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Bad Day for Grave Robbers
April 15, 2001
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
By Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to first Corinthians chapter 15 and follow along as I read verses 19-26. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
24 Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.
25 For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
They called him "Resurrection Man." In 1852, he was a 36-year-old slave, purchased for $700 (a considerable sum in those days) off an auction block in Charleston, South Carolina. His buyer was the Medical College of Georgia, and his mission was morbid but simple: to provide the medical school with fresh cadavers. Everyone knew that his real name was Grandison Harris, but once he got good at robbing the local black cemetery and bringing the bodies back to school, doctors playfully plastered him with the nickname Resurrection Man
The Resurrection Man was good. According to an eyewitness, he would go to the cemetery late at night. By the light of the moon he would quickly dig down to the upper end of the coffin, smash it with an ax, reach in with his long and powerful arms and draw the body out. He would put the cadaver in a big sack, place it in a cart, and then - after restoring the grave to good order--carry the body to the school.
Now obviously Grandison Harris was really a glorified grave robber, not a true Resurrection Man. He did not bring the dead to life, but instead desecrated a cemetery and then carted its cadavers back to the doctors of the medical college. The closest he came to witnessing a resurrection was when he took a break one night after completing a job. The story is that he parked his loaded wagon in an alley and went inside a saloon for some refreshment.
Two medical students had been watching Harris, and when he disappeared into the saloon they removed the body from his sack and hid it. Then one of them climbed into the sack. When Grandison returned to his wagon, the student groaned in a grave like voice:
"Grandison ... Grandison ... I'm cold. Buy me a drink!"
You can imagine Grandisons reaction. It was about the same as the soldiers and disciples who found an empty tomb on resurrection morning. Grandison was confused and scared witless, and so were they.
The authorities had an explanation for the missing body of Jesus: grave robbers! The disciples did it, they said. The chief priests and elders of Jerusalem gave a large sum of money to the guards who had witnessed the resurrection and insisted that they spread the story that "his disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep" (Matthew 28:13).
Now if you are into video games, when you think of grave robbers, you may think of Lara Croft and "Tomb Raider." This is an incredibly popular series of video games in which the shapely Lara - a character with both brains (she's an archaeologist) and beauty - goes on a quest for an artifact called "The Scion." Laura is armed with a pair of pistols, a compass, and a backpack. She exercises in her mansion, does amazing acrobatic tricks, and fights her way through Peru, China, Egypt, and other exotic spots. The film version, starring Academy Award-winning actress Angelina Jolie as Lara is about to be released. I suppose Dr. Laura Croft had been around in the first century, the authorities would probably have said that she robbed the tomb.
Of course, you may find the whole topic of graves and grave-robbers uncomfortable. The thought of tearing the top off a tomb is enough to make our skin crawl, and disturbing the dead in their place of final rest is one of the world's most enduring taboos.
In Utah, James and Jeanne Redd are accused of digging up an Anasazi Indian burial mound on state land in January 1996 and removing as many as 17 human bones from the prehistoric dwelling site. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Five years later, the case is still in the courts.
In China, three men were executed in central Hubei for robbing grave sites and destroying ancient corpses. In Beijing, at least 16 people were executed for stealing ancient Buddhist statues, robbing graves and destroying ancient corpses.
So, it is a bad day for grave robbers. Contemporary coffin-cracking criminals are being caught, and this is a good thing. We ought to slap the cuffs on thieves who plunder tombs for treasure--whether they are looking for bones that are valuable in themselves, or coins or jewelry or artwork that may have been interred with the body --as the Egyptians and other ancients often did.
Grave robbing has been the norm in Egypt since ancient times. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a 4,000-year-old cenotaph - a stone tablet inscribed with hieroglyphics - recounts a short-lived rebellion against King Mentuhotep, in which the poor smashed open royal tombs and looted the gold and jewels buried with the mummies.
