Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Stone Unmoved

The Stone Unmoved
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 31, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 20: 1-18 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I'm going to take a few liberties here, so please indulge me. Here is a reading from a book by some guy name John.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was still in place. It was unmoved, so she went to find someone to help her roll the stone away, so that she could anoint His body with the oils she had brought. She could not have done it yesterday because it was the Sabbath. She found two Roman Centurions and they helped her move the stone. She entered the tomb, and found his body, beaten, pierced, blood let, and dry from dehydration. She did her work and then returned to her world unchanged, and her life no different, and her heart still a stone unmoved.

This is not the word of the Lord. . . Thanks be to God.

It's not the word of the Lord, but it is what "should" have happened, and certainly what "would" have happened, was there not truth, was Jesus not Christ, was God not supreme in the world He created, even over what seems so final to us, death, and was the world not created in love, with love, for love, and by love. But how often do we live in the world that "should" be and "would" have been, instead of the world that is? Do we even almost 2000 years since Jesus was raised, take for granted what Easter means? Has it lost its power to us? Does what is real seem unreal? Do we again believe the lie, missing the truth because the false apparent seems like it surrounds us completely? What would our world be like if Mary found the stone unmoved? Sometimes you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. . . to quote the Cinderella Song, so let's this morning for a moment imagine the stone was not rolled away, and that what we celebrate on this wonderful and beautiful holiest of days never actually happened.
If there was no resurrection of Christ, what would our world be like? Obviously the first difference would be that death would not have been defeated. The grave would still reign in this world. It would not necessarily prove that God isn't powerful over death, just that Jesus wasn't. For, yes we would certainly question the Christness of Jesus. Could he be the Messiah without conquering death? He certainly did not conquer Rome, which is what many were expecting him to do. What is Jesus without Easter? Even if he did raise Lazarus, and raised a little girl, if he couldn't raise himself is all lost? Is all of it a lie? Because at least this was a lie. For Jesus said he would be raised, multiple times, and aggressively so, check out Matthew 16:21-28:

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [1]  

