Perplexed, Terrified, Amazed

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

            When I was a little boy, I would ride all around the Upstate of South Carolina with my grandfather and my favorite cassette tape to listen to as we drove was one by the comedian singer/songwriter, Ray Stevens. Do you all know Ray Stevens?

            My favorite song to listen to as an aspiring young preacher of five or six years old was one called, “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” about a boy who catches a squirrel and bring it to church in a shoebox and somewhere in the middle of the service the squirrel gets lose and starts running around the church, under pews and across shoes and up pant legs and dresses and all of these church folk think they’ve been visited by the Holy Spirit. The chorus goes: “The day the squirrel went berserk in the First Self-Righteous Church in that sleepy little town of Pascagoula. It was a fight for survival that broke out in revival. They were jumpin’ pews and shouting, ‘Hallelujah.’” It’s quite a song that I just thought you should know about.

            The other song that made a lasting impression on me was one Stevens sang called, “Sittin’ Up with the Dead,” in which he describes how his “old arthritic Uncle Fred” died when he was 97 and was so stooped over the morticians couldn't straighten him out – a task they eventually did accomplish with the use of a logging chain. But, that night at the wake while the family was sitting up with Uncle Fred in his open casket, there came a terrible thunderstorm and, Stevens sings, “the chain 'round old Uncle Fred went 'snap' and rattled and fell to the floor with a thump and Uncle Fred just sat right up.” Then the chorus:

“Well I ain't sittin' up with the dead no more, I don't know 'bout you

I ain't sittin' up with the dead no more no matter what ya say or do.

They say the dead can't hurt ya cause they already left

but what they left can sure make ya hurt yourself.

And I ain't sittin up with the dead no more since the dead started sittin' up too.”

            Over two thousand years of church history and the development of very elaborate pomp and circumstance and the composition of myriad hymns and festive songs celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday have distanced us from the reality of just how frightening a prospect it really is for the dead to come back to life again.

            We make horror films and television series about it and write musical masterworks like Steven’s, “Sittin’ Up with the Dead,” but when it comes, each year, to Easter Sunday, it’s all “glory” and “hallelujah” and “amen.” And, in hindsight, that may make a lot of sense, but you have to understand, no one in these stories expects Jesus to be resurrected from the dead. Not one woman or disciple goes to the tomb thinking, “Well, let’s check things out and see if he’s been resurrected yet.” This was not even in the realm of possibility to their minds. Madeline L’Engle captures the feeling of the women and the disciples as poignantly as I’ve ever heard it, saying:

"Darkness. Emptiness. There is nothing left. That is how it must have been for the disciples. For his friends. Dark. Empty. He was dead. All their hopes were shattered. No one knew there was going to be a resurrection. Their hearts were heavy and without hope. He was just a minor political agitator after all, instead of what he said he was. On Good Friday no one thought about Easter, because Easter hadn't happened yet, and no one could dream of such an impossible possibility."

They didn’t come to the tomb that day expecting resurrection. Instead, they came at early dawn on the first day of the week to take spices to anoint the body – like we might take flowers to adorn the fresh grave of our loved one. That’s all. “But when they went in,” the text says, to their great surprise “they did not find the body…[and] they were perplexed about this.” They didn’t know what had happened. They couldn't make heads or tails of what was going on. Resurrection wasn’t even a possibility in their minds. And “they were perplexed about this,” the text says.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. And the men explained to them, saying, “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you…’ Then they remembered his words.” And the whole time the women were terrified with their faces bowed to the ground.

            Two thousand years of church history has gifted us with very elaborate pomp and circumstance and myriad hymns and festive songs celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, but the truth of the matter is, we’re far more comfortable with the dead staying dead than we are with the prospect of the dead coming back to life again. Resurrection isn’t typically what we’re looking for in the midst of death and when it happens, it is perplexing and terrifying.

