Good Friday.  April 19, 2019.  Saint Francis’, Gainesville, GA

St. Luke chapter xxiii, verses 52 & 53 – And [Joseph of Arimathea] went unto Pilate and begged the body of Jesus.  And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid in sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein man never before was laid.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

This year as I prepared a sermon for Passion Sunday, two weeks ago, I noticed, for the first time in the almost forty years that I have been writing sermons, all the stones that turn up in Lent.

On that Sunday itself, there are stones – stones of hostility.  You will recall that on that Sunday the lesson from the eighth chapter of Saint John’s gospel tells of a sharp conflict in the temple between our Lord and his antagonists.  In the course of that conflict our Lord applies to himself (v. 58) the divine name that God revealed to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:  ‘Before Abraham was, I AM.’  The Jews understand perfectly well that by using these worlds our Lord claims to be divine, so ‘took they up stones to case at him’ (v. 59).  That is, they seek to impose the Old Testament penalty for blasphemy:  death by stoning.

Now on that occasion the conflict did not end with our Lord’s death, because his time had not yet come:  for the moment he evaded his enemies.  We are told that ‘he hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them’.

If we think a little further back in Lent, there are other stones.  On the First Sunday in Lent, in his temptations of Christ, Satan spoke of stones, urging that Christ turn stones into bread and that he cast himself from the temple in confidence that angels would rescue him lest he ‘dash [his] foot against a stone’ (Matthew 4:6).  It is only after failing to tempt Christ with stones in the temple that Satan, also in the temple, tries to turn those temple stones into instruments of the Lord’s death.  There are still other stones in the gospels.  Early in chapter 8 of John’s gospel, the same chapter from which the attempted stoning in the temple, men sought to stone to death a woman taken in adultery.  Our Lord turned aside their merciless intention saying, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ (8:7)  On that occasion shame and self-knowledge turned aside wrath, and the stones were not cast at Abraham’s daughter, but rather fell harmlessly from the hands of her self-convicted judges.  Again, on Palm Sunday in S. Luke, when the Pharisees rebuke our Lord for permitting the disciples to greet him with Messianic praise, he responds, ‘I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.’ (Luke 19:40)

Today, of course, the story has changed.  Today our Lord does not pass unharmed through the midst of his enemies, but lets himself be taken.  Today the Lord who delivered a guilty woman from stoning with his convicting mercy, will not deliver himself from condemnation to death.  Today the Lord, who could have called upon the angels to deliver him, lest he dash his foot against a stone, does not call upon the angelic legions.  Today the loving Father, who ‘if his son ask bread, [would not] give him a stone’ (Matthew 7:9), permits his son to taste vinegar and gall and to thirst in a dusty noontide death.

Our loving Father sent to his children manna in the old covenant and in the new sent the Messiah, the Living Bread of heaven.  But the Father’s foolish children, old and new, rather than accept the Father’s Bread and Son, would stone to death the Gift.  Or today, which amounts to the same thing, the foolish children crucify the Lord of mercy, the Saviour of the world.  They would, if you will, turn the bread back into stone.  And no mystery there:  for our Lord saves us by not saving himself, by forgoing for himself the mercy he extended to the adulterous woman, to the hungry children crying for bread, and to the wayward Israelites in Sinai.

Today’s story, in Saint Luke’s version from which I have taken my text, ends with still another stone:  Joseph of Arimathea begs our Lord’s body from Pilate and lays it in the holy Sepulchre, hewn from stone.  Lent begins and ends with stones.  Joseph begs the body of Jesus.  There is a neglected text.  Our Lord presents himself, his body, constantly to us in the sacrament of the altar.  So often Christians do not condescend to receive what is so freely given, much less ‘beg’ for ‘the body of Jesus’.  Perhaps we would appreciate it more if it were so.  In any case, the Body is given by Pilate, and for time it is sealed away in a cave, behind a stone.

A great stone is rolled to seal up the tomb, to keep God safely away, to remove the offence of his convicting mercy, to take away the Giver of bread from the heedless children.  But the love of God is greater than the hatred of man, and that great stone at the holy sepulchre, meant to hide God in death, will itself be taken away to show the death of death by the Lord’s death.  Today’s story ends with this stone at the tomb.  But today is Good, not despite, but because, of its death and because of this stone.  We are Christians, and though we sorrow for the day, we already know about the ending that lies beyond this ending.  The stone will not remain in place, and we already may anticipate its movement with the words of Alice Meynell’s great poem:

          Public was Death; but Power, but Might,

          But Life again, but Victory,

          Were hushed into the dead of night,

          The shuttered dark, the secrecy,

          And all alone, alone, alone,

          He rose again behind the stone.  [Alice Meynell]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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