He does it repeatedly, again and again, whether it's talking explicitly about being raised from the dead or symbolically about tearing down the temple and building it back three days later. If he is not raised from the dead, at least this part of what he is saying becomes a lie. And why the lie? Does Jesus not have the power? Does he misunderstand his mission, his purpose, his identity? Is he overall a fraud?  These are the questions, because these are the questions that history will ask him, and his followers if he has any left (Time out: They ask them now don't they and there are witnesses to his being raised. Time In). And what do they mean when they ask, what is their agenda when they ask? Now that they've attacked the man, they next go for the message and try to destroy it. It's the way our world works. Hypocrisy, fraud, lying: It takes down the greatest of men. People use it to challenge their message. Critics of The Civil Rights Movement brought up Martin Luther King's infidelity, how can a man of God commit such sin, does that mean that his work for civil rights isn't real. Thomas Jefferson's slave holding, how can such a man write about all men being created equal, having the inalienable right of liberty? So Imagine how they will come for Christ and his message. Would they go straight for the sermon on the mount? Maybe the parables? But the crux of it would be, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Guess not. I guess that everlasting life thing is out, but would it just the life part, or the God loving the world part, as well? What exactly again are we supposed to believe in?
Because that is part of the question, one of the things we take for granted, but certainly comes from the credibility of Jesus' message. The entire world beloved of God, not just one chosen people, these are some of the things we wouldn't know. What about things like loving  your neighbor as yourself? Sure the concept of reciprocity is found in other philosophies, it's there in the Analects of Confucius, though typically translated "never do to another something you would not like them to do to you." There is a slight difference, not doing, rather than the mandate to actively love. Sure but what is love without a resurrected Jesus? Is it just a self indulgent emotion, or a second hand emotion, as Tina Turner sang, what's love got to do with it anyway? Love can be mushy and emotional, but it misses the power and the strength of truth, the power and the strength of being the fabric of the world. It's just like any other part of life, finite, mortal, destined to die.
Now what if the message somehow did stand up. Maybe the disciples or others were good enough salesmen to keep the message going without the resurrection. Maybe the teachings were good enough news for the poor that they would still resonate throughout the centuries. Without the resurrection though, what separates the Christian philosophy from others? I started thinking that I would compare this resurrectionless Christianity to other philosophies, but when I started to try, I couldn't decide which parts of Jesus' teachings would be left after the ideas of Resurrection were gone. So many of them are tied to God having the power over death. Without it we are left with a couple of Roman Philosophies, just with a slightly different moral code holding it up. What's left is just classic Stoicism, a philosophy built on the basis that life on this Earth is it. Stoics believed in living virtuously with no hope for reward, virtue itself is the reward. You just now assume Jesus' definition of virtue, self sacrifice and living for the other, but there is no how for reward, and I don't just mean heaven, I mean on this Earth, too. Part of the power of the teaching of Jesus is that his teaching is based in God, the creator, and that following Christ's example is the way human beings are supposed to be, originally were, and can be again. Without the resurrection, is that still true? Is the world like that or isn't it? How do we know?
What about the concept of the lost sheep, the importance of the one? Is that out the window? Because this teaching is revolutionary in the world. In Judaism the individual is secondary to the nation. In Eastern Philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism the individual functions just as a part of the collective. For the Hindu, there is an eternal self that lasts forever, but each individual life is meaningless when compared with the limitless of infinity. But in Christianity, the lost sheep are important, each one, and each one made in the image of God. . . is that lost, too? Think of the effect of on history? All the concepts of individual liberty, individual rights, individual dignity, do they still exist? It is often debated as whether the United States is a Christian nation, it may not be, but without the resurrection, there is no way that history creates it. It doesn't happen, where does that leave us.
Christ's resurrection is such a pivotal moment in the history of the World. It has so affected everything in our world, that it is almost impossible to begin to picture what life would be like without it having happened. But it did, and today we celebrate and commemorate that it did. . . and so now we are ready to read John's Gospel 20:1-18, which truly says:

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,  “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. [2]  

And the world was forever changed. Love does have power over death. Love is the stuff that holds the world together, the very means of its creation. God does so love the world. Jesus is his only begotten son. His sacrifice was made, and was sufficient, and eternal life abounds. Christ defeated death because he can. Death is not final because its realness is merely a shadow in the light of God. And therefore, whosoever believeth will live into that truth, eternally. And therefore we should love God, and we should love our neighbor, because that is what we were made to do. All of Jesus' teachings stand up, without exception. Blessed are the meek, faith like that of a mustard seed can move a mountain, welcoming a child is the way to be truly great, forgiveness reigns, we shouldn't cast the first or any stone, we can't see with a plank in our eye, until we take it out we cannot judge, we must love our enemies, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, feed his sheep, baptize all nations, pray as he taught us, and not hide our light under a bushel, and be the salt of the earth, build a city on a hill, built safely on the solid rock of Christ, and not the shifting sand, we should be fertile soil for the truth, be born again in the spirit, to not live by bread alone, to constantly seek the truth, to pray without ceasing, to ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, and therefore find and we will keep on finding, we should arise take up our mat and walk, go and do likewise, go and sin no more, be not afraid and fear not, for Christ is with us, and with us still because he was raised and lives in our world risen. And will leave the 99 to go and find the one, will slay the fatted calf for the one, will rejoice when just one repents. . . God is a personal God, and the salvation brought into this world through the resurrection is a personal salvation. We are just that important, individually to God, just that important and made for something. Created, redeemed, and sustained, set free to love, the stone closing our heart has been rolled away, so now we can love, and love as Christ does, and the example of His love is giving all, sacrificing all, carrying our crosses, leaving everything to follow, for this is the resurrection definition of love, but in the resurrection world love is connected with faith and hope, the possibilities are infinite because they are of God, God loves us, and there simply are no limits to what God can do. . . none, this I know for the Resurrection tells me so. Thanks be to God, Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Amen, it is so!


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 16:21-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 20:1-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.