“He Is Not Here!”“We took his body down from the cross and gave it to a small group of his followers. I thought that would be the end of it."
Had we been at the tomb that morning, we might have heard a desperate man frantically shouting something like this:
“He’s not here! He’s just not here! What am I supposed to do now?
“I can’t believe this is happening. I came back here, thinking that somehow I would discover that I’d imagined it all. But I can see now that it did happen. All of it.
“You look at me strangely, and I don’t blame you. So allow me to explain. I am a centurion, a commander in the Roman legion that occupies Jerusalem. I am a leader. I have a fine record of service and the full respect of my troops. I am man of honor, a trusted servant of Rome. But if I’m honest, the past few days have shaken me.
“It began on Friday, when I was ordered to assist in the execution of three criminals. There was nothing special about it, really. Crucifixions are common in Jerusalem, and at first, this one seemed like all the others. Although I do recall that the crowd in this case was angrier than usual. They shouted and threw stones at one of the men, the one they called Jesus. He had apparently called himself a king, and the people seemed to hate him for it. As a joke, some of my men even made a crown of thorns and pushed it down onto his head, which caused it to bleed. I also remember that Jesus was not strong, and he struggled with the cross that we placed on his back as we marched him and the two others out of the city to the Hill of the Skull, which is where we conduct executions. At one point, we even had to recruit someone from the crowd to help him carry that cross.
“After we nailed Jesus to the cross and raised him up, I gambled with a few other soldiers for his clothes. But I soon became aware of the fact that this crucifixion was different. Around noon, the skies grew dark, and looking up at Jesus, I was surprised to see something in his eyes that I had never seen in the eyes of any other man we had crucified. People were shouting at him, of course, and He was obviously in great pain. But there was a look of understanding and concern on his face, as if he actually loved those who hated him.
“It was then that I felt an earthquake, and I don’t mind telling you that it shocked me. Actually, I was terrified. I was so scared that, without thinking, I shouted to some of my men, ’He really was the Son of God!’
“And then, Jesus died.
“We took his body down from the cross and gave it to a small group of his followers. I thought that would be the end of it.
“But it wasn’t. Yesterday, the name of Jesus came up again. Apparently, the Jewish leaders managed to convince my superiors that, in order to demonstrate that Jesus was not the Son of God, guards should be posted at the tomb in which he had been laid. They’d heard a rumor that He was to rise again from the dead, and they wanted everyone to see how foolish that was. So I was assigned with a few others to seal and then guard the tomb. It struck me as rather pointless, as he was already dead. That’s probably why I fell asleep.
“But then another earthquake struck. When I awoke, my eyes were stabbed by a blinding light, brighter than the sun. But it wasn’t coming from the sky. It seemed to come from a figure that moved around the front of the tomb. That figure finally came to rest on the stone that I had helped place at the entrance. I had sealed that tomb myself, but now it had been rolled away.
“The figure then spoke to two women who were standing to one side. I had seen these women on Friday at the crucifixion. But they weren’t weeping any more. They were instead listening intently to the figure, who told them that Jesus was not there. He said that Jesus had truly been raised from the dead. It said in a loud voice, ’He is risen!’ And then it told the women to go and share the good news with the disciples of Jesus.
“Now, I am a strong man, and I have endured many hardships in the course of my service. But this was too much for me. So I did something that I have never done before. And I am ashamed to admit it.”
“When I came to, I gathered my thoughts and tried to figure out what to do next. I decided to go to the chief priests. I told them everything, and they listened closely to every word.
“After they talked for a few moments among themselves, they came back to me with smiles on their faces. They said they had a plan. They flattered me and then, in a whisper, told me that they would pay me if I promised not to tell anyone else what I had seen. They said that they would tell my superiors that the disciples of Jesus had come and taken the body away during the night. They would hide the fact that I had fallen asleep. They would protect my reputation. I listened closely, and even though I knew it was a lie, I agreed.
“I know what you are thinking. It was corruption. Corruption of the worst kind. I was taking money to tell a lie. More than that, I was a coward, afraid to admit that I had fallen asleep while on duty.
“That’s why, as soon as I made the deal, I felt dirty. My heart was not right. The Jews speak of sin, a darkness in the soul that separates a man from God. And at that moment, I understood what they meant. I felt sinful.
“So I came back here to the tomb. I’m not really sure why I’ve come, but I wonder. If he is not here, if he is alive, if he has such amazing power, can he forgive me? Can he cleanse me of the sin in my life? Because I know he’s not dead. He’s not in the tomb. He is risen!”
Someone once said that the simplest meaning of Easter is that we live in a world in which God has the last word. Christians testify to that truth. Jesus is not dead. To the contrary, He’s very much alive and reigns triumphant at the right hand of God the Father.
The Roman centurion discovered what each of us can discover for ourselves. Two thousand years after the Resurrection, anyone can still experience the surprise, the thrill and the overwhelming power of God’s grace as it was made plain in the Risen Christ. His hand is extended right now to you, and the only question is whether you will take it. The only question is whether you want life instead of death, victory instead of defeat. The choice is yours.
Commissioner Kenneth G. Hodder is National Commander for The Salvation Army.