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The Negative Space of the Tomb

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 17th of Fourth Month, 2022

Speaker: Brian Young

Good morning, Friends! Christ is Risen!

Luke 24:1–12, NRSV: 1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 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. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 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.

Isaiah 25:6-9, NRSV: 6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the covering that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, “See, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Today is the day we celebrate resurrection. Today we remember that Jesus, who willingly went to his death on the cross, and was laid in the tomb, could not be kept there. The confounding good news of this day called Easter is that death was not the end for Jesus—and neither is it the end for us.

Just about every Easter Sunday when we re-encounter this story, it occurs to me that it is first about absence. In each of the Gospels, it’s a story about what is not there, rather than what is. Without the body of the Master, without the one the faithful women have come to care for one last time, the tomb is nothing but negative space.

And the Gospels agree that it is women who are the first to encounter this negative space—each of the writers records one or more of the female disciples as the first at the tomb. Luke names them as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. These three didn’t just show up that morning—they have been with Jesus since early on, in Galilee: at the beginning of chap. 8, we read that various women that Jesus had healed became his disciples and traveled along with the Master and the twelve men. Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned there. Perhaps most significant is that Luke says they “provided for [the movement] out of their resources” (8:3): this would have been especially true of Joanna, whom we are told was the wife of one of Herod’s officials, and likely would have had the means to buy food and lodging and other things they all would have needed. So part of what we remember today is that women were the bedrock of Jesus’ movement; it would be hard to estimate how much time and effort and resources they gave, in countless acts unrecorded by the Gospels.

And just prior to the passage we’ve read, in Luke’s story of the cross and its aftermath, these three women are the constant: just as they had been with Jesus in his life, they are mentioned at the cross, and as his body is taken to the tomb, and then as they prepare ointment and spices as a final act of devotion (23:49, 54–56). So they anticipate caring for Jesus’ body on the morning after the Sabbath; they have seen where he was laid; they expect something to be there. But instead, they encounter absence; negative space.

And so they are confused and perplexed. The absence of Jesus’ body is not good news, at least not yet; it’s just more difficulty. But before they can even discuss their next step, terror is added to the mix of their emotions. Two messengers in blazing white are suddenly there, asking them a strange question, delivering the even stranger news that Jesus has risen. Jesus has risen?

And then the messengers remind them—of what Jesus had said “while he was still in Galilee” about his arrest, crucifixion, death, and return to life. Commentators point out that the women are being reminded here of something that they already know; the messengers are not giving them new information. This means that they heard it firsthand, from the mouth of Jesus, along with his male followers; the women were, and are, fully his disciples, not just support staff for the movement. The messengers fully acknowledge this in reminding them—and then the women go to remind Peter and the rest.

And we read that when the women go to tell the male disciples that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, the men consider this an “idle tale”—what some today might call fake news. Now, it’s hard to say whether the men actively disbelieved the two Marys and Joanna because they were women, or if they were perhaps too overcome with grief and fear to take it in. It was incredible news—literally unbelievable—but I suppose the test would have been if one of their fellow men had been the witness instead. Regardless, even when Peter runs to see, the negative space of the tomb is not sufficient for him to fully understand and believe—Luke says that he is amazed, but amazement is not faith. So the men do not fully understand until Jesus comes among them bodily, later in the story (and, by the way, upbraids them for their doubting); which is a positive witness that the negative space only hinted at.

What about us? Are there times that we are looking for the living among the dead? Are there places in our lives that we expect to find life, but we experience death instead?

Perhaps the life of faith is a continual exercise in moving from negative space to positive witness; in seeking life not among the dead, but where things are alive and growing and thriving. When we go to places we expect to encounter the presence of God, but find themempty, perhaps we are called to seek that presence elsewhere. Like the wind, the Spirit of God moves where it wills, and we do not necessarily know where it is coming from or where it is going; hence we must remain aware, sensitive to its movement, willing to move when we see evidence of its work.

But that is not all there is to it. In our world today, there are many places we could ask ourselves, “Why do we seek the living among the dead?” There are many situations that seem hopeless, Spirit-less, God-less. There are probably more places and situations like these than there are ones where we can unequivocally say, “surely, God is here.” The fact of the resurrection calls us to the places and situations that seem hopeless, much more than places where we can comfortably seek God and bask in that Presence. As far as I can tell, there are a lot more of the former than there are of the latter, and God cares for all the people in the hard and desperate places—not just for us when we’re in our comfortable homes and offices and classrooms and meetinghouse.

So the resurrection does not always call us away from negative space, despite how God-forsaken it may seem. For the fact of the resurrection is that Christ is present with us, when we turn towards him inwardly, whatever our outward circumstances. And that fact can transform even the most desperate situation. It may not transform the situation entirely, but it can transform us, and our ability to respond, in the midst of that situation.

The passage from Isaiah that we heard at the beginning of our time this morning describes a great feast that God will some day set for all people on the holy mountain of Zion. As the prophet wrote them, these words were an oracle of deliverance following a terrifying apocalypse; a testament to God’s ultimate mercy even when the earth has been laid to waste.

Much Christian interpretation places this great banquet of God in a future time, when God will make all things new, even the heavens and the earth, even time itself. In that new era, as the prophet says, God will have swallowed up death itself, and the tears will be wiped away from the eyes of all people.

The empty tomb is the beginning of this new era. The banquet at the end of time has already begun; think of that parable that Jesus told about a great feast, and who would be invited, and who would end up coming (Luke 14:15-24; cf. Matthew 22:1–14); in describing the reign of God with this image, Jesus was not speaking primarily of a future occasion, but of a present reality. The Risen Christ invites us to the banquet, here and now. Not only are we to yield to that invitation when we hear it, but we are also to invite others in.

With the empty tomb, God has already begun to swallow up death. This is hard to remember, as we see the signs of the times around us. We look at a world besieged by a pandemic, which has taken the lives of millions, and we wonder how and when it will end. We look at a senseless war that has brought so much destruction to Ukraine, and we wonder if it will engulf more of the Western world. We look at our own meeting, at broken trust in some of our relationships, and we wonder how these will be made whole again.

And yet, if we trust in the resurrection, we trust that the Risen Christ is present, and is calling us into these hard places. The negative space of the tomb testifies not just to the absence of God, but also to what is possible when God seeks to fill those spaces through us. The Risen Christ is calling us to inward obedience, that we might be able to respond with mercy and compassion outwardly; to hear the invitation to the great banquet, and to invite others to it.

Today we remember that while Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could not be kept there. This is the good news: that death was not the end for Jesus—and that as we respond to Christ inwardly, we begin the journey of eternal life, a journey that stretches from the empty tomb to God’s great banquet at the end of time.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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