April 1, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
The stone of death has been rolled away! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
This is the whole reason we are here. I don’t just mean the reason we are sitting in church today, but the reason there is a Church in the first place. This story, this truth, that Jesus Christ, who had been put to death by the sinful powers of the world was raised again to new life—this hope-filled proclamation is the entire foundation of the Christian faith. It is the defining hub at the center of the wheel around which everything else turns. From this moment, all of history beforehand and afterward is infused with new meaning, new purpose, new love. This is the dawn of the new creation; the death-blow dealt to the Death itself. It was the resurrection of Jesus, the rolling back of death, that transformed that ragtag group of dimwitted disciples into the one, holy, apostolic church, the communion of saints enduring through the ages all the way to today.
The story of the resurrection gives us the most important answer of all: He is risen! But it also inspires a slew of other questions. We are left wondering: Wow? How did this happen? What does it mean for the world? What does it mean for my own life, for life beyond life? What difference does it make? How am I to respond to this truth that feels too good to be true?
Those are some of the big questions of Easter, but early on in the story another question that guides the narrative. The author of the gospel of Mark goes out of his way to tell us that when Jesus died and his body was laid to rest in the tomb a very large stone was rolled in front of the entrance to close it off. To seal it shut. Literally, to provide closure. It must have been a pretty massive boulder, because three days later, after the Sabbath, when Mary and the other Mary and Solome head to the tomb they are worried about the stone preventing them from getting in, from performing their mission of mourning. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” They ask. Because, of course, they know what they will find. The scene will be just as they left it: the rock still lodged in place, the body still enclosed behind it, still as dead, as lifeless, as broken as it was when they buried him in a hurry.
These three faithful friends, these women who did not abandon him like their male counterparts—they must have had so much they wanted to share and discuss with each as they made that long mournful walk to the tomb. Such grief, such sorrow, such pain, such hopelessness seeping throughout their minds, their hearts, their souls. They had lost him. All creation had lost him. Denied him. Crucified him. And now these three lone mourners were the final, foolish tribute to the senseless ending of the One whom the world did not deserve. Surely, there was much that they wanted to speak about that morning, but all they can bring themselves to say to one another is, “What are we going to do about that rock? Who will roll the stone away?”
The reality of that questions stings in its genuineness. For don’t we do the same thing? In the face of death, we too fixate on what is practical, emotionless, benign rather than face the truth we can’t bring our hearts to accept. In the face of death we ask questions like: What are going to make for dinner? What color tie should he be buried in? What are we going to do with all her furniture? Do we have enough room in the fridge for the flood of casseroles that are about to come? What’s the appropriate length for a eulogy?
We cling to matters of small importance, and we do the same in the face of large-scale death and devastation. When the world grows addicted to war, addicted to kill, when brothers and sisters in our community and around the globe suffer from systemic poverty, when children of God are dying from starvation, dying from having to flee their homeland, dying as innocent victims of acts of terror—in the face of death’s dominion over our world we seek to distract ourselves, we simply change the channel. We ask questions like: How will this affect the stock market? Will I need to change my vacation plans? And by the way, what time is the game on tonight?
We focus on empty practicality, keeping the pain of reality at arm’s length. Maybe because we have to distract our minds from the truth. Maybe because we have to keep moving forward, maybe because we have to delay the onset of shotck. We ask our own versions of the question: “Who will roll the stone away?”
The first glimmer of hope in the story comes when they find that their practical problem has already been solved. “When they looked up, they saw that the stone…had already been rolled back?” How? When? By whom? The story doesn’t answer that question, because what matters much much more is the answer that lies inside. The truth. The promise fulfilled. The tomb is empty…except for an angelic figure with words too powerful to comprehend. “He has been raised!” the angel says. “He is not here!” He is not in the place of death anymore. He is not where we thought all our stories end. He is risen indeed!
And what did the three followers do when they heard this news? They ran home, whipped up some deviled eggs and strawberry short cake, they filled baskets with pastel colored candy, and set the table with the fine china. No. Of course not. Not on that first Easter. They stood there silent and transfixed, with mouths gaping as wide open as the tomb that they had just walked into. They stood petrified in complete shock as these words, this mystery reverberated throughout their minds and souls.
Then, the angel kept talking. With this wonderful news he gave them instructions—marching orders. Go back! Go back to the disciples. Gather together that fellowship of deserters, assemble the crowd of cowards who all fled for their lives when the going got tough. Roll those stones that have been scattered in fear back together! Call them back, and be sure to get Peter, you know, the one who vehemently denied three times that he ever knew who Jesus was. Get that fallen, fearful, failed group of followers back together. And journey together back to Galilee. Back to where this story all began. Back to where he first called them from their fishing boats and tax booths. Roll the stone of discipleship all the way back to its origin. Go back, because (in a grace that you cannot yet comprehend) he is already there, waiting on you. The adventure continues!
In light of Christ’s resurrection, the entire momentum of creation has begun to move in reverse: from death to life, stones sealed on tombs rolled back, the scattered community rolled back together, the journey of faith going back to where it all began.[i]This is the dawn of the new creation, and it does not flow in the order that we expect. The Triune God, the God of the Bible does not let our story end where we expect. This inertia of divine reversal is still at work today. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is still in the business of rolling stones back.
Our God is rolling back all the stones that we so vainly seek to set in place. Rolling back the obstacles we put in the way of our ourselves and our neighbors. The God of the resurrection is rolling back the hatred, the injustice, the exclusion, the denial of humanity that we place before those whose story is different than our own. The God of the resurrection is rolling back the fear, the worry, the disappointment the hate and resentment, when families crumble apart, when covenants are broken, betrayal is real, and the pain feels too heavy to carry. The God of the resurrection is rolling back the isolation, the loneliness, the shame and sorrow that is born by victims of terror, of violence, of bullying, of abuse. The God of the resurrection is rolling back the pride, the vanity, the arrogance, the greed that blind us with the sweet temptation of power while others suffer in oppression, scarcity, and insecurity. Our God, who raised Jesus from the dead is rolling back together the all broken and beaten, fearful and failed, shattered and scattered stones of our lives—rolling us back together and ultimately, rolling back the very dominion of death itself for each and every one of us!
The Easter answer is given: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The stones of death have been rolled back and no longer have the final word. But the Easter question still lingers: Are we willing to be rolled back as well?
[i]Ched Meyers, Binding the Strong Man, 398.