Here's my homily for the Great Vigil of Easter tonight. I love this service, the oldest liturgy in the church, and I've preached it four times now. This is the second time I've used the time-honored tradition of midrash, telling a story to answer a question raised by the text, Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV):
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 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.In my homily, I tried to answer the question, "Why was Peter the only one of the men who went to the tomb?"
This was great fun to write; I composed the draft in about three hours after our Good Friday service last night (anemic, I have to say: I prefer the midday three-hour immersion approach), and revised it this morning. I hope you enjoy it.
May you and yours have a blessed Eastertide!
So, you want to hear the story from Peter himself. You want me to tell you what really happened. I’m not sure I can. Everybody who was there has a different story, you know. Even right after the women got back from the tomb, none of them said the same thing. Mary, Jesus’ mother, kept babbling, “He’s alive, he’s alive!” and the other Mary told anyone who’d listen, “We saw angels, two of them, they lit up the tomb,” and Joanna was crying so hard she couldn’t talk, and the others, well, a lot of them were just terrified. Some of the women thought the Romans had stolen the body to deface it, and most of us men thought the soldiers would come after us next.
I don’t think any two people had the same story about what happened, because no two of us had the same relationship with Jesus. So the only story I can tell you is my own.
We’d all scattered after the arrest. We men didn’t even go to the execution, because we were afraid of the soldiers. We stayed near town, though, to see what happened. The women, they went to Golgotha -- the soldiers wouldn’t arrest women -- and afterwards they came back, weeping. We were camped outside town, all huddled together like the sheep he’d so often called us. Mary, pale but steady, said, “My son is dead. All of you were his closest friends. Stay and mourn with us. We don’t have him anymore. We only have each other. Please don’t leave.”
It broke our hearts. How she could even stand upright, after what she’d seen? Of course we stayed, and the women took care of us and of each other, and when the time came, they took the spices to the tomb to make sure he was buried proper-like.
I was still asleep when the women ran back to camp. We were lying together in a heap for warmth and comfort. I’d fallen asleep mourning my Lord, curled around the worst pain I’d ever felt, and the next thing I knew, Mary was shaking me and yelling, “Peter, Peter, you have to wake up! The most wonderful thing has happened! He’s alive! My son’s alive!”
Well, they ran around shaking all of us -– although Matthew told me later he’d startled awake all on his own, convinced the Romans had come –- and as groggy and heavy as we were, we couldn’t make out what they meant. You know how you feel when you’ve been crying for hours, your heart shattered stone? It takes a while for anything to sink in, even about something simple like breakfast, let alone anything as outlandish as what the women were saying.
We finally pieced it together: Angels. An empty tomb. Jesus’ foretelling that he’d rise again after three days. “He’s alive!” Mary sang, over and over. “He isn’t dead! He’s risen!”
John crawled over a pile of blankets to reach me and whispered, “Of course she wants to believe he’s alive. He’s her son. She’s hysterical, seeing things.” The others were muttering about idle tales, women’s gossip, and I found myself getting furious with all of them.
“He did say he’d rise again!” I told them. “Everything else has come true! Everything else he ever said! We’ve all seen more miracles than we can count. Why not this?”
Why was I the only one who believed the women? I’ve thought about that a lot. I think the others were too scared to hope, to let themselves believe. If they believed, if they allowed themselves that much joy, they’d only have their hearts ripped out again if it turned out not to be true. Watching the arrest, hearing about the crucifixion –- I can’t put that pain into words. If you’ve ever felt anything like it, you know what I’m talking about. Who’d ask for that again?
I was different, though. The angels had told the women to remember Jesus’ prophecy that he’d come back. I remembered, all too vividly, a more recent one. He’d told me that I’d deny him three times, and I had. It was the last thing I’d ever thought I’d do. I thought I loved him more than my own life, that I’d never turn my back on him. But when the Romans cracked down -– well, I cracked, too. To this day, I’m ashamed whenever I hear a cock crow.