The museum also has the seventh century B.C. Papyrus of the Grave Robber. The text describes an ancient scandal in Luxor where one official of the 26th Dynasty accused another of looting the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The account traces how royal investigators initially exonerated the accused but upon further examination found him guilty and sentenced him to a whipping.
A Bad Day for Grave Robbers
But Easter is always a bad day for the tomb raiders of the world, because nothing bothers a grave robber more than an empty tomb. On the day of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene and a group of women arrived at the grave, carrying spices and ointments and fully expecting to be greeted by the stench of death. But when they go in, they find no body. Mary assumes that grave robbers have already been there and done their dirty work, and she cries out to Peter, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him" (John 20:2).
Then Peter gets up and runs to the tomb, climbs in and looks around. The only treasure he sees is a pile of linen cloths - hardly a valuable find in itself.
The great treasure of the tomb is already gone. It just takes a little while for this shocking new reality to sink in. After Peter goes home, Mary stands weeping outside the grave, still convinced that the tomb has been robbed. Only when Jesus appears to her and calls her by name does she discover that her teacher has been raised to new life. Then she goes and announces to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18).
No treasure was to be found in this tomb. The grave was cleaned out because Christ had risen. The most valuable of bodies is not wrapped in a shroud - it is out and about in a resurrection body, appearing to the disciples, and to others, and now to people throughout the world. Jesus Christ is not going to be found in a grave, by tomb raiders or anyone else. "He is not here," proclaim the angels on that first Easter morning. "He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5).
The point is that on Easter morning, we win it all. We are presented with a treasure more valuable that anything that has been plucked from the Titanic, unearthed from an Indian grave, or stolen from the tomb of King Tut. Today we are given a gift of life.
That is what the Apostle Paul is talking about in our text today. The text represents a portion of Paul's thought on the relationship of the resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the early Christian kerygma and the general resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Christ. Kerygma by the way is just a scholarly word that means "preaching" or "what was preached." Paul is discussing what was preached in the early church about the Resurrection. As with all of Paul's discussion of such doctrinal notions, his treatment of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15 is grounded in practical matters within the church.
According to I Corinthians 15:12, some within the Corinthian community denied the existence of the general resurrection. Indeed, Paul states that "some say there is no resurrection of the dead." The Corinthian church has a number of problems--e.g., divisions over leadership, sexual immorality, abuse of power, economic disparity, disputes over spiritual gifts. But since Paul gives so much space to a discussion of the resurrection, one wonders if much of the trouble in the church did not stemmed from a misunderstanding of the nature of the resurrection. At any rate, Paul saves his discussion of this topic for the end of the letter, following it with only a call to participate in his collection for the poor in Jerusalem and closing greetings in chapter 16.
Matters regarding the resurrection in the Christian faith are for Paul both elementary and ultimate. The character and content of the church is built upon the hope and faith that God has raised Christ from the dead and God will raise those who are in Christ from the dead.
As I have said, the problem is stated in verse 12: Some people were saying the dead are not resurrected. Just what is meant by this denial is debated in commentaries on the passage. At the least, what can be discerned is that, though the early Christian kerygma proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, it did not fully explain the connection of his resurrection to the general resurrection at the end of history. In the first century, some Jewish groups believed in the resurrection of the dead, some did not. For example, the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection or in any sort of life after death. No wonder they were sad you see.
The Pharisees on the other hand did believe in a resurrection, and Paul had been a Pharisee. So Paul accepts this Pharisaic teaching and connects it with the Christian kerygma. Thus, Jesus' resurrection becomes an inaugural moment in a new phase of salvation history. The description of the scope of this moment, and its unfolding implications, is what concerns Paul in these verses.
In verse 19, Paul begins with a hypothetical statement that captures the original problem within the Corinthian church. "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." There is more than "this life" to be hoped for in Christ. Paul proclaims that the scope of God's saving work in Christ goes beyond what we can see now. Hope that only encompasses what Christ means for the present life is pitiful. It is small hope. Paul calls us to greater hope.