            So it’s understandable that whenever we witness a bit of resurrection from the politics of death that some are fearful and confused of what it means. It is a terrifying prospect for those we thought were as good as dead to come back to life again. We’ve seen this even recently in our own context.

            For decade upon decade we’ve seen the politics of death[1] work against LGBTQ lives, criminalizing same-sex relationships, painting the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian and bisexual people and the gender identity of transgender and intersex people as pathological and disordered, and preachers holding forth against the presumed “sinfulness” of LGBTQ people. And then we experience a bit of resurrection – gains in rights and protections for LGBTQ people codified into law, pathological views of LGBTQ people going out of fashion in psychological disciplines, and more and more churches stating, like this one did in 1983, that LGBTQ lives are not sinful but are a gift from God – resurrection from the politics of death. And some who witness it are perplexed and terrified because it’s a frightening prospect for the dead to come back to life again.

            Just this week the North Carolina legislature held a special session at the cost of $42,000 for the explicit purpose of passing a bill that would make it unlawful for local governments in North Carolina cities and municipalities to pass their own laws that prohibit discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on someone's gender identity or sexual orientation. They made it illegal for local governments to protect their LGBTQ citizens. In less than 12 hours, the bill was passed by both houses and signed by the governor.[2]

            And lest we think this is just a southern problem of bigotry, our own state of Massachusetts is in the midst of a struggle over the passage of legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations like hotels and restaurants where they can still be turned away for no other reason than their gender identity, even our own state.

After the experience of profound resurrection from the death-dealing politics of anti-LGBTQ laws, misguided psychiatric practices, and spiritual violence perpetrated by churches, this current backlash against LGBTQ people, is a sign of just how frightening the prospect of resurrection really is – that which we thought was dead and buried and no longer had a chance in the world has come back to life again and, to some – including lawmakers in North Carolina and Massachusetts – it is terrifying.

For a couple of centuries now, the politics of death have worked against the lives of African Americans through the institution of slavery, to the Jim Crow south, to the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration and the for-profit prison industry. And through the work of those dedicated to justice in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the country witnessed resurrection from the death-dealing political climate of racial injustice and oppression – a steady gain in rights and protections for racial minorities in the U.S.

But resurrection can be a frightening prospect, when we witness that which we thought was dead and buried and that no longer had a chance in the world come back to life again some can become terrified – including the Supreme Court.

This seems the case when the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act that all of the marches and the violence suffered in Selma helped to bring about was weakened beyond recognition by a 2013 ruling from the Supreme Court that renders key parts of this law null, even in the midst of every indication that the law was working for its intended purpose of protecting the voting rights of racial minorities and smoothing the pathways to the polls.[3]

And just last week, we saw the result: in one Arizona county where racial minorities make up 40% of the population, “election officials…reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent [over the course of four years], from 200 [polling places] to just 60—one polling place per every 21,000 voters.”[4] And with no federal oversight with an eye toward oppressive racial dynamics at work, voters stood in line for four and five hours to cast their ballots.

It’s understandable that whenever we experience a bit of resurrection from the politics of death that some become fearful of what it means for those we thought were as good as dead – done in by the oppressive politics of death – come back to life again.

            Like when refugees flee from circumstances of death and destruction in their homeland, emboldened to seek new prospects for the livability of life for their families, and they take to the road and sojourn through dry land and over dangerous sea, hopeful determination gives birth to a spirit of resurrection. When those whose crossing of borders puts their own bodies at risk of death in order to follow a flicker of hope that life is possible despite all odds against them, resurrection is being born.

But resurrection can be a frightening prospect, when we witness that which we thought was dead and buried and no longer had a chance in the world come back to life again. And, to some – including so much of Europe and even to so many here in the U.S. – witnessing resurrection can be terrifying. And borders suddenly close and restrictions on migration tighten and hospitality turns to hostility and the political rhetoric about the lives of refugees and immigrants of all kinds grows increasingly aggressive.