So I was entirely ready to believe anything else he’d said, especially if it meant he’d come back. I needed him alive. Oh, we all needed him alive, but I needed him to forgive me for deserting him like that. I needed him to forgive me in person. I needed to tell him I loved him. I needed to say it to his face, not just cast the words up to heaven.
So I ran to the tomb just as fast as I could, ready to see the bright light in that dark place, the glowing angels the women had talked about. I didn’t see angels, or any light at all; the messengers had left by then. Instead I saw linen cloths, just lying there in a heap, the way my blankets were lying back at camp. I stared at those strips of linen and worked the thing through in my mind. If somebody had stolen the body, would they have taken the time to take off the winding cloths right there in the tomb? I didn’t think so. I thought thieves would have grabbed what they were after and run away from that tomb as quickly as I’d run towards it.
Where had I seen cloths like that before? Lazarus, that was it! Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and he’d told the crowd to help Lazarus by unwinding the funeral linens. But the man –- excuse me, the Son of God –- who’d raised Lazarus didn’t need any help from anybody getting his own funeral linens off. He’d done it all by himself.
That’s when I believed.
I didn’t say anything to the others, though, not right then. I’d seen Jesus’ funeral linens, but I hadn’t seen him. As happy as I was, I was still sick over what I’d done. Would he abandon me because I’d abandoned him? Was I even worthy to talk to the others? I believed in Jesus all right, but I didn’t believe in myself anymore. I didn’t think I ever would again.
Of course, the women hadn’t seen him either –- that was what started the ruckus -– and later I remembered that the angels had said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Well, sure. The Son of God wasn’t going to hang around in a tomb. He wasn’t going to wait to talk to the guy who’d deserted him. He had better things to do. He was probably hob-hobbing with all the prophets, the way I’d seen him do on that mountaintop, except that now he could talk to them without having me ask stupid questions about building houses so we could stay there. Jesus didn’t need me, even if I needed him. Of course he didn’t. I’d only gotten in his way.
I had myself completely convinced that he hated me by the time I did see him again. He didn’t show up in a blaze of glory. He showed up in simple things: breaking bread, cooking fish. He made breakfast for us -– for me. Me, of all people! He cooked me fish, and he asked three times if I loved him, and three times I told him with all my heart that I did, to erase the three times when I’d acted like I didn’t. And each time he smiled and said, “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus loved me after all. And he needed me. That was the most amazing thing. The Son of God who’d risen from the dead needed me to do his work. Not because he couldn’t have fed his sheep -– how many people had he fed by then? –- but so we’d be more like him, so there’d be more love in the world. That was what he wanted, always: more love. He trusted me, me, to love his sheep, even though I hadn’t done a very good job of loving him when things got bad.
So that’s my story. Oh, a lot of people still scoff at the resurrection. Some of them tell me to my face I’m a liar, tell me I have to be simple in the head to believe something like that. They’ve never seen Christ, they say. And I’m sure they haven’t, not yet: but that’s because they’re looking in the wrong places. They’re looking among the dead, not the living, looking in fancy stone buildings or up into the empty air.
I can see Jesus now anytime I want, and so can you. Just look for somebody doing something simple to help someone else. Cooking breakfast, say, or bathing a child, or quietly telling the bosses that they don’t have the right to step on other people. Look for a group of people, and then find the one who’s helping or healing -– without any fuss, like it’s not a big deal at all –- and you’ve found him.
What happened taught me something else, too. When you feel like you’ve done something awful, like you’ve abandoned God and yourself -- when you feel like the worst person who’s ever lived -- that’s when you’ll see him, if you look. That’s when he knows you need him, when you don’t believe in yourself anymore. He believes in you. Maybe you don’t think he can; I sure didn’t think he could. But just listen: he’ll ask you to do God’s work, to feed his sheep, and he wouldn’t give that job to anyone he didn’t trust.
So yes, he’s risen, all right. And if you don’t believe it, well, just go ahead and do the work anyway. You’ll never go wrong making somebody breakfast.