A Bad Day for Grave Robbers

1 Corinthians 15:19-26   |   4/15/2001

We should not look for our Easter treasure in a tomb, because Jesus Christ is not going to be found in a grave, by tomb raiders or anyone else.

They called him "Resurrection Man."

He was a 36-year-old slave, purchased for $700 (a considerable sum in those days) off an auction block in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1852. His buyer was the Medical College of Georgia, and his mission was morbid but simple: to provide the medical school with fresh cadavers.

Everyone knew that his real name was Grandison Harris. But doctors playfully plastered him with the nickname Resurrection Man once he got good at robbing the local black cemetery and bringing the bodies back to school.

The Resurrection Man was good. According to an eyewitness, he would go to the cemetery late at night, with only the moon watching. Quickly, he would dig down to the upper end of the box, smash it with an ax, reach in there with his long and powerful arms and draw the body out. He would put the cadaver in a big sack, place it in a cart and then - after restoring the grave to good order - carry the body to the school.

Grandison Harris was really a glorified grave robber, not a true Resurrection Man. He didn't bring the dead to life, but instead desecrated a cemetery and then carted its cadavers back to the doctors of the medical college. The closest he came to witnessing a resurrection was when he took a break one night after completing a job. The story is that he parked his loaded wagon in an alley and went inside a saloon to refresh himself.

Two medical students had been watching Harris, and when he disappeared they removed the body from his sack and hid it. Then one of them climbed into the sack. When Grandison returned to his wagon, the student groaned in a grave like voice:

"Grandison ... Grandison ... I'm cold. Buy me a drink!"

The results were predictable!

About the same as the soldiers and disciples who found an empty tomb on resurrection morning, confused and scared witless.

The authorities had an explanation: grave robbers! The disciples dun it, they said. The chief priests and elders of Jerusalem gave a large sum of money to the guards who had witnessed the resurrection and insisted that they spread the story: "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep" (Matthew 28:13).

Resurrection. Grave robbing. There's a long-standing link.

Still, this whole topic is bound to make us uncomfortable. The thought of tearing the top off a tomb is enough to make our skin crawl, and disturbing the dead in their place of final rest is one of the world's most enduring taboos.

In Utah, James and Jeanne Redd are accused of digging up an Anasazi Indian burial mound on state land in January 1996 and removing as many as 17 human bones from the prehistoric dwelling site, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Five years later the case is still in the courts.

In China, three men were executed in central Hubei for robbing grave sites and destroying ancient corpses. In Beijing, at least 16 people were executed for stealing ancient Buddha statues, robbing graves and destroying ancient corpses in a nationwide crackdown on crime.

In New York, Tiffany expert Alastair Duncan was sentenced to 27 months in prison for two schemes to deal in Tiffany stained-glass windows - windows stolen from cemeteries and mausoleums in the New York metropolitan area. The two other participants in the scheme - originally identified as the grave robber and middleman - were Anthony Casamassima and Lawrence J. Zinzi.

So it's a bad day for grave robbers. Contemporary coffin-cracking criminals are getting caught, and this is a good thing. We really ought to slap the cuffs on thieves who plunder tombs for treasure - whether they are looking for bones that are valuable in themselves, or coins or jewelry or artwork that may have been interred with the body - as the Egyptians and other ancients often did.

Easter is always a bad day for the tomb raiders of the world, because nothing bothers a grave robber more than an empty tomb. On the day of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene and a group of women arrive at the grave, carrying spices and ointments and fully expecting to be greeted by the stench of death. But when they go in, they find no body. Mary assumes that grave robbers have already been there and done their dirty work, and she cries out to Peter, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him" (John 20:2).

Then Peter gets up and runs to the tomb, climbs in and looks around. The only treasure he sees is a pile of linen cloths - hardly a valuable find in itself.

But the great treasure of the tomb is already gone. It just takes a little while for this shocking new reality to sink in. After Peter goes home, Mary stands weeping outside the grave, still convinced that the tomb has been robbed. It is only when Jesus appears to her and calls her by name that she discovers that her teacher has been raised to new life. Then she goes and announces to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18).

