You have to feel a little sorry for Pontius Pilate. He’s trying to work his way up the career ladder, and he’s been handed the most fractious, intractable province in the entire Empire to try to govern. He’s on notice, because he’s already mishandled one incident and provoked an official complaint from the local leaders—which means he’s under their thumb to some degree, because they could easily wreck his career. He brought it on himself (I only said a little sorry), but still—here he’s trying to do his job, and all of a sudden those local leaders come to him and demand he put some poor schmuck on trial because they don’t like his theology. Rome didn’t give a hang about Jewish religious disputes, and neither did Pilate, but here these infuriating old men were insisting that if he didn’t do what they wanted, they were going to get him fired.
And was that the end of it? No! He’s washed his hands of the matter—literally (Mt. 27:24)—but no sooner does he think he’s done with it then they’re back in his office. They got the execution, but that’s not enough for them—now they want him to guard the tomb! Guard the tomb! You might as well guard a manhole cover. But he has to deal with them somehow, and he has to keep them happy. A lot of our English translations have Pilate saying, “You have a guard,” but I think the NIV has the right of it here: from the context, I think it’s pretty clear he gives them what they want, a squad of Roman soldiers to seal and guard the tomb.
He gave them sixteen members of the greatest fighting force on the planet—four watches of four men each to secure the area through the night. A Roman squad was supposed to be able to form a square, if cut off, and hold their ground against any opposing force indefinitely; they were well-trained, well-equipped, well-disciplined, and ruthless, far more than necessary to deal with anything Jesus’ disciples might try. It was overkill.
And why? What are the Jewish leaders afraid of? They claim they want to prevent a hoax, but really? To quote the Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner,
in the not so long run religious hoaxes always tend to burn themselves out—as the chief priests and Pharisees had good reason to know, living as they did in an age when would-be Messiahs were a dime a dozen. . . . Even if the disciples were successful in their theft of the body, and even if for a time their claim of resurrection flourished, it could not really flourish long without something more substantial than merely rumor to feed upon.
The threat of a hoax wouldn’t have been worth their time.
No, there has to be something more here. Their real fear has to be something else—something they aren’t telling Pilate, and probably aren’t really admitting even to themselves. It’s ridiculous, but—Jesus had worked some powerful miracles; what if, somehow, he actually did come back to life? What if even killing him wasn’t enough to stop him? I doubt any of them had the courage to face that fear even for a moment, and I’m sure they would have laughed in the face of anyone who dared suggest it, but that had to be haunting the backs of their minds for them to go to such absurd lengths as this. If you’re afraid of a miracle—how are you going to stop it?
The thing is, they were going about it all wrong. As Buechner puts it in his sermon “The End Is Life,”
maybe it is not as hard as they feared. . . . I suspect that many of us could tell them that all in all there is a lot one can do in defense against miracle, and, unless I badly miss my guess, there are thousands upon thousands of ministers doing precisely that at any given instant—making it as secure as they can, that is, which is really quite secure indeed. . . . The point is not to try to prevent the thing from happening—like trying to stop the wind with a machine gun—but, every time it happens, somehow to explain it away, to deflect it, defuse it, in one way or another to dispose of it. And there are at least as many ways of doing this as there are sermons preached on Easter Sunday.
He’s right. As he goes on to say, you can spiritualize the Resurrection away without much effort at all. It’s a metaphor, it’s poetry—it’s a way of saying that the wisdom of Jesus is immortal like the works of Shakespeare, or that his example lives on in our hearts, or it symbolizes the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul—all of which miss the brute fact that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, there’s no foundation for any of that stuff. If he’s just one more great leader killed off by the establishment, then his story is just one more telling us that really, the sword is mightier than the pen after all.
All too often, we hear people reduce the Resurrection to a “miracle” of symbol and metaphor that leaves the substantial reality of our world untouched; and I’m with Buechner on this one.
If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. . . . If I thought that when you strip it right down to the bone, this whole religion business is really just an affirmation of the human spirit, an affirmation of moral values, an affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Great Exemplar of all time and no more, then like Pilate I would wash my hands of it. The human spirit just does not impress me that much, I am afraid. And I have never been able to get very excited one way or the other about moral values. And when I have the feeling that someone is trying to set me a good example, I start edging toward the door.
If the Resurrection is just a story, then it’s just what someone wants us to believe; it has no power to change the way things actually are. That’s the tragedy of modern versions of Christianity: but understand this, it’s also the reason for them. The reason we seek in so many ways to defend ourselves against miracle, against the reality of the Resurrection, is that just like the Jewish leaders, we’re afraid of what it might mean. If we can reduce it to an affirmation of the human spirit, or moral values, or the importance of hope, or the wisdom of Jesus, then we get to define what that means; it might not be able to do much for us, but it can’t do anything to us, either. We’ve made it something we can control—we’ve made it safe, tame, the seed of a nice, domesticated religion. Miracle pitches us right out of that; even uncontrollable joy is still out of our control.
That can be frightening enough; but if Jesus died and came back to life—not even was raised from the dead by another human being, amazing as that would be, but simply got up, by the direct power of God—then what is there that he can’t do? And if he really did that for us, with all the horror of the cross, then what might he ask of us? What he said about “anyone who would follow me must deny himself and take up his cross”—he might have meant that. When he said, “Love your enemies and bless those who hurt you,” he might actually expect us to do that. Jesus laid everything down for us, he turned everything inside out for us—how can we possibly accept that and take it seriously without our own lives being turned inside out and upside down?
Even if life is miserable, change is still frightening to most people; we know in our bones that however bad things might be, they could still get worse. “Better the devil you know,” and all that. Even when we know we don’t have much control over our lives, our egos tell us we need more control to make things better—not to give up what little we have. If the problem with our faith is that our God is too small, as I and others have said often enough, it’s only fair to say that we shrink him out of self-protection; Easter shows us a God untamed and untameable—we can’t possibly know what he might do.
The thing is, the desire for control of our lives is just another version of the primal temptation: to be our own gods. There’s no life in it; it is the road to death. The gospel doesn’t offer us a tame, reasonable faith that lets us feel like we’re in control and we understand what’s going on; Jesus doesn’t promise us a safe religion with a god who makes perfect sense to us. The gospel proclaims, and Jesus gives, life—life that has overcome death, and will overcome it. Life that takes the thousand and one little deaths that we suffer in this world and transmutes them into seeds of growth. Life that raises dead hopes, dead relationships, dead souls, not as they were before, but better—not merely earthly and human, but eternal and divine. “Safe” and “reasonable” are limited to our imagination; Jesus is good beyond our ability to imagine, and alive beyond our experience of life. Let go your grip on control, drop your defenses, and let the miracle of the Resurrection overwhelm you. Let go, and live.