The Insecure Tomb

"Go," Pilate says to the chief priests. "You have a guard of soldiers. Make the tomb as secure as you can." Security is almost everyone's concern in the last chapters of the Gospel.

  • Those who arrest Jesus do so with the enhanced security of swords and clubs.

-In response to the arrest, the disciples flee the garden and desert Jesus, finding their security in the cover of darkness and the swiftness of a runner's pace.

-Peter swears by an oath that he does not even know Jesus-three denials, all meant to get him out of harm's way.

-Pilate's wife tries to keep her husband safe from the prisoner who stands before him by sending Pilate word to "have nothing to do with that righteous man" (27:19).

-Then, even after Jesus is safely dead, the chief priests know that "you can't be too careful." They need a guard at the tomb, for security. Pilate sends them on their way. "Knock yourselves out, boys. Make it as secure as you can."

If the people who try to sell us things are any indication, security is able to capture our imagination just as it captured Peter's and the chief priests'. Everything from tire treads to investment advice is marketed with a thirty-second story line that features a threat to our security and then answers the threat with the product offered for sale. The tire tread commercials are generally set on a dark and stormy night, and they generally feature a woman driving a toddler somewhere. It is all a cliche, but what-you want poetry in thirty seconds? What you get instead is news about what kind of tires your loved ones need to get home safely.

Political ads often have a more subtle message but one that is equally concerned with leaving us feeling just a little insecure-insecure, that is, until we vote for the preferred candidate. Candidates vie to be identified as the one who will be the most tough on crime, the one who has the best plan for securing the borders, or the one who can best protect us from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Everyone is interested in keeping us safe. Cell phones, security systems, taking our shoes off in the airport security line, getting the right medical tests after the age of 50: almost everything can be sold as a way to keep us free from threat.

I teach at a theological seminary, and it occurs to me that even Christian education could be marketed this way. Some people who are suspicious of seminaries and divinity schools may wonder if this is not the way we imagine things. It is as if theological education came with the tagline, "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." The TV commercial might sound something like this:

  • Not sure if the Almighty has your best interests at heart? We have theologians who can help you keep a potentially wrathful deity right where you want it.

  • Troubled by a call to radical discipleship? After a few seminary courses, you will begin to think of yourself as a professional instead of a disciple, dare we say even a leader, rather than a follower.

  • Not sure what to do with tough texts in the Bible? When the texts get tough, our Bible faculty get sophisticated. Give us a confounding or convicting Word, we'll give you a reading strategy.

It'll be okay. You'll see. We'll make the tomb as secure as we can. It doesn't work. It doesn't work for Peter to follow Jesus from a safe distance. It doesn't work for Pilate to wash his hands and declare himself innocent. It doesn't work for the chief priests to secure Jesus in a sealed tomb. All this dabbling with security runs right up against an earthquake. When tectonic plates are shifting, a sturdy tire tread is not much help. Neither is a guard of soldiers, or a playfully imaginative construal of the biblical text.

In response to the earthquake, and to the appearance of an angel who looks like lightning, everyone in the security detail faints dead away from fright. (Apparently nobody said anything about lightning-complexioned angels in boot camp.) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary do manage to maintain consciousness. To them, the angel says, "Don't you be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."

It seems that the women take to heart everything that the angel says, except for that part about not being afraid. Matthew says they leave the tomb with fear and great joy. They are joyful, but it does not appear that they feel exactly safe. They are living in a world where the ground is not staying put under their feet and where at least one of the dead has not stayed dead. Neither of these realities would inspire a feeling of security.

Both frightened and joyful, the women run to tell the disciples. On the way, they run into Jesus. Jesus, like the angel before him, says to the women, "Do not be afraid."

"Do not be afraid." This time the word as it is spoken by Jesus has the desired effect. It is the last anyone speaks of fear in the Gospel.

Years ago, as someone poured wine from a chalice into my communion glass, he said, "The blood of Christ, shed for you." It was a jarring emphasis on the preposition. Readers and liturgists usually know that prepositions are not the most important words in a sentence. The line is usually spoken, "The blood of Christ shed for you," and it probably should be spoken that way. But that day, when the assisting minister punched the preposition, I thought-for the first time in my life I thought-you know, it could have gone the other way. The blood of Christ could have been shed against me.

When Jesus says, "Do not be afraid," he makes it clear that what could have happened did not. The earthquake and the resurrection are both signs that the end is at hand. But what kind of end? Until the women see Jesus, they do not know precisely what kind of end it will be. What about those who deserted Jesus, and the one who denied him, and those who were powerless to do anything but look on as the grisly scene of crucifixion unfolded? What about them? In the end, will they find that his blood is a judgment against them? Will we? "Do not be afraid," Jesus says. "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

As the first Christians came to recognize the risen Christ, they experienced boldness and freedom of speech that surprises those of us who read their stories. It is as if their security came from the inside out. They were not afraid of people who scoffed at their claims. They were not afraid of authorities who ordered them to stop speaking of Jesus. They were free from what the neighbors thought about them and free from what the established power structure could do to them.

What might that kind of freedom mean for you? How might it change the way you listen to the nightly news? How it might it change the way you pass a stranger on the sidewalk? How might it change the way you imagine who was against you and who was for you?

I'm not saying that no one ever means us harm. Certainly, the first disciples were often in harm's way after their experience of Christ's resurrection. I'm only saying that even when they were threatened, the threat did not own them. It did not define them. Someone else's power over them did not become the only thing they knew about themselves. They also knew that even after all their mistakes, after all their displays of cowardice and foolishness and fear, Jesus had come back to them. He had gone ahead of them to Galilee, and he had promised to be with them till the close of the age.

Do not be afraid. In Christ, God is not an enemy you need to keep closer than your friends in order to formulate a strategy for containment. Do not be afraid. Tectonic plates are shifting, yes, but it is because God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. Do not be afraid. Your life and your security are where they have always been-hid with Christ in God. And, brothers and sisters, Christ is risen!

Let us pray.

Risen Lord Jesus, victorious over death, in compassion for your troubled friends, you appeared in many places that they might dare again to trust. In a world full of so much fear, strengthen us also with signs of your presence. Meet us on the way so that we might be no longer afraid. Free us from everything that would lead us to doubt your love for us and for the world and inspire our witness to the joy and the hope of your resurrection. Amen.