SEALED IN THE TOMB?
When Jesus first shows up on the public scene at age 30, life is grand. He is healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes, defying nature and encouraging the love of God. Great stuff...people are happy. But gradually, over the three-year span of his ministry, people begin to see that this Jesus has an edge.
The religious leaders are the first to notice. They are angry because he won't abide by the religious law and is teaching thousands of people all this dangerous stuff....that doing what is right is more important than doing what is legal...that forgiveness and mercy are better than punishment...and that heretics who act with love are going to get into God's kingdom faster than those who believe all the right things but have no works to back it up. If they let him keep it up, they will have anarchy on their hands and their power will be gone.
The rest of the people are happy longer, but eventually they too are upset. They want a political savior, not a spiritual one. Israel in Jesus' day is an occupied country, and they want somebody to pull together an army to overthrow Rome. That is why they cheered as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and his refusal to do it is why they became angry enough to kill him. The two factions come together at the end. Betrayed by one of his own disciples, Jesus is subjected to a mockery of a trial, verbal and physical abuse, and finally an execution so inhumane it was against the law to crucify a Roman citizen.
At last this trouble-making Jesus was dead. The soldiers had verified that he was dead by lancing his side with a spear, and his body had been taken down and placed in a tomb. But the Pharisees were nervous. Jesus had predicted he would rise from the dead after three days. What if his followers came and stole the body and then went around telling people he had risen from the dead? Better to see the matter through and be very sure this Jesus' incident is over. So they go to Pilate and ask for a guard of soldiers to secure the tomb. They get their soldiers, they roll the stone in front of the entrance to seal Jesus inside the tomb, and post an armed watch.
It's easy for us to look back and say, "Poor little Pharisees...didn't they know they couldn't seal up the power of God with a rock and a few guards?" But to think that way is to be blind to our own nature. The struggle between the Pharisees bent on keeping Jesus in the tomb and God bent on getting him out has been going on now for some 2,000 years, and the struggle continues today. We keep on trying to keep Jesus in the tomb, and God keeps letting Him out.
I believe our tomb today is the Church, and people both within and without have a vested interest in sealing Jesus into that tomb and keeping him there. The world outside the church, for the most part, is happy to have Jesus in the neighborhood, just so long as he stays put inside the church and doesn't go spreading any of his hair-brained ideas out and about in the community.
Think about it. How would our economy survive if people stopped buying what they didn't need, or if they shared their wealth instead of hoarding it? The stock market is still bullish compared to the effect that living the economics of Jesus would have on the country. I am absolutely serious about that. Christian faith, as Jesus taught it and as the earliest Christians lived it, is a threat to every system of power.
The foundation on which our entire economy is built is greed. The countries of sub- Saharan Africa spend more each year repaying debt than on all primary education and health care. In Tanzania, where 40 percent of the population dies before the age of 35, the government spends nine times more on foreign debt repayment than on health care. Forgive us our debts? A Jesus that is allowed to escape from the Church would mean economic collapse. Thomas Jefferson said, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." Post a guard at the doors, don't let him out!
But it isn't just the world outside the church that wants to seal the tomb. At some level, we are all much more comfortable with a Jesus who will stay where we put him and do what we say. As long as we know where he is, we're fine. We'll come and visit the grave every Sunday as long as he will not follow us out and interfere with our lives Monday through Saturday.
Why if Jesus were allowed out of the Church, we wouldn't be able to live the way we want. Things might be expected of us. Instead of just praying to God to give us things or to help us in distress, we might have to be a part of our own answered prayers. Or worse, we might have to go help answer the prayers of others. We might have to associate with people who we don't like. We might have to rescue people that we think deserve their punishment.. We might have to change. For God's sake...seal the tomb! Support the church...keep it going, just don't open the doors and let Him out!
Welcome to the fearful, joyous, terrible, wonderful news of Easter morning. He's escaped! Jesus, stubborn as always, refused to stay dead. More than that, he refused to stay in the tomb. Jesus does not rise from the dead then whip out his cell phone and call the disciples to come to the tomb for a resurrection party. He's up...He's outta here. When the women come on Easter morning, they don't witness the resurrection. It has already happened. They find the graveclothes in a heap and Jesus is gone. Where? The angels tell them He has gone ahead of them to Galilee. He is back about his business of spreading the Good News of God's scandalous love. He is out and about and bids us to follow.
