A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 4, 2010.
Psalm 118:14-24; John 20:1-18
We Baptists are not a creedal people. That means that Baptist churches do not hold to a centralized, orthodox theological statement with which we all agree. Baptists tend to be stubborn that way.
There are congregations just up the street that recite the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday, and a few in town that might even go for the Nicene Creed or some other version of such. So, if that’s more to your liking, you have plenty of choices around these parts. But not here. The only creed to which we attest is, “Jesus is Lord.” We think that’s enough.
I hope you don’t think I’m saying that arrogantly. It’s certainly not meant that way, and is not meant as a criticism of those churches that do this sort of thing. It’s just our practice as participants in the free church tradition that we do not feel an orthodox affirmation of faith is called for. The priesthood of the believer and all that.
Having said that, however, I willingly tell you that I haven’t yet found anything in the Apostles’ Creed with which I disagree. And on those occasions when I have been in worship in which the creed was recited, I’ve had no problem joining in… even the part that says after Jesus had died on the cross and before he left the empty tomb he “descended into hell.”
Are you familiar with that?
If you are, I doubt you’ve spent much time brooding about just exactly what that means. I know I haven’t. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure of its complete meaning either, since it is tied to one of the more obscure references in scripture.
But I know this… on January 12 of this year, the people of Haiti descended into hell. This tiny island nation, that is a close neighbor of the Dominican Republic, was hit with a devastating earthquake that left most of its buildings in shambles and took the lives of thousands of its citizens.
William Willimon, a Methodist minister from Alabama, has made two mission trips to Haiti since the earthquake occurred to see what his church could do in terms of response. Needless to say, those in his group were shocked by the unmitigated tragedy of what they witnessed, grieved at the lives that were cut so horribly short, and perhaps silently wondered how all this fit into the consciousness of a merciful God.
But something else shocked them as well. They were disarmed by the laughter of the children, and their raucous and joyous singing. Here they were, their lives trapped in tragedy, and they had the audacity to sing and make merry!1
Okay, there has to be a lesson in this somehow, don’t you think? Then what is it? Perhaps it is this: even in the midst of death, and of hell on earth, it seems that God has implanted in the hearts of each of us this desire to hear and believe a word about life.2 Even in the midst of great human tragedy and suffering, there is something to celebrate. Even when we have descended, as did Jesus, into our own personal hell, we cannot stop singing about heaven. God has given us this Easter spirit that will not be overcome even by the worst possible thing that can happen to us.
We witnessed that ourselves just this week when we celebrated the life of our friend Peck Johnson. It was with deliberate design that the service concluded with our singing Victory in Jesus, which to some might have been a strange thing to do indeed. We now affirm with great conviction that our friend Letha Wheeler is experiencing life in a way we can only imagine, and that can only come to be because she has yielded her life to this mortal existence.
And it all started with that hole in the wall. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? That borrowed tomb in which they laid Jesus’ body, then rolled the stone in front of it so no one could possibly come and take him away… the tomb that now has the stone rolled back and contains Christ no more. That hole in the wall.
First the women, then because of their testimony, the men… they went to the garden expecting to find the grave sealed shut. Their only hope was to somehow gain entrance so they might do the burial properly. But when they arrived, the tomb was empty.
It had been a hasty funeral, so quick we don’t even know if any words were said over his body. Nothing is mentioned in the scriptures about that. You see, the body had to be in the grave before sundown that Friday. Otherwise, the sabbath custom would be desecrated, and they couldn’t have that. So they wrapped him in burial cloths and quietly and quickly put him there. Then, they rolled the stone in front of the tomb.
It would have to do, it would just have to do, at least for awhile anyway. It was all they could manage in such a short period of time. After all, despite all the warnings Jesus had given them, they still didn’t see it coming.
As soon as the sabbath was over they went back. It had to be done right. After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about. They might not have known him long, but in the short time they had been together he had captured their hearts… no, not just their hearts but their very souls!… and they couldn’t let his hasty burial be the final act of his short life. They had to do it right. But what they found, out of the mist of that early Sunday morning, was a hole in the wall. Jesus was gone!
And because of that, everything ever since has changed.
I was tempted to entitle my sermon “The Hole in the Wall Gang.” But I was afraid you’d start thinking about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That’s what they called their gang of outlaws, and I didn’t want you to start dwelling on that. After all, it doesn’t take much to get a listening congregation distracted. I know, I’ve on occasion sat in a pew myself.
