Dead & Buried
John 11:45-53, Romans 5:6-11
Death is universal. It happens to all things. It will happen to us. But whenever it happens, it shocks us. There is something about death & dying that feels “not right”. It is so dislocating. The Book of Ecclesiastes says, “God has set eternity in our hearts.” He has placed a sense of immortality within us. Though out heads say that death is perfectly normal, our hearts tell us that it is not. It is a violation. Even when a person dies full of years, and is content to go, there is still that sense of confusion among those who are left. For death appears to be one of the most meaningless events in life, and often appears to destroy the significance of the life that was lived.
But that confusion is increased when death is premature or when the death is totally unexpected. It is as though we have come to the end of the story when we haven’t even gotten out of the first chapter. It is as though a painting that showed wonderful promise has been stopped in the middle of a brush stroke. It is as though a song of incredible sweetness was cut off in full swell. It appears to be so absurd. Death has cut a life short before its goal was reached. Some of us know of such deaths in our families and among our friends. Death is the most meaningless thing in life.
The New Testament tells the story of such a life seemingly cut short before his time. Jesus was about 33 year young. He had shown immense promise. He was a leader of moral life. He brought wholeness to those he encountered. People followed him gladly. He was the first person in their lives who did make sense. He brought a sense of purpose wherever he went. Life took on new meaning when he was there. And then on a certain Friday he was led to a place of execution and was killed. What a stupid thing to do! Talk about meaninglessness. It looked like one of the most meaningless events to happen in all of human history.
But it is interesting to note, that those who knew Jesus the best, come to a very different conclusion. They rush in to tell us that His death was not life’s worst disaster, but an event pregnant with new life for the entire world.
Years later when the Apostle’s Creed is written, they make note of the preoccupation of the church particularly with his death. In fact some will say an over-preoccupation with his death. The words that they employ seem on the surface to be a bit redundant. Hear the words once more. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell.” It does seem a little like overkill. (‘scuse the pun!) But the creedal writers wanted to underscore the certain message: Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, God in human form, actually died. But why did they feel the need to say this?
The heresies of that day
There was a need because before the New Testament closes we are aware of voices which say that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not die.
A pious cult of the 2nd century began to make the assertion. “He did not die. For God cannot die! Jesus is immortal. He is eternal. He could not have died, but only appeared to die. The church named these people “Docetists.” The epithet came from the word “to seem.” Jesus, the Docetists said, only seemed to die. But he didn’t. He faked it. Or we misunderstood the event.
It was pious because they wanted to say “Jesus was fully God,” but in their false piety refused to say “he was fully human.” Humans die, but gods don’t. Therefore Jesus didn’t die, was their assumption.
Another group arose within the church. These were the Gnostics. We would call them the know-it-all-ists. One of their sub-groups, the followers of Cerinthus, said Jesus may have died, but Christ did not. The Christ was God inside the human body of Jesus, which he borrowed so he could be visible to we mortals.
These Gnostics claimed that the Christ entered into the body of Jesus from Nazareth at his baptism, so God can say, “You are now my beloved son with whom I well pleased.” And then at the time of Jesus suffering under Pontius Pilate, Christ deserted the body of Jesus, and on the cross Jesus the mortal man cried out in despair, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Jesus the man died after being deserted by his divine nature. After the butterfly escapes, the cocoon dies. So Jesus Christ the Son of God did not die, just his shell.
The Passover Plot.
Even before the New Testament is concluded there is another theory that will become widespread. A few years ago the idea was published in a book called The Passover Plot by Hugh Schonfield. It was also called the “Swoon Theory.” On the cross Jesus gave the word, “I am thirsty” and someone with whom he had pre-arranged the plot took a sponge with the appropriate drug on it, and upon drinking it, Jesus became comatose. He passed out, appeared to all to be dead, but in the cool tomb resuscitated, and made his escape. There has always been a lot of fascination with Judas. Even recent books & movies suggest that Judas was co-conspirator with Jesus.
The church’s response.
To all of these voices the church spoke back. In my vernacular, they insist that Jesus was “deader than a door nail.”
The four Gospels that leave behind a record of that event insist upon the absoluteness of his death.
In John’s Gospel, it appears that he has died pretty quickly. So his legs need not be broken to speed it up. But Roman Soldiers made their living by being expert at death. The Centurion in charge knows that the criminal is not only to be crucified, but must be executed and die. So he performs the coupe de grace, shoving his javelin up under the 7th rib, into the heart. The blood gushes out and he knows the man in dead for sure.
In Mark’s Gospel, Pilate hears that Jesus has died. It too thinks it a bit too sudden. This is what Mark writes, “Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the Centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph of Arimathea.” (Mark 15:44-45) Both the Centurion and Pontius Pilate are sure he is dead.