There's no treasure in this tomb. No, the grave is cleaned out because Christ has been raised. The most valuable of bodies is not wrapped in a shroud - it is out and about in a resurrection body, appearing to the disciples, and to others, and now to people throughout the world. Jesus Christ is not going to be found in a grave, by tomb raiders or anyone else. "He is not here," proclaim the men in dazzling clothes on that first Easter morning. "He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5).

The point is that on Easter morning, we win it all. We are presented with a treasure more valuable that anything that's been plucked from the Titanic, unearthed from an Indian grave or stolen from the tomb of King Tut. Today we are given a gift of life, not death - a gift of the power and the presence of our risen Lord.

Treasures simply don't get any better than that.

Because he lives, we live. If we are living a graveyard existence - feeling like we are cadavers ourselves, decomposing through sinful actions, mindless work, dead-end relationships and stone-cold spirituality - Jesus rises before us with new life. He offers us forgiveness and guidance, inspiration and salvation, asking only that we put our trust in him and walk in his way. He invites us to join him in a new kind of life - a resurrection life - one that no longer fears sickness or sin or loneliness or death but focuses only on the abundant and everlasting life that begins and ends in God.

The treasures of this new life are not stored up on earth, like the Egyptian treasures that gather dust in collections around the world. Nor are they gifts that can be bought or sold, traded or stolen. These treasures are all heavenly, not earthly - all part of an eternal relationship with God.

These gifts never carry curses, like the legendary treasures of the Pharaohs. Only blessings. Only hope. Only everlasting life. Only the promise of victory over the grave.

So go ahead: Put your trust in the Resurrection Man. It's a very good day for raiders of his empty tomb.

Hunter, Stephanie. "'Resurrection man'
dug way into history."
The Augusta
June 21, 1996.
Smith, Christopher. "Grave-robbing
case drags into its 5th year."
Salt Lake
July 15, 2000.


The text represents a portion of Paul's major disposition on the relationship of the resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the early Christian kerygma, and the general resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Christ. As with all of Paul's discussion of such doctrinal notions, his treatment of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is grounded in practical matters within the church.

According to 1 Corinthians 15:12, it seems as though some within the Corinthian community deny the existence of the general resurrection. Indeed, Paul states that "some say there is no resurrection of the dead." One wonders if Paul thought that much of the Corinthian church's trouble heretofore tackled in the letter (e.g., community divisions over leadership, sexual immorality, abuse of power, economic disparity, disputes over spiritual gifts) might find their basis within this particular misunderstanding of the gospel. At any rate, Paul saves this discussion for the end of the letter, following it with only a call to participate in his collection for the poor in Jerusalem and closing greetings in chapter 16.

Matters regarding the resurrection in the Christian faith are for Paul both elementary and ultimate. The character and content of the body of Christ are built upon the hope and faith that God has raised Jesus from the dead and through Christ will defeat death and raise those who are in Christ from the dead.

The lection begins after the problem has been stated in verse 12: There are some who say there is no resurrection from the dead. Just what Paul means by this denial is debated in commentaries on the passage. At the least, what can be discerned is that, though the early Christian kerygma proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, it did not stipulate the connection of his resurrection to the general resurrection at the end of history. This Jewish apocalyptic belief was widely held at the time of Paul (though denied by some groups, e.g., the Sadducees). What Paul does here and in other places (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) is to work with established apocalyptic expectations, and connect the Christian kerygma with them. In this sense, Jesus' resurrection becomes an inaugural moment in a new phase of salvation history. The description of the scope of this moment, and its unfolding implications, is what concerns Paul in the verses of the lection.

In verse 19, Paul begins with a hypothetical statement that captures the original problem within the Corinthian church. "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." Paul signals for his church that there is more than "this life" to be hoped for in Christ. The scope of God's saving work in Christ goes way beyond what we can see now, Paul proclaims. Hope that only encompasses what Christ means for the present life is pitiable hope. It is small hope. Paul calls the church to greater hope.

