Summit Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2011
Easter Sunday - Matthew 28: 1-11
Rolling Away the Stone
The body was safe. Joseph of Arimethea was the first to see to it. The evening of Jesus's death he went directly to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who had ordered the crucifixion, and asked for it. Pilate ordered it to be given him, so Joseph wrapped the body of Jesus in a clean linen cloth and lay it in a tomb he had just made for himself. We have no reason to think Joseph was expecting to need the tomb anytime soon. Perhaps as a man of means he was planning ahead, thinking of his family, wanting to make sure it was done right. But he lay Jesus there instead, and rolled a great stone to the door. No animals could get in now. No curious passers-by would stick their heads in. The stone would discourage vandals or grave robbers, even if it couldn't stop a determined thief. It was what he had planned for his burial. He went away.
But the body was not still safe enough for some other folks. According to Matthew - and every gospel tells it differently - the Pharisees and chief priests had heard that Jesus told his followers he would rise again after three days. So they worried the disciples would steal the body and lay it elsewhere so they could claim Jesus had risen and then lead even more people astray. So opponents of Jesus also went to Pilate. They asked if he would make the tomb more secure. Pilate told them to take a guard of soldiers to keep watch - he wouldn't have wanted any more trouble from those disciples either. And the soldiers not only stood guard; they found a way to seal the stone. Now the body was safe.
But all those busy men were only thinking of traffic into the tomb. No one was thinking about the other direction, of Jesus coming out, even though the claim Jesus made that he would rise from the dead had spread to the ears of the authorities. But Joseph wasn't thinking about it. Either he hadn't heard what Jesus said or he was educated, sober and prudent enough not to give creedence to such crazy talk-- he knew the dead stayed dead. So he went away once the stone was in place. Pilate and the chief priests weren't thinking about it – they were sure Jesus was a pretender to the throne of David, an imposter or an ordinary troublemaker for the Empire - if anything, this talk about rising from the dead proved it. We might have expected the disciples to be waiting and wondering-- Jesus had told them directly, more than once, that he would suffer and die but then rise again. But either they didn’t understand, they didn't remember, or they didn't believe it. They scattered as soon as Jesus was arrested; none of the 12 even followed him to the cross or looked for his tomb. They may have grieved, despaired, gotten angry or felt abandoned, but they weren't waiting for Jesus. And the women were not expecting him to come back, either. They were at the crucifixion, looking on from a distance; and when Joseph buried Jesus they were also there, sitting opposite the tomb. But Matthew tells us they went at dawn to see the tomb - not to see Jesus. To remember and grieve him, yes, but not to see him.
But when they arrrived, the earth suddenly shook. An angel descended from heaven and rolled away the stone, sitting on it. The guards fainted, but he declared to the women that Jesus was not there: they could see for themselves. Jesus had left the tomb! The reality of his death hadn't kept him in. The great stone, heavy as it was, hadn't kept him in. The guards and their latest tomb-sealing technology hadn't kept him in. The body was no longer safe. It was on the loose! On the loose to show that God's power was greater than the power of death. On the loose to show God's justice was greater than that of the Empire, with all it's death-dealing justice machinery. On the loose to show that God's grace was greater than the lack of faith or understanding on the part of his disciples. On the loose to show that God's forgiveness was greater than the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus' friends. On the loose to show that God's love was greater than the grief and sadness of the women at the tomb. And so the women left the tomb with fear and great joy and met that body on the road. "Greetings," it said, and told them not to be afraid. And the women were filled with great joy.
That body is still on the loose. Yes, the body of Jesus - with the feet that the women took hold of - is gone. We say it ascended into heaven, although Luke is the only gospel writer who even tries to explain how that happened. The Body of Jesus is gone, but the Body of Christ is not. The Body of the Risen Christ is still on the loose. In the church - we hope and pray - and anywhere else the Holy Spirit may choose to work. Giving hope and comfort to those who mourn, assuring them of eternal life with God. Giving courage and strength to those tortured and imprisoned by the Empires of our own day, including our own, proclaiming that God's power is greater than that of any nation, no matter how heavily armed. The Body of Christ is on the loose, standing in solidarity with those who hunger and thirst, and blessing those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, until all have enough. The Body of Christ is on the loose, granting us faith and trust in God even as we wrestle with doubts and questions. The Body of Christ is on the loose, filling troubled hearts with joy and gladness, grounding us in love, drawing us together with each other and with all faiths and families of this fragile and beautiful earth.
The body of Christ is on the loose and the body of Christ is not safe. It's on the loose in the most dangerous places and among the most disreputable folks. Although God's ultimate victory is assured, demonic powers are still wreaking havoc from pole to pole - standing against them can be dangerous. And the Risen Christ makes risky, unreasonable demands - from giving away our money to loving our enemies. We sometimes try and push Jesus back into the tomb. We proclaim a Christ that only cares about our personal salvation, or we proclaim a prosperity gospel, or we proclaim that Christ is dead and no intelligent person would believe in such a crazy thing anyway. But we can't do it. The power of God is greater. God's grace and love breaks through any stone we may try and place in front of it. Christ is Risen! Alleluiah! Amen.