Homily for Easter Sunday
Like all children, mine go through phases where something so captures their imagination that they want to learn and read everything they can about it. My daughter’s current curiosity is Ancient Egypt, and more specifically, mummies.
We’ve now read together of mummies not just from Egypt but from all over the world, from Europe to South America, and even mummies in the bible…did you realize that both Jacob and Joseph were mummified in Egypt before being carried home?
What fascinates me is how much this burial practice was as much an expression of class as it was of belief. I don’t mean that a golden sarcophagus was a classier way to go, though by most measures that’s surely the case. No, I mean that generally speaking, only royal people got the royal treatment, and that if we’re finding your preserved remains today…while there’s a slim chance it’s because you were lucky enough to fall into a bog…most likely it’s because you were a person of some status. Perhaps you were noble; perhaps you were a patriarch like Jacob and Joseph, or perhaps you were just plain loaded.
As we peer into the empty tomb, let’s remember that that social reality was as true in 1st Century Jerusalem as it was in Ancient Egypt. Rock-Cut tombs were expensive, and mostly just for the upper classes. Tombs like these were signs of great wealth and status; they would have been family assets, as valuable perhaps as an estate would be to us today. A tomb wasn’t just a burial place: it was a family legacy.
What would it mean to part with our legacy for Jesus’ sake? Now, I’m not even to Easter Sunday yet…I’m still thinking a few days before, when a respected member of the council had been so moved by Jesus that he gave up his own legacy to show his love. This is from the Gospel of Mark: Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. He was willing to follow his heart no matter the consequences. He was willing to part with his status and even his legacy simply to provide Jesus’ body with a resting place. This was self-giving purely for love’s sake.
Joseph’s love made him bold. That’s a word straight from scripture: Joseph boldly went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He boldly went to Pilate, knowing what could happen to him, knowing what he was most certainly giving up, all for the sake of one thing: love. To show devotion to Jesus, whom he loved deeply, even in death.
Joseph was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. The curious thing is, when we are capable of that kind of love, capable of that kind of boldness, and drawn to that kind of devotion, in a way the Kingdom of God is already here.
Would he have been so bold if all this was just one big lost cause? No, for you see even on Good Friday, Jesus had declared victory. Even Jesus’ death was a fulfillment of God’s promise. Even dressing his body for the grave was a sacrament of the coming Kingdom.
In a way, Joseph didn’t have to wait any longer. When he died on the cross, Jesus cried out It is finished, meaning, “It is completed; it is accomplished, it is fulfilled![i]” And Kallistos Ware tells us that the thing fulfilled is:
The work of suffering love, the victory of love over hatred…At his agony and at his crucifixion the forces of darkness assail him with all their violence, but they cannot turn his compassion into hatred; they cannot prevent his love from continuing to be itself. His love is tested to the furthest point, but it is not overwhelmed.[ii]
So in a way, the tomb was a gateway to the Kingdom of God the minute they laid Jesus body in it. In a way, the stone didn’t matter because the victory had already been won…but the victory of Good Friday was still hidden.
But two days later, the hidden victory was revealed. On Friday, love defeated hatred; on Sunday, love overwhelmed death. In Christ’s resurrection, we see that there is truly nothing that will separate us from God. Not powers or principalities. Not hatred or fear. Not even death itself, for even in Death we find the healing power of God’s love.
The tomb had become a gateway to the Kingdom of God, but this morning the gateway leads out, from the dark night of death into a bright and hopeful morning. The incredible thing of this tomb – this mark of worldly status given up in a gift of love and sacrifice – isn’t just that it has become a gateway to the eternal, it’s that the tomb is a gateway to the kingdom of God no matter which way we enter it.
All of us go down to the grave, yet even there we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. That is entrance to the kingdom of God. We will be resurrected with Jesus, and so we know that death and sin and hatred no longer hold a claim on us. That, too, is the eternal kingdom. And if we can open our heart as Joseph did, if we can see what he saw, even in utter defeat, then we have already begun in this life to pass through the gates and enter the kingdom of holiness and grace.
Without knowing it, Joseph had begun to imagine what might be possible in God’s kingdom. The other person in this story with that kind of vision, of course, is Mary Magdalene.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple see the linens (carefully rolled up, for reasons we’ll never know) and run away joyfully, but Mary looks in and sees something they don’t: she sees two angels sitting on the bench where Jesus’ body had been.
Mary saw something that the others didn’t. Her heart saw something of what Joseph of Arimathea had seen. Mary was gifted with a spiritual vision that the others didn’t have quite yet. She moved among the angels. She stood still in a holy place, and offered the sacrifice of tears. And though the others ran off in a hurry, it was Mary who took the first true steps into the new kingdom of God. For it was Mary who first saw the Lord.
Mary, like Joseph, had been waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean they were without grief when Jesus died. Yet in their sadness they were fearless and even hopeful, so they could to see what no one else could: that the gateway had been crossed. That the tomb was a vessel for something new entirely. That Jesus was risen, and the victory was won.
The Lord is risen indeed, and we too have seen him. And rising up from the grave, we too make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Homily for Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.
[i] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1979. P. 81