That hope is built upon Paul's correction of the hypothetical situation in verse 19 with the contrastive claim, "but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died." It is Christ's resurrection that begins this new phase of God's sovereign rule over history. Paul takes what the Corinthians know from his preaching to them, Christ's resurrection from the dead, and he construes it as the initiation of something that awaits complete fulfillment.

Paul describes Christ's resurrection as the "first fruits." By this he places that event in a temporal frame. For those who might claim their libertine rights in a Christology and eschatology that is fully realized, Paul demonstrates that there is more to be revealed. This is a process, like the harvest, in which there is an early, promissory crop. Christ's resurrection is like that crop. Interpretations of "first fruits" as somehow related to grain offerings in Israel's cult go beyond the logic of Paul's formulation here. Granted, Paul views Jesus' death as sacrificial in the cultic sense, but here he has a historical frame in view. Christ is first, and as Christians, the Corinthians are to live in hope that their resurrection at the end of history will be the fulfillment of the harvest that God has begun in him.

In verses 21-22 Paul presses the historical frame backward to its origin. Adam, evoking the story of God's creation and the human betrayal of God's order in the Garden, represents death, and Christ represents life. In Adam, Paul claims (cf Romans 5:12-21), humans die. In Christ, humans are made alive. At this point, verse 23, Paul nuances the Adam/Christ parallelism with the intermediate situation of his churches. Each will be made alive in order. Christ is first, then at Christ's second coming Paul claims that those who "belong" to Christ will be raised. For Paul, the promise of resurrection requires residing within the Spirit and body of Christ that he has described for the Corinthians throughout the letter. Being in this spirit requires faith, and being in this body requires right behavior. By belonging to Christ, Paul proclaims, Christians play an active role in God's larger plan of salvation.

The final verses of the lection describe the final phase of Paul's understanding of God's plan for salvation. This phase is charged with traditional apocalyptic expectation of the defeat of human powers (governments, economies, judiciaries), as well as other powers (sin, disease, death). For Paul, as for many Jews of his time, this expectation represented the ultimate faith in God's sovereignty over creation. While the current age does not entirely reflect God's power, the totality of God's purposes for human history had yet to be revealed. Belief in a sovereign and single God was maintained in a deferred expectation of the complete revelation of God's power in the world. Paul's understanding of this epic, however, is profoundly organized around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is Christ, Paul argues, citing Psalm 110:1, who will put all enemies under his feet. It is Christ who will deliver the kingdom to God.

The final verse of the lection pronounces the hope that Paul knows his church needs to hear and through which they need to live. Death is real. Even the resurrection of Jesus has not yet defeated death. Rather, it is in the hope of Jesus' resurrection that the church is called to live now, in the belief that in God's ultimate plan, death will be no more. Such faith, for Paul, emboldens the church to live even today in obedience to God and alive in God's love.

Animating Illustrations

The skull of a Civil War general known as an "evil genius" was stolen from his grave in a crime authorities believe may be part of a satanic ritual. The remains of Gen. Elisha G. Marshall were dug up ... at the city's Mt. Hope Cemetery, police said. Some bones were found near the grave site along with satanic symbols.

The grave robbing occurred during the summer solstice - the day with the longest period of sunshine. Police said they typically find evidence of satanic activities on that day.

"We try to do [details at the cemetery] two or three times a year, depending on the satanic calendar," said Sgt. Dan Magill. "I've been there the last five years during the summer solstice. Unfortunately, we were doing something else that night."

Marshall was born in Rochester in 1829 and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He fought Indians in the West and in some of the bloodiest Civil War battles.

When Marshall was trying to organize the 14th New York Heavy Artillery regiment in Rochester later in the war, he managed to divert recruits from another regiment, leading a historian of the other regiment to describe him as an "evil genius."

