Climbing mountains is not high on my list of things I want to do. The risk/reward ratio just isn’t there for me. I don’t have any excuses. I’m physically healthy. I could train. All of my senses are intact. Could you imagine climbing a mountain without using your eyes? Would you believe that there are blind rock climbers who have gone places you and I would never dream of going? Their lives embody that Audrey Hepburn quote, “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible!’” At 15-months old Erik Weihenmeyer was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition. By 16-years old he started using a guide dog, and he began rock climbing.
He may be blind, but today he is among the best climbers in the world. He summited Mount Everest in 2001—the first blind person to do so. He’s climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. He’s climbed El Capitan in Yosemite multiple times, and in September 2016 he became the first blind person to climb El Capitan in less than a day. Just amazing.
I am fascinated by how someone without the use of his eyes can do something so difficult and dangerous. Weihenmeyer is an exceptionally skilled climber, but he does not climb alone. To make the speed climb up El Capitan, he had a crew of other climbers who operated as a team to get to the top. Two other climbers went first to scout the route. Next came Weihenmeyer’s three-man team. One man did the lead climbing. He’d get to the top of each pitch and set up a top-rope for Weihenmeyer. The next climber would ascend the route using the rope and clear out the protective gear along the way. Then Weihenmeyer would ascend, listening to verbal cues from the second climber, who always stayed a few feet ahead.
Even with all the help, Weihenmeyer needs to use his considerable skill to get up the cliff face. Because he can’t use his vision, he holds himself in place with one hand while feeling for the next hold. The verbal instructions of the climber just ahead of him aren’t enough. As he ascends, he remembers where his handhold was so that he can use it as a foothold. Without friends, ability, and memory, none of this would be possible.
Today I want to focus especially on memory because it is something that is central to our text in Luke. Just like Weihenmeyer could not climb a mountain without learning and remembering where he can get a firm grip to continue in his journey forward, so memory provides valuable and essential footholds for faith.
Typically, we focus on the “what” of Easter. Jesus was crucified, dead, and laid in a tomb. Luke even goes out of his way to point out that women are present in all of these places. They see Jesus die. They see his body hastily laid in the tomb. They come early on Easter morning to treat his body with spices only to see that it is not there. These “whats”—these historical facts—are an essential part to knowing the truth of the story, but without more footholds of memory, these facts lead to perplexity. That’s precisely the women’s reaction to the body gone from the tomb. They do not understand. Dead bodies do not leave their tombs. Their understanding has lost its bearing. They need some footholds.
Standing in the strangely empty tomb, two angels interrupt their confusion, and shift the mood from perplexity to abject terror. (I mean, wouldn’t we all be terrified if we were in that tomb? Nothing in that moment had to feel normal or real.) Their understanding of the world is in process of getting turned on its head. They had devoted years to following Jesus. Quite abruptly, he was arrested, convicted, and crucified. Before sundown on the Sabbath, his body was quickly moved to a nearby tomb and sealed inside with a rolling stone. Now, not only was the body gone, but also these women encounter angels who appear in dazzling clothing out of nowhere. They need some footholds to help them navigate this strange day. The angels jog their memories.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That’s quite the question to start things off with, isn’t it? We all know—these women know—that the dead stay dead. Jesus wasn’t around to do what he did for Lazarus. That was strange enough, so how could Jesus be dead one day and alive the next? Who was there to raise him? “Why do you look for the living among the dead,” the angels interrupt their confusion. “He is not here, but has risen. Remember—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.”
Verse 8 pivots their understanding and ours. “Then they remembered [Jesus’] words.” It’s like the angels are saying, “Think back on your lives. Think about all the things that Jesus told you. Think about the things that might have confused you at the time. He told you this would happen. He showed you how God is in the business of raising the dead to life when he raised Lazarus. You didn’t understand then, but can you use these footholds to understand now?”
So, these women leave the empty tomb and find the eleven disciples—the eleven who would become the apostles—and these women become the first witnesses to the historical fact of the resurrection AND to pointing back to how this makes sense based upon what Jesus told them. The disciples had the footholds for them too, but sadly, between their grief and culture where the witness of women was considered untrustworthy, the other disciples just don’t understand.
We can see that Luke is giving us a picture of what happened. In much of the ancient world (and in Judaism), the more named witnesses the better. This is already a challenge since women’s testimony wasn’t acceptable, but Luke refrains from giving the women’s names until they give testimony in verse 10. He’s telling us that there is truth in their testimony. “Some two centuries after the Gospels were written the pagan philosopher Celsus could still needle Origen that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection was based on the testimony of ‘half-frantic…self-deceived women.’” To that I say, “Thank you, God, for these women!” Without their bold witness, where would we be? They have given us footholds for faith, and we should listen to their testimony.
At the time, however, only Peter is willing to at least see for himself if there is truth in these words. He runs to the tomb, looks in, sees no body there, and goes away amazed. The historical fact of the empty tomb is real for Peter, but faith has not yet gained a foothold. Perhaps he’s too bent low by his denial of Jesus just a few days earlier.
And so, Luke’s story carries on with the beautiful story of two other followers of Jesus who are wandering from Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus, a village that is seven miles away. The resurrected Jesus approaches the two disciples on the road, but they do not recognize him. He asks what’s on their minds, and they tell him about how their teacher and friend, Jesus, was arrested, crucified, and buried. They continue, “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said he was alive.” They tell Jesus about others who checked out the empty tomb, but none of them could make any sense of it.
What happens next? Jesus takes the remainder of the walk to give them footholds for faith. He begins with Moses and walks through their Scriptures, showing them that this was God’s plan from the very beginning. Foothold after foothold he offers them, but it’s not until he stops for supper with them and breaks bread (that’s communion, folks!) that they can finally see that this is Jesus with them—the one who was crucified is alive again!
Here we are—gathered together in the largest numbers we’ve had in over two years. It’s Easter. It’s a joyful and festive Sunday. It matters to us, for we are an Easter people. But I want us to move beyond just the “what” of Easter. I want us to look into our lives and find those footholds for faith. We all have them, but we have to choose to see them that way, don’t we? Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez gives us a beautiful way to think about this. “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” These are your footholds. These remembrances are the ways that you make sense of your life and the ways you see God at work.
What are your footholds for faith? On that first Easter, the women found their footing when the angels reminded them of what Jesus had told them. The disciples on their way to Emmaus found their footing in hearing the story of Scripture again and at the table with Jesus. John’s gospel tells the story of Peter finally finding his footing over a fish breakfast on a beach, where he is reminded of forgiveness and calling. What are your footholds of faith?
Was it the time you came back to church after years away and heard the choir sing an anthem that moved your soul? Was it in the waiting room of the hospital where you found yourself praying for a miracle? Was it on a walk in the woods where you body flooded with a sense of pleasure and goodness and you could only pray, “Thank you”? Was it when your faith deepened while mentoring a confirmand? Or were you on a mission trip? Or at a camp? Was it when you dusted off your Bible and began to read it for the first time in years? Was it in the midst of a conversation with a good friend when you felt your soul stirring? “Faith is not the inevitable result of ‘evidence,’ even good evidence like empty tombs. Faith cannot be proven. It must be chosen.” Faith does not happen through facts and proof. It comes in seeing things—past, present, and future—through the lens of Jesus. It comes in the act of remembering. God gives us footholds throughout our lives. Who knows? Maybe being a part of this service today is one such moment for you. The good news? God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s a fact. It’s not always easy to believe because it’s so strange, yet God is there—even now—giving us footholds for faith. You just have to look for them and trust they’re solid. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.