The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/27/05
Text: Matthew 28:1-10 ; Acts 10:34-43
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Somewhere or other I heard of a Sunday School teacher who had just finished telling her third graders about how Jesus was crucified and placed in a tomb with a great stone sealing off the only way in or out. Then, wanting to share the excitement of the resurrection, and the surprise of Easter morning, she asked: "And what do you think were Jesus' first words when he came bursting out of that tomb alive."

A hand shot up into the air from the rear of the classroom. It belonged to a most excited little girl. Leaping out of her chair she shouted out excitedly, "I know, I know, I know."

"Good," said the teacher, "Tell us."

Extending her arms high in the air she sang out: "TA - DA!"

In the words of the ancient and historic Apostles' Creed in which many of us were nurtured, "The third day he rose again from the dead." Wow. Someone has suggested that if the cross was a heart-breaker, the resurrection is a MIND-breaker.(1) Absolutely.

It WAS for the ones who heard about it first. They knew what had happened. They were eye-witnesses, albeit from a distance. The arrest, the trial, the torture, the murder. And murder it surely was. Jesus was dead. Dead as a doornail. If the crucifixion had not done him in, that spear through the side had settled the issue.

After the horror was over, a caring friend named Joseph, of the town of Arimathea (which is no longer on any map), requested of Pilate that he be granted Jesus' body for burial. Pilate acceded to the request, the remains were removed from the cross, wrapped in a white linen shroud, and laid in Joseph's own new tomb. A large stone was rolled in front of the entrance to prevent unwanted intrusion.

There were still issues though. The religious leaders who had instigated the crucifixion came to Pilate and reminded the governor, "Sir, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."(2) No problem. Pilate assigned some soldiers to guard the tomb and seal that stone.

The body lay there from Friday evening until Sunday morning, three days, by Jewish reckoning. And then suddenly, the tomb is empty, the body gone. TA - DA!

How is that possible? Perhaps he was not really dead to start with. Perhaps he only went into a deep swoon on the cross, and regained consciousness while in the cool damp of the borrowed tomb. He awoke, got up, rolled the stone away, and walked off. Right past the Roman guards, men for whom falling asleep at their post was a capital offense. Uh-huh. Listen, as badly beaten up and wounded as Jesus was, having lost an incredible amount of blood, having gone without food or water for several days, and as dangerous as it would have been for those legionnaires, that requires more of a leap of faith than coming back from the dead.

Perhaps some wild dogs got in there and ate the corpse - gruesome, but not unheard of in those days. Still, those would have had to be some incredibly fastidious animals, not leaving even a shred of meat or bone or hair on the floor for someone to notice. And which of the dogs would have folded the cloth that had covered Jesus' head, rolled it and laid it carefully to one side - one of them must have done it, because that is what Peter and John found when they came into the tomb.(3) Talented dogs. Another leap of faith, eh?

Of course, there is the possibility that Jesus' friends came to the wrong tomb. As the ladies came into the garden at dawn on the first day of the week, their grief had so disoriented them that they went to the wrong place, jumped to a hasty conclusion, then ran back to tell the others. But that would mean that Peter and John would have been equally directionally-challenged because they certainly could have and happily WOULD have corrected the ladies in their error, if they had made one.

One more obvious possibility: the one that the religious leaders tried to disseminate - Jesus' friends simply stole the body, re-buried it in some secret location, and began to circulate this incredible tale of resurrection, the stone miraculously rolled away, strange angelic beings saying things like, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said." Amazingly, for folks who were pulling a gigantic hoax, this is the story they would ALL stick to, everyone of them, without anyone ever breaking ranks, and which would finally cost most of them their lives. A hoax? Yeah. Sure.

You know, for me it takes less faith to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead than to believe any of those stories that would try to explain the miraculous event away. Do you believe it? Really? If so, you have a lot of company. According to a new Newsweek poll out this week, 78% of Americans believe it.(4) Four out of five. So what DO you believe? John Killinger suggests that we have three possible answers to that question:(5)

  1. It did not happen. It is merely a fiction invented by the early church.
  2. It did happen, and therefore we do not understand the world we live in as well as we thought we did.
  3. It did happen, but only because there is a Power so great that it can contravene the laws of the world as we know it.

Now, from the viewpoint of those closest to Jesus, it did happen. There can be no doubt about that. They knew that people do not normally revive after they have died - especially after three days. This is why they reacted as they did. Running hither and thither, like chickens with their heads cut off.

Will Willimon tells the story of a boy in his high school chemistry class.(6) During some experiment gone wrong, there was an explosion in the back of the room. Nothing serious, just a loud bang. And this young lad, seated at the front, bolted out the door, ran down the hall, and was not heard from again that day.

"What on earth were you thinking about?" the teacher asked him the next day.

"I wasn't thinking about anything," he said. "I was just running. I didn't know what to do, so I ran."

Mary, what were you thinking about when you found the tomb empty and heard the angel say, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay." What were you thinking, Mary?

"I did not know what to think, so I just ran."

Peter, John, what were you thinking when the women came to you with the report of the empty tomb?

"What COULD we think, besides the fact that they were probably crazy? We just ran."

We know what they found.

Did the resurrection occur as we have always heard? I say YES. There are four major pieces of evidence. First, there was the empty tomb. No fewer than four followers saw the empty tomb and reported it. We have already noted the attempts to explain that away, but, in my view, none are in the least compelling.

