Friday, May 6, 2016

Powder and Bone: An Easter Message

Let’s face it, death is forever. No matter how much you want, those who we lose do not come back to us—not in this life. All the talk of ghosts and visitations are hallucinations or wishful thinking.  Once we have left, we don’t come back, and we have to learn to get on without them.

I am getting older, and the reality of death draws ever nearer to me. In the past month, I have lost permanently two friends to death. I mourn their loss but I never expect to see them again this life. They will lie in the grave until their bodies turn to powder and bone.

The reason we celebrate Easter Sunday is because it is the one permanent exception to this rule in all the history of humankind. It is the one time when a loved one came back from the dead and stayed back. Recognizing this fact helps us appreciate the wonder of Easter.   

See it from the perspective of Jesus’ disciples.  They lived in a world where the child mortality rate was nearly fifty percent. Half of all people died before the age of ten. One quarter of all women died in childbirth. The people who survived could expect to live on the average about thirty-five years. Sixty years was extreme old age. Little children had the same acquaintance with death as we see today in old people. The idea of people returning from the dead was insane, crazy, nothing but idle superstition.  Death was real and resurrection imaginary. 

And Jesus was dead. He was condemned to die by the Romans, who were the masters of death. They had ways of executing prisoners that made crucifixion look gentle. Bus since crucifixion was cheap and slow, it was their preferred method of execution. They crucified tens of thousands of people and no one ever escaped. They knew how to crucify people efficiently and thoroughly.  

A crucified person was nailed to a wooden plank suspended in the air and exposed to the elements until he died. It could take days. After death, the body was not usually taken down, but allowed to rot in the sun as a warning sign to others.  No one ever questions whether it would work—the evidence was clear. It would often take weeks before the last horrible bone fell from the stake where it was nailed. The person stayed up until all that was left was powder and bone. No one living in Palestine at that time would ever question that a person who was crucified was dead. They were considered dead from the moment they were condemned.

Jesus died on the cross—there was no doubt. Since it was the day before the Passover, they had to make sure he was dead by nightfall. A Roman soldier thrust a spear in his side about mid-afternoon to make sure. Blood and water came out, showing evidence that he had penetrated the heart. It was an unmistakable testimony that he was actually dead.  

Jesus had some rich friends who intervened with the Roman officials that Jesus be given a decent burial. After death he was taken down and given to Joseph of Arimathea who permitted Jesus a burial place in his family tomb, instead of being thrown into a garbage pit like most crucified men. His friends were allowed to wash and prepare his body for burial and Joseph and Nicodemus probably provided the preparatory spices. According to custom a dead person’s family would treat the body. They would wrap up the body with spices inside the wrappings.  These spices were not for the preservation of the body but to encourage decay. Then after the spices were applied, more spices were piled on top. The reason for this was because burial space was limited and expensive. Bodies were not kept in the tomb forever, but when they had completely turned to powder and bone, usually in about eighteen months to two years, they were removed and put in a box along with the bones of their ancestors. If the crucifixion had not already killed him, the preparation would. Then the body was sealed in the tomb to let nature do its work. And the opening was sealed by a stone. 

The Romans were suspicious about Jesus’ burial. It was feared that someone would steal the body. They placed a guard around tomb, and a Roman seal on the stone. They wanted to make sure that no one could steal the body until it was completely decomposed. Then his bones could be disposed of and Jesu would be forgotten. 

Let’s think about grief for a moment. We have all experienced it—the loss of parents, loss of job, loss of marriage, loss of dreams, loss of childhood. Grief is the universal byproduct of love. We cannot live on earth and have any love in our lives without sometime experiencing the permanency of loss and death. The only reasonable way of dealing with grief is to go on living. We mourn our losses, but we also seek closure--to shut the door on the old and go on living. 

At this moment, the disciples were not looking for the resurrection. They were looking for closure.

But when Passover came, Jesus followers had just begun the rituals of grief. They huddled in the upper room one last time to make their plans for the future. A week before, none believed that Jesus would die, so there were many practical considerations to be made. Did he leave a will? What would happen to their shared property? Would the movement go on? Probably not—Jesus was the movement. There was no point in carrying on their ministry without Jesus at the center of it. He was the ministry. The rest of them were just simply fishermen.

