A sermon preached at the Niles Discovery Church sponsored
sunrise service held in the Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:1-18 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

You might think that a religion that’s about 2000 years old would have done all the changing that it’s going to do.  Not so.  Christianity is a living religion and new understandings of old texts bring changes, looking at old ethical questions in new social situations bring changes, and sometimes even archeological discoveries (like the discovery of ancient manuscripts) bring changes.

Well, I have the manuscript that hasn’t been discovered yet, that I would like to share with you.  Like many ancient Christian texts, it is a letter, and like ancient letters, it begins by saying who wrote it.
Mary of Magdala, a disciple of Jesus.

To Joseph of Arimathea.

Grace and peace to you, my brother in the Messiah.

It is that time of year again, that time when I venture to the cemetery on the first day of the week, before sunrise, by the light of the just-past full moon, to remember that morning that seems to be both in the distant past and as if it happened just days ago.  How can it feel both ways when in reality a decade has past?

Of course, I think of you whenever I go to the graveyard, when I go to the place where one day we will lay your body.  But you came to mind several weeks ago when I was telling the story to someone new to The Way.  I told her about how the Roman’s had executed Jesus and how you had asked the governor to let us bury his body in your own grave.  I’m so glad you’re open now about being a follower of Jesus and that, when I tell these stories, I can share your part in them.  I don’t know what it was about my story that so intrigued this sister of The Way, but she asked me why you had done it, why you had given up your grave for our Rabbi.  Before I knew what I was saying, I heard the words come out of my mouth, “Well, I guess Joseph knew Jesus only needed the grave for the weekend.”

I hope Jesus isn’t offended by my making light of his death.  I can’t think he is.  After all, his resurrection is the greatest joke every played on death.

That day, it felt like he was playing a joke on me.  My shame had never been so great, nor my grief.  Grief just isn’t the same anymore.  And shame – I see what a wasted emotion it is now.  Yes, I know I had reason to be ashamed – we all did.  They came to arrest him and we ran off.  Well, Peter tried to stop them.  He drew a knife, even drew blood, but Jesus stopped him.  Violence has never been his way.

My goodness, we were so slow to understand.  His whole mission was confronting the domination system, the system that makes victims of one group so others can feel superior, the system that oppresses and marginalized, the system that believes violence can somehow save us.

Jesus knew that violence couldn’t save him any more that it could save us.  So he stopped Peter and they arrested him and led him away.

And we fled.

We went into hiding.  Would they come for us next?  Once he was arrested, we knew where things were going.  We knew it was only a matter of time before the Romans killed him, tortured him to death like an insurrectionist.  I suppose he was a threat – he is a threat.  His message of love threatens the domination system, and the domination system keeps them in power.  He stood up to the system and we ran away and hid.

They killed him and we – and you, Joseph – you got them to release his body so we could bury it.  And you let us bury it in your own tomb.

I may have been in hiding with the others, but I couldn’t stay away.  It was just past the full moon, so there was enough light in those hours before the sun came up for me to go down to the grave.  So I went and what a cacophony of emotions!  Grief that he had been killed.  Horror that they had stolen his body.  Breathlessness at running to the other disciples.  Anger at how quickly they ran back to the grave; I just couldn’t keep up.  Bewilderment when they returned home after a quick look in the tomb.

Abandoned again, I wept.  My heart cracked open, crumbled into a million pieces.  Something happens to our spirit when everything falls apart.  I think that is why I could see the angels, because I was so broken apart.  I know people don’t believe me, that I saw angels, but I know I did.  They, too, seemed bewildered, wondering why I was weeping.  In that moment, they seemed the stupidest of angels.  How could they not know about how Jesus had been killed, buried, and his body stolen?  But they knew I had the story wrong, so of course they were bewildered.

That’s when I bumped into the gardener – at least I thought he was the gardener.  Maybe he knew what had happened, I thought.  Can you believe it?  I thought maybe he knew what had happened.

Yeah, he knew.  And when he called me by my name, I wanted to smack him!  You know I never liked practical jokes.  When he called my name – well, another cacophony of emotions came flooding in:  anger, joy, relief.  He wasn’t dead after all.

Except he was.  That’s the thing that is so hard to explain to people new to The Way.  Jesus was dead.  Death is very real.  Jesus is dead.  And Jesus is very much alive.  I don’t know how else to explain it.

But I heard last year that a husband and wife traveled to Jerusalem from some town in Greece – I don’t remember which one – to celebrate the Passover.  They came with her mother.  It was the first time for any of them to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.  It started out as such a happy occasion, but then the wife’s mother died.  Sad enough, but the husband insisted on bringing his mother-in-law’s body back to Greece with them.  When he was asked why he was so insistent, why he didn’t want is mother-in-law buried here in Jerusalem, he said that he had heard that a man died and was buried here in Jerusalem and came back to life – and with his mother-in-law, he wasn’t taking any chances.

Yes, I know:  I’m not as funny as I like to think that I am.  But I get this way when I return to the scene of the joke.  You see, I don’t think the resurrection is just about the big joke Jesus played on death.  It’s not just about heaven.  It’s about Jesus’ continuing work to transform the world.  Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world.  Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what he was doing, to what he is doing.  It’s about Jesus continuing to transform the world through you and me.  Nothing can stop him, not even death.  He’s still here.  He’s still recruiting.[1]

I know you know all this, Joseph.  I guess I’m writing because I know you will understand in a way that few others do.  You understand why I go to your tomb, to the scene of the joke:  I come to laugh and rejoice and to dance, for nothing can separate us from the love of God that we know in Jesus, the Messiah.

The grace of Jesus be with you always.


[1] “It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus. Crucifixion and the tomb didn’t stop him. Easter is about saying ‘Yes’ to the passion of Jesus. He’s still here, still recruiting.”  ~ Marcus Borg