The Quest of the Empty Tomb

Empty Tomb of Jesus.jpg

Easter is a season of the church calendar that extends from Easter Sunday through to Pentecost, approximately 7 weeks. During this time, we are to consider the weight and importance of Jesus’ resurrection and to wonder how that resurrection might be renewed in us as Jesus-followers.
 
The empty tomb is mentioned by all four gospel writers as an instigator of the disciples’ faith.  The empty tomb causes more confusion than comfort in the gospels.  Luke uses the word “wondering” in Chapter 24 both as the response of the women (verse 4) and Peter (verse 12), while the Emmaus walkers were “amazed” (verse 22).  In Mark’s account in Chapter 16, the empty tomb causes “bewilderment” (verse 8) and “alarm” (verse 5).  Mary Magdalene does not immediately interpret the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb in John 20 as a resurrection event (“we don’t know where they have put him,” verse 2).
 
 In all of the gospel accounts, the empty tomb is presented as an ambiguous set of facts that raises the curiosity of the disciples.  The empty tomb presents all of us with a question (or questions) about what do we believe about Jesus, and how deeply will we pursue the truth about what Jesus means to us in our daily lives.
 
Consider now the very word “question”, whose root is “questio” (to seek, in Latin).  What does it mean to be on a quest?  A quest (or journey) is defined by the events that unfold throughout the travel and not merely the arrival at the end goal.  Look at the number of questions that surround the resurrection story, in the mouths of the disciples, the angels, and even Jesus himself. 
 
For example, both the angels and Jesus in John 20 ask Mary, “woman, why are you crying?” (verse 13 and 15).  The angels in Luke 24 ask the women disciples, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” (verse 5), and then Jesus asks directly the Emmaus walkers, “what are you discussing together as you walk along?” (verse 17).  These questions are not meant to serve as tests of the disciples’ faith, but rather they serve as invitations into a deeper journey. 
 
The questions encourage Mary to explore her emotions and her love for the one who was crucified.  The questions heighten further Peter and John’s curiosity so that they seek Jesus by entering the tomb of the one who is risen.  The questions invite Cleopas into a deeper dialogue about the scriptures and into a meal with his Messiah.
 
Too many times in our churches and in our traditions questions are viewed as a sign of weak faith, or as obstacles that must be successfully avoided.  This may cause us to say, “I can’t believe that I am struggling with this question.” 
 
The question(s) can be pushed down or ignored like a small pebble in a shoe that continues to irritate.  That is certainly not the view of the gospel writers who use questions as springboards and as invitations into a fuller life and deeper faith.  Just as Jesus says to us “come and see” so also the gospel writers use questions as opportunities to explore the life of love, mercy, and grace to which we are called.
 
Twenty-five years ago questions about the physical world, its beauty and its potential meaning, swirled in my head.  Thankfully, my Creator was merciful and didn’t consider my questions silly or trite, and I began to follow Jesus as my life turned from black-and-white to vibrant color.  Recently the questions of evil and seemingly meaningless suffering present themselves as dark and empty tombs. These questions serve as invitations into a deeper journey with the one who loves me, who created me to become more and more like the Risen One. 

This is not a bulletproof god with a superhuman hero to whom nothing ever happens, but the God who sent a son, whose scars remain even though death could not contain his indestructible life (Heb. 7:23). 
 
I am encouraged by the number of people in our church who lean into heartache, who peer into the empty tombs in their own lives, who continue to seek out their journey with Jesus through the questions.
 
If we will become love, if we will become like Jesus, his “little ones,” then our curiosity must be raised and we must explore.  In the rest of this Easter season and the Pentecost that follows, may you be encouraged to seek the risen Jesus through exploring the empty tombs of your unanswered questions; may you not be afraid to ask questions that seem to have no answers; may you find strength through friendship and may you be strong to provide the friendship that others seek.

- Matt Fleenor

Matt Fleenor is a member of our steering team at Restoration Church and is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Roanoke College.