In Matthew’s Gospel it is clear that the priesthood of Israel who officiated at his dying knew him to be dead, but were afraid that the disciples might steal the body in the dark of the night. So they ask Pilate for a quaternion of soldiers to guard the tomb, and then to make sure the grave was not invaded they set a seal over the stone. On Easter Sunday, after Jesus is raised from the tomb, we meet those same soldiers who are now bribed to keep the resurrection event secret and are asked to pass around the false story that the disciples up and made off with the corpse.
The church in telling these stories let the readers know that Jesus was dead and the body was buried, and to this truth both Israel’s leaders and the Roman officials bore witness.
So the preoccupation of the creed in the face of alternatives is to say it every which way to Sunday. Jesus, who is the Son of God and son of Mary, suffered under Pilate, he was crucified, he was dead and he was buried in a tomb.
(Some say he wasn’t really buried. Not in the ground, 6 feet deep. That is true. The bodies of the dead might be placed in a cave or shallow grave, where the flesh would dissolved off the skeleton. The bones would then be disassembled, and placed in a small chest called ossuaries. These would be stored away in the ground or cave.)
But why bother with the fight over whether he died or not?
Listen to St. Paul as he writes to the Church in Corinth. “I handed on to you as of first importance, what I also received: That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures.” First importance!
In fact Paul will declare throughout the thirteen books that bear his name, “I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He glories in the cross of Christ. He tells one congregation, “the message of the cross is foolishness to some, but to we who believe, it is the power of God.” (I Cor. 1) He can also say, “We preach Christ, crucified.” And to another congregation, “May I never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Gal 6:14)
Paul knew that the central event of history was not a life lived to the full, but a death, that on the surface seemed so meaningless, but which had become the one event that made sense out of the rest of life. In fact the entire New Testament is aflame with the truth that the most important event in life, was death. His death. But they did not invent the idea of its importance. It came from Jesus Himself.
The Centrality of His death according to Jesus
There are only two events from the entire life of Jesus that he asks his disciples to remember. They occur very close to each other in time. The first one involves a woman who coming into a banquet gathering begins to weep and wets the feet of Jesus with her tears. And then she breaks open a vial of very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus with it. Some protest the waste. But Jesus responds, “Why do you trouble the woman. She has performed a good service… by pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
The second event also deals with his impending death. It is the night of the betrayal. Jesus takes bread and wine and initiates the first communion service. Listen to the words, “He took a loaf of bread, and when He had given thanks, he broke it and said “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper saying “This cup is the New covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Jesus is ensuring that with all of the forgetfulness of the human mind, that the event of his death will not be forgotten. He makes sure that His death is not made incidental in the recitation of our encounter with him. It is Jesus Himself who asks us to focus our minds on his death. The night of the betrayal is brought home to our minds every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper.
It is Jesus own way of saying that the event of His death is the central event in His life and ours.
But why important? The theology of the Church comes into play here.
There are many reasons why it was necessary for Jesus to be dead and buried. I cannot share most of them with us because of time, but let me note a few.
- First reason: Adam brought death into life; Jesus must bring life out of death. He must die, as all mortals must. The curse in Eden was, “You shall surely die.” The word from Jesus is “You shall surely live!” The Eastern Church in the 2nd century coined a phrase “What he did not assume, he did not heal.” What they mean is that if Jesus came to redeem everything about human life, from birth, and family, and childhood, and work, and poverty and suffering, he could not stop short of taking death in his hands and in his own death reverse the curse that has plagued all humanity.
- Second Reason: Absolution of sin throughout the Old Testament demands the death of the sacrifice. “Without the shedding of blood, without the taking of life, there is no remission of sins.” If he was the Lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world, then death was not an option, and his death was no fiction.
- Third Reason: Judaism was unsure about life after death. The Sadducees said that death ends it all. On the other hand the Pharisees said, the soul survives death, but it was seen by many as mere wishful thinking. But the church announced the historical reality: We saw him die. We saw him rise. He promised to us life after death, and his being raised is the historical evidence that there is life beyond death. If death is indeed the last enemy, the unconquerable foe, then Jesus faced it, experienced the worst it could do, and rose victorious, and St Paul can sing out, “Death where is your sting, Grave where is your victory?” Death is no longer to be feared.
- There is a fourth reason for the redundancy in the creed as it describes the death of Christ. They saw Jesus making the great descent. He descended from heaven to earth, then descended into a life of poverty that led to suffering, Then from suffering descended further into death, even to death on a cross. And then from death he descended into the grave, and from the grave he descended into hell.
Hear the words of St. Paul who introduces us to the descent into death and His ascent into Glory.
Let the same attitude be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The descent for Paul underscored the profound love of God that would stoop to our need, to go deeper than our deepest circumstances, to lift us up. He would take part in our suffering, so that our joy might be full. This is the good news of the Gospel our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!