Empty Tomb and Empty Church

Jesus came out of the empty tomb, into an empty burial ground. On that empty Sunday morning, even more empty than this church right now, only Mary Magdalene appeared. Perhaps, today is the most authentic Easter ever.

Sermon on John 20:1-18 / Easter Sunday / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / April 12, 2020

Empty church, empty tomb

Good morning.  I’m sitting here this morning, in an empty church, to tell you the story of an empty tomb.

The symbolism is not lost upon me.

A clergy friend and I were lamenting, just a few days ago, that this season of Lent has been the “Lent-iest of all Lents.” And we remarked that the upcoming Easter Sunday would feel like the most un-Easter-like Easter of all.

For many of us, there will be no big, celebratory meal around the table. There will be no visiting Grandma and Grandpa. No dressing up for church, no greetings of “Happy Easter!” as we shake hands and hug. The ushers will not be pulling out folding chairs to accommodate the crowds. These rafters will not reverberate with the sounds of trumpets, and cries of Alleluia.

Today will be the most un-Easter-like Easter of them all. Or perhaps… it will be just the opposite.

Perhaps, today is the most authentic Easter ever.


After all, our Easter story is rooted in a narrative of death and fear, lament and confusion.

The story of the empty tomb begins with Mary Magdalene approaching, in the dark, to see for herself the place where Jesus was buried. Since Friday evening, she has been behind closed doors, observing the Sabbath, and awash with grief. She was there at the cross, with his mother Mary, and with Mary the wife of Clopas. They saw the horror of his death.

In John’s version of the story, the women do not prepare the body of Jesus. Instead, I imagine, the women left Golgotha and staggered through the streets to their sheltering place, and they shut themselves off the from the rest of Jerusalem. I imagine their deep sorrow and lament in that lonely place.

For three days, Jesus was confined to the complete darkness of the tomb, hanging in the place between death and resurrection.

And that tomb! Small, confined, the weight of the rock overhead stifling the air. But then… sometime in the early pre-dawn hours, Jesus unwrapped the strips of cloth from his body and pushed away the rock.

Jesus came out of the empty tomb, into an empty burial ground. On that empty Sunday morning, even more empty than this church right now, only Mary Magdalene appeared.

Is it true?

When Peter and the other disciple heard Mary’s news about the empty tomb, they got up and ran to see for themselves. Why? Why did they go inside the tomb, to see the strips of cloth? Why did Mary, who had followed them… why did she linger outside after they left?

Well, perhaps for the same reason that any of us any of us show up at church.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth once suggested that people come to church to seek the answer to one question: “Is it true?”

This is the persistent question in our heart of hearts: Is it true? Is it true that God disrupted the order of the world as we knew it, and created a new and infinitely greater possibility? Is it true that God is really present in the world in a way that saves us? Is it true that even though we will die one day, God does not lose us?

Grief continues

Our Easter story is a story that is rooted in grief, and fear, and loss and separation. And although we might be tempted to think of the Resurrection as the joyful conclusion, here’s the thing…

The story of the empty tomb does not end when Mary bursts into the upper room and shouts, “I have seen the Lord!” The grief, the loss, the fear, the sadness continued.

The women still grieved; their trauma was still real.  We will hear in next week’s reading how the men are still in isolation, gathered behind the locked door of the upper room, in fear for their lives.

Jesus is present right there in this grief. Jesus with a gentle word of consolation to a weeping Mary, “Mary…” Jesus standing right there in the middle of all that fear and grief, and offering the disciples a blessing, “Peace be with you.”

This was the beginning of the Church. The Church was begun in a world characterized by death and fear, lament and confusion.

Empty tomb, empty church

On this empty Sunday morning, an empty tomb has brought us to an empty church.
So, yes, this might just be the most authentic Easter ever.

I love this church, with its bright, open windows, and green trees, and hawks swooping down behind the altar window. But this church is just a building. It’s just a building.

The earliest churches consisted of small gatherings in homes, often hidden behind closed doors. These churches were encouraged by hand-delivered letters written by Paul and others from far-away places. Not so very different than us, right?

Church is wherever the people are gathered, whether in the locked upper room of Jerusalem or behind closed doors in northern Virginia. These are extraordinary times, and we are an Easter people.

The Church is wherever the people gather and wonder, “Is it true?” The Church is wherever the people gather to hear the answer and hear the news “I have seen the risen Lord!”

© 2020 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved.

Photo credits: “West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, England” © Tracey Kelly
“St. Francis Episcopal Church, Easter 2020” © Patrick Killoran

2 thoughts on “Empty Tomb and Empty Church

  1. Truly one of the best sermons that I have ever heard and I have heard Billy Graham, Bill Myers, David Lucy, many great Lutheran ministers and too many Baptists.

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