A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 16, 2017 (Easter Day)
You gotta hand it to them. When it came to rubbing out rebellion, the Romans were the gold standard of the ancient world. They did not tolerate dissent and were experts at squashing it the moment it reared its insurgent head.
In the case of this rabble rouser from Nazareth who kept stirring things up with his crazy notion of justice in the face of imperial power, everything was going according to plan. They certainly made an example out of this Jesus with his very public and brutal execution and his frightened followers had all fled. Chalk up another victory for Pax Romana and rest secure in the knowledge that this whole Jesus thing would now just die down and go away. An aberration, surely, but ultimately just more evidence that when you fought the establishment, you lost. Every single time.
The Romans were so good at this because they meticulously followed certain protocols. In such high profile cases, in addition to crucifixion — which was itself a pretty powerful deterrent to dissent — they were diligent about securing the tomb, which they did in several ways.
First, a large stone was rolled against the entrance. Second, the tomb was sealed. And finally, guards were posted outside. Those are some pretty serious security measures.
But let’s look at this for a moment. First the large stone that was rolled across the entrance — that in itself was a major stumbling block. And it shows just how silly the women were who went to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning. After all the men had fled (sorry, guys, that’s our Easter legacy), Mary Magdalene and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb not expecting a miracle but simply to honor him in death by properly and ritually anointing his body. They figured it was the least they could do for this man who had so transformed their lives.
And they weren’t engaged in any wishful thinking about this. In Mark’s gospel account of the Resurrection, they spend much of the journey wondering among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” A valid question.
But this wasn’t the only problem. We hear that the tomb was “sealed.” This doesn’t refer to some industrial-grade caulk. It was a sign of authentication that the tomb was occupied and the power and authority of Rome stood behind the seal. Anyone found breaking or tampering with the Roman seal would be put to death.
But even that wasn’t all. No, if the large stone and seal weren’t enough, there were also guards stationed at the entrance to the tomb. In fact, there may have been more than a few Roman soldiers. A “Roman Guard” referred to a 16-member unit governed by very strict rules. The guard members could not sit down or lean against anything while they were on duty. If a guard member fell asleep, he was beaten and burned. Needless to say, they were a vigilant bunch.
So to review: dead, giant boulder, sealed, soldiers. No way in, no way out. The end. But there’s a slight problem. Because we’re still here, over 2,000 years later, gathered to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Something rolled away the stone, something broke the seal, something stunned the soldiers. We hear about an earthquake but however things went down, Jesus was not inside the tomb. And suddenly everything changes.
And we start to realize that the stone, the seal, and the soldiers, weren’t breached on that first Easter morning to let Jesus out. Nothing could have stopped that. But it was to let us in. To let us in to the miracle of Christ’s resurrection; to let us in to a vision of humanity where peace, joy, and love abide; to let us in to a life where death is not the end; to let us in to a new worldview that drives out fear and ushers in hope.
And we need that hope now more than ever. Because in a world where chemical weapons are used to destroy innocent children in Syria, we need the hope of Jesus. In a world where faithful Christians in Egypt are slaughtered in their own churches on Palm Sunday, we need the hope of Jesus. In a world where the poorest among us are left to drink contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, we need the hope of Jesus.
You know, so often we act just like the Roman authorities. Trying to control every situation; trying to contain that which can never be contained; giving in to fear at the expense of spiritual freedom. The miracle of this day happens when we let go of our need to control everything in our midst. Try as we might to take every precaution, we inevitably come up short. And that’s okay. Because Jesus always helps us find a way out; Jesus breaks the seal of our captivity and shows us the way to faith, hope, and love. Every single time.
With all their precautions and protocols, the authorities had indeed made an example of Jesus. It just wasn’t the example they had envisioned. Through his glorious resurrection, Jesus became an example not of foolishness or misguided passion, but an example of peace in the face of violence; an example of mercy in the face of injustice; an example of love in the face of hate; an example of life in the face of death; an example of hope in the face of despair.
May you be inspired by the living example of Jesus Christ as you find your way into the empty tomb this Easter. And in so doing be reminded that even in the darkest moments of life, even when the world feels like it’s on the verge of destruction, hope is alive, love conquers fear, and life vanquishes even the power of death. Alleluia and Amen.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck