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I love this service. It is the greatest celebration of Easter of the Church, and it is rightly the longest, most bombastic high holy feast of the whole church year. The resurrection is the center point of the Christian faith. Without the resurrection we have no faith. Throughout the ages this has been the cornerstone of the Church’s teaching, preaching and living—and here we are again.
How do we do justice to this world-transforming event?
Maybe there is a clue in the little piece in the Gospel lesson about the soldiers. This almost seems like a bit of trivia, you know, down at the Little Toad, the topic is the Resurrection:
Host: “What happened to the soldiers?”
Contestant: “They fell down as if dead after the earthquake.”
Host: “Have another beer.”
Scripture doesn’t include trivia. After many years of study the serious student of the Bible comes back to the conclusion that this is indeed inspired text. As Paul tells Timothy, it is useful for building up our spiritual lives, and as everything in life is raw material for God to use in our lives. Even what seems like trivia in the Bible is not—it is part of holy writ and can conceal gems of wisdom and inspiration to compassion. This line is no different.
Who were the Roman Soldiers? We don’t have names, family histories or military records, but we do know something of the Roman Army. Its discipline was enforced with the death penalty, often cruelly and with little chance of appeal. Soldiers set on guard who failed in their duty could expect to be crucified upside down.
What were they guarding? They were guarding the Roman seal requested by the Jewish Council to secure Jesus’ tomb. This seal carried the whole weight of the Roman military machine behind it.
Why were they there? The section of the Gospel prior to the one read tonight tells the story. The Jewish Council remembered that Jesus had promised to rise again and they feared that the disciples might steal the body, claiming that he had risen. The Council asks Pilate to set a guard and seal the tomb, which he does.
Who were the Roman Soldiers in Judea at the time? For the Pharisees they were the occupying force. Except for a brief time in the time of the Maccabee brothers, Israel had not been a sovereign nation since the Babylonian exile. There was still this feeling that salvation involved national sovereignty; after all, how could the promised messiah, the son of the greatest king Israel had ever had—David—rule if the nation wasn’t sovereign? The presence of the Roman Soldiers represented the roadblock to the coming of the Messiah. For the Jewish Council to request help from the occupiers is an irony, but it is also testimony to the complete rejection of the Jewish people of Jesus—so much so that they were willing to engage the greatest obstacle to their hope in an attempt to block this man from turning out to be who they most hoped for.
For the Sadducees they were the key to their power. The Sadducees were the wealthy gentry. They had cut a deal with Rome. “We’ll keep the peace among a fractious and contentious people, and you let us do it our way.” The presence of the Roman Soldiers represented the maintenance of a fragile peace that favored them.
Either way, the soldiers represented everything that Jesus was not, and nothing that Jesus was. They were, in every sense, a symbol of going back to pre-Jesus days.
And what happens? The earth shakes. The Roman Rule that they symbolized is shaken to the core. This King is not an earthly tyrant against whom you can fight. This King is not a dead potentate on whose grave you can set a seal. This King makes the ground you walk upon! No wonder they fall over as if dead. The rule they symbolize is as good as dead in this situation.
Another rule is emerging, one based not on the power of the sword or the threat of crucifixion (this power had taken crucifixion on the chin and emerged triumphant!) This rule is based on something infinitely more powerful, for it goes to the very structure of reality. It is the power of self-giving love.
The Guards have failed radically and the death penalty is already applied. They have only two options before them: Stay dead and get executed for it, or die and rise with the Christ they sought to keep in the tomb.
That is where we are tonight. As always, we are on the cusp of the same choice. Paul describes it clearly in the Epistle lesson tonight. Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive in Christ. Die and rise again. Follow this great King through the ordeal to the victory, and learn to live as a new kind of human being. Let the resurrection shake your old world to the core, let the guards of your ego’s rule fall as if dead, and let the Spirit of the risen Christ lift your spirit from its tomb to new and abundant life!
Let me warn you. This is not easy stuff. Resurrection living is radical living. It does not cow to the prevailing wisdom of me-first. It does not pander to economic policies that resign themselves to inequities and injustices. It will not tolerate self-centered ego-driven behaviors, practices or relationships, and it cannot stand isolation, alienation and marginalization.
But that’s OK, because all of those ways of living are Roman, and the resurrection life has died to that, only to rise to the new, spirit-driven life in God!