“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” Who said that? Mark Twain is reported as having said that. He was in London in 1897 with considerable debt back in the U.S. Through confusion about a cousin of his being ill and the way rumors go someone started a rumor about Mark Twain, to which he replied something to the effect that though he had heard on good authority that he was dead, the reports of his death were an exaggeration.
He’s not the only one. Exactly 50 years ago, a rumor began to fly around the world: “Paul is dead.” The year was 1969, and many people were convinced that rock star Paul McCartney of the Beatles had died in 1966 and been replaced by a look-alike.
Music fans played a song from The White Album backwards and heard the message, “Turn me on, dead man.” They listened to the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” and thought they heard John Lennon say, “I buried Paul.”
There have been many rumors and theories about Paul’s death, but according to the Beatles’ press office and according to Paul McCartney himself, he is still very much alive and living in Scotland.
On Friday of Holy Week, all the acquaintances of Jesus, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a safe distance from the cross and watched Jesus die (Luke 23:44-49). A righteous man named Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus off the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb. Both he and Nicodemus took one hundred pounds of spices along with linen clothes to preserve Jesus’ dead body. The women saw the tomb, and then they prepared spices and ointments to put on the body the following morning (23:50-56).
Jesus was not pretending to be dead. He was very dead. Historically, the church has always considered any belief to the contrary to be heresy. Jesus had not fainted on the cross. He had not swooned. He was not in a state of suspended animation.
Jesus was dead. Jesus did not have a pulse. No brain wave activity. Nothing. Jesus was dead. He was so dead that the soldiers who were about to break his legs to hasten a death by suffocation, decided not to waste their time and energy on a dead man.
And remember, the people of Jesus’ day lived with death. These were rough times. They knew what “dead” looked like. They weren’t fooled.
His death was no rumor. This was not fake news. Jesus was quite emphatically dead, wrapped in a linen cloth and laid in a tomb.
Then they rolled a massive stone over the entrance to the tomb, effectively sealing it. Even if there were a strong, alive man inside, that stone was going nowhere.
Then on that first Easter morning, as the sun was just beginning to crest the horizon, the women walked to the tomb with the spices and ointments they had prepared. They came looking for a dead body.
But when they arrived to anoint the body, they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. When they ran inside, they were unable to find the body, which left them perplexed.
The knew enough about life and death. They lived with the rotten reality that death rules. There was no coroner’s report, but they didn’t need one. They had watched Jesus that whole day. They watched what the soldiers did to Him. They saw and heard the hammer rise and fall as it fixed Jesus body to the wood of the cross. The watched as the cross was lifted up and set in its hole, leaving Jesus hanging, suspended on wood by the nails. They watched Him fight for breath and they watched and heard Him breath His last. There was no doubt in their minds. Jesus was dead. The rumors of His death were not fake news.
But now they are at the empty tomb. The heavy stone had already been rolled away. The go inside the tomb and there is no dead body. Nobody there. Period. Then while they are perplexed and confused as to what to make of this two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appeared beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their heads, while the men said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Their whole world view of life and death was suddenly turned upside down. They could not comprehend it. The men in dazzling white—whom we know to be angels—continued…
“Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee,” the mysterious men in the tomb said, “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” (vv. 6-7). The women began to recall his words, and to put together how both death and resurrection were part of the plan that Jesus had laid out for them.
They return to their fellow believers—the other disciples of Jesus who had holed up in the chamber of the upper room that had been used for the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
We are even told the identify of the women, “it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles”. This is eyewitness testimony, says Luke, made by women who are well-known and trustworthy in the community of Jesus’ followers. Their words were much more believable than a rumor about the death of Paul McCartney, an event that had no eyewitnesses and no evidence to support it.
But in spite of their testimonies, the women were unable to convince their friends. Their words seemed to the apostles to be “an idle tale,” and most of the men lent their words no credence whatsoever. Only Peter ran to the tomb to see the evidence for himself, and then he went home, “amazed at what had happened,” that is, that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb.
At the end of Easter morning, we are left with the question “Is Jesus dead?” Some people say yes, based on the fact that Jesus was not spotted by any of His followers in the vicinity of the empty tomb. If Jesus were alive, He would have been spotted by someone in the area. But He wasn’t (not in the Synoptic Gospels, anyway). Why? Because He was dead, that’s why.
But let’s not ignore the testimony of those first disciples at the empty tomb. They were absolutely convinced of the power of death. They lived that reality. They saw Jesus die. These eyewitnesses make a compelling case for the resurrection of Jesus. Their words and actions teach us that new life is not limited to Easter morning. It bursts forth and blossoms into life every day through our words and actions.
Think of this, the resurrection is experienced whenever we focus on life instead of death. The two mysterious men ask the women a simple but important question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Too often we look for death instead of life. People are naturally drawn to stories of bloodshed and disaster and death. Nothing sells in the media like disasters and death, fear and bad news. But one of the signs of resurrection is a focus on life instead of death. Those courageous women that first Easter morning begin the process of our Christian witness focusing on life, not death!
The children’s television star Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. His Christian faith infused all of his lessons. He kept his focus on the positive, especially in situations of tragedy and suffering. He tells of a lesson he learned from his mother when watching scary things on the news. “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
If we are looking we can see resurrection people of all colors, sizes and shapes making a difference in our crazy world because they are doing good things and raising up the positive. They are focusing on life and not death.
We listened and sang along with the song, “I Can Only Imagine.” I want to close with a story about a father and son story that became the basis for that song.
It is written by Bart Millard is the lead singer of the contemporary Christian music group MercyMe. He wrote the song after his father died. It explores what life in heaven might be like.
What the song doesn’t reveal, however, is what a jerk Bart’s father was. For years, Arthur Millard beat his boy, sometimes three or four times a week. Bart grew to hate his father, and the two became estranged. At one point Arthur converted to Christianity, and then he developed terminal cancer. Bart decided to give his father a second chance at a relationship.
“My dad was a monster, and I saw God transform him,” said Bart. Their story was painful, and it took a terminal illness to bring the two together. But the end of the story is resurrection, including the reconciliation of a father and a son, and the creation of a Christian song that has given hope and inspiration to millions of people.
So, let’s stop looking for death instead of life. And let’s follow Jesus Christ as we seek to understand our own experiences of death and new life.
We believe that Jesus is alive and seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
But we also know that Jesus is not dead, because He is alive in and through us — now and always.
In Jesus’ name. Amen!