That hope is built upon Paul's correction of the Corinthian misinterpretation. As he says in v20, "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died." Christ's resurrection begins this new phase of God's sovereign rule over history. Paul takes what the Corinthians know from his preaching to them, Christ's resurrection from the dead, and he explains it as the initiation of something that awaits complete fulfillment.
Paul describes Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits." By this, he places that event in a time frame. More will be revealed. This is a process, like the harvest, in which there is an early, promissory crop. Christ's resurrection is like that crop. Christ is first, and as Christians, we live in hope that our resurrection at the end of history will be the fulfillment of the harvest that God has begun in Christ.
In verses 21-22, Paul presses the historical framework backward to its origin, evoking the story of God's creation and the human betrayal of God's order in the Garden of Eden. Adam represents death; Christ represents life. In Adam, people die; In Christ, people are made alive. At this point, verse 23, Paul explains that there is a divine order to this being made alive. Christ is first, then at Christ's Second Coming those who "belong" to Christ will be raised. For the Apostle Paul, the promise of resurrection requires residing within the Spirit and body of Christ that he has described for the Corinthians throughout the letter. Being in this spirit and being in this body requires faith. By belonging to Christ, Paul proclaims, Christians play an active role in God's larger plan of salvation.
The final verses of our text describe the final phase of Paul's understanding of God's plan for salvation. This phase includes the defeat of human powers (things like governments, economies, judiciaries), as well as demonic powers (things like sin, disease, death). This expectation represents the ultimate faith in God's sovereignty over creation. Paul would acknowledge that the world as we see it in this current age does not entirely reflect the power of God. If we were to say to Paul, I do not see God at all in a person dying of cancer or in the death of a child, or in what is going on in Bosnia, or the Middle East, or northern Ireland, Paul would agree with us. In a sense, God is hidden. We cannot prove that there is a source of all things working through all things to bring about a final purpose.
Now some well-meaning Christians have not recognized that even today. Some good folks want creationismthe doctrine that God created all that iswritten into the science books as science. They are going to lose that argument. Do not get me wrong. I am a creationist. I believe God. But that is not science. That is faith.
As the whole NT says, Now we live by faith. We believe in a sovereign God who will one day completely reveal his power in the world. Paul's understanding of this epic revelation centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ puts all enemies under his feet. Christ delivers the kingdom to God.
The final verse of our text, v26, pronounces the blessed hope, the hope of victory over death. Death is real. Even the resurrection of Jesus has not yet defeated death. Rather, it is in the hope of Jesus' resurrection that the church is called to live now, in the belief that in God's ultimate plan, death will be no more.
This is the faith by which we live. This is our real treasure, the kind of treasure we could never get from robbing graves.
Perhaps today we are living a graveyard existence - feeling like we are cadavers ourselves. We may feel that our very life is decomposing through sinful actions, mindless work, dead-end relationships, and stone-cold spirituality. Jesus offers new life. Jesus offers us forgiveness and guidance, inspiration and salvation, asking only that we put our trust in him and walk in his way. He invites us to join him in a new kind of life - a resurrection life. Resurrection life no longer fears sickness or sin or death but focuses only on the abundant and everlasting life that begins and ends in God. The treasures of this new life are not stored up on earth, like the Egyptian treasures that gather dust under the pyramids. These treasures cannot be bought or sold, traded or stolen. These treasures are all spiritual, not earthly, all part of an eternal relationship with God.
These gifts never carry curses, like the legendary treasures of the Pharaohs. These gifts bring only blessings, only hope, only everlasting life. The treasures of Easter are the promise of victory over the grave.
So, Christ is the only real Resurrection Man. Put your trust in him, and remember that on that first Easter, it was a bad day for grave robbers. Amen.
Hunter, Stephanie. "'Resurrection man' dug way into history." The Augusta Chronicle, June 21, 1996.
Smith, Christopher. "Grave-robbing case drags into its 5th year." Salt Lake Tribune, July 15, 2000.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 04/26/01