A mother whose son fell through the ice and drowned does not soon write a song. She does not smile sweetly at a surviving child when her soul is wracked with grief. She may reach for her other child’s hand, but she is not pretending a strength she does not own. A man whose wife died of pneumonia cannot sing at her funeral.
Grief empties one of strength. Those who attempt a facade of indifference or wear a mask of normalcy seem broken and futile to those who observe them.
There are some jaded people who cannot face the reality and devastation of death, who must pretend that their son or daughter, husband or wife, is still alive. Only away on a trip, we are told, but will return. And these people, once so normal, so capable, so good, seem now so pathetic to us that after a while, we lose sympathy.
There is nothing redeeming about people who cannot live in the real world. We cannot sympathize with mental collapse. It is just too unnerving to our peace of mind and too off-course for their personal welfare.
What impression, then, could the disciples of Jesus have made on the people of Jerusalem, after his crucifixion? Fear filled their hearts and they fled during his arrest. Some followed the arresting mob, slinking in shadows, but not daring to speak on his behalf. No heroes here.
Some watched with Jesus’ mother as he was crucified, but only one man dared comfort her. The other male disciples merged with the crowd in safe anonymity, careful not to draw attention to themselves.
After Jesus’ burial, these men stayed out of the streets, grief-stricken and fearful, inside a house, with the door barricaded. It was more than the death of a friend that shook them. It was more than the brutality of crucifixion. The events of that day signaled God’s abandonment of Jesus and the death of their deepest hope.
Like all of their people, they had yearned for the coming of God’s Anointed One, called the Messiah (“Christ” in Greek). They had been sure that Jesus of Nazareth was the one. They set everything aside to work for him, be with him, receive and learn from him. And they had anticipated a bright future. All those hopes were smashed within 24 hours.
Not only were they filled with despair, they did not even know if they could escape from Jerusalem alive. Would they be hunted and arrested next?
This was certainly not a recipe for brave action in the face of danger. Jesus had let down these men. They probably felt that God had let them down, too. Their disappointment surely drained away their strength. People do not think creatively in such circumstances.
In this state, the disciples had no ability or incentive to steal his body and claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Had they even wanted to do anything so crazy, it would have been extremely dangerous for them. Not only because the Jewish authorities would have been angry, but because the Romans punished grave robbing or stealing bodies with a painful death sentence.
And where would they have quickly hidden a corpse, in the rocky soil around Jerusalem? How would they have sneaked it through the streets without detection? How could they have kept the dogs away from it? Not to mention overcoming the guards at the tomb. No, their state of mind certainly would not have promoted that kind of thinking. These men were weary with shock, grief and self-reproach.
But contrast their state of despair after Jesus’ crucifixion with Peter’s bold proclamation 40 days later in Jerusalem’s same dangerous streets. On the day of Pentecost, Peter boldly faced down hundreds of the same men who’d called for Jesus to be crucified.
What made the difference?
Jesus had risen from the dead. Peter declared that, on the third day, God had resurrected Jesus. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he had triumphed over evil and death.
Peter and his companions were eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive on more than one occasion. These were more than visions. They had touched him, talked with him and even eaten with him. Nothing less than a stupendous re-creation of life could account for their new boldness in the face of deadly hostility.
Within a couple of years, one of these disciples, James, the son of Zebedee, was put to death in Jerusalem. In the end, nearly every one of Jesus’ male disciples had died a violent death, because they preached that God’s Son came to earth and lived among us, was crucified and then was raised from the dead.
If the resurrection was a hoax, a lie perpetrated by the disciples, why were they willing to die for it? They would have each known it was a lie. Surely one of them would have cracked under pressure and admitted it was a lie.
Yet that did not occur. These disciples saw, heard and touched the risen Jesus. They verified, and reported, his victory over death. Indeed, two men who’d been opposed to Jesus were granted the same privilege.
These changed men risked everything to tell the world about Jesus’ triumph, thereby changing the history of the world.
We have inherited their testimony and the hope of forgiveness and immortality that goes with it. Though we die once, death is robbed of its terror. Jesus lives, and he will give us a resurrection body like his in the age to come.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872.