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Edward F. Markquart

The Resurrections of Billy Gramman 

EASTER          Matthew 28:1-15

Happy Easter on this grand and glorious day!

I would like to begin the sermon by telling you a very, very old story, yet in a new and contemporary way.  By telling this very old story in a contemporary way, you may pick up some of the shock value that was heard when the story was originally told.

There was a famous preacher in the land, a very good looking, a very charismatic preacher and people flocked to hear him.  Many people in the land thought he was indeed a prophet.  He was spell binding before the crowds and spoke with great authority.  Thousands, hundreds of thousands, came to hear him preach, and they came from all over the nation.  His name was Billy Gramman.

One day, this contemporary prophet, this Billy Gramman, came to Seattle, Washington, for a rally.  People heard that he was coming and they started to make preparations for his visit.  Opinions of the local religious leaders were divided; some thought it was absolutely wonderful that Billy Gramman was coming to town, but other religious leaders denounced him, calling him a religious manipulator and a huckster.  Many of those same religious leaders who were highly critical of Billy Gramman were secretly jealous of him because he had so much more charisma that they were thought of having. 

The rally came closer and closer and there was amounting opposition to the rally from this group of religious leaders, many of whom were zealous fanatics who wanted to do away with this Gramman.  They were fanatics all right, absurdly fanatic, and in a bizarre twist of events, on Friday afternoon, at three o’clock, he was shot in Seattle.  Assassinated. A gunshot rang out from a tower and a bullet struck his chest, bursting out his back, and killed him.

The city was stunned, absolutely stunned.  The city went into mourning. The city didn’t know why and how this whole thing happened in our fair city, but it was such a tragedy.  A funeral was held immediately, and Billy Gramman’s body was buried there in a graveyard north of the city, in Washington Memorial Cemetery.

It was early Sunday morning at the crack of dawn, about five A.M.  Some of his loyal followers went to his grave to put flowers on the sacred soil.  The burial day had been so chaotic.  There had been hundreds of thousands jamming the streets to watch the funeral car go by and thousands at the cemetery, so his followers decided to go at the first hint of dawn on Sunday morning to place their flowers.  They approached the cemetery site, and as they approached the grave, they looked and saw that the grave had been molested.  Somebody had been there during the night and dug up the grave.  Grave robbers had struck and the disciples were absolutely horrified at what had been done.  They slowly approached the grave and they peered down in to the hole and saw the open casket.  It was empty.  They looked around. There was a young man sitting there that they not previously noticed in the confusion of the morning moments.  He sat there, throwing wads of dirt at the ground and then simply said to them:  “Billy Gramman is not here.  He has been raised from the dead by the powers of God.”  The women spit out:  “That’s absurd.  That is ridiculous, preposterous.  Who has ever heard of such a thing?  Tell us young man, who stole the body?”  So these women ran to find a telephone to call his followers and tell them the shocking news.  Naturally, the SEATTLE TIMES and the POST INTELLIGENCE immediately ran stories. Shock editions:  WHAT HAPPENED TO GRAMMAN??? WHO KILLED GRAMMAN??? WHO STOLE THE BODY???  Rumors were spreading fast.  Was it the fanatical group of religious people who killed him and then stole the body?  Or was it the friends of Gramman who stole the body? Or perhaps a third party, maybe someone else? No one knew for sure.  The only facts were these: the famous Billy Gramman had been killed on Friday; he had been buried; and the body was now gone.

Meanwhile, all the followers of Gramman were torn up emotionally about this. They weren’t expecting an assassination on Friday.  They weren’t expecting his body to be stolen on Sunday morning.  This was too much for them.  It was overwhelming.

Well, that same Sunday night, they were gathered together in a motel room at the Holiday Inn near the airport.  His followers were questioning one another: “What were you women talking about?  Were you too excited?  Were you hallucinating? Did you see a vision?  Maybe it was so early in the morning you didn’t see clearly?”  Suddenly, they were startled in that same Holiday Inn motel room because Billy Gramman was standing right there before them.  They were startled! Frightened! They thought they were hallucinating and others of them thought they were seeing a ghost. Haunted rooms in the Holiday Inn.  Everyone was confused from fear and Billy Gramman said to them:  “Why are you troubled?  Why are you so upset?  Why do you have such questionings in your heart?  Look at my chest and see the assassin’s bullet.  Look at my back and see where the bullet came out. Touch the wounds in my body and see that it is I.  Touch me and see that I am not a ghost or a hallucination.”  While they still disbelieved for joy, Billy Gramman said to them:  “Do you have anything to eat?”  They gave him a cheeseburger and fries, and he ate it.  Then he said to them, “Open up your Bibles and I will show you what it taught concerning me.  The Bible taught that I would be wounded, killed, and then raised from the dead by the powers of God on the third day. You are to go out into the world, preaching about my resurrection and forgiveness.” 