So what does that mean? Should we demolish the tomb and forget about Church? No... the tomb still has a critically important function, it's just a different function than it used to be. The proclamation of the Christian faith is that Jesus has changed the very nature of death, and therefore the nature of the tomb. It is no longer the place to seal in the dead. This is the resurrection place.
When I talk about Church as the resurrection place, I am not just referring to the life after death that we proclaim at funerals. That is part of its meaning, but is not nearly all of it. What Jesus made available to us is not just eternal life after physical death, but a brand-spanking-new spiritual life here and now. We are more than the sum of our body parts, genes, and hormones. We have soul and spirit and an energy that allows us to connect with things beyond ourselves. When your soul or spirit reaches out and meets the world-creating, star-throwing, sea-roaring energy of God, your life will change forever... starting now and never ending.... Life is so different it seems looking back that life before wasn't really life but death. And so we talk of spiritual rebirth, of resurrection, and it is the job of the church to provide a sacred space in the world where that can happen.
Typically we evaluate a church by the programs it has, the budget it supports, the numbers it attracts in worship, the style of the worship services. People pick a church because they like the music or the Sunday School program or they leave because the style of worship is too traditional or too contemporary or because the pastor or programs didn't meet their needs. Well, all of those things are important, but they are important only insofar as they serve the function of resurrection.
The sole purpose of the Church is to bring the dead to life and then to send those resurrected people out in service to the world. When we plan what happens in our worship services, the ONLY relevant question is, "Will it bring the dead to life?" Will worship in this way allow people to encounter the living God? All else is secondary and can come and go with the wind. This is the resurrection place.
And when it happens, when the dead are raised, they're outta here. Like Jesus, a resurrected Church goes back out into the world to tell everybody the good news that this greed-driven rat race that we are taught to live is not the only way. There is another. The tomb has a place and a purpose, but the central proclamation of our faith is that the tomb is not where we are meant to stay. We do not come here to reverence the dead body of Jesus. We come here to give up our dead body and to be given a new life that is a channel of the very power of God.
As disciples of Jesus, we follow Him into the tomb in death and then we follow Him right back out again transformed, renewed, alive. That is the true experience of Church. We come here, and if the proclamation is true, we face all that is dead about us. That's not comfortable. God forbid that the church should become the comfortable place where things always stay the same. That is completely opposed to our mission. Let me tell you, when Jesus gets loose in a church...nothing but nothing stays the same. Ask the Pharisees. Ask the disciples just how comfortable and unchanging their lives were. If the church is being the church, it will make us uncomfortable, and it will force us to change.
It is here that we face the news that we are dead, and we grieve, we argue with God, we rebel against the news. But finally, we admit that what we have is an empty shell. And in that moment...in the moment when we say to God... OK, I admit it, my life means nothing and is going nowhere except round and round on an ever-faster hamster wheel... in the moment when we say with both heart and mouth, take this shell, God, and do with it as you will.... the earth shakes, the stone is rolled away, and we are alive as never before running out to tell the good news. He is risen! I am risen! You can be, too!
That's all there is to say on Easter, or on any day really. It's all I care about. My prayer for this church is that it be the resurrection place. I want every person who walks through these doors to have the opportunity to meet the God who has given me the only life worth living. Because in the moment of that meeting... the breath of God will blow into your lungs a life like you have never known. Whether we shout and dance or kneel and pray; whether we sing or chant or swing from the balcony makes not the first bit of difference. The only thing that matters in the world is that you come to know and love the God who made you. The God who came to earth as a man named Jesus. The God who conquered death so that our tomb could be the beginning rather than the end.
It's a very strange message, to be sure. But across 2,000 years of concerted effort to seal the tomb and guard the door, it has not only endured, but has spread to all the world. Do you need to live again? Have you been sealed in the tomb of a pointless life? Look up and meet the God of Life. This is the resurrection place. Come inside. Wrap up your old life in graveclothes and give it to God and then watch the door to your tomb open to a bright new dawn.
As for St. John's... He is risen. The door is blown off the hinges. My apologies to those who would like it otherwise, but Jesus is on the loose. He is risen and has gone on ahead of us to Galilee. Well... what are you waiting for?
(c) 2001, Anne Robertson
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