It can be frightening for the dead to come back to life. As people of resurrection we may have to comfort those who are terrified from time to time. We might have to say to our friend Donald – let’s just call him Donald – “Yes, yes, Donald, resurrection can be frightening. Indeed, it can be terrifying when those you thought were dead and buried and no longer had a chance in the world come back to life again. But it’s resurrection, Donald. It’s resurrection in all of its perplexing and terrifying amazement.”

We’re far more comfortable with our dead and our dying places to stay dead and dying because the resurrection of the dead can be a terrifying experience.

“But when they went in, they did not find the body…they were perplexed.”

“Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them and explained to them. And the women were terrified…and bowed their faces to the ground…”

And even when the women returned to the disciples to tell them what they had discovered, these words seemed to them an “idle tale” – a pointless story without any foundation in reality, “and they did not believe them.”

            But Luke doesn't end his account of the resurrection with the perplexed and terror-filled women or skeptical disciples thinking the women are out of their minds.

Instead, “Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

The women, in their confusion and terror, saw nothing of the resurrected Jesus, but they were convinced of resurrection.[5]

            The disciples who heard their story were convinced that it was an idol tale – a pointless story without any foundation in reality, “and they did not believe them.”

And Peter had seen nothing but was convinced of something and he ran to the tomb to see and “he went home, amazed.”

            That’s how it starts, resurrection: perplexed, terrified, amazed. But that’s not how it ends. You see, resurrection is a movement that takes place in community and builds gradually over time, confusion and fear turning into amazement and a hope against hope for an impossible possibility.

            And that’s when the business of resurrection really takes hold. One by one a collective grew around the empty tomb, the rumors of resurrection that had once seemed an idle tale soon seemed much more like a dream of an impossible possibility. One by one the collective grew as confusion and terror gave way to amazement and a hope against hope that resurrection was possible, that our dead and our dying places don’t have to stay dead and dying, and that a politics of death cannot win out over the newness of life that is burgeoning up in our midst.

The true task – not a test, mind you, but a task – the true task of those who constitute the resurrected Body of Christ today is not to “believe” in the resurrection. The work for those of us who are, today, the resurrected Body of Christ in the world is to practice resurrection, to embody resurrection, to bring resurrection into the world again and again through the living of Christ’s mission of peace rooted in justice, to take careful note of all the fragile and precarious places in the world where death is giving way to life and cultivate them with prayerful intentionality and in solidarity with those who were once as good as dead who are now raised again to newness of life.

Only then that we can say with genuine conviction:

Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!



[1] The phrase, “The Politics of Death,” was brought to my awareness again this week by a piece written by Baptist Peace Fellowship of North American – Bautistas por la Paz executive director, LeDayne McLeese Polaski, titled “Maundy Thursday 2016 – North Carolina and the Politics of Death,” and can be found online here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/baptist-peace-fellowship-of-north-america/maundy-thursday-2016-north-carolina-and-the-politics-of-death/10154112430767146



[2] Avianne Tan, “North Carolina’s Controversial ‘Anti-LGBT’ Bill Explained,” ABCnews (March 24, 2016), online at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/north-carolinas-controversial-anti-lgbt-bill-explained/story?id=37898153



[3] “‘Outrageous’ or Overdue?: Court Strikes Down Part of Historic Voting Rights Law,” CNN.com (June 26, 2013), Online at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/politics/scotus-voting-rights/.



[4] Ari Berman, “There Were 5-Hour Lines to Vote in Arizona Because the Supreme Court Gutted the Voting Rights Act,” The Nation (March 23, 2016), online at: http://www.thenation.com/article/there-were-five-hour-lines-to-vote-in-arizona-because-the-supreme-court-gutted-the-voting-rights-act/



[5] The language of “seen nothing but convinced of something” comes from Richard B. Vinson, “Luke,” Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 740.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • March 27, 2016