In the name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.
It was “the chief priests and the Pharisees,” the religious authorities, who came to Pontius Pilate, the civil authority, and said, “order the tomb [of that impostor Jesus] to be made secure,” and it was Pilate who gave the order, saying, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Mt 27:62–66).
Both church and state agree on a course of action. To us in our day, that counts as nearly a miracle in itself! Both have exercised their God-given authority in their God-appointed spheres, albeit in deeply flawed and sinful ways. The chief priests and the Pharisees, along with the scribes and the elders of the people, took up the task of defending the linchpins of the faith and identity of the Jewish nation, the Law (Torah) and the Temple, from a Man whom they accused of wanting to destroy them. But they actively sought, heard, and accepted the testimony of false witnesses, in direct violation of God’s commandment. They also violated their own law regarding the carrying out of death sentences, namely, that a full twenty-four hours was required from a sentence of death being declared before execution. Pontius Pilate, seeking to maintain Roman law and order in the restive province of Judaea, found Jesus completely innocent of any wrongdoing, yet was willing to punish Jesus, in order to appease the Jewish leaders and the crowds. Having Jesus flogged wasn’t enough to satisfy them, so Pilate did hand Him over to be crucified, and the Roman soldiers struck Jesus and mocked Him, “Hail, ‘King of the Jews!’ Prophesy, O ‘Prophet’! Which of us hit You?”
Yes, deeply flawed and sinful, shameful and wicked in the ways in which these people acted; but, no more flawed and sinful, shameful and wicked than the ways in which Jesus’ own disciples acted. Simon Peter denied knowing Him, not once, not twice, but three times! Judas Iscariot betrayed Him to His enemies, for thirty lousy pieces of silver. Only John, the beloved disciple, stayed nearby—not because of boldness or bravery as such on his part, but because he had an inside connection, being familiar to the family of the high priest. And the rest of the Twelve were scattered, just as their Master had told them they would be. St. Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea, “a respected member of the council,” finally “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mk 15:43). Yet St. John tells us that even the respected Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (Jn 19:38).
Yes, deeply flawed and sinful, ashamed and fearful of their ties to Jesus, these disciples; but, no more flawed and sinful, shameful and wicked, ashamed and fearful than we are. We certainly ought to be able to sympathize with the Jewish leaders and people, and with the Roman authorities and soldiers, and with the disciples of Jesus. The Jewish leaders feared the loss of their nation … and their power. The Romans feared the chaos of local uprisings, which could spell the loss of their empire … and their power. Pilate feared the loss of his position … and of his head. The disciples feared the loss of their lives … and their prestige, from being attached to the once-popular Rabbi, who now lay dead, put to death as a rebel, a criminal threat to the state. We fear … what? We fear the loss of business or job? We fear being mocked, “made fun of” for confessing Christ and the Truth of Scripture? We fear to pray in public? We fear the loss of our tax-exempt status? We fear being seen as religious nuts, intolerant, narrow-minded zealots? We fear that we’ll lose out on God’s promises if we don’t act quickly? Hurry up, do it right now, before it’s too late, and God’s promise expires! (That’s the course of action Abraham took, and how did that work out for him?) We fear that some particular sin or sins, a lie or an infidelity or a deep, dark secret, will be exposed?
Our gracious and merciful God has an answer for every sin and fear (oh, and let’s not forget that our fear over our sins is also a sin; it just keeps compounding). Jesus’ suffering and death upon the cross paid in full the debt we owed to God because of our sin. The payment for your sin is your life, which doesn’t pay in full. The Sinless, spotless Lamb of God—His life given pays in full, which is what He means when He said on the cross, “It is finished.” Paid in full. The chief priests, in sacrificing Christ the Lamb of God, fulfilled their priestly duty. Jesus is buried, and the tomb is sealed. Nailed to the cross with Him was the record of debt, our sin, as St. Paul declares, “God [has] forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, setting it aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13–14). You have “been buried with Him in baptism” (v. 12), and all your sins have been buried, too. Both the religious and civil authorities agreed upon and recognized the need to seal that tomb. As the tomb of Jesus was sealed, so now the ear of your pastor, acting as your father-confessor, is the sealed tomb of any and every sin which you confess before him. Your sins lie dead and buried, never to rise again. To that confessional seal I am sworn and bound by a sacred oath, never to disclose the sins confessed before me, never to let them rise and accuse you. The religious and civil authorities recognize this seal; but, they cannot compel me to divulge what I have heard in the confessional, even under threat of any penalty. When malicious accusations are made against you—oh, they may be true, but your words and actions get twisted into evil by your accusers—and you feel sealed in a pit surrounded by lions, know that you shall come out alive, as did Daniel. Know that, as this old, sinful, God-despising world perishes, you are safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian church—just like Noah and his family, sealed in the ark from the world-cleansing waters of the Great Flood. You have been washed clean by the water and the Word, the Greater Flood, Holy Baptism.
Now there is One who cannot be thwarted by any manmade seal, no matter how great the imperial or other earthly authority purports to be. He did not need the stone removed. He rose and descended into hell, where He proclaimed His victory over Satan, our great accuser, and over sin and death, and there He left your sins behind. His resurrection on the morrow is God the Father’s pronouncement of holy absolution for all your sins. When Jesus takes up His life again, the life He laid down of His own accord and will, He won’t need the stone rolled away. What stone can hold in Him who is the Rock of Ages? What power or authority can stand against Him into whose hands all authority in heaven and on earth has been given? He has put away your sin far from you, sealed it up for all eternity.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.