Sunday, April 23, 2006

Who Will Roll Away The Stone: An Easter Sermon

[The women] had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Amen. Mark 16:3

This morning I invite you to linger for a moment with the image of these three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome on their way to the tomb where Jesus was buried. Imagine their grief and their despair. Jesus was a man like no other, a man who had treated them with dignity and respect. He was unafraid to be seen in the company of women – even women with a certain reputation. This was scandalous, of course, but he didn’t seem to care. He was too concerned with justice and mercy to be worried about social propriety. In a sense, he wasn’t very religious.

But then again, in another sense, he was profoundly religious. He made the presence of God palpable. There were the healings, of course, and the feedings, and the forgiveness that he offered; that was part of it. More than that, though, he made you feel like you were in a whole new world. Everything was different. You were different.

Jesus had elicited such love and loyalty from these women, who had risked a great deal to become his followers. He had changed their lives. And now he was gone. Their teacher and friend had died a horrible, dishonorable death – executed like a common criminal. The shame of it was almost unbearable. Most of the disciples had fled in fear and disgrace. Only these women remained.

It had all happened so fast, just as the Passover was about to begin, that the body had been quickly entombed. The shame of Jesus’ execution was compounded by the failure of these women to properly prepare and anoint his body for burial. His burial had been as dishonorable as his death: quickly thrown into a cave covered and with a boulder. Imagine the mixture of remorse and longing that these women felt. They only wanted to touch Jesus one last time, to accord him the respect he deserved, to say goodbye so as to bring some closure to their sense of loss.

So it with some anxiety that they ask one another in tones of desperation, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Their grief and fear and guilt are buried there with Jesus, under the weight of a stone far too large and heavy for them to move. Who will lift this burden from them?

Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, you and me: none of us are strangers to the burden of grief, and fear, and guilt. Their story is our story: it is the human story. We all push up against stones to heavy for us to move. Perhaps, like the women in Mark’s gospel, your stone is literally a grave stone, the unbearable grief of a love lost to death. Maybe your stone takes the form of fear: fear of the future, fear of dependency and limitations, fear of the things you can not control. Far too many of us are weighed down by the stones of mental and physical illness, of addiction and other diseases.

All of us carry the burden of guilt for personal wrongs we’ve done, and for those done on our behalf. We are complicit in the politics of fear and the economics of greed maintained by violence, which fuels the world’s grief and guilt. All this and more: a stone way too heavy for us to move.

Imagine, then, the women’s surprise when they come to the tomb and realize that the stone already has been rolled away for them. They enter the tomb, and discover that the body around which all their grief, and fear, and guilt was attached is gone. It has been raised up. There is no “there,” there.

This is what Resurrection is like. It is discovering that the stone that has kept you trapped has been rolled away by somebody else. It is discovering that just when you think God is dead and all is lost, you find that the tomb is empty and God is very much alive. In fact, God is way ahead of you, leaving a message to come meet up with him in Galilee.

Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, you and me: here we are at the empty tomb. Funny how God works, isn’t it? What a strange God this is, who loves us so much that he became human to bear our grief, and fear, and guilt, forcing us to see the violence and greed that structures our world and enslaves our hearts for what it is. Jesus’ Resurrection demonstrated that God is not the divine power legitimizing the world as we know it. Rather, God comes to subvert the structures of this world through a love that is willing to carry our grief and fear and guilt into the grave, so that we can be raised up into an entirely new way of being human.

James Alison describes the Resurrection in this way:

Jesus’ coming back to his disciples was the beginning of the huge cultural shift that brought into being an entirely new perception of who God is and, simultaneously, an entirely new perception of who we humans are. The apostolic witnesses began to be able to perceive that God has nothing at all to do with human violence, or the human social order that is based on human violence. Rather, God is so entirely outside that order that he is able to subvert it from within, by taking a typical human act of violence, a lynch-death, a coming together of all against one who is considered especially guilty and troublesome, and making this into the showing, the revelation of who God really is. He is not the structuring principle of human order, the prince of this world, but the purely benevolent creator of a way out of the order of this world, the self-giving victim who forgives the persecutors, permitting the construction of a non-victimary sociality. God’s goodness is shown, not in his accepting a particular human sacrifice to blot out our violence, but rather in his subversion from within of the whole of our mendacious sacrificial order by himself giving us a sacrifice, so that we need never construct our order sacrificially again.[1]

In other words, the Resurrection of Jesus always comes to us in the form of forgiveness. Like the women at the tomb, we are worried about how to push against the stone, and Jesus is saying: “I’ve already rolled the stone away. Stop worrying about that. Stop being obsessed with the death-dealing ways of this world and come join me in Galilee. We’ve got work to do. There are lots of other people still locked in the cycle of greed and violence. I need you to help me show them another way to be human through forgiveness.”

The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end here at the empty tomb with the message to go meet Jesus in Galilee. The women flee in terror and amazement. Can you blame them? Can you blame them for being afraid to tell anyone what they had seen and heard? Who would believe them?

I like the way Mark ends this gospel. I think it is true to life. For most of us, there is a gap between discovering the empty tomb and actually encountering the Risen Lord. Resurrection is a process, not an event. It took some time for the women who went to the tomb to trust their experience of the Resurrection.

We need to cut ourselves some slack in that regard too. Many of us have gotten quite comfortable pushing up against our own stones. We have become quite attached to our grief, and our fear, and our guilt. We rather like Jesus remaining in the tomb so that we can just avoid the whole business of forgiveness and transformation. Eventually, though, pushing against the stone gets tiresome.

If you are tired of pushing against the stone, I invite you to come to this table to meet the Risen Lord who has rolled it away already. He comes to us in the form of bread and wine, the very stuff of life, which when shared in community becomes the risen body of Christ – risen in all of us together. He comes as forgiveness, the opportunity to begin anew, and he comes to set us free from our burdens so that we can share that forgiveness with others. It really is a quite different and better way to live.

So don’t just sit there gaping at the empty tomb. Jesus has already gone ahead to meet us in the future of joy and justice and generosity that he has prepared. Let us go to meet him. He’s waiting. Amen.

[1] James Alison, “Being Saved and Being Wrong,” at

No comments: