Sunday, March 23, 2008



© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

Easter Day, March 23, 2008
Matthew 27:62—28:15

One of my favorite Sherlock Holmes sayings usually comes early on in those stories. After some build-up about a case which the famous detective may at first seem to reject as already closed, there comes a point where something happens which gets the mystery of the story underway, and he is heard to say with some delight, “The game is afoot!”

Closed is exactly what the Jerusalem officials thought the case of the Jesus movement was after his humiliating death. Closed, done, over with, of no further interest. Yet the God of creation is never really closed out of our world, no matter how things may look to us. What appeared closed was opened. A plot the officials worried the disciples might hatch by stealing Jesus’ body turned out to be the explanation they themselves offered for his disappearance from the cemetery. While it appeared that all had been said and done about him, it turned out more had been said than done, and the game was afoot, Jesus was loosed in the world in a way that was beyond comprehending.

In John Masefield’s imaginative drama, The Trial of Jesus, there’s an interesting exchange between two legendary persons. Longinus, the traditional name of the Roman centurion who was in charge of the crucifixion, the one who is supposed to have said, “truly this was the Son of God,” (Mt 27:54) returns to the court of Pilate to give his report. There he is drawn aside by Procula, Pilate’s wife. She asks him, “Do you think he is dead?” Longinus replies, “No, Lady, I don’t.” “Then where is he?” she asks. He says, “Lady, he’s let loose in the world.”

Footloose, that’s what Jesus was, and is, defying all our attempts to keep him in some safe place.

I have sometimes been puzzled by one hymns that many of us often mention as one of our favorites, titled “In the Garden,”1 which includes lines like this: “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses...” It makes the resurrection sound like a sort of ode to Springtime and contemplation, to peace and tranquility. Not in this gospel: we may well come to the garden tomb seeking Jesus, but we are likely to miss the condition of the roses when God delivers an earthquake!

The scenes in today’s gospel are filled with irony.

  • The religious leaders are afraid the disciples will form a plan to deceive others, yet by the end, it is the very deception they feared which they themselves employ to discredit the anticipated testimony of the disciples;
  • they, along with the Roman governor Pilate, are obsessed with security: “Make it as secure as you can!” he instructs them. Yet it turns out that Pilate’s arms are too short to box with God, who turns human attempts at security into keystone cops farce.
  • The very guards who were supposed to secure the tomb shook as violently as the earthquake itself and “became like dead men.” So that they, who were supposed to be living, became more dead than the former occupant of the tomb.

Several years ago a German movie was produced, telling the story of the role of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Over the years, freedom prayer meetings at the church crescendoed until the night of October 8, 1989, when 70,000 people filled the streets with candles and prayers. In the movie the security officer testifies about his desire to use force, but his inability to do anything other than stare out at the immense crowd in front of his headquarters in frozen amazement: “We were prepared for everything,” he said, ... “everything except for candles and prayers.”

While Jesus was footloose in the world that thought him dead, the guards whose job it was to keep death secure and in place were dead in their tracks in a world which thought them to be alive.

When Clarence Jordan died, he had to be buried in a plain box on a hillside near his farm. Jordan, Civil-rights crusader is also known as the author of the Cotton Patch Gospel, a Southern dialect version of the New Testament. In the 1960s Jordan, a white pastor, founded an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia farms. He was shunned by the culture all around him for his trouble. Threats were made to his life. In 1969 he died of a heart attack. No local funeral director would help, so he was buried in a plain box. His friend, Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at the funeral. When he was finished, it was time to lower the casket, and Fuller’s two year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing the only song she knew. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...” Later, Fuller reflected on the appropriateness of that birthday thought on that particular occasion. Jordans work has outlived him and is still footloose in the world.

It’s not that we don’t have to take death into account. The truth of it is, there will come a day for each of us when death will take us into account, whether we take it into account or not.

I remember walking into the kitchen in the home of some friends, and seeing these words taped on their refrigerator door: “Eat right, get exercise, stay slim, die anyway.” In our health-obsessed society, a column in the newspaper about weight loss or exercise or reducing stress will always find a broad readership. Yet still we die. Unless we have done something about death, what have we accomplished? Longer lives? So we can spend more time in nursing homes, or additional years struggling to survive on Social Security?

Once, when he was traveling by car in the South part of England, Will Willimon, pastor of the chapel at Duke University, discovered his car was having mechanical difficulties. As he awaited the arrival of a mechanic, he wandered into the cemetery of the nearby village church. He described his experience there this way:

“Over in one corner of the cemetery there was a beautiful, low, brick wall enclosing fifty graves. The grass had nearly choked the plot. A large granite slab, set in the wall, bore the words, ‘WE SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR SACRIFICE.’ Here were fifty graves of young men from New Zealand. They were all around the ages of 17 to 25 and all from New Zealand. Who were these and why did they die here, in this little English village, so far from home? There was no clue at the churchyard as to who they were or the circumstances of their deaths. I wandered down into the village. I found the town’s museum and inquired there. The attendant at the museum told me, ‘Strange that you should ask, I have no idea, but given a few days I could certainly find out.’ As I was not going to be there for a few days, I asked a couple of other people in town. No one knew. I surmised that they were soldiers who were stationed in this little town during World War I. Victims of the flu epidemic in 1918. And no one knew. The impressive inscription in granite was a lie. We had forgotten their sacrifice. No one could remember.2

No matter how we may promise not to do so, we forget. If someone’s name is on a building or on a chair at a university or on a monument or buried in session minutes or locked away in a vault along with their last will and testament, given enough time, we will forget. Who can list even one of the important people in the world in the 7th century? Standing here right now, I can’t think of one, although I am sure there were many. But we forget. The present business of the living is more pressing.

I wonder if, as they made their way to the cemetery that early morning, the women were speaking of Jesus, trying to recall for each other the way he phrased things, the sound of his voice, a certain look in his eye. I wonder if they recalled how he ate, and the way he greeted his friends. I wonder if, for them, as for so many of us, they found that their dead friend’s memory was already starting to slip through their fingers. I remember trying to recall the look on my own mother’s face the night that she died, and sometimes I can just about see her, but most of the time it is a blur. We forget, not because we are bad or faithless, but because neither our memories nor our very own selves are made of eternal stuff.

We require something outside ourselves to remember us, something outside of friends and family who will also perish one day, along with their memories. Jesus needed this too. Matthew says the angel spoke to the women, “He is not here; for he has been raised...” Been raised, as in, he was really dead and God acted to bring him out, to raise him up. This is not some linguistic hair-splitting, but an important theological distinction. Jesus was truly dead, had given himself to death, and passed beyond any ability to raise himself. God raised him, and it is in that which our hope lies.

Raised, and loosed in the world. That is the miracle of it. Footloose and already handing out marching orders to those who would follow him. “Go to Galilee,” he said. It turns out that if we want to continue to see him, we can do so only by following him, by doing his bidding, by becoming his disciples. It is in the going and doing that we come to know Jesus. We don’t have videotapes of his eloquent speeches or photographs of his healed patients, just the fellowship of those who follow, and it is in our fellowship and in our ministry in his name that we know him; and in which he sets our feet free too.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 C. Austin Miles, 1913.
2 “He has Been Raised,” a sermon preached by William Willimon at Duke University Chapel Easter Day, 1996.