A few years ago, a group of ministers and church-goers toured Jerusalem and when they came to the hill outside of the city that archaeologists have identified as the possible site of the crucifixion, their guide said to them, “This may be the hill called Golgotha where Jesus died.” He then stopped for a moment and added, “I’m wondering if I have said that properly. In my faith, if I were talking about Abraham I would say, Abraham — may he rest in peace,’ or if I were referring to my parents who died some time ago, I would add, ‘May they rest in peace.’ It is a sign of respect.” He looked at the group curiously.
“But Christians don’t say that, do they? They don’t say, ‘Jesus — may he rest in peace.’”
The group looked at one another realizing for the first time that, no, Christians don’t say, “Jesus, may he rest in peace.” And why is it that we don’t add those words of respect spoken by so many in honor of our dead? Because we are Easter people and we believe that though Jesus did die on the cross, God raised him to life once again. He is not dead; he is alive and he is certainly not resting but is at work and on the move in the world and in the lives of all who follow him.
There are probably some who wish that they could say, “Jesus — may he rest in peace,” because for the Herods and the Pilates of the world, Jesus’ continuing presence is a continuing threat to their power. When the Roman authorities and the Temple priests hung Jesus on the cross, they were hoping to put to rest his condemnation of the way in which they trampled on the poor and made the lowly in the world feel like worms. They hoped to lock tight the door of God’s Kingdom against all who made them uncomfortable, who they thought were impure, all whom they personally despised so that they would have God’s eternity all to themselves. They wanted Jesus’ talk of God’s favor for the least among us and Jesus’ harsh words against the rich and the proud to be buried in the ground where they would turn to dust and be forgotten.
“Jesus — rest in peace,” they said with a smirk as they closed tight the door of that tomb.
And maybe, just maybe, even the disciples, for all of their grief at Jesus’ death, also wished that they could say, “Rest in peace,” more kindly of course than the Herods and Caiaphuses, but still with a sense of completion about everything. The women came to the tomb that first Easter morning to anoint Jesus’ body with oils and finish the rites of burial, and when they found the tomb empty, the gospel of Mark says, they didn’t jump up and down with joy but ran off in terror. Nothing was as it was supposed to be, and even though his death left them grief-stricken, at least it was something they could understand, but this was too new, too different, too unpredictable and unsettling and it terrified them. Frankly, there are times when all of Jesus’ followers, including us, might be afraid to find out that Jesus isn’t safely where we left him, resting in peace, but is still out there on the loose, upsetting our comfortable lives, questioning our assumptions, challenging the casual way we treat one another, and calling us forward toward an unknown future.
“Oh, Jesus,” all of us have been tempted to say at times, “Can’t you leave me alone and just rest in peace? Why must you always be dragging me places I don’t want to go? Why must you constantly be asking that I change? Must I always welcome the stranger? Must I always love my enemy? Must I forgive those who have hurt me? Must I really rub elbows with those I despise? Please, Jesus, can’t you give it a rest; I mean, please rest in peace, Jesus?”
The world would be a lot easier if Jesus had died that day and been done with it because then we could all just remain our comfortable sinful selves; but we know that as easy as that might feel at times, it’s not really what we want. I don’t know about you, but with the ugliness of the world right now I need to believe that fear and cruelty and violence to have the last word, even if believing that makes some uncomfortable demands on my own life. We don’t want to believe that this sinful self is the best we can hope for in our own lives. The message of the empty tomb, as unsettling as it might be, is called good news because it is a hope that we all desperately need: Easter promises that there will be no rest for Jesus, there will be no victory for the Herods and the Pilates and the holier than thou’s, there will simply be no stopping the gospel. Because Jesus is not dead — he’s not resting in peace. Jesus is alive, and loose in the world at work still, mending broken hearts, breaking the back of evil, encouraging forgiveness, healing our blindness, sowing peace in unexpected places, strengthening our hearts, and lifting us from our knees into joy again. Jesus is alive and at work still: you just can’t kill Jesus because his grace is stronger than death and no tomb can hold him. Life will prevail; the world’s brokenness will be healed, and love will win.