He Came Back

William Willimon Sermons

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb…. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe,…he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised;… he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Mark 16:2-7

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins…that he was raised on the third day…that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,…. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all,….he appeared also to me…. I Corinthians 15:3-8

Mark says that, on that first Easter, women went to the tomb to pay their last respects to dead Jesus. To their alarm, the body of Jesus was not there. A “young man, dressed in a white robe” told them, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified? Well, he isn’t here. He is raised. He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

Here’s my Easter question for you: Why Galilee?

Galilee is a forlorn, out of the way sort of place. It’s where Jesus came from, but that’s about its only claim to fame. Jesus spent most of His ministry out in Galilee, the “out back” of Judea getting ready to go up to Jerusalem. All of Jesus’ disciples seem to have hailed from out in Galilee. Jesus spent most of His time in Galilee getting His disciples prepared to leave Galilee and go up to the capitol city with Him. There, in Jerusalem, He was crucified and there He rose. But the moment He rose from the dead, says today’s gospel, He headed back to Galilee. Why?

One might have thought that the first day of His resurrected life, the risen Christ might have gone straight for the palace, to the seat of Roman power, and appeared there.

“Pilate, you made a big mistake,” the risen Christ would say. “Now, it’s payback time!”

One might have thought that Jesus would do something effective, appeared before the movers and the shakers, the influential and the newsmakers, those who had some power and prestige.

No. He didn’t go up to the palace, the White House, the Kremlin, the Capitol. He went outback, back to Galilee. Nobody special lived in Galilee, nobody except the followers of Jesus. Us.

The resurrected Christ goes back to, appears before, the very same rag tag group of people who so disappointed Him, misunderstood Him, forsook Him and fled into the darkness. He returns to His betrayers. He returns to us.

It would have been news enough that Christ had died, but the good news was that He died for us.

It would have been news enough that Christ rose from the dead, but the good news was that He rose for us.

That first Easter, nobody actually saw Jesus rise from the dead. They saw Him afterwards. They didn’t appear to Him; He appeared to them. Us. In the Bible, the “proof” of the resurrection is not the absence of Jesus’ body from the tomb; it’s the presence of Jesus to His followers. The message of the resurrection is not first, “Though we die, we shall one day return to life.” It is, “Though we were dead, Jesus returned to us.”

If it was difficult to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; it must have been almost impossible to believe that He was raised and returned to us. The result of Easter, the product of the Resurrection of Christ is the church — a community of people with nothing more to convene us than that the risen Christ came back to us. That’s our only claim, our only hope.

Community is a choice that we make, a choice to serve, to love, a choice to put up with one another. Easter is a reminder that the Christian community, the church, is a choice that the risen Christ has made to come back to us.

I go to churches where they have a “Seeker Service” on Sunday mornings. Sometimes they have a “Seeker Service” on Saturday night. What’s a Seeker Service? It’s worship trimmed to the limitations of those who don’t know much about church, where the music is all singable, and the ideas are understandable. It’s designed for people who are “seeking” something better in their lives.

Well, that’s fine. The church should reach out to people who are seeking something better in their lives. Trouble is, that’s not the way the Bible depicts us. Scripture is not a story about how we kept seeking God. It’s a story about how God keeps — despite us — seeking us!

On Easter, and in the days afterward, when the risen Christ showed up among us while we were at work out in Galilee — when He “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all . . . he appeared also” to the great persecutor and murderer of the church named Paul — the risen Christ was only doing what the crucified Jesus always did: He came back to us.

“Show us what God looks like,” we demanded of Jesus. God? God is the shepherd who doesn’t just sit back and wait for the lost sheep to head back home. God goes out, risks everything, beats the bushes night and day, and finds that lost sheep!

God is the father who does not simply fold his hands and sit back and wait for the wayward son to come home; God is the heavenly father who leaves heaven and reaches down in the mire and pulls out the prodigal son that he may be at home with the father forever!

We thought, what with the blood and the betrayal of Friday, this was the end. We thought it was over between us and God. At last, we had gone too far away, had stooped to the torture to death of God’s own Son.

Then on Easter, He came back. Back to the very ones who had forsaken, betrayed, and crucified Him. He came back to us.

Christians are the people who don’t simply know something the world does not yet know, or believe something that non-Christians don’t yet believe. We are the people who have had something happen to us that the world appears not to have yet experienced. The risen Christ has come back to us. Therefore we live not alone.

Implications? When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, time and again we look up and realize that we’re not walking by ourselves. When we come to some dead end in life, we look over the brink, into the dark abyss and, to our surprise and delight, there He is, awaiting us. We give up, give in, come to despair and to find Him near to us.

A student, asked to summarize all the gospel in a few words, responded: In the Bible, it gets dark, then it gets very, very dark, then Jesus shows up.

I was visiting a man as he lay dying — as it turned out, he was only a couple of days away from his death. I asked him, there at the end, what he was feeling. Was he fearful?

“Fear? No,” he responded, “I’m not fearful because of my faith in Jesus.”

“We all have hope that our future is in God’s hands,” I said, somewhat piously.

“Well, I’m not hopeful because of what I believe about the future,” he corrected me. “I’m hopeful because of what I’ve experienced in the past.” I asked him to say more.

“I look back over my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I’ve turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed, gotten lost. And time and again, He came back for me. He found a way to get to me, showed up and got me, looked for me when I wasn’t looking for Him. I don’t think He’ll let something like my dying get in the way of His love for me.”

I think he had it just about right. To the poor, struggling Corinthians, failing bad at being the church, backsliding, wandering, split apart, faithless, Paul preaches Easter. He reminds them that they are here this morning because the risen Christ chose to come to them, appear before them, find them, reach out to them. That’s what a risen Savior does. He comes back — again and again — to the very ones (I’m talking about us!) who so betray and disappoint Him. He appears to us, seeks us, finds, grabs us, embraces, holds.

In life, in death, in life beyond death, this is our hope. The risen Christ came back to us.


William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Ministry at Duke Divinity School, and former Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is a Contributing Editor to Preaching.