"This is very unusual," cemetery manager Nancy Hilliardsaid. "We
get vandalism periodically, but it's substantially less than itused to be. This is the first time I've had a grave dug up."

-Associated Press, "Civil War general's skull stolen from grave," San Francisco Examiner, June 23, 2000.

As tourists in a museum pass exhibits of dinosaur bones, one tourist asks the guard: "Can you tell me how old those bones are?"

"They are 3 million, four years, and six months old," says the guard.

"That's an awfully precise number," says the tourist. "How do you know their age to the month?"

"Well, the bones were 3 million years old when I started working here," the guard says, "and that was four and a half years ago."

In the early 1800s, before acquiring "Resurrection Man" - a grave-robbing slave named Grandison Harris - the faculty of the Medical College of Georgia tried several methods of getting cadavers.

At first, cadavers were purchased locally for 75 cents each, but there weren't enough to meet the college's needs.

When the Civil War ended slavery, Harris briefly left the school, but he returned as a porter, getting paid $8 a month.

Robbing graves was still in his unofficial job description. In 1889, as word spread throughout the black community about the use of their dead from Cedar Grove [Cemetery] for dissections, authorities faced civil disturbance... .

In 1908, an enfeebled Harris - who had watched as the grandsons of [the Medical College of Georgia's] founders became doctors - made his last appearance at the school.

He died in 1911 of heart failure at 95.

Three days later, the old grave robber returned to Cedar Grove
- this time as a resident of the same cemetery he had plunderedfor more than 50 years.

-Stephanie Hunter, "'Resurrection man' dug way into history," The Augusta Chronicle, June 21, 1996.

In a setback to scientists, the U.S. Interior Department decided Monday that Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America, should be given to five American Indian tribes who have claimed him as an ancestor.

The decision comes after four years of dispute between the tribes - who want the remains buried immediately - and researchers, who want to continue studying the 9,000-year-old bones that have already forced anthropologists to rethink theories about where the original Americans came from.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the remains were "culturally affiliated" with the five tribes because the bones were found in the Columbia River shallows near the tribes' aboriginal lands.

"Although ambiguities in the data made this a close call, I was persuaded by the geographic data and oral histories of the five tribes that collectively assert they are the descendants of people who have been in the region of the Upper Columbia Plateau for a very long time," Babbitt said in a statement.

The five groups, which have sought custody of the bones for immediate reburial, contend study of Kennewick Man is a desecration of the remains based on tribal religious traditions.

-Associated Press, "U.S. giving Kennewick man to tribes," September 25, 2000.

Here's a story some claim is true: A man was standing in line at the bank when there was a commotion at the counter. A woman was distressed, exclaiming, "Where will I put my money?! I have all my money and my mortgage here!! What will happen to my mortgage?!"

It turned out that she had misunderstood a small sign on the counter. The sign read, WE WILL BE CLOSED FOR GOOD FRIDAY. I guess Easter was not uppermost in her thoughts, because she thought that the bank was going to close "for good" that coming Friday.

Patrick Gahagen is surprised to be alive this Easter. Just one year ago, "I never thought I would live to see the leaves change," he says. Cystic fibrosis was slowly killing him and his dream of becoming a Lutheran pastor.

"My lung capacity was about 20 percent of normal," he recalls. "On a good day when I was completing my studies at Philadelphia Seminary in 1996, I might have been able to walk about 70 feet without stopping to catch my breath."

Then came summer 1997 and what Gahagen calls a miracle of modern science and God - a miracle that dramatically altered his perspective on life and faith.

Doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis began an ambitious medical plan to make him as strong as possible for a double lung transplant that might let him live.

The pre-surgical regimen of diet and exercise had him feeling so much better that he sometimes wondered whether surgery was a good idea. But he went ahead, only to wonder why he agreed to it.

"I was in terrible discomfort after the operation," he recalls. But doctors reminded him in the ensuing days that he had made
the right choice. "They told me that in 10 years of doing the

surgery they had never seen lungs as badly deteriorated as

mine," he says.