Billy Gramman, this famous religious leader, continued to be on this earth in this strange body form for forty days and forty nights. Suddenly, he was gone and shortly thereafter, the Spirit came upon his followers and gave them new power to carry out their task.  Thus ends the parable, the story for this Easter morning.  This is a story that a real live flesh and blood man, Billy Gramman, who was a great religious leader, was killed on Friday, buried, and on the third day, was raised from the dead.  And you were there.

If you had been there on Sunday night in that motel room at the Holiday Inn and he appeared, what would your reaction have been?

For me, it is important to hear the resurrection story in its contemporary form.  It is far too easy on Easter morning to romanticize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, to believe in the prettiness of the story without thinking it through.  It is so easy to fictionalize it, to be caught up in the trumpets and Easter lilies and Easter feelings, and not come face to face with the hard, raw facts.

It reminds me of going to a restaurant at night, when that restaurant is dimly lit, and you get caught into the atmosphere of the evening and the atmosphere of the low romantic lights.  If you come into that restaurant the next morning and turn on all the lights, you see what that restaurant is really like.  There would be dust and cobwebs and pipes, all which needed to be covered up by the romanticism of the low lights.

Well, I think that sometimes happens on Easter morning.  We get caught up in the romanticism of Easter, with the atmosphere of Easter, the atmosphere of the lilies, the atmosphere of the festive morning, the atmosphere of the trumpets, and we really don’t hear the Easter story.  We don’t hear the bald facts, the brute facts, the intellectually offensive and absurd facts, that there was a Billy Gramman in the motel room, a real live and flesh man who was raised from the dead.  If you were there, would you have really believed?

Today, on this Easter morning (or the Sunday after Easter), I would like to preach, not on the atmosphere of Easter, not on the lilies and the triumphant trumpets, but on this Sunday, I would like to turn on the lights in the tomb.  I would like to look at the offensiveness of the story.  I would like to turn on the spotlights and focus them on the empty tomb.

The empty tomb is the fulcrum of faith, the pivotal point of our religion. Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection.  Without the resurrection, Christianity is a faith that is a farce for fools.  As the Apostle Paul wrote, “If Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead, we of all people are the most to be pitied, for our faith is in vain and our preaching is in vain and we have fooled ourselves with this preposterous hoax.”  Without the resurrection, the Christian faith is a farce for fools.

So let’s turn on the spotlight and focus it on the grave.  Basically, there are five explanations as to what really happened at the grave. All five explanations are important and I would like to briefly look at each of these five explanations.

The first is this:  “You want to know what happened?  I’ll tell you what happened!  It was the Jews who stole the body.  The Jews, who jealously hated Jesus and then rallied the Romans against him to be killed, wanted to hide Jesus’ body.  They didn’t want the grave of Jesus turned into a martyr’s shine, so they came and took the body away because they didn’t want a martyr’s shrine where people could gather and agitate for a revolution.”  Now, there is some degree of plausibility to this explanation. It makes sense that the Jews would want to steal the body in order to quiet down a possible revolution.

The second explanation given is this:  “It was the early Christians who came and stole his body. His own followers came and took the corpse away.  These first Christians were dissatisfied and were angered that Jesus had been improperly buried, and so they took his body to a place where they could mourn without interruptions from the Jews and Romans.  They wanted a private memorial shine for their martyred leader.  … Now, if this is true that the early Christians were the ones who came and stole the body, then Christianity is a deliberate deception by some of the earliest apostles.  But the first Christians were the most fanatical of believers. To me, it seems that the first Christians were the true believers in the resurrection.  It doesn’t make sense that they would hide the body.  Yet some of you may secretly believe it.  Christians stole the body and then perpetuated a myth from which they benefited somehow…by being persecuted and killed?  It just doesn’t make much sense.

