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Beyond The Empty Tomb
What is the single most important document that every non-American citizen needs in order to travel to and enter the United States? Every person that plans to visit America for the purpose of business or leisure must secure a visa—an official endorsement stamped in a passport authorizing the bearer to enter or leave, and travel in or through, a particular country or region. And as every Filipino knows, the process of acquiring a visa to the United States is a most challenging and often times frustrating ordeal. It’s a daunting experience having to brave the crowds of people and line up in the American Embassy in the early morning. It’s one thing to be able to get an interview with a US Immigration Officer and it’s another to be approved for a US visa.
As my wife and I inched our way toward the immigration officer’s window, we could see the activity before us. Throughout the day, many people were being denied visas based on their questionable or unsupportable official documents. As we weaved our way to the front, we could overhear the denials and see the discouraged look upon the faces of many applicants. While waiting for our number to be called, we braced ourselves for the worst as people kept getting denied left and right. It was downright disheartening to see their hopes and dreams dashed to the ground after waiting so long. There were people who wanted to visit their long lost family members or see their grandchildren for the very first time. Some wanted to attend an important family wedding or funeral. While a majority of others were desperately seeking promising careers and a better life—a way out of the country’s economic turmoil and dead end existence.
By midday, we approached the immigration officer’s window with my necessary paperwork—my school’s letter of acceptance. My initial visit to the United States was for the purpose of pursuing my seminary education. To my amazement, the immigration officer granted me along with my entire family the permission to enter the United States with a Student Visa stamped on all our Philippine passports.
And as with all visas issued by the host country, they have an expiration date—some get approved for three months to a year while others are given Multiple Entry or Treaty Trader Visas. If a visa happens to be non-renewable, the passport holder would have to return to his/her country of origin or marry an American citizen to remain in the country legally. And those that opt to stay in the country without visas become illegal aliens or in Tagalog: “Tago ng Tago” (TNT) meaning “Filipino illegal aliens in hiding.”
Throughout the gospel stories, we have been traveling with Jesus along the pilgrim way. When we come to his last week on earth, we walk into the city of Jerusalem and make our way toward Calvary. Under the shadow of the cross, we arrive at our final destination. But just when we thought that all our hopes and dreams died and was buried with Jesus in a tomb, we soon find out that Easter morning ushers us into a new beginning. We discover that there’s life and purpose beyond fear, death, and the grave.
Good news is resurrected on the other side of Christ’s tomb. We realize that our earthly pilgrimage didn’t come to an abrupt end. This great getting up morning not only turned the whole world inside out, but also turned our entire life inside out. Our final destination does not end in an empty tomb. This seemingly dead end existence unexpectedly evolved into another exodus experience. God delivered his Son from death paving a way for us from the tomb! It is a narrow road[i] that leads us from Jesus’ place of victory into every corner of the earth.
And for this road we need a passport stamped with a visa granted by a power greater than any government, empire, or kingdom in the world—it’s the highest authority in heaven and on earth.[ii] This visa opens the way to new places, connects us to various people, and assures us that our journey is worthwhile. And best of all, this visa has no expiration date. It’s ours to use anywhere God chooses to lead us in this planet. Once again we are filled with a sense of meaning and mission in our life.
This heavenly visa cannot be acquired by means of an official human document or supporting papers. It couldn’t be bought, sold, coerced, bribed, manipulated or traded in the open market of the mighty Roman Empire. Caesar himself along with the other emperors and rulers of the earth would have to line up before the King of kings, bow down before his throne, and repent of their wicked ways in order to secure this life-changing visa. The only way one can acquire this divine document is to be born again into God’s new world.
The passport visa is the Easter story itself.[v] After hearing Mary Magdalene’s report concerning the removal of the stone, Peter and John make a mad dash toward the tomb of Jesus. Both men enter the tomb and see the grave clothes of Jesus lying by themselves.[vi] It took Peter awhile for the miraculous event to sink in. Initially, he was rendered dumbfounded. John, on the other hand, went in, saw the evidence, and believed. For the moment, we have in this brief episode where two people who were unaware that they became recipients of passport visas by seeing and believing what just transpired in the tomb.
Think of the transaction of the passport visa in the following manner. When you arrive in the airport, whether to leave your own country or to land somewhere else, it won’t do you any good to tell the customs officials that although you possess a passport visa it happens to be sitting on top of your bedroom dresser. At that point, it is obvious that your passport visa has no business being left back home. You can’t get past customs en route to your final destination without your passport visa. The custom official will make certain that you will remain grounded at the terminal until you can produce this most crucial document.
The eyes of both Peter and John were opened to what had just occurred inside the tomb and they came away believing. It took some time for this great Easter event to sink into the souls of the other disciples—for them to embrace the new beginning of an extraordinary era. While processing what just happened in the tomb they remained hidden in a house behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.[vii] We can say that they were behaving like TNT—still hiding from the law of the land without their leader. When Jesus finally appeared to them in the room it was high time that they come out of hiding. He stamps their lives with the Holy Spirit, their passport visa, and says to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”[viii] Authorized by the Holy Spirit they receive their new status. They were no longer “Tago ng Tago” they became “Tunay na Tunay”—honest-to-goodness real citizens living in the reality of the kingdom of God.
This act of believing faith not only acquired for these disciples their passport visas but also their citizenship in heaven. This transaction granted them and those that followed entry into a whole new world of unlimited and undiscovered possibilities. Sadly, many in our society stand and stare at the Christian message not knowing what to make of it. They remain entombed in a world of their own limited possibilities. But those who dare to go in, and see, and believe, receive an approved heavenly visa stamped upon their passports for keeps. As they continue their pilgrimage upon the road that leads away from the empty tomb, all things are now possible. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers became his witnesses starting from Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.[ix] Nothing can prevent them from crossing into other countries and reaching out to other peoples. All roads are now open. All roads lead to the kingdom of God.
Those of you that have just acquired your passport visas can start your journey from this Easter day onward. And those of you who have had your passport visas in hand for sometime, can continue on your journey with a great confidence that you are on the right road. This road isn’t broad and it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. This road is often hard and rough—it’s far from a walk in the park, but guaranteed it will get you to where you need to go as you follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And every step you take away from the tomb is another step you take in announcing Jesus’ lordship in the new world. Amen.Endnotes
[i] Matthew 7:13-14.
[ii] Matthew 28:18.
[iii] John 3:3.
[iv] 1 Peter 1:23.
[v] Tom Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 109-110.
[vi] John 20:3-10.
[vii] John 20:19.
[viii] John 20:21.
[ix] Acts 1:8.