Two Kinds of Tombs

Near Irene, South Dakota

Yeah, Christians stew about all the same crud that upsets our neighbors. We’re human, distracted, flawed, idolatrous, deceived…

But we’re also in a 50 day celebration of Jesus’ empty tomb – his victory over all of our death dealing stuff (the crud in the first paragraph above and oh so much more) and his leading the way into everlasting joy, abundance, peace and oh so much more in the presence of God.

While we live in our inevitably dying flesh, the empty tomb is great news but also disorienting. It is Jesus crisscrossing things seen and unseen, passing and eternal. Sometimes we are right with him in our understanding and way of life, more often we are like the women who found his empty tomb; they “went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

The Bible’s accounts of the empty tomb all agree that it did not engender a smug certainty among Jesus’ followers. Angels had to remind them “of what Jesus said when he was among you.” John’s account is blunt, “…as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (20:9) And even when Jesus appears to them in the (radically transformed) flesh, “when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

So the first kinda tomb, the empty one, is a source of hope but also confusion. It comforts and inspires the believer even as it generates doubts and questions that can propel spiritual growth toward Jesus. As one witness puts it so well, “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) We know and we don’t know; we don’t know yet we know.

There’s another kind of tomb. Unlike the empty tomb, it generates ruthless certainty. Jesus, the former occupant of the original empty tomb, had harsh things to say about this second kind of grave: “you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Jesus’ first blast against the very full but whitewashed tomb was aimed at religious leaders. And in every age there are those who clutch certainties of faith as a club with which to beat down others who are seeking God in the face of life’s ambiguities and uncertainties. They are stock characters in stories told, printed and filmed.

We have as well secular priests, who proclaim dogmas like “settled science” and “the right side of history.” They anathematize heretics via “cancellation” and excommunicate sinners with “deplatforming.”

The empty tomb attracts those seeking hope in the face of the world’s terminal condition, but also disorients them and keeps them seeking until the full presence of God and complete restoration of the fallen creation are revealed.

The whitewashed tombs present themselves as the objects of hope, and brook no doubts. They call the dying to worship facades, using a nice paint job to conceal the fact that what they offer is dying too, if not already dead.

Jesus beckons us to be empty tombs – launching pads of new life even if our witness, like the Lord we seek to follow, is confusing: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:7-8)

The alternative life- (actually, death-) style is the whitewashed tomb, spouting certainty that winds up in the service of deception; “Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23 – worth reading the whole thing.)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

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