Matthew 27:57-28:15, Easter, April 16, 2017
More than 25 years ago I had a conversation that gave me a totally new perspective. A seasoned, respected, long-serving Presbyterian minister and I were talking about funerals. He said he always stays in the cemetery until the coffin has been placed in the ground. At that point in my career I never did that. Why would I want to stand around in a cemetery? It struck me as a complete waste of time.
But then my colleague said that in his nearly 50 years of ministry he had had two people come to talk to him months after a loved one had died who said, “Pastor, I just cannot accept that my mother is gone. It doesn’t feel real to me.”
And he said to both of these people. “I stayed at the graveside until the coffin was in the ground. I saw it myself.” That little reassurance helped both these women begin to accept the death of their mother, and begin a process of healing. The reality of death, their pastor’s reassurance, was the first step toward acceptance.
Ever since that conversation I have been among the last people to leave a burial. No one has ever asked me for the reassurance that burial would give them. But I’ll be ready if that ever happens.
There is no resurrection without death. Making sure at the burial makes is possible for some people to begin the journey toward the comfort of the resurrection faith of Christians.
I was thinking about that conversation when I looked at the gospel lessons for this morning. The story in the readings today picks up on Friday, late in the afternoon. After Jesus had been abandoned by his disciples, a wealthy man named Joseph, one of the respected leaders, but also a secret follower of Jesus, asked Pilate to bury Jesus. The Sabbath was approaching, and once it started at sundown, the work of caring for a corpse would be forbidden.
Joseph wrapped the body and put it in his own tomb and rolled a stone in front of it.
The next day, members of the same leadership council as Joseph, went to Pilate, the governor, to remind him that Jesus, whom they called “this impostor,” had said “After three days I will rise again.” They asked Pilate to make the tomb secure for three days so there could be funny business, so the impostor’s disciples could not steal the body and claim “Christ is risen.”
Pilate told them to make the tomb as secure as they could. It did not say how many guards were posted at the tomb, but the rock that Joseph had rolled in front of the tomb on Friday afternoon was sealed on Saturday.
Thursday morning I noticed something amazing, at least it was amazing to me: Every Sunday this year we have read from Matthew’s gospel in worship. That’s 16 weeks in a row we have heard Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry. And even before then, in December we heard the story of an angel appearing to Joseph and telling him not to dismiss Mary, but to go ahead and marry her as planned. Clear back on January 1, we heard about the angel who warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt and escape from Herod, after the magi had brought their gifts to baby Jesus.
And today we are at the end of the story and Matthew tells about another angel who came to the sealed tomb where Jesus’ body had been hastily buried. This angel rolled the stone away from the tomb. This angel’s appearance was so scary that the soldiers who were guarding the tomb froze. This angel appeared to two women named Mary who had gone to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week. This angel spoke to the women. The first thing the angel said was, “Don’t be afraid.”
Angels say this a lot. That’s what the angel who appeared to the shepherds said, right before and army of angels appeared in the sky, the night of Jesus’ birth. Angels are scary-looking, powerful, awesome beings. This angel was strong enough to roll the stone away from the sealed tomb. The angel told Mary and Mary to look at the tomb, to see that Jesus was not there. Then the angel instructed them to tell the disciples that Christ is risen. And they should go to Galilee where Jesus will appear to them.
Each of the gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke, and John has its own account of Jesus’ life. There are differences among them, though all tell the same basic story; they differ from each other. Each tells the story from a unique perspective. Matthew is alone in telling the story about the Pharisees and chief priests going to Pilate and asking him to seal the tomb.
The word “seal” really has two meanings. First it is like sealing a door or window, making it impermeable, like weather stripping. But there’s another sense to the seal. Back when people wrote letters they would write “SWAK” on the envelope for “sealed with a kiss.” And documents are sealed showing that they are authentic. A few months ago I had to get a paper notarized; that is sealed.
In the case of Joseph’s tomb, where Jesus’ body was laid, it was sealed both ways. There could be no doubt about this burial. The tomb was sealed and then guarded.
I think it’s really interesting that it was the religious leaders of the people, who opposed Jesus, who had him executed, they were the ones who remembered that he had said that he would rise after three days. Jesus’s disciples didn’t believe that! They had all scattered by Friday afternoon, abandoning their teacher and friend. Jesus told them plainly, repeatedly, what was coming, but still they denied even knowing him.
The tomb was sealed, just as the Pharisees and chief priests had sealed Jesus’ fate on the night when Jesus was betrayed.
There could be no doubt. There would be no trickery. The disciples couldn’t get passed the guards, and the tomb was sealed anyway. They made sure that this irritant to the religious and Roman authorities would not be a problem anymore.
The Mary’s saw the angel. The Mary’s saw the guards frozen with fear. The angel told them to see the empty tomb for themselves, then to go hurriedly and tell the disciples. And it says, they left the tomb quickly with great fear and joy. They had seen and heard the angel. They saw that their friend and savior was not in the tomb, they turned to tell the disciples, then Jesus himself appeared to them!
Then the story takes an interesting turn. While Mary and Mary race off to tell the disciples that Christ is risen. Some of the guards went to the city and told the chief priests what had happened. They had been frozen with fear, but apparently they had seen everything.
While the women went to share the best imaginable news. The guards went to tell the chief priests and elders that Christ had broken out of the tomb they had sealed and guarded.
And isn’t it interesting that the religious leaders gave a bribe to the soldiers so they would tell the governor, if he asked, that Jesus’ disciples had come and stolen the body at night. You’d think they’d get in trouble for not keeping the disciples from breaking into the tomb, and sleeping on the job, but no, the religious leaders knew they would get in more trouble if they confirmed the resurrection. They knew it was real. They knew that Christ is risen as surely Mary and Mary and the disciples did.
They kept that news, the greatest news of all time, sealed away. They held onto the illusion of death and did not trust the joy of resurrection.
We have that same choice today. Do we let death and despair, trouble and worry keep us from trusting the good news? Do we forget to look up to see the miracle of new life offered to us every day? We’ll be in the Season of Easter for another seven weeks. Maybe the news won’t hit you all at once. Maybe you’ll need some time to recognize, appreciate and trust the depth of God’s love for you. It is a lot to grasp at once. But it’s real. And it’s out in the world. Death could not keep our savior sealed in a tomb. No, no, friends Christ is risen!