Second, there were all the appearances of the risen Christ - to the women in the garden; to two disciples on the road to Emmaus; to ten of the disciples in the upper room; to those ten again, plus Thomas a week later; to several disciples by the Sea of Galilee; and then to more than five hundred followers at once.

Third, there was the incredible change in the attitudes and behavior of the followers. Before the crucifixion, they acted from cowardice and confusion. After the resurrection, they were transformed into pillars of power; they were courageous and decisive, ready to die for their faith. The same Peter who, in saving his own skin, had denied he even knew Jesus, not much later would boldly publicly proclaim,

We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen--by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Something had happened to Peter. Something had happened to all of them. Something changed them. And we know what it was.

Fourth, there is the very existence of the church. These friends of Jesus - faithful, monotheistic Jews, every one - had been raised with the understanding that one thing and one thing alone cemented their identity before the world as the people of God - the observance of the Sabbath. Now, they begin a tradition of worship on the 1st day of the week instead of the 7th. They took this extraordinary step of changing the holy day from Saturday to Sunday and calling it THE LORD'S DAY. Only a mind-boggling event could have been responsible for such a shift. And we know what that event was, don't we?

So saying, there are still questions to which we have no answers. Scripture never tells us HOW Jesus was resurrected, just that it happened. And what about Christ's resurrection body? It appears to be the same as before but there must be something different. It could pass through locked doors unhindered. In almost every account Jesus is not recognized at first - not by Mary, not by the two disciples going to Emmaus, nor by the bigger groups of disciples gathered in the upper room and beside the Sea. Why? I do not know. What I DO know is this: Jesus "was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose again from the dead."

Killinger suggests that we opt for one of three possibilities: it did not happen; it happened, but we do not understand; it happened because divine power MADE it happen. For me, I would like to opt for both the second and the third. I admit I do not fully understand the nature of the world we live in, and I am convinced that God intervened in an unusual way to rescue Jesus from the grave. "I believe...the third day he rose again from the dead."

And I believe one more thing. I believe Jesus was telling the truth when he said, "Because I live, you will also live."(7) Death is not the final word. Not for him. Not for us.

Over this past week, the nation has been mesmerized by the sad case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged wife of a man who would like to allow her to die after being in what doctors call a "persistent vegetative state" following a heart attack. She is also the daughter of parents who want to keep her alive, no matter what. For fifteen years, Terri Schiavo has been caught somewhere between heaven and earth because modern medicine knows how to do it. Whether it SHOULD have done it is an issue for another day. But on THIS day, the message of Easter is that, if the politicians and the courts ever get out of the way, poor Terri will be immeasurably better off. After all, because of Easter, the message is that death is not a period but a comma, not the end, but a beginning.

Ever heard of Clarence Jordan? Clarence was a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar and the founder of Koinonia Farm, a small but influential religious community in southwest Georgia that was active in promoting racial justice in the days when that was more than a bit dangerous. Clarence was also the author of the Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament which offered a modern rendering with a distinctly southern accent. For example, here is how he translates today's lesson:
As the Sabbath ended, at the crack of dawn on Sunday, Mary, "that girl from Magdala," and the other Mary came to visit the vault. And you know, a big commotion happened. An angel of the Lord came down out of the sky and went and rolled away the stone, and sat down on top of it. His face was like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so shook up that they looked like corpses. But the angel said to the ladies, "Don't y'all be scared one bit, because I know that you're looking for Jesus who was lynched. He isn't here. He was raised just as he told you..."(8)
In 1968 Millard and Linda Fuller visited Koinonia, planning only to stay for a couple hours. Inspired by Dr. Jordan, however, the Fullers chose to make Koinonia their permanent home. Soon the organization changed its name to Koinonia Partners and started "Partnership Housing," a project to build quality, affordable homes for low-income area families. That eventually led to the creation of Habitat for Humanity which, in the years since, has seen the construction or rehabilitation of more than 200,000 homes for low-income families around the world.

Sadly, Clarence Jordan did not live to see the completion of even the first house. On October 29, 1969, he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the Koinonia property, a used refrigerator box for his casket. The citizens of southwest Georgia treated him in death as they had in life: his funeral was attended only by his family, the Koinonia partners, and the poor of the community.

At his funeral, a beautiful thing happened.(9) As expected, people were weeping and moaning as men shoveled soil on top of the make-shift casket. Suddenly, a little girl - Millard and Linda Fuller's two-year-old daughter Faith - stepped up to the grave. She had sensed that this was a special day for her friend, Clarence, so boldly and loudly in her little two-year-old voice she sang to him:

"Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, dear Clarence,
Happy birthday to you."

Little Faith Fuller was right, wasn't she? For God's people, death is not the end, it's a beginning. It's a birthday! And that is what we celebrate today. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! TA - DA! Happy Easter.


1. Chad Walsh quoted by John Killinger, You Are What You Believe: The Apostles' Creed for Today, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), p. 70

2. Matthew 27:63-64

3. John 20:7

4. Newsweek, March 28, 2005, p. 43

5. Killinger, p. 67

6. William Willimon, "Getting to Easter," 3/30/97, via Internet,

7. John 14:19

8. Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, (Chicago : Follett Publishing Co., 1970), p. 96

9. James W. Moore, "The Healing Power of the Resurrection,"

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