And now, less than a year after the surgery, he has "no trace" of cystic fibrosis in his lungs. Friends who recall seeing the
frail Gahagen at his sister's graduation from The Lutheran
Seminary at Philadelphia in spring 1997 can't believe how well
he looks today.

he eagerly anticipates the call process that will bring about
the fulfillment of his dream of being a pastor.

"I have a whole new perspective on things I used to take for granted," he says. "I've just returned from Florida. I noticed while I was running near the ocean that life truly is everywhere - on the beach, in the sea, in birds and fish and plants. God is constantly overcoming death with life. It's there for everyone to see if people will just take the time to notice it."

Gahagen says his experience gave him a new perspective on Easter. "The spiritual aspects of my recovery have been more powerful for me than the physical side," he says. "I have no idea who served as the donor for my surgery, but I feel a special closeness to that person. I think of the donor as a guardian angel. I don't believe for an instant that God wanted this donor to die so that I could find life. But God found a way to make life possible after death, and that gives this Easter season a special meaning for me."

-Mark A. Staples, "The gift of life," The Lutheran, April 1998.

"What a great day," [comedian] Steve Martin notes as he sits outside at a cafe on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I wish I were alive."

-David Wild, "Steve Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview," Rolling Stone, September 2, 1999, 88.

People who loot unmarked Indian burial grounds could face prison time and a stiff fine under a bill approved by the Texas Senate in an effort to preserve the remains of a displaced culture.

"We have a small number of grave-robbing human-remains poachers who know exactly what they're doing," Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, said Friday.

His bill, which goes to the House for consideration, would allow looters to be charged with a third-degree felony, punishable by a prison term of two to 10 years and an optional fine of up to $10,000.

Misdemeanor penalties would be included for people who display human remains for profit, fail to report disturbance of a burial site or discover a site and don't report it... .

Archaeologists say the bill is needed because pottery and other artifacts buried with tribal leaders in unmarked Indian graves can garner up to $10,000 on the black market.
"Predominant European cultures that dominate America have rich traditions of private property and marked burial sites. People who were native to this land did not," Barrientos has said of his bill.

"Property was communally owned, and human remains were returned
to the earth without monument. We are now allowing people to
profit off looting the graves of a conquered, but not defeated,
culture," he said.

-Peggy Fikac, "Bill would protect unmarked burial grounds," Associated Press, April 19, 1997.

Grave robbing has been the norm in Egypt since ancient times. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a 4,000-year-old cenotaph - a stone tablet inscribed with hieroglyphics - recounts a short-lived rebellion against King Mentuhotep, in which the poor smashed open royal tombs and looted the gold and jewels buried with the mummies.

The museum also has the 7th century B.C. Papyrus of the Grave Robber. The text describes a contemporaneous scandal in Luxor where one official of the 26th Dynasty accused another of looting the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The account traces how royal investigators initially exonerated the accused but upon further examination found him guilty and sentenced him to a whipping.


Children's Sermon

Place a large Easter lily in front of the children, one that has several flowers open and others still closed. Tell them that there was a time when this plant was just a bulb - it looked dead and was buried in the ground. Explain that it came out of the dirt and grew, and now it is beginning to bloom. Point to the most fully open flower and say, "Let's call this one Christ - because it is the first fruit, the first to bloom." Suggest that this flower would be a big surprise to anyone who had only seen a lily BULB - just as the resurrection of Jesus was a big shock to anyone who had seen him dead and buried. Then ask the children if the Christ flower is the only one that will come to life. They'll say no and point to some of the others. Let them know that we will all be raised, just as Jesus was raised, because "all will be made alive in Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:22). Assure them that we'll all have our time to bloom, following Jesus the Christ - the first fruit.

Worship Resources

Music Links

Cristo Vive/Christ is Risen
Sing with All the Saints in Glory
The Strife is O'er

Blessing, Honor and Glory
Christ the Lord is Risen Today
Lord, I Lift Your Name on High