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Bone Collectors


March 31, 2002

Matthew 28:1-10

by Tony Grant



It is a sophisticated archaeological dig, one that employs state-of-the-art forensic techniques and costs American taxpayers millions of dollars. The workers at the site are looking for bones--not famous bones or even ancient bones, but specific bones -- namely, the remains of Navy Cmdr. Richard Rich, whose F4 Phantom was shot down on May 17, 1967, over Ha Tay, Vietnam.

This crash site is just one of hundreds of locations that are being scoured for the remains of American servicemen who disappeared during the Vietnam War. The United States is determined to discover the fate of every single serviceman still missing. A two-week search of the site last year gathered five bags of metal fragments and two bone shards and evidence than an F4 had indeed crashed there.

These workers are bone collectors. They are looking for the remains of GIs missing in action. In 1999 they found 36 sets of remains. In 2000, another 24, and by midyear 2001, they had recovered 23 sets. They plan to keep working until all 2,029 MIAs are identified.

World Trade Center

A similar sad task is underway in New York City. In the last three weeks, recovery crews at the World Trade Center have found more human remains than in any comparable period since October. The remains of 166 firefighters have been located, nearly 20 in the past three weeks, but that is still less than half of the 343 killed. One city policewoman, Moira Smith, was killed in the attack. Her remains also were found last week. Many families, however, are still waiting for the bodies of their loved ones to be found. Some will probably always wait.

I admire the people who are doing the hard, depressing work of recovering what can be recovered. It is a round-the-clock operation in New York City. Firefighters comb through debris with rakes and shovels, stopping frequently to store remains in red biohazard bags. Bags are placed onto stretchers and draped with American flags. Rescue workers salute as the stretchers are carried out of the site and into ambulances. They are bone collectors and they have a tough task.

On Easter morning, the original bone collectors were busy. The chief priests and Pharisees were worried that the disciples would sneak in and steal the bones of Jesus, so they posted a guard of soldiers to make the tomb secure. As the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb, to check out the body, to pay their respects.

Gospel Differences

It should come as no surprise that all the gospels include accounts of the morning when Jesus' resurrection was discovered by his followers (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). Christianity would not exist without that NON-discovery. Usually we want to find something. In this case, all the excitement is about what they did not find.

Perhaps I should head off criticism here and admit that the accounts of the resurrection differ somewhat. When I say something like that, I know it makes some people, some good Christian folk, uncomfortable. They say that we should never admit that there are differences in the gospels because it would cause some people to doubt the Bible and hence lose their faith. I do not think so. I think that ministers who do not point out obvious truths about the Bible set people up for a real crisis of faith when they do realize the truth.

Do I think that the slight differences that we find in the gospels disprove the resurrection? Just the opposite. Given the problems of communication in the first century, given that nothing was written down about the resurrection for the better part of a generation, it is surprising that there are not more differences.

For example, the gospel accounts vary as to which women came to the tomb. Matthew reports that Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" came (v. 1). The other gospels have different lists. Mark includes Salome (16:1), and Luke mentions Joanna and "the other women" (Luke 24:10). In John's gospel, Mary Magdalene alone discovers the empty tomb (20:11).

Similar slight differences attend the purpose of the visit. Matthew says that the women went to see the sepulcher (v. 1). Mark (16:1) and Luke (24:1) indicate that the purpose was to anoint Jesus' body. John, however, reports that this anointing had already been done by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus when they deposited Jesus' body in Joseph's tomb (19:38-42).

Only Matthew reports that an earthquake accompanied the descent of an angel who rolled away the stone from the mouth of the tomb (v. 2).

Only Matthew indicates that guards or "keepers" had been stationed outside Jesus' tomb (28:4).

Likewise, the angelic descent is unique to Matthew, although it is possible that Mark's "young man, dressed in a white robe" (16:5) and Luke's "two men in dazzling clothes" (24:4) are also to be understood as angelic beings. John reports "two angels in white" already sitting in the tomb by the time Mary discovers them (20:12).

