I recently saw a church marquee that read "Because the tomb is empty, the church should be full." At first glance I get it, and I appreciate the clever play on words. I also can sympathize with the Marquee Changers of the world who struggle to express coherent and quality thoughts in such limited space. (If you thought tweeting was hard, try that!) Although this quip earns points for catchiness, it's nonetheless false.
As I've dug into the resurrection over the last several weeks preparing for my sermon series on this topic, I'm more than ever convinced that "the empty tomb" is not at the heart of our faith. On the one hand, I understand the sentiment being expressed here without being a jerk literalist. But on the other hand, I think that something crucial is missing from an empty tomb.
A closer look at the Gospels reveals just how little the discovery of an empty tomb changes. At best (even with the messengers explaining that Jesus had risen!) the women and the disciples leave there with a little excitement and a lot of bewilderment concerning what these things meant; at worst, they leave in sadness and fear (Mark 16:8; John 20:11). The scenes following depict the disciples struggling to believe this news (Mark 16:14) and hiding behind locked doors (John 20:19). Little is changed.
If the empty tomb changes nothing, then what does? The answer: meeting the resurrected Lord. It's only then in the Gospels that the disciples' lives are transformed. Doubt persists (Matt. 28:17), but without encountering the risen Christ there is no transformation. It makes me wonder: Perhaps the skeptics of the resurrection of the last few centuries are on to something when they mull over the empty tomb and are left with speculation and bewilderment. That just so happens to be what an empty tomb left the earliest disciples with, too.
The issue today is not whether one knows the tomb is empty, but whether one has met the resurrected Lord. The resurrection is not solely about the absence of death found in the empty tomb, but the presence of life. The empty tomb simply leaves space for this living Lord. A similar critique might be leveled at Christians today: Christianity is not about a mere lack of death, but the presence of life to the full.
In sum, then, it's fair to ask where one is most likely to meet this risen Jesus. Many answers might be given, but one will suffice. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that Jesus has a body still present on the earth, and his body continues to live and serve today. That body is the church, and if one seeks an encounter with the living Lord, then being in community with his people is a good place to start.