Luke 24:1-12

Habeas Corpus

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde

Three years ago, USA Today printed an article on Easter headlined “The hope of Easter made manifest.” For the article, various and sundry folk were interviewed, believers and non-believers. So, as you can imagine, the results were mixed. For some, belief in a risen Christ made all the difference. Others didn’t put much stock in it at all.

There was one person who particularly caught my attention. He was a 97 year-old black man, who, if he’s still alive today, would have passed the century mark (Just because I missed seventh grade math doesn’t mean I can’t add!). He was the first black Ph. D. graduate of Brown University, the first black member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and at one time in his career had been a university president. He was a scientist by profession, but from birth had fallen into the misbegotten ranks of being a preacher’s kid… a Baptist preacher’s kid at that.

I found out about this article from George Mason, a pastor in Dallas. I don ‘t know if this is what the newspaper article said about the man, or if it is how George described it. Regardless, this is what was said… “Easter faith doesn’t motivate this man (him) consciously; it’s just in him” (my emphasis).1 Oh, please allow me to repeat that. “Easter faith doesn’t motivate him consciously; it’s just in him.”

Do you think any or all of us will ever get to the point in our faith journey that we don’t have to consciously conjure up the faith of Easter, but instead it will just be in us? To live naturally in the faith and not have the pressure of trying to create it ourselves? Is that what we’ve come to do this morning? Find out if Easter faith is in us? If so, it’s a worthy search, don’t you think?

Some people look for an Easter faith by trying to prove it, prove that Jesus rose from the grave. We won’t ask for a show of hands. People looking on, who don’t know us, might think we’ve gotten happy or something with our worship. But let me ask you a question. How many of you have ever heard an Easter sermon in which the preacher tried to make an open-and-shut case for the resurrection by proving that it happened… that, as far as he was concerned, the empty tomb reveals uncategorically that Jesus was raised from the dead?

Let me tell you, you try and take that case to court and no judge in the land would hear it. Quicker than you could say “I do” the judge would slap you with a writ of habeas corpus. You’ve heard that expression before, haven ‘t you? It is a legal term, to be sure, taken from the Latin language. Habeas corpus… “Show me the body.” If someone is to be tried in a court of law, the judge wants that person standing before him or her. It is a way of proving that the person is being held legally, and before that is determined, said person cannot be tried. Habeas corpus. “Show me the body.”

The same could be said about Jesus and Easter. A lot of people don’t believe – won’t believe – until they have some kind of empirical truth in their hands. Show me the body. Oh, but we have the gospels’ stories of Jesus ‘ appearances. Isn’t that enough?

How about when he appeared in the room where the disciples were gathered? He points to Thomas, the Doubter, and reveals to him his hands and his feet. Isn’t that proof?

How about the breakfast beside the sea? Remember? The disciples – that is, the disciples at least who were fishermen – have been at it all night and haven’t caught a blessed thing. A stranger appears on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side. What do they have to lose? They follow his instructions and the nets almost tear from the weight of all the fish. Turns out, the stranger is no stranger at all; it is Jesus. What about that? Doesn’t that story prove the resurrection?

Jesus appeared also to Mary Magdalene. In fact, she was the first to see him on that misty Easter morning. Do you believe Mary?

Well, collect all the evidence from the New Testament gospels and take these stories to a court of law and see how long your “evidence” will be allowed. It won’t be a New York minute before the judge looks you squarely in the eye and uses these words: habeas corpus. Don’t tell me about the body, show me the body.

And that we cannot do. We don’t have the body, at least one we can show to others so there is absolutely no debate. So it’s true, isn’t it? When it comes to Easter, this is what we are left with… stories based on the testimony of wishful believers who followed Jesus. That’s what we have. That ‘s all we have. The witness of a handful of followers who could easily be accused of making up the whole thing in order to save face or salvage something for all the time and effort they put into following the Galilean carpenter.