 The women who traveled with the disciples were really the ones who saw to the burial. They had wrapped and spiced the body, but they did not have time to finish the job before sunset when Passover fell. Sunday morning they left for the tomb, hoping and praying that the Romans would let them enter and finish their job. No one among them, not in their wildest dreams ever expected anything but that Jesus would stay dead. Their process of grief had begun, though recovery from grief had not. They were still going through the necessary motions of performing the rituals that grief required.

But when they got to the tomb, things got strange. They expected to find the tomb just as they had left it, but it wasn’t. The guards the Romans placed there were gone. Roman guards didn’t desert their posts. The stone--as large as an office desk and as heavy as a small car--had been pushed away. The door of the tomb was open. Two strange figures in white were standing in the opening. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” one of them said. “He is not here. He is risen, just as he said.” 

The women disconnected from these words at first. Was this a cruel joke? Was this a mass hallucination? Yet when they looked inside the tomb, there was no body there.

The women ran back to town to tell the disciples, all except Mary Magdalene, who was the leader of the women. She stayed for a while, weeping. As she did, Jesus stood before her, calling her name. She rushed to hug Him, but He refrained her. She rushed to tell the others. 

It isn’t clear whether the other women of Mary got to the disciples first, but one thing is for sure—they were not believed. If you were the disciples, would you believe? You had just watched your friend die. You had seen the body. Would you believe?  These women had to be hysterical.

Peter and John went to investigate. They didn’t walk--they ran to the tomb. The situation was exactly as described. The body was missing, and that wasn’t the strangest part. It was the way the body disappeared that really amazed them. The winding sheet just fell in on itself, as if the body had dematerialized out of the center of it. The face covering had been neatly folded and set aside. Why would anyone steal a body and leave the wrappings? If they wanted to, how could they do it? Only then did they remember Jesus’ words. “In three days I will rise again.” They thought he was talking figuratively. Yet here it was in three days, and He was gone. 

These two reported back to the others. None of them knew what to believe. Thomas refused to believe. We call him “doubting Thomas”—I call him “sensible”.  Who would believe on such evidence that a fundamental law of nature had been broken? He refused to believe without more proof.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, something was happening that was even more amazing. Two disciples were walking home to their village when a stranger joined them on the road. At first He seemed just like everyone else, but then they noticed how knowledgeable he was about the Bible, and how sure he was about Jesus’ resurrection. They invited him to join them in a meal and as he broke the bread, their eyes were opened and suddenly they knew it was Jesus!  Not only had they carried on a conversation with Him, but He also ate bread with them. This was no ghost—this was their Lord in the flesh! 

As they heard this report, suddenly Jesus appeared among them! They were stunned! They all believed them, except Thomas who had already left in despair. Jesus had broken the fundamental law of death, and was now alive and healthy before them.

Of course, Thomas was skeptical. It’s always a good idea to be skeptical when someone claims a miracle. There are too many people in our world claiming too many ridiculous things to be true. It’s only when there is no other explanation that we ought to proclaim a miracle. But in this case, there was no other explanation. Jesus was alive. Here was living proof in front of them. Their friend whom they thought dead was standing in their midst. Later that night Thomas returned, and so did Jesus. Thomas felt the wounds in the hands and the side and believed. 

We all experience loss of everything we love.  We lose our friends, our families, our jobs, our reputations. All we have built in life eventually goes to “hell in a handbasket.” But it doesn’t all go away. God never leaves. The same Jesus in whom we trusted stays alive. If God has the power to resurrect Christ from the grave, He also has the power to resurrect our hopes, our dreams, our happiness, and eventually—yes—our bodies and souls as well to eternal life. 

All creatures die, and all God created that is not alive passes away as well. Oceans dry up, mountains turn to dust, cities and civilization rise and fall. Churches disband, relatives die, youth fades in time to old age, yet there is one thing that remains constant for all eternity—the love and hope of God. If Christ can resurrect His Son from the grave, then He can and will resurrect our hopes and desires from the pit of despair. 

Christ’s rising is a sign to us all that no matter how bleak our lives may appear, there is always hope of resurrection. Not everything turns to powder and bone, but those things that God preserves are kept by Him forever.

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