Mark’s Gospel describes the first Easter in eight short verses (Mark 16:1-8). Unlike our Easter, the first one was totally scary. The three women who came to Jesus’ grave “fled,” and “they said nothing, for they were afraid!” Boom! End of Easter. Why is that? We don’t like Easter. We don’t even like a resurrection! And we don’t like a present, moving, speaking, free-range Christ.
As anyone knows, the best turkeys to get for Thanksgiving are not caged, but free-range turkeys. It seems that, if we had a choice, we would likewise prefer a free-range Christ to a dead one in the tomb. But in reality, the opposite happens. When Jesus rose from his tomb and starts running – free-range – we flee! Why is that? Jesus runs, and we try to outrun him.
When we go to a tomb to see a dead man, we expect him to be there. The two Marys, and Salome, bought spices and expected to have a body there to anoint. Their anointing was an old custom that at least signified a general belief in the resurrection. But we always imagine that resurrection is still far off. We anoint because there is still time for us.
We also expect future resurrection to be an ordered process that sorts out the wheat from the chaff, or judges between goats and sheep. But on this day, when the stone was rolled away, the women saw someone – not Jesus – sitting in the tomb! Jesus was not there! What were they to think? There were only two possibilities for an absent Jesus. Either his body was stolen, or the resurrection had already happened! Let’s suppose it was Resurrection. Wouldn’t we be happy? What are we to make of Jesus, the Resurrexit, gone and free-range?
Instead, the women saw “a young man” there, dressed in white robes, but they “were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). Why the alarm? He seemed like a poor substitute for Christ. Preachers always seem like that. They are a letdown when someone comes expecting Messiah. So for the women, this was turning out to be a very bad day. The women first wondered how to roll the stone away, then discovered Jesus missing, and in his place sat this young man in white: a preacher! Why not at least a body double? Then the little preacher tells the women: have no fear! Jesus, “is risen!” And what is this resurrection? It means: “he is not here!” (Mark 16:6). Risen Jesus =absent Jesus. You can look at the place where they laid him if you want to see what absence looks like.
Resurrection is not an event, it is a person. That person is not in the tomb, but raised and running—free-range Christ.
Are they to be happy about the empty tomb? No. The empty tomb is never good news. It is a slap in the face and horror to the heart. Unfortunately, most Christians spend their lives trying to love an absent Christ—telling themselves that Jesus is not really in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. But you can’t love a ghost. These “empty tomb” knuckleheads think the best thing in the world is that Christ went away! Absent Christ! Luther dealt with a pile of them in his day, called “sacramentarians.” One of the worst was a super-cool nobleman named Schwenckfeld, who repeatedly traveled to Wittenberg seeking Luther’s approval for saying that Christ’s body was truly absent, and we remember that disappearance in a “spiritual” eucharist. Luther just called him “Stink-feld.” He smelled like death.
But the little preacher in white had another thing to say to the women: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). But what were they to preach? The boy said: “what he told you!” That is, preach the gospel.
But the women were afraid of the gospel even more than an empty tomb! The resurrected Jesus (whom we recently betrayed), is now running free. He is intent on seeking them out for a direct address. That scary, present, Christ is not silent but speaking. And what does he want to say? I know what you did to me? Free-range Christ is fearful Christ because he is present, speaking, and I just crucified him. He knows me! Poor Peter had to account for three betrayals in one night!
Just so, Resurrection is not an event, it is a person. That person is not in the tomb, but raised and running—free-range Christ. He is determined not to be found in his tomb. Instead, he finds you – outside the tomb. Christ is not fooled. He knows who and where you are-his betrayer in full flight. Yet when he catches you, he says something astonishing: “Peace be with you.” Then even more astonishingly, he gives his forgiven betrayers the keys to his new kingdom so that you will not only be forgiven but forgive. In Mark’s Gospel, it is the great words of baptism: “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Until Christ says these words to you, he knows you will be running from him at full speed. But in the end, free-range Christ funs faster than you. When he catches his prey, he is fully present, forgiving, just as declared to Peter, Paul, and all the saints up to you. Then Easter is not scary, but home. You don’t have to flee your free-range Christ.