Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Why is the Stone Rolled Away?

Welcome Happy morning!  It is wonderful to gather in our beautiful church to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord.  While it is always a joy to leave behind the rigors of Lent and let forth Alleluias once again, this year brings a special sense of relief for those of us who may need to brush up on our general knowledge of all things religious.  You see, at our weekly Lenten Pot-Luck dinners we had fun playing different game shows: Family Feud, The Pyramid, The Newlywed Game, Jeopardy, and Kahoots.  Each night, while intended to be enjoyable, tested what we know of the bible, the Christian faith, church history, and the Episcopal Church.  The results?  Well, if God evaluates parish priests the way the Commonwealth evaluates teachers based on how their students’ performed on the SOLs, I am in serious trouble.  Let’s just say I should plan on a long-term booking at an extended stay in Purgatory!

On this morning I filled with Easter hope I want to double down.  Based on how well you all answer one simple question, either the penalty for my instructional deficiencies will be forgiven or multiplied.  So please listen closely, take this seriously, make your mark with a #2 pencil, and do your best.  Are you ready?  Here is the question:

Why was the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb rolled away?

Not how, but why?

The answer might seem obvious.  It was rolled away so the Risen Christ could get out.  But before you check this box, let’s take a look at what the bible has to say.  Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written.  Listen to its record:

Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, [a group of women] went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him. 

Lets make a list of the details we find in this account.

· It is early in the morning on the first day of the week.

· A group of women is going to Jesus’ tomb.

· They are anxious about the stone.

· They find the tomb open.

· They enter it, see a young man sitting inside, and are terrified.

· The young man tells them Jesus is risen and encourages them to look around the tomb to see it no longer contains his body.

Luke’s Gospel was written after Mark’s.  Sometimes he draws from it directly, other times he adds new material, and still others he augments Mark’s record:

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified.

Again we find it is early morning on the first day of the week.  Again, a group of women is going to the tomb.  Luke adds they are carrying burial spices to put on the body.  There is no mention of them being concerned about the stone.  They find the tomb open and enter it.  Jesus’ body is not there.  Luke tells us two men appear beside them and they respond to this with great fear.

John’s Gospel was the last to be written and while it contains a historical record, he was more concerned with meaning than accuracy.  John often arranges events to demonstrate a truth rather than to be a strictly true account of what happened.  Here is what John says:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 

John sets these events even earlier in the morning – before sunrise – and identifies only one woman going to the tomb.  There is no mention she is anxious about the stone sealing it.  When she gets to the tomb it is open.  The text does not indicate she goes inside and she concludes Jesus’ body has been removed and taken to a different location.  There is no one is else present to explain to her what has happened. 

So far we find no direct answer why the stone is rolled away, but it still appears it has been moved so the Risen Christ can get out.  There is one small problem with this choice.  The biblical record indicates Jesus’ resurrected body appears in rooms with locked doors and disappears time and again as mysteriously as he enters.  His body is no longer inhibited by physical barriers.  The implication is staggering: the stone blocking the opening of the tomb could not and would not prevent the resurrected Christ from leaving.  So why was it moved?

We have one more Gospel to help us.  Matthew, like Luke, draws from Mark’s account.  Like Luke, he copies parts, adds parts, and augments parts.  Listen to Matthew’s description of what happens:

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

Matthew has the same time and day as the others.  He has a group of women.  There is no mention of their being anxious about the stone.  He adds the new detail of soldiers guarding the tomb.  But his most startling addition involves the women and soldiers witnessing an angel descend from heaven who causes something like an earthquake and rolls back the stone. The guards are the ones who are terrified.  The angel announces the tomb is empty and invites to women to enter in to see for themselves.

Matthew’s Gospel is the only one recording the tomb is already empty when the stone is rolled away.  The other three do not address the matter directly, but leave open the possibility this is how it happened.  The implication and answer to our question is this: The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out, but rather to allow the women (and other subsequent visitors) to enter in to see for themselves it is empty.

Easter, for Jesus’ followers, begins with an empty tomb.  There is much confusion and a good deal of fear as what has happened.  In the biblical record not a single one of Jesus’ closest followers believes he is risen until they meet him face-to-face.  The empty tomb raises profound questions and concerns that are settled only by meeting the Resurrected Christ.

Today, nearly 2,000 years later, the stone is rolled away from the tomb and you and I are invited to look inside.  We are invited to see Jesus’ crucified body is no longer there.  And we are invited anew to ponder what has happened and what it means.  May the Risen Christ be manifested to each of us so we can experience anew the miraculous power of the Resurrection and Easter faith in our lives. 

The stone has been rolled away so you can look in and see the tomb is empty.