The question for this Easter and every Easter is this: is that enough? The witness of scripture… is it enough?

Give Mel Gibson credit for this much. His movie has generated a lot of interest in Jesus this year. No doubt, by this time next year it will be on DVD. However, there are those willing to strike now while the iron is hot.

Monday night, ABC television had a three-hour special on Jesus and the movement and growth of Christianity under the influence and ministry of the Apostle Paul. A great deal of the program was spent de-bunking some of the myths and traditions surrounding the story, as well it should have. There’s some really bizarre stuff out there, stories and notions that cause sensible people to shake their heads and wonder how sane some Christians are to come up with this.

ABC approached it from an objective position, something they had to do since they are a news organization. But that isn’t our role. Not yours and mine. We admit we’re not objective. Don’t have to be, don’t want to be. Easter faith has never claimed to be objective or clinical. Easter isn’t meant to be something that motivates us consciously; it’s just in us. It only makes sense from the inside, where faith is generated. You have to come to Easter from the inside.

But that’s not how it was that first Easter. Think about it. When the sun broke on that first Easter morning, the disciples of Jesus were still living as if it were Good Friday or Dark Saturday. They had no idea, despite what Jesus had told them, that this dawning would reveal an empty tomb, or what that empty tomb would mean.

For the Jewish religious establishment, that first Easter morning brought probably more a sense of relief than it did satisfaction. It is true… they wanted Jesus dead. As far as that is concerned, their mission is accomplished. But that doesn’t mean they have derived any particular satisfaction from his death. Death, especially death by public execution – especially execution by crucifixion – is a nasty business for anyone who is involved. No, I have a feeling that what they felt that first Easter morning was much closer to relief than it was to satisfaction.

It meant no more ugly confrontations with the Galilean. It seems that at every turn, they found him breaking a Sabbath rule. Or, he would be found eating in the home of a known sinner. Since these kinds of things fly in the face of their strongest religious beliefs, and Jesus presented himself as a religious reformer, they had had to do something about it. They couldn’t just let him get away with it. So, despite the fact that he always seemed to get the upper hand on them, they had to confront him about his behavior. Now, they don’t have to do that anymore. He is in the grave.

There would be no more debates over theological issues. Jesus really had a different perspective on things. Their view and attitudes were based on centuries of biblical teaching and understanding. The rabbis who came before them had spent countless years interpreting every word, every nuance, of Torah. Jesus had come and upset all that. He was from their tradition, to be sure, yet his ideas of God and God’s kingdom were so vastly different from theirs. His arguments made sense; at least they did to the common folk. The people had really latched onto this Jesus… to the point that he had become dangerously popular. Too popular. They had to do something about it, and now it was over, thank goodness.

Even his stories were dangerous. He would tell a parable that would start out being about someone else, but by the time he got to the punch line, these stories were usually about them. Now, no more being the bad guys. It’s over and done with. They all saw him die on the cross. Habeas corpus. They had the body. They saw him die there at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull.

But something happened, didn’t it? And now, there is no body. At least there is no corpse. Jesus, for those who choose to believe, cannot be contained by something as mundane as a grave.

And this is what is at the heart of Easter… the grave cannot contain us either, those of us who believe in the Risen Christ. A judge may require a writ of habeas corpus but not those who affirm Christ’s resurrection.

If we have to see the body before Easter happens to us, we are – to use the immortal words of the Apostle Paul – “of all people most to be pitied.” Easter isn’t for pity. It isn’t for proof. It is for those who are willing to believe what they cannot see except with the eyes of faith. It is for those who are willing to go beyond belief to obedience. It is for those who are willing to walk in the steps of the Risen Christ.

May we be counted in that number on this Easter morning!

Lord, walk with us to the empty tomb, and when we walk away from it, may we be forever changed into your likeness. In Jesus’ saving name, Amen.


1George Mason, “Now You Don’t See Him, Now You Do,” (unpublished sermon), April 15, 2001.

Copyright 2004 Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.