The third explanation of what happened to Jesus after he was in the tomb (nobody questions that the dead body of Jesus was put into a grave) is that the women and disciples experienced hallucinations and visions.  These women and disciples so wanted Jesus to be alive that the resurrection happened in their minds. Now, we know that anybody can be convinced to believe anything.  We think to ourselves:  If a person is hysterical enough or traumatized enough, you can get your mind to believe and see almost anything.  These people then so wanted, so expected Jesus to be alive, it actually happened in their minds.  Then, the Christian faith is a product of self-deluded people who then spread their hallucinations to everyone. …  Now again, there is a degree of plausibility to this explanation. It has a ring of validity to it.  Traumatized people do see visions of things they want to see.  But, on the other hand, it must be said that the facts are these:  From all the evidence, the first Christians were not expecting the resurrection of Jesus.  They didn’t expect it.  It was the farthest thing from their mind.  They were just as shocked as everybody else.  And further, you can imagine one person hallucinating or two people hallucinating, but a whole group?  First Peter, then the women, then all the eleven disciples, then all of the apostles, then all the five hundred.  Were all of these people hallucinating in all of these different situations?  There seems to be too many different situations and too many different people.  But still,  that may be a valid explanation:  hallucinations did happen to all those different people at different times, and thus the persecuted church was born.

There is a fourth explanation.  The people in these days were more primitive in their thinking.  These more primitive people accepted such things as resurrections and miracles more easily than we do today.  They had simpler minds then and they were less scientific; and more gullible, and such unscientific, gullible people were more apt to believe in such stories of resurrections.  Today, we are much more scientific.  … Now, again , there is a grain of truth to this reasoning.  People are more advanced in the sciences today, yet it must also be said that the historical facts are these:  for the early apostles, the resurrection was a shock.  It was an absolute shock that Jesus was raised from the dead.  The disciples didn’t believe it; it was absurd, ridiculous; they were skeptical.  My response to the raising of Billy Gramman at the Holiday Inn would be absolutely skeptical as a twentieth century mind; and the first disciples were also skeptical as first century minds.  The facts are facts, and the fact is that the first believers were skeptical of what they saw.

The fifth explanation of the empty tomb is this:  Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead by the powers of God just like the Bible said and that God’s plan is to raise you from the dead at the end of history.   Jesus is the first sample, the first taste, the first glimpse into a future resurrection.  Jesus’ resurrectioin body for forty days and forty nights is a glimpse into the future of humankind at the final resurrection, a kind of preview of coming attractions which are freely given to you and me.  Amazing!!!

Now, this is what the Apostle Paul preaches.  He does not preach that we believe in the resurrection of Jesus therefore we believe in a general resurrection at the end of time. No, not at all.  That isn’t what Paul teaches.  Rather, Paul says that we believe in the general resurrection at the end of time.  Paul believes in life after death and then Jesus is the first taste, the first sample, the first bite of the apple that all of us are going to eat at the end of time.  Christ is a foretaste of the feast to come.  And what a grand taste it is.  How delicious.  How delectable.  What a grand meal awaits us all. The human mind cannot imagine the kind and quality of meal that God has prepared for us.

And so, in the glaring lights of Easter Sunday (or the Sunday after Easter), and in the glaring lights on a restaurant on Monday morning; in the glaring lights without the Easter bunnies, without the Easter fanfare, without the Easter lilies, what do we hear today?  The grave is empty!!!  What happened???  What happened to the body in the grave??? … The Jews stole the body?  Maybe.  The early Christians stole the body?  No, doesn’t really make sense?  Well, then the first Christians had hallucinations and visions?  Really?  Well, then, the first disciples were more superstitious and primitive then and more easily believed in such tales?  Really? Or, did God really did raise Jesus of Nazareth from the dead? Did God do this for the first time in the history of civilization? The resurrected Jesus was a foretaste of the future resurrection, a glimpse into our God given eternal destiny.  Really?  What really did happen that Easter morning?  You have five options.  What do you believe really happened?

What happened?  The hard fact of all history is that Jesus of Nazareth was a great religious leader who really lived.  Nobody denies it.  Jesus of Nazareth was killed. Nobody denies that.  Jesus of Nazareth was buried in a tomb. Nobody disagrees.  Everyone agrees on those three fundamental facts.  But there are further historical facts:  It is a fact that the early Christians did not expect Jesus to be raised from the dead.  It is a fact that the disciples were skeptical of what they saw.  It is a fact that their minds were not as superstitiously primitive as sometimes we would like to imagine.  It is a fact that it is hard and even impossible for our minds to comprehend the resurrection, never having seen or experienced one.  It is a fact that the Old Testament prophesied the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a fact that the early church began because of some great event that propelled it into action.  If you add up all these facts, the Apostle Paul then writes:  “In fact, Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead by the powers of God, a foretaste of the feast to come.  This is our sure and certain hope.”  That was the sure and certain hope of the disciples who saw and touched him that night.  That is what happened on Easter.  Skeptics touched him, saw him, believed him.  Skeptics believed on that first Easter day and skeptics still believe today and live their lives centered in that belief.

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