THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Tombstone for Mr. Jesus
Our world is filled with signs. There are store signs and billboards. There are utility poles covered with staples where yard sale and lost dog signs once hung. The season of political signs is over, although one or two remain, gloating. There are historical markers for a variety of places and events. Of course there are traffic signs. They come in a variety of colors: brown for attractions, green for directions, orange for construction, blue for medical facilities.
Then there are the informal markers along side the roads. Usually a cross with a name on it and perhaps some artificial flowers. There are lots of these roadside memorials for victims of traffic accidents. The markers not only memorialize the dead loved one, they mark the location where their life ended. While not really legal, most of the time the road crews are careful of the memorials for an considerate amount of time.
There is something about grief that often requires actions like the roadside memorials. Outpourings of grief take tangible form when someone important dies. Impromptu memorials pop up as people, often strangers, express their feelings. Much of the pavement at the main gateway of London’s Buckingham Palace was covered with flowers, stuffed animals, notes, and other things when Princess Diana died in the Paris auto accident twenty years ago this coming August. Daily U. S. Park Service attendants remove, catalogue, and store the items that family, friends, and total strangers leave at the base of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
We don’t know if the two Marys were bringing flowers or other things to mark the tomb where Jesus had been interred quickly late Friday afternoon. They could well have been going to finish the burial preparations which Joseph of Arimathea had hurriedly taken begun before the sundown began the Sabbath. All the resurrection stories in the gospel have different details describing the one event on which they all agree: Jesus is not in the tomb. He has been raised.
The responses vary. There is fear. There is disbelief. There is confusion. In Matthew’s account both the angel and risen Jesus himself tell the women, “Don’t be afraid.”
Fear. People who study human psychology tell us that the part of the brain which is the oldest in terms of specie development and individual development is the part which processes fear. Whether the fear is real or imagined, it all happens in split seconds of mental processing. Fight or flee. Faster than it takes to say “fight or flee” adrenalin races through our systems and our heart’s pulse rate revs up considerably.
At a distance of space and time, and having heard the story so many times, we don’t experience what the women and the others who came to the might have felt. The bright music, the colorful flowers, the rest of the commercial Easter goodies might give us a little boost, but nothing like those who first found the tomb empty and heard the news.
The women didn’t know what to think. We don’t either, but that’s because we are trying to dissect the details with our heads. The women were using their hearts, their souls, their spirits to figure out the resurrection. The first fear for them would be that someone had taken Jesus’ body. Matthew notes that tomb had been sealed and guarded.
When the guards reported what had happened, the chief priests told them to lie and cover up the resurrection by saying that the disciples came in night while the guard was sleeping. There was fear that someone was going to try to make something out what Jesus had promised, that he would rise.
No one reports what Pilate might have thought when he heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Since Matthew had reported that Pilate’s wife had told him in the midst of the trial to leave Jesus alone, she might have said to him, “I told you so.”
In the midst of all this fear and confusion, the resurrection happened. Adam Erikson says that Jesus resurrection was dangerous.(1) That would add an entirely different kind of fear to the mix. If Jesus was raised, what would happen next?
People kept thinking that Jesus was going to be a military messiah who would lead an armed revolt against Roman occupation. A lot of people kept hoping that he would. While that was a concern of the religious authorities, they observed that the revolt he seemed to lead was one of love and grace and of words and action against the established system of religious expression which they managed. That had been their chief fear.
Now the resurrection came along and it was dangerous because it transformed how people related to each other, particularly enemies. Jesus’ resurrection also transformed our understanding of the divine.
Resurrection was a whole new concept. Yes, there had been miraculous healings from time to time, even before Jesus came along. As the man born blind said about his newly-gained sight, no one has ever healed someone born blind. For the gospel writer John, the final sign of Jesus’ ministry was raising Lazarus. It was a foretaste of what would very soon happen to Jesus.
In a number of ancient mythologies a god dies and then comes back with the purpose of revenge. One such myth is about an Egyptian god named Horus, who is portrayed as a good god that fought against the forces of evil, namely, an evil god named Set, who had killed Horus’s father, a god named Osirus. Fortunately, Horus and his mother were able to resurrect Osirus. But the question remained, what should they to do about Set?
The resurrected Osirus asked Horus a question, “What is the most glorious deed a man can perform?” Horus answered, “To take revenge upon one who has injured his father or mother.” Horus defeated Set in violent battle and was acclaimed to be “lord of all the earth.”(2)
That’s how humans react. Tit for tat, an eye for an eye, a life for a life, or more likely many lives for a few lives. We are good at revenge, but not so good at resurrection. The disciples were afraid that since one had betrayed him and other denied him and the rest abandoned him, a risen Jesus would be after them for revenge.
The resurrection of Jesus is very different. The risen Jesus did not seek revenge against his enemies. The resurrection of Jesus is the Good News that God isn’t out for revenge. Rather, Jesus was raised to reveal God’s radical offer of peace and forgiveness. Remember his parting words to the disciples, as John reported them: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Do not be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27closeAn error occurred.).
The trouble with a risen Jesus is that he is dangerous to our notions of life. We keep wanting to bury him and to put a tombstone over him to keep him from messing with our lives. We are willing one day a year to put up with the idea that Jesus was raised. But then we want him back in the tomb, out of the way.
Jesus will have no tombstone. We are stuck with a tombstone for Mr. Jesus. He doesn’t need it and he doesn’t want it. Where we need to put the tombstone is on violence. Jesus did not answer the ultimate violence with violence. His very presence in the world for three years was a living conquest of sin. His resurrection was a radical but peaceful conquest of death.
When we believe, really believe, in the resurrection of Jesus, when we allow it to change the internal core of our lives, when we allow it to redirect the way we relate to people close to us and to total strangers, immigrants of the world passing through our life moments, when we allow Jesus’ resurrection to alter our thoughts about God, that God loves us rather than merely puts up with us, that God calls each one of us to direct relationship to God through Christ and the Spirit, then we can throw away the tombstone we have reserved for Mr. Jesus. He is not there. He has been raised. He lives, and we can be living proof because he lives in us.