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When the Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object

Date: April 21, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Looking out of the tomb as the 3 crosses and the sunrise.

Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10

Scripture Reader: Carol H.

Mike and I had the radio on as we drove home from Coffeyville on Monday.  We were nearing Pittsburg when he decided to switch it to a news channel to see what was going on in the world.  Folks were talking about Notre Dame Cathedral, and since we’d arrived in the middle of the discussion—and were listening to the radio, so there weren’t any pictures to see—we didn’t really have a good idea of what was going on.

When someone finally said something about the fire, we were shocked.  Who would ever think that a cathedral that has stood for 850 years—surviving the French Revolution and two World Wars—might not be permanent?  Those Gothic cathedrals—there are quite a few of them, even some in the United States[1]—are massive and they are built to evoke not just the enormity but also the permanence of God’s power.

But Notre Dame was on fire, and early speculations about the damage were ominous.  Initially we were told that the entire roof and ceiling of the cathedral had fallen in and that all the stained glass windows—including the three historic rose windows—were lost.  We wondered if there would be anything left inside when the fire was out.  Quite a bit of the art and statuary inside the cathedral had already been moved out, because of the restoration project that was already underway, so it was safe; but there was still some inside and nobody yet knew what would become of it.

As people were able to get inside and look around, they found that only one part of the ceiling had collapsed, the rose windows appeared to be intact, and most of the art had taken smoke damage but not burned. 

There’s been a picture circulating of the chancel of the church, where a large gold cross stands apparently unharmed.  It seems that the fire did not reach that area.  Even some wooden structures there were unburned.

More will have to be done, of course.  Structural engineers will need to go in to find out if the permanent-looking stone walls have been damaged by the heat of the fire.  If they have, the restoration that has already been promised—and already substantially funded—will have to be more extensive.  It may well take longer than the French government’s suggested timeline of five years.

We have been dramatically reminded that even those Gothic cathedrals, built nearly a millennium ago and standing mostly intact ever since, are not permanent.  The mortar that holds the stones together will eventually crumble and the walls will fall.  We hope it isn’t in our lifetime, but the reality is that nothing built by humans is eternal.  Nothing is permanent.

In our reading for today, everybody thought the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb was there permanently.  Joseph of Arimathea rolled that stone over the mouth of the tomb—presumably with the help of servants, because what use is a stone that one person can move?—and he expected it to stay there.  The religious leaders went to Pilate and asked permission to make it that much more secure, by sealing it and posting guards.  Nobody expected that stone to go anywhere after all that.

The women who went to the tomb early Sunday morning didn’t expect the stone to move.  They had watched Jesus die and watched Joseph bury him, and their experience told them that “dead and buried” was permanent.  They didn’t go there to do anything; some of the other Gospels say they went to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial, but not Matthew.[2]  They went to see the tomb, and probably to mourn there.  That’s it.  And they certainly did not expect that stone to move.

But move it did.  There was an earthquake, and then an angel came down from heaven and pushed that stone out of the way.  The guards, who represented all the glorious strength and brutality of the Roman Empire, trembled with fear and fainted dead away.  But the angel reassured the women with words that angels say all over the Bible:  “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus was not in the tomb!  His death was not permanent; he has been raised.  The immovable object—the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb—has met an irresistible force and given way.

If that stone—that immovable object—has been rolled away, then what other stones has God’s power rolled away?

The stone of fear is rolled away.  If death no longer has ultimate power, because Jesus’ resurrection put an end to that power, then we don’t need to fear death.  It is but a transition from one phase of life to another.  And if we don’t have to be afraid of death, then what’s left to be afraid of?

The stone of oppression is rolled away.  The soldiers—who stand in the story as symbols of Rome’s power over the Jewish people—are reduced to trembling and fainting when God’s power is brought to bear.  Human institutions and empires may oppress, but God’s power is about freedom, and that freedom will win out.  The moral arc of the universe is long, as Dr. King said, but it bends toward justice.  The witness of Scripture, especially the prophets and Revelation, is that all oppression will one day be lifted; people who have been ground down into the dust will be lifted up, while the ones whose boots are on their necks will be brought low.

The stone of violence is rolled away.  Empires like Rome maintain their hold on conquered people through violence.  The cross is one example of the horrifying toll that violence can take.  But while Roman violence attempted to destroy the Son of God, God prevailed, and put the lie to violence’s power.

The stone of sexism is rolled away.  The first people sent out by Jesus to proclaim the good news of resurrection are women.  That is true in all four Gospels.  When the Holy Spirit comes to the 120 disciples in the upper room on Pentecost, a prophecy from Joel is fulfilled:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my spirit,
and they shall prophesy.”[3]

Paul worked alongside women in his ministry.  He sent a woman with his letter to the Romans, to speak on his behalf, and instructed them to listen to her and treat her just as they would treat him.[4]  In that letter he greeted women who were part of that congregation, who had been his partners in ministry, including Junia, whose name was incorrectly rendered for years because translators could not conceive of a woman being described as “prominent among the apostles.”[5]

The few passages in Paul’s writing that appear to rule out women as pastors, it has been compellingly argued, can be interpreted in other ways.[6]  And before anything else, those passages must be interpreted in light of Jesus’ own words and actions, especially sending women out with the message that he had been raised.

The stone of grief is also rolled away.  The women in their desolation went to the tomb only to see it.  They had no other intention but to visit the place where their Teacher had been laid, to mourn there, to console one another but never to deny that death has had the final say.  But the tomb is empty, and the risen Christ meets them on the road; and their grief turns to joyful worship.

There’s no denying that death still has some power.  But when the women found that tomb empty, the power of death was proven to be temporary.

These immovable objects are no match for the irresistible force of God’s power.  God’s power spoke the universe into existence.  God’s power parted the sea and freed the slaves.  God’s power fed Israel as they sojourned in the wilderness.  God’s power brought down kingdoms and empires and returned the people to their land.  God’s power has now opened the tomb, raised Jesus to life, and set us free to live generously and fearlessly.

What is God’s power?  God’s power is love—the most creative force in the universe, which cannot be stopped by a stone over the mouth of a tomb.

In Christ all the stones that constrain our lives are rolled away, and we are set free to receive and to share the love of God, which cannot be stopped, which shakes the foundations of the earth and resettles them into the kingdom of heaven, whose new foundation stones are love, joy, generosity, courage, kindness, and peace.

This is who we are.  These are the stones on which we stand, stones set in place by the irresistible force of God’s love, stones that will never be rolled away.


[1] St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., are the most famous of these.  An interesting aside about National Cathedral:  Cathedrals in general are adorned with gargoyles and grotesques (the difference is that a gargoyle directs water from the roof, while a grotesque does not), and National Cathedral is no exception.  During a 1980s construction project the cathedral had a contest in which schoolchildren were invited to submit suggestions for a new grotesque.  One Christopher Rader made the winning suggestion:  the image of Star Wars archvillain Darth Vader.  You can see it at https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/darth-vader-grotesque.

[2] Compare Mark 16:1-8 and Luke 24:1-12.  Like Matthew, John says nothing about women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.

[3] Acts 2:17-18, quoting Joel 2:28-32; emphasis added.

[4] Paul introduces Phoebe as his spokesperson in Romans 16:1-2.

[5] Romans 16:7

[6] See John Temple Bristow’s What Paul Really Said about Women, as well as Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, and Wives.

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