Rolling Away the Stone


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

April 1, 2018

Texts: Psalm 116; Mark 16:1-8

      Although farming in New England and even in certain parts of New Jersey can be tough because of the rocks and large boulders that seem to litter the ground, it is nothing compared to the landscape and topography of Palestine. As I looked out from the car window riding from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I kept thinking, people are fighting over this?

       Coming into Jerusalem, you can see the hills and mountains that make up this central part of the country. The Canaanites who first established the city must have chosen the location because the rocky hill is almost impregnable built on the large boulders that serve as the foundation of the ancient buildings that once existed. And when you see the size of those boulders you have to wonder how anyone ever got them up there without our modern construction equipment.

       The ancient world used boulders and large stones and rocks not only in the construction of cities but also in the construction of their tombs. Many tombs were rock-cut tombs, some with elaborate facades but most were sealed with a rock slab over the opening of the tomb. When a person died, the body was laid out on a stone bench. After a period of time, sufficient to allow the body to disintegrate, the bones were then washed and placed in an ossuary, a small stone storage box.

       The Jews buried their dead promptly. The eyes of the deceased were closed and the body was then washed and bound in linen cloth before being placed on the stone bench in the tomb. The body was anointed with spices and oils to reduce the smell and then the body was placed in the stone bench.

       The Church of the Holy Sepulchre actually houses three small edifices inside this monstrously large building the size of a full New York City block and then some. Like the Church of the Nativity just a little more than five miles away, this site is shared between several Christian denominations. It serves as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, with separate altars for Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Orthodox as well as one for the Roman Catholics.

        Originally constructed as a small church by Con-stantine in the fourth century over the site of the rock-cut cave, which had been desecrated by the Emperor Hadrian with a temple for Venus, it was connected to another basilica identified as Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, both of which were outside the walls of the first-century city.

        As in Old Testament times, Judea was invaded by yet another king, Khosrau II, in 614 who supposedly captured what Constantine’s mother Helena identified as the “true cross.” But because empires or their rulers didn’t last very long, the city was recaptured by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclitus in 630 and the churches were restored. Seeing that he had little recourse if he wanted to keep his own kingdom, Khosrau’s son Kavadh II executed his own father to get a peace treaty with the Byzantines. Nothing like family loyalty among monarchs. As an aside, Heraclitus is also remembered as making Greek the language of the Eastern Empire.

         When the Muslim Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem about twenty years later, he stopped at the site of the church to pray and decreed that the Christians would have freedom to worship at their churches as they wanted. This peace between the two religions, how-ever, lasted only a little more than 150 years when Muslim rulers began a campaign of forced conversions and de-struction of Christian holy places.

        That campaign led to the crusades of the next several hundred years during which time the Jews were blamed for everything that went wrong in what came to be called the Holy Land. The Byzantine and the Fatimid empires began a series of negotiations which allowed for the construction of a huge basilica combined with a reinstallation of the tomb and a plaque locating Golgotha. By this time the city had been built over many times so that the present level walked today is about fifteen to twenty feet over the first century city.

        Hadrian had constructed his temple to Venus at the beginning of the second century because Christians began coming to the site known as the tomb of Joseph of Arima-thea. He actually did not seek out Christians but only if they committed some “illegal act.” The temple to Venus was his way to stop the pilgrimages.

         After this little lesson in history, what do we actually know about that first day of the week when the women came to the tomb wondering who would roll away the stone and found that the tomb was already open? What do we know?  What does our faith tell us? Those are really two separate questions.

        The tradition is strong that the women came to the tomb. More than one Gospel attests to the story that the tomb was indeed empty. Paul, of course, that old miso-gynist, did not include the Easter story of the women as he spoke of the resurrected Lord appearing to him and to others. To be fair to him, he was more concerned with the changes that Jesus, the Christ would make for our lives. And perhaps that’s what we should be concerned about as well.

        There was a time when I was caught up in the differ-ences between the Gospel narratives, whether there was one young man dressed in white as the passage from Mark states, called an angel in Matthew, or two men in dazzling clothes as in Luke, or only the linen wrappings as in John’s Gospel. That’s what happens when you are raised to believe Scripture in the most literal way as I was.

        However, considering how the events of whatever happened on the day we call Easter were handed down for at least 40 or so years before being set down to paper, those differences become irrelevant compared to the power of the risen Christ in our own lives for that is where Resur-rection really matters: Jesus of Nazareth has become Christ our Lord enabling us to roll our own stones away.

        For it is the stones that cover the tombs we often find ourselves in that need to be rolled away. It was the exper-ience the disciples of a risen Christ in their lives that gave them the courage to take on the Roman Empire and its preoccupation with power and control, with money and wealth, with the destruction of anyone who stood in its way. It was the experience of a risen Christ that trans-formed the persecutor Saul into Paul the apostle who work-ed tirelessly to spread the good news of God’s new world. And it is our experience of the risen Christ in our lives that enables us to roll away the stones of our past that have bound us.

        So much of the world lives in the tomb and there are times when we feel entombed as well. We feel trapped by old dilemmas, unresolved griefs, and anger at events be-yond our control. I’m not saying that our faith will give us desired answers to all our problems, but our faith does enable us to open our minds to new ways of thinking, new approaches, and the transformation of our lives.

         Our faith allows us to face the challenges that we experience by coming out of the tombs we have created for ourselves. It moves us beyond the fatalism of thinking that nothing can or will change, either in our lives or in society. Those early Christians were no different than us, just set in a society in another time.

         The Roman Empire was just as power and money hungry as is our own day. When they decided that their allegiance was first to God rather than to the state and its declared priorities, they faced persecution. The same is true today.

         Our faith tells us that God and the good news – that’s what the word Gospel means – of God’s kingdom declared by Jesus of Nazareth is a reality, not some nice little dream like clouds in the sky. The Lord’s Prayer, which we will say together this morning, makes it clear: Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

         When we roll away the stone of feeling nothing will change, then we come out of our tombs into the morning of God’s promise. That promise is not that God will change everything with a thunderbolt like Zeus in Disney’s Fantasia, but that God will be our strength and stay, as it says in the old hymn, that God will be with us as we faithfully live to bring the kingdom to reality.

         We see signs of the possibilities all around us. After the tragedy of Parkland, we see young people being the inspiration for us adults with the cry of “Enough!” In spite of its money, JCP&L lost its bid to destroy this community with towers twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. There are other areas where we, strengthened by our faith, continue to expand God’s promise to all: A change in state govern-ment resulted in our re-joining the regional environmental compact on emissions, protection for the Pinelands, funding for women’s health services, and strong support for the rights of all persons.

         We also need to roll away the stones that serve as impediments to our faith. We cannot do this alone or in isolation. That is the meaning of the church as community, people who come together to share fears as well as hopes, despair as well as dreams. The Lord’s Supper which we have before us this Easter morning is more than just a symbol of our faith. It is an act of community, an act of sharing our common humanity.

         In Luke, it is told that in the evening of the day we now celebrate, Jesus walked with two men on the way to Emmaus who did not recognize him. But when he broke the bread, they realized he was indeed the risen Christ. In our sharing this meal before us, we recognize the risen Christ not just as an ephemera but in the flesh and blood of our brothers and sisters here with us. In this way we roll away the stone of separation from one another. In this way we experience the risen Christ in our lives.

         Let us pray: We come to you, O God, who in your grace offers us a new vision of ourselves and the world through Jesus of Nazareth, now become Christ our Lord. Amen.