Now you might say that these differences I have mentioned among the gospels are insignificant, and I would agree. We should stick to the main point. The first witnesses to Jesus' resurrection, the two Marys, are told by both the angel and by the resurrected Jesus himself to inform the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has preceded them to Galilee, where they will see him (vv. 7, 10).

No Resurrected Life Now

But we should talk about how these verses have sometimes been misinterpreted. Sometimes in the long history of the church people have asserted that Christians can be free from all suffering, pain, and worry here and now in this earthly life. Their reasoning goes something like this: Christ said that he would go before us to Galilee and there we would see him. So when we believe on Christ, we, in effect, go to a spiritual Galilee and see him and become like him. We follow Christ, act like Christ. We are called to be Christ to a fallen world. That being true then, and that is true, the misinterpretation would say that we are called to be like Christ in his resurrection body here and now, and thus we will have no more pain, and we will live in peace and serenity henceforth.

But we cannot attain the stage of a resurrection body until we go through the same process that Christ went through. Christ did not attain the resurrection, if we can put it that way, before he had passed through the trouble and turmoil of living on this earth, and the death of his body. Thus, we can never attain perfect peace and spiritual serenity in this life. Christ did not. Why should we expect to? But if we believe on Christ, when we pass through the gates of death, we shall be with him, and then we shall enjoy all the benefits and blessings of the resurrection.

No Bones of Christ

But now let us go back a bit to that first Easter morning. As the women made their way to the tomb, they had no inkling of a resurrection. No one had any reason to suspect that the corpse would not stay put. After all, death is death, the end, the final curtain, the last dance. Once in the grave, bones do not tend to move.

From time to time, we read news of bones that are believed to be the remains of Jesus. Just last year, Ron Dubay sifted the dust through a small sieve and found two tiny fragments of bone on the cliff-tops above the Dead Sea. Then he heard his partner, Dennis Walker, shout, "Whoa! We got something here." Walker's trowel held three vertebrae. Fighting their excitement, the researchers carefully dusted away for two days, finding skull fragments and the brittle, broken remains of at least one human body.

Dubay and Walker believe their find is important because, among the 1,200 simple graves at this location, only this tomb was inside a purpose-built structure. That may mean that the bones belonged to the "Teacher of Righteousness" mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some researchers are speculating that the teacher may be the apostle James, John the Baptist or perhaps even Jesus himself.

But if they are pointing to Jesus, they have the wrong man. "He is not here," says the angel of the Lord. "He has been raised" (Matthew 28:6).

A new movie by writer/director Jonas McCord, is entitled "The Body." The premise of "The Body" is the apparent discovery of Christ's unresurrected bones. A priest named Father Lavelle (Derek Jacobi) starts shouting the obvious dilemma, "What if it's him? The unrisen Christ? The end of Christianity!"

Enter the hero -- Father Matt Gutierrez (Antonio Banderas)--a Catholic priest with a strong resemblance to Zorro. Gutierrez is exhorted by the church to investigate and to "protect the faith." But Guitierrez is not as fretful as his fellow friars. He just wants to know the truth. Now I have not seen the movie and do not know how the plot works out, but I can assure you of this: the bones of Jesus have not been discovered and they are not going to be. The promise of scripture is that Jesus left no bones, and no body. This is good news for believers, but bad news for bone collectors.

So why, like some of the early disciples, do we still feel a nagging sense of doubt? For many of us, the resurrection story itself remains—dare I say it--a "bone of contention," a subject for argument. In a country in which we spend millions of dollars to determine the fate of every single serviceman still missing in Vietnam, we simply are not comfortable with mysteries. We want rock-hard facts, DNA matches, and carbon-14 dating. That is why we have a few bones to pick with the empty tomb.

Bone of Perception

First, there's the bone of perception. None of us was present to feel the Easter earthquake, or hear the angel, or see the place where Jesus lay, so we wonder whether the story could possibly be true.