And besides, it’s kind of cheesy, so I decided not to do that. But it sort of fits, doesn’t it? After all, we can’t think of that first Easter morning without considering the people who first witnessed the empty tomb. The hole in the wall gang.
And while we may think that Mary Magdalene was the first to believe in the resurrection, she wasn’t. The beloved disciple, whoever that was (and it’s only conjecture that it was John; there is no definite proof), was the first to believe. When the beloved disciple got to the hole in the wall, and he was the first to arrive, he stopped on the outside and did not go in. The honor of entering the tomb goes to the impetuous Simon Peter. But the beloved disciple was the first to believe that the empty tomb meant death had been conquered by life, not that someone had come in during the night and stolen Jesus’ body. The beloved disciple, bless his heart, was the first to believe.
We next consider Simon Peter. He’s been doing everything he can, these last few days, to run as far from Jesus as he can get (in fact, the sound of that cock crowing is still ringing loudly in his ears), and now that he is told the tomb is empty he starts running lickety-split toward it. Go figure. Well, he goes as fast as the old legs will carry him, anyway.
Maybe it was morbid curiosity, kind of like our wanting to observe as we drive by the scene of a car accident. Regardless, we could do a psychological study on old Simon, couldn’t we?
When we lived in Baltimore we attended as many Orioles baseball games as we could. They occasionally had “Three Buck Night.” Three dollars would get you into the upper deck, and we had learned where to park on a side street so it didn’t cost us anything. We’d stop at a produce stand along the way and pick up a large bag of peanuts. We were all set. There were many a night we could catch a ball game and pay no more than twenty bucks. They were indeed the good old days. Just try to get out of a major league ballpark today without spending at least a hundred dollars.
When we couldn’t make it to the games, we often listened on the radio. The Orioles’ trainer in those days was a large, portly man of Italian descent named Ralph Salvon. When outfielder John Lowenstein retired as a player, he was asked to do the color commentary for the radio broadcasts, largely because of his quick sense of humor.
One night the second baseman was injured in a collision, and Ralph emerged from the third-base dugout to go check on his player. The more he ran toward second base, the more Lowenstein described it in ways that became absolutely hysterical. We could just picture this large, large man running along with his belly getting there long before the rest of his body. Finally, Lowenstein exclaimed over the radio, “I don’t think he can stop! I don’t think he can stop!” It took a lot to get big Ralph Salvon in motion, but once he hit his stride he found it difficult to apply the brakes.
I know it’s strange, but when I envision Simon Peter running toward the empty tomb, I see Ralph Salvon. “I don’t think he can stop!” And he didn’t, not until he had gone right through that hole in the wall!
But Simon was like the dog that finally caught the car. Now that he had, what was he going to do with it? Now that Peter is in the empty tomb, what is he going to do? There was nothing to do, really, except go back home. So he did, without any indication that he, like the beloved disciple, believed that Jesus was alive.
And then, finally, there is Mary. After the two men have left, she stays. Why? Why not go with them? Maybe they have never really accepted her. Because she was a woman? It was that kind of world, wasn’t it? Or it could have been the affectionate relationship between Jesus and Mary, and the disciples were just a bit jealous. Perhaps Jesus is the only one who has ever accepted her unconditionally, and now she has no place to go. Jesus was her Place, her Home, her reason for living. Now that he is gone – and where he is is anybody’s guess – she walks around in a daze, not sure of what her next step will be, uncertain of what she will do now. With burial spices in hand, and no body on which to use them, Mary doesn’t know what to do.
I’ll tell you what you can do, Mary. You can listen. There is Someone in the garden who wants to have a word with you. Of course, when she sees him she thinks he is the gardener. Maybe he has moved Jesus’ body, or knows who has. But when he speaks, she knows. She has heard that Voice before, has heard it call her name, has felt the very touch of it in her ear and on her heart. It is her Master!
And today, that same Voice calls your name. Does the voice of the Risen Christ touch your heart and call your name? If so, because of that hole in the wall, not only can you believe, you can respond, you can trust and know that it is empty for you.
Give us the courage, O Lord, to come to that empty tomb today… trusting that you will call our name and give to us eternal life. Amen.
1William Willimon, “Now Can We Sing?” The Christian Century, March 23, 2010, p. 12.
2John M. Buchanan, “Raised Up,” Ibid.