They heard the story, but to them it seemed like an idle tale. The women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others, had visited Jesus’ tomb. Instead of a body, though, they had found an empty grave, the stone rolled away, and two angels announcing Christ’s resurrection. Amazing! Wonderful! Could it be true?! But all the disciples heard was an idle tale, a desperate story with no substance, no possible reality behind it. Dead is dead—everyone knows that. Modern skeptics have scoffed at the resurrection—no one rises from the dead—as if this were a recent discovery, but even these first-century backwater disciples knew that dead is dead, and Jesus is dead.
And with that, the disciples join a long list of people who have tried to restrain God, to put God in a safe little box, to make God just another manageable creature, to keep God from being God. This time the box is a story: “Jesus was alive, he performed some amazing miracles, he called us to follow him, and we answered. We thought he was the one we were waiting for, but when we got to Jerusalem things went south, quickly. Everything fizzled, and, in the end, the authorities took him, tortured him, and brutally murdered him.” That’s the story the disciples know about Jesus, and whether they mean to or not, they make God a captive with their story: the resurrection is not possible, because the story says that death has the last word.
Of course, just a few days earlier, many others had been trying to box God in, to control what God might do through Jesus Christ. Pilate saw Jesus and found an opportunity to goad the Jewish leaders. He teases them, gets them riled up to shout, Crucify, crucify him! Pilate used Jesus to make Jewish leaders cheer for the cruel punishments of their oppressors—talk about a victory! And Pilate figured that the crucifixion would be the end of the matter. The God of the Jews, safely under his control.
On the same day, Herod, a king in name only and almost every bit as cruel as the governor Pilate, wanted Jesus to be his entertainer. Come into my palace and perform some sign for me, he said to Jesus. Miracles were great, as long as they didn’t start any real changes. But Jesus refused to cooperate, wouldn’t play the cute puppet for the tyrant Herod, so Herod just sent him back to Pilate.
Over and over again, time after time, throughout the gospel, disciples and followers, enemies and friends alike, had tried to lay down guidelines for Jesus: Jesus, you can do this, but you can’t do that. Jesus, you can mess with things over there, but don’t come over here. Jesus, we’ll let you say some things, but other things we just don’t want to hear. And in putting Jesus in their neat packages, their little safety boxes, they were really trying to put God in the same box, to keep God under their control, to make God safe for them.
But God is not a tame God. God is not another creature, not even a really powerful creature. God is God: in all, through all, above all, beyond all, despite all, God is God, and we are not. God will not be controlled, God will not be confined, God will not be managed. Easter is about the freedom of God, the freedom of God to be God, unlimited, unending, unbound God. Because on Easter not even the grave, not even the tomb, can hold Jesus back, not even the strong bonds of death can keep him captive. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why try to contain him? Why capture him in your confined stories, your narrow plans, your enclosed imaginations? “He is not here, but has risen!” Christ will not be contained! Christ will not be found in the predictable, the anticipated, the safe places! Even the grave cannot hold him. Even death itself cannot swallow him up!
In fact, it’s been this way his whole life, hasn’t it? Mary and Joseph had tried to hold onto him as their own son, but Jesus had gone off teaching in the temple, doing the work of his true Father. The hometown crowds in Nazareth had demanded signs and tried to throw him off a cliff when he wouldn’t cooperate, but Jesus passed through their midst unharmed. The Pharisees had seethed while Jesus sat down to eat with outcasts and sinners and tax collectors—why wouldn’t he just stay within the established boundaries?! Jesus has always lived according to the freedom of God, because Jesus is God’s Son, God’s Beloved. Jesus will not be bound—not by family relationships, not by local customs, not by human judgments of who’s in and who’s out, not by death itself.
For all that, you would think, 2000 years later, that we would have learned our lesson by now. You would think that we would have stopped trying to box up Jesus into our neat little packages. You would think that we would finally get that God is God and we are not, that God has infinite freedom to be who God is, to be who God is in Jesus Christ. But we still act and talk like we have God under our thumb, like Jesus is still wrapped safe and sound by linen grave clothes. We do it in our lives: we think, I don’t need to change, God isn’t interested in how faithful I am, or how loving, or how humble I am; it doesn’t matter. Or we show up on Sunday mornings for worship and turn around on Mondays acting like God only has something to say about our private beliefs and nothing to offer about how the world should work, now.
We do it in our relationships all the time. We write off people who don’t meet our standards, or who’ve injured us in some way, or who seem hopelessly lost. We say to ourselves, and maybe to others, there’s no way anything’s going to come of her! There’s no point wasting time on him!
Worst of all, we do it in our churches. Something worked once twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, so we insist on doing it again, now. We sit around and wait for people to come to us, without taking just a few steps to go to them. We get into habits and patterns of our life together, of how we spend our money, of how we spend our time, and whenever something new comes along, or when people don’t do things our way, or when something challenges our comfortable ideas of how things work, we shut them down, or fight back, or dismiss them out of hand.
These are all ways of trying to hold Jesus back, of keeping God under our control. But God is unexpected, unpredictable, unconfinable. God is utterly and amazingly free; God will do what God will God, regardless of how hard we try to hold God back. And we know this, above all else, because Jesus Christ is alive! He is not here, but has risen!
He is not here in the dead relationships that clutter our lives.
He is not here in the failures of our discipleship.
He is not here in the ways we did church a generation ago, or even a year ago.
He is not here in a past we imagine is better than the present.
He is not here in our refusal to look to the needs of our neighbors and our enemies.
He is not here, but is free. He has risen from the grave. Not even death can hold him! He is not here—he is risen! Christ is free from death, from from our limited ways and restricted imaginations, free to be God despite us.
And the beautiful thing is, because God is God and we are not, because Christ is free to be God despite us, Christ is here, now, in this place. In his great love and power, his freedom to be God is also his freedom to be God with us. He is here, in the gathering of the body of Christ. He is here, in the reading and preaching of the Word. He is here, in the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup. God is not a tame God, but he is good. Open your eyes. Open your hearts. Run to find him—and be amazed at what happens next.
He is not here! He is risen! He is here! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.