my daughter back to me. My only comfort is that Jesus has taken from me everything I said to her that night and shut it up in his tomb forever.
Maybe this is a strange letter, but I decided that since the Gospel depends on witnesses, not proof, that I should write and share this with you.
Easter begins at the grave because, as the Apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “Christ was raised for our justification.” That is, the empty tomb of Jesus Christ— and not the cross— is the sign that all is forgiven.
Everything you’ve done or left undone.
Everything you will do or fail to do.
Because the tomb is empty, so is your rap sheet.
“Because I live,” Jesus promises to the sisters of Lazarus, “so shall you live.”
And in the meantime, the unconditional, irrevocable good news of the Gospel is that because Christ is risen indeed, you can live, on this side of the grave, forgiven and free.
His present pardon for you is as total and complete as his future resurrection of you.
And the Lord said to Ezekiel:
“I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live again…”
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.
We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’
Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
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