“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)
They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?
Only a few days have passed. These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen. And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning. It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.
But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.
As large as barrier between the dead and the living.
But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished. Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.
So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that? It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.
We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.
Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?
All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone. While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.
The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.
What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled. These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?
Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.
Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.
And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not. When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.
Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”
Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.
It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.
After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.
Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.
I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.
And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.
But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.
Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.
But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.
Eppur si muove.
Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.