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.
"We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
God has designed us for community, and there is no community more essential to our lives than our Christian family, the church. God's design for Christians is that our lives would be intimately intertwined into one.
A body needs all its members and all its members need the body. For a body to thrive to its potential, it needs its members. For the members to thrive to their potentials, they need the body. It's a two-way street. Most of us easily buy into how this plays out in one direction, namely, that for the body to be its best, all the members need to be doing their parts. The church can only be all we can be when everyone joins together and does his/her role.
But this works in the other direction too. For the members to be the best they can be, they need the body. We can only be all we can be when we are serving in our rightful roles in the church. God has designed you for community, and therefore, in order for you to find your true identity and purpose in life, in order for you to realize your fullest potential, and in order for you to be the best you possible, you need to be intimately intertwined into a body of believers.
So, what does "intimately intertwined into a body of believers" look like in real life? It looks like being here to hold the communion tray for the mother trying to wrangle kids in the pew with you. It looks like showing up on workdays to do the pedantic tasks of preparation and repair that our facilities need. It looks like giving a call or dropping a note to the elderly man who isn't in his usual spot this morning. It looks like showers, and Bible classes, small groups, and informal get-togethers. It looks like family, and we want you to be part of it.
"But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."
Bumps, bruises, and bangs, scratches, scrapes, and sprains—all our bodies have been battered to varying degrees. We stub our toes, nick our knuckles, bite our tongues, and throw our backs out of place. For all this, our bodies remain incredibly resilient to the damage done them. Our scars are proofs that we've recovered from many hurts along the way.
My hurts are my hurts, and your hurts are yours. If you break an arm I can "feel your pain" in many metaphorical ways, but my arm will remain unbroken. In like manner, your ability to heal from that fracture will be your own. As healthy and unbroken as my arm is, I cannot transfer any of its wellbeing to you.
As fixed of realities as these are, God chose to get around them one time—not in his favor, but in ours. God chose to reverse the pronouns, so that what was ours is his and what was his is ours. Jesus took upon himself the wounds that we deserve and gave to us the blessings he deserved. His scars are proofs of our healing, as the song says,
"Why should I gain from his reward? I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart his wounds have paid my ransom."
Jesus seems to come down pretty hard on his disciples for their lack of faith: "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" I wonder what tone of voice Jesus used when he asked this question. Was he scolding them? Scoffing at them? Encouraging them?
There were numerous occasions in the Gospels when the disciples doubted and when I would have doubted too: "Why did I doubt? I doubted because the storm was out of control and we are in a tiny boat! I doubted because there is no food in this wasteland and we have thousands of people to feed! I doubted because I began to drown! I doubted because they killed John the Baptist! I doubted because your teachings are hard to understand!" I would not have been short on answers to his question. In fact, reflecting on all those terrifying situations, I think my answers are better than Jesus's question. Why would he even ask such a thing?
Yet, the question lingers. And as I think about it some more, I realize that what I really meant to say was, "I doubted because I don't know you yet, Jesus, and I don't trust you." Isn't this the very response of the disciples? "What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?"
Suddenly, the focus shifts from the storm and the fear to the identity of this man with them in the boat. And this is where faith is found: By turning our attention from our hopeless situations and our horrible insufficiencies to the One who is with us in it all.