In the early hostile years of the nascent church, believers used to greet each other with these opening words: "Christ is risen." And the response was, "He is risen indeed."
Thus, that joyful, triumphant greeting and response was heard in the crowded streets of Corinth; it echoed along the white marble Arcadian way that ran down from the theater to the harbor in Ephesus; it was uttered in the midst of the gathered throng on the Temple Hill at Jerusalem and was spoken along the caravan trade routes and from passing ships, at the crossroads of the desert, and among the servants in Caesar's household.
"Christ is risen."
"He is risen indeed."
Kingdom of the dead
The resurrection tidings are far and away the most astonishing news to ever break across the tired, old face of this earth. No book ever had a climax of such triumph as that one recorded in all four gospels, which is why that greeting and response became the identifying salutation of the Christian community and why those words set men and women singing at their tasks, why they gave meaning to daily living, and why they opened long vistas of vast possibilities to those sinking beneath life's ever-heavier load. Those words brought courage to the suffering, and in the early Christian centuries many suffered greatly for their faith. Those simple words sustained the martyr in his ordeal and assigned spiritual purpose to the final mysteries of life and love.
Always, human beings have hoped that maybe, just maybe, life is lord of death, and Love will not lose its own. It has been a hope almost too good to be true. The Egyptian monarchs building their pyramids and putting the utensils of home in graves expressed a wistful hope that this life is not all. The American Indians speaking of a happy hunting ground were giving voice to a universal longing. Everywhere people have hoped that maybe this short, pathetic, little life is not all. With such shadowy notions built on a hope too good to be true, no wonder Achilles, speaking to Odysseus, cries out, "Don't speak to me of death! I would sooner be a hireling servant of the poorest peasant than the ruler of all the Kingdoms of the dead!"
Death seems such a western sky, with darkness over our heads. It seems so final, so separative. The hope that we can withstand its assault is so weak that even when the good news of Resurrection broke forth, humanity could hardly believe it. The arguments, most of them old hat, still rage.
A popular book years ago was Hugh Schonfeld's The Passover Plot. Based on knowledge of pharmacy and entombment methods in first-century Palestine, it tries to explain away the Resurrection: Jesus rigged his "execution," and things went wrong, according to this theory. But the book does not explain how a botched plan like that could have turned a disciple out of a skilled and objective scholar, a man of the world like Paul who surely would have heard what really happened from the smart young fellows in Jerusalem.
This is just another version of the timeworn theory that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. In order to substantiate Christ's Messianic claims, the theory states, His friends performed a fraud on all of the authorities and on all of history by spiriting away the body of Jesus and reburying it. The one trouble with this theory is that great courage and boldness are given to men who were scared to be present at Jesus' trial before He was even convicted. They were absent at Calvary because of grief and fear. If the disciples stole the body of Jesus, we need to know what drug it was that could make frightened men so brave. Every army ought to have it, and every girl laboring with a shy lad ought to know what it was! Further, are we to to believe that these disciples would have suddenly changed from men afraid to stand up for what might be true into men willing to die for what they knew better than anyone else was not true?
That Sunday morning
We will never know, perhaps, the exact sequence of events on that resurrection morning. There are differences of detail in the various accounts, but all agree that something happened on that Sunday. Matthew says, for instance, that one angel descended, rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. Luke says that two men in shining raiment stood by the empty tomb. Was it one or two? Matthew and Luke's accounts differ, but both agree that something stupendous happened in the cemetery.
There are superficial discrepancies in the accounts. Mark says that there was one heavenly figure at the tomb when Mary and the other Mary got there, and Mark says that he was a young angel. Interesting comment, for where God lives, aging is not. This one attendant at the grave spoke and said, "You seek Jesus. He is not here." John, treating the same subject, says there were two angels and one asked the question, "Why weepest thou?" a strange question, since a cemetery is a place where the strongest men weep and the stoutest heart quakes and cracks. The accounts are not exact, but that does not destroy the event. The Warren Commission and Attorney General Garrison disagree on details, but neither denies that John F. Kennedy died in Dallas.
The Resurrection is not an addendum, a postscript; it is the heart of the gospel. Something happened that changed frightened men into fearless ones. Friday they were fleeing danger; a few days later they were running into danger with the Word of Life, laughing where before they had been cursing. One day they had barred the doors in a paralysis of terror; the next they have taken to the highway, heralds of their risen Lord.
Like Moses marching through the walled waters at the Red Sea, so Christ came forth on Sunday morning to march through death's swollen river and lead all the ransomed in his train. As the purpling sky grows light, He puts one foot on the fallen power of death and another foot on the open and empty grave, lifts the keys of authority above his head, and shouts until the heavens laugh and the farthest planet sings the music of the spheres. He cries with captivity captive, the old prison imprisoned, with death's death. He cries, "I am he that liveth, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore,... and have the keys of death and hell."
Jesus, the Fairest of the Sons of men, on Friday was buried in a cemetery. On Sunday the angels say "Not here." Over and over you have given the Mother Earth some frail clay, a once live and laughing presence, but then a still and cold body, then the hope, "Not here."
Thanks be to God. When I walk in a cemetery and think of those I have loved and lost, I hear a voice, "Not here." Midst tombs and sadness I remember how those I loved panted out their last, but "Not here." No more bondage to the savagery of death. "Not here." No more frightened helpless submission to the triumphs of disease and hell. Not here! No more frightened fugitives from an everlasting Captivity, "Not here."
Hear the first preachers of the Resurrection, the angels, as they lift trumpet voice, "Not here. He is risen." The next time you are called upon to follow some beloved but lifeless form and stand at a grave whose dust is forever sanctified, may you hear the an gels' trumpet, "Not here." Somewhere else where storm clouds never rise, but "Not here." Somewhere else where the day never dies and the song never stills, but "Not here."
Because "Christ is risen."
"He is risen indeed."