When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
The chief priests and the Pharisees said to Pilate: his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people ‘He has been raised from the dead’.
The chief priests and the Pharisees had won the day – or so it seemed. Jesus, the troublemaking itinerant preacher from Galilee had been silenced. His death had been witnessed by reliable witnesses and he had been laid in a tomb. For the Jewish religious leaders the circle had been closed, and victory was theirs. But … in this moment of victory we can also see uncertainty.
Some two thousand years on, we know that the crucifixion was not the end of the story. On the third day Jesus conquered death and his Messiahship was proved to be true. But … throughout those two thousand years, and from that first Easter Day, there has been scepticism and disbelief. Those who are most challenged by the teachings and the example of Jesus Christ have sought ways of undermining the veracity of that which lies at the heart of our faith. These challenges begin in today’s reading. After their apparent victory, the chief priests and the Pharisees, those religious whited-sepulchres, began to speak of the deceits that might be preached by Jesus’ disciples. The ancient prophecies were turned around and used to provide a negative ‘spin’ on all that was about to happen.
We are constantly being told that we are living in a secular society, a society in which religious faith is an irrelevance. The sacrament of baptism is being challenged by secular ‘naming ceremonies’; the sacrament of holy matrimony is presented as an insignificant alternative to an all-singing, all-dancing secular ceremony; and the important rite of entrusting our departed loved ones into the eternal care of our loving God is being replaced with ‘direct cremations’, meaning the deceased are left at a crematorium to be fitted in when time and space allows. All of these ‘secular’ alternatives align themselves with the scepticism and ‘fear’ of the Jewish leaders who said that Jesus’ disciples may tell a different story to theirs.
Today we are being challenged to stand firm in our faith. We are being challenged to remember that faith does not rely upon empirical evidence but on trust that God is faithful, generous and loving. We are called to join those who trusted that laying Jesus in a tomb was not the end of the story, that so much more was yet to come.
Let us pray that we might not waver in our faith in the Christ who suffered death in this world, but who was to rise to his ultimate glory as the proven Son of God. Let us pray that, even when we feel hemmed in by worldly sadness and despair, we might not forget that Jesus is always with us and that he has trod that path of sadness and despair before us. Let us pray that we might hold firm in our certainty that the moment of resurrection is almost upon us.