The Rolled Away Stone (Easter Sunday)

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The story of the Resurrection of Jesus is THE central story of our faith.  We read the story every year at Easter, and we refer back to it each and every Sunday.  It’s such a well-known story that even people who aren’t Christian and have never been in a church can probably tell you the essence of the story – that Christians believe that Jesus, who once was dead, is now alive again.

But each of our four Gospels tells the story a little bit differently.  And while the basics are the same, each has details that aren’t found in the others.

Today, we’ve read the Matthew’s story of the Resurrection of Jesus.  And Matthew mentions things that nobody else does.  For instance, Matthew alone says that:

  • There were soldiers guarding the tomb… (no other tradition says that…)
  • There was an earthquake on that Easter morning… (earthquakes aren’t unusual in that part of the world, but it’s not mentioned anywhere else);
  • The earthquake was caused by an angel who descended from heaven and rolled away the stone… (which makes Matthew the only Gospel to explain how the stone got moved – all the rest simply say the stone was already moved away when the women arrived at the tomb…)

But to me, here’s the strangest part of Matthew’s story – when the angel rolls the stone away from the tomb, Jesus doesn’t come out.  He isn’t in there! He’s already gone. He’s already been raised. 

“Come, see the place where he lay”, the angel says to the women.

And so the reason for the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb is NOT to let Jesus come out (as though maybe he needed some help!)  Instead, the point of moving the stone is to show the women what God has already done, and that Jesus is already alive again.  The stone is rolled away not for Jesus, but for his disciples.  And the empty tomb and the rolled away stone are intended to be signs of hope and new life for the followers of Jesus.

But it’s clear that in that moment, the women and the rest of the disciples didn’t quite experience it that way.  After all, the women run from the tomb with fear as well as great joy.  In fact, fear is the first emotion Matthew mentions, and it’s a common reaction across the Resurrection narratives.

And it’s not hard to understand why fear might have gotten in the way of the women experiencing pure joy and hope.  After all, the women had just:

  • Seen an angel – and angels are really scary things in the Bible (they’re not cute Hallmark cherubs); even the soldiers are paralyzed with fear, and it would be hard for anybody not to be afraid even if the angel told them not to be afraid…
  • Experienced a surreal moment – just like us, they had never experienced an angel rolling away a stone right in front of them, and it must have seemed like a scene out of the Twilight Zone!  It’s hard to feel joy and hope when what’s happening seems so surreal…
  • Looked into the empty tomb – and what they saw was emptiness, and a place of death.  That’s what tombs normally are. And it would be a while before they could look into an empty place of death, and re-imagine it as a place of hope and new life …

In the end, though, the disciples came to experience the presence of the risen Jesus in their lives.  He could appear and vanish from locked rooms and be in multiple places at once.  And it became clear that Jesus didn’t need the stone rolled away to get out of the tomb.  The rolled away stone and the empty tomb were really for his followers, to show them that hope and life win out, even over fear and death.

And as we celebrate Easter, I’m sometimes worried that we make Easter all about Jesus rising to new life.  And of course, it is about Jesus being raised from the dead!  But it’s much more than that.  We’re not just celebrating an historical event for one person.  Instead, Jesus’ Resurrection is a sign and promise of the hope and new life that God gives to each one of us through Jesus.

And so, like the rolled away stone, it’s really important, especially now, that we understand the Resurrection of Jesus as a sign of God’s promise of new life to us as well as Jesus.  It’s important that we hold on to Jesus’ Resurrection as a source of hope in the midst of chaos and confusion.  And it’s important that Jesus’ Resurrection reminds us that there is more to our future than the pain of the moment.

And as with the women at the tomb, that’s not always as easy as it sounds.  For just like them, right now we’re facing:

  • Something really frightening – a pandemic which has already killed a lot of people, and still threatens many more … and it’s hard not to be afraid, and to have that fear override everything else …
  • A surreal moment, unlike anything we’ve ever known… (part of the “Stay at home” guidance said that employers “may” want to give papers to people who must travel for essential jobs (!)…)
  • Day after day of looking at the statistics of death and living in isolation from one another… Death and emptiness are what we see, also, when we look around us…

And so this Easter, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, we need to remember that the Resurrection is a sign of new life and hope for us, just as the empty tomb and rolled away stone were for the women long ago. And we need to celebrate the Resurrection as God’s sign and promise to us, and not just as something that happened to Jesus long ago.

For Jesus’ Resurrection is the sign and the promise that Jesus is with us, even and especially when we’re feeling alone and afraid.  The Resurrection in the sign and the promise that God is bringing about new life among us, even when things seem surreal.  And the Resurrection is the sign and the promise that God’s gift of new life always wins out over the power of death.