We forget that the resurrection is a faith event, and arguments derived from seeing and hearing never work when it comes to matters of faith. We believe many things that are beyond the perceptions of our five senses. Scientists tell us that the earth is spinning on its axis at a speed of over 1,000 miles per hour at this very moment. Yet we have no sensation of motion. At the same time, the earth is soaring around the sun at a speed of 66,000 miles per hour. Do you feel anything? Albert Einstein made this point by striking two consecutive blows with his fist and saying, "Between those two strokes, we traveled 30 miles." We are right now in motion in at least two directions, yet we would say that we are sitting still, yet in spite of that we accept by faith that what our scientists tell us—that we are spinning and soaring.

The problem for most of us is that we think in terms of our five senses, and since the spiritual world is not subject to any of these physical senses, our faith is weak. The resurrection cannot be perceived by our five senses, but that does not make it any less true than the fact that our earth is spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun. thus, the bone of perception is no bar to an Easter faith.

As a people of faith then, our challenge then is to conform our lives to what God has done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not called to make a case for Christ in some imaginary religious courtroom. We are called to love our neighbors, even our enemies, because this is what Jesus demonstrated to be so powerfully good in his own life. In John 8:12, Jesus said, "He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." Thomas a Kempis in commenting on this verse says, "These are the words of Christ, by which we are urged to imitate his life and virtues, if we wish to be truly enlightened and freed from all blindness of heart" [Of the Imitation of Christ, Bk I, Ch1]. We sacrifice for others because the cross of Christ shows us the greatness of self-giving. We believe that new life can emerge from crushing defeats because the resurrection reveals the power of God over anything that threatens to destroy us.

By faith, we know who we are, and, more importantly, whose we are. We are children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, people who have discovered a quality of life that cannot be found anywhere else. And we have a call from God, a call to show the world through our words and deeds that we are part of a loving, forgiving and hope-filled family of faith.

History reveals that it was not arguments that attracted the converts to the young Christian faith; it was loving actions. People did not first understand the faith and then decide to become Christians; instead, they were first attracted by the Christian community and form of life.

Bone of Passion

The second "bone" we often pick is the bone of passion. We hear about the women racing full-speed from the empty tomb, feeling an exuberant mixture of "fear and great joy" (v. 8), but we rarely experience this level of intense emotion. Perhaps we have heard the story too often. "Been there, done that, got the t-shirt"—that is our attitude. We are satisfied with life the way it is; we are comfortable with the status quo, and do not see any reason to complicate things with a fresh and passionate commitment to Christ. We do not think we need a personal revival.

But consider what the angel says to the women at the tomb: Jesus "is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him" (v. 7). Jesus is "going ahead" of us, always ahead of us. If we do not follow him with enthusiasm, we will never discover where he is leading us, and we will never become the people he desires us to be.

Several years ago, Lee Strobel, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, became a Christian and began to open himself to Christ's transforming power. Increasingly, he found that he wanted the motives and perspective of Jesus to be his own. Does that sound "mystical," he asks? Maybe it does.

But it is real to him now, and to those around him. He reports that just a few months after he became a Christian, his 5-year-old daughter went up to his wife and said, "Mommy, I want God to do for me what he's done for Daddy."

Here was a little girl who had only known a father who was angry, verbally harsh, and all-too-often absent; and even though she had not picked the bones of perception or passion, or debated anything else related to the empty tomb, she had seen up close the influence that Jesus can have on one person's life. In effect, she was saying, "If this is what Jesus does to a human being, that's what I want for me."

It is time to stop collecting bones, time to toss the tools we normally use in our dry and dusty search for facts and figures and empirical evidence. We have been looking for the risen Christ with the wrong tools. The tools of evidence will not produce the transforming power of resurrection life. We need, instead, to pull out the tools of faith to access the reality of the resurrection. This is not a matter of believing the impossible; it is a matter of trusting the invisible! Make no bones about it: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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