by Rev. Randy W. Walquist
The Easter account explodes with emotion. The early followers of Jesus could not control their feelings. Mark’s account of Easter tells of the women who were the first to hear of the resur rection of Jesus, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb” (Mark 16:8a NIV). Luke reports that following the resurrection, Jesus asks His disciples, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” (Luke 24:38).
I have been a pastor for 30 years, but I admit that prior to Easter 2008, I struggled to identify with the emotions described in these verses. Then I experienced something very close to a resurrection.
A young man associated with our Albuquerque congregation turned up missing. Actually, Donny was more than just “associated with” our congregation. He was the brother of active members. He had attended our services occasionally. He had brought friends to our adult information class. He knew us, but he maintained a safe distance. He never joined.
Donny possessed the typical personality of an addict. He was the warmest and most friendly person to be around when he was sober. But when he touched illegal drugs, he lost all control. He could be described as the black sheep of the family.
During a period in which he was out of control but living with his mother, Donny threatened her and stole from her. It was at this point his family issued an ultimatum: Donny was not to return to his mother’s home until he had control over his addiction to drugs. His siblings watched Donny as he walked away from his mother’s home for the last time, swinging his arms in the air, kicking and screaming, shouting and cursing, carrying nothing with him but the clothes on his back and wearing his green jacket. The picture of Donny marching down the street was seared in their minds.
That picture became even more dramatic when, more than two years later, a sister happened to notice a news story reporting that the torso of a human being had been unearthed. Police were asking for names of missing persons they could use in an effort to identify the body and begin pursuit of the killer. The article included one chilling piece of information for Donny’s family: The torso was “wearing” a green jacket.
Previously, Donny had been gone for long periods of time. But he always seemed to turn up when he needed something—or when someone in the family needed him. This absence was different. This time he had not returned even when his mother left her home and moved into a retirement home. Later, his mother passed away. The family tried everything they could to reach Donny, but all the people through whom they had in previous absences been able to contact him yielded no information. Though more than a year had passed since their mother’s death, the family had heard nothing from Donny.
So Donny’s sister contacted the police department and told them about Donny. That began a long and grueling emotional journey. The police took DNA samples from all the siblings. When the test results came back, everyone was shocked to learn that the DNA matched. The police said that three of the siblings’ DNA even contained a rare mutation that was identical to the DNA taken from the recovered remains.
There was no getting around it, the police said. Perhaps if Donny’s mother had a sister who gave birth to a male child, this DNA might be from the body of that cousin. But since Donny’s mother had no sister, the police said the odds were one in a million that these were not Donny’s remains. The family needed to accept their brother’s death. The police estimated the time of Donny’s death some months prior to their mother’s death, which explained why the siblings had not been able to contact him regarding her funeral.
Not only was this an emotional journey for the siblings because they had to mourn Donny’s death, but also—following common police practice—investigators initially included the family on their list of Donny’s potential murderers. They were suspects. However, once the police were content that family members had not committed the crime, they enlisted the family’s help in piecing together the story of Donny’s death and perhaps solving the crime.
Police explained that a year after a murder is a good time to again publicize an unsolved crime. By then, girlfriends or spouses have become ex-girlfriends or ex-spouses. They are more likely to talk about crimes committed by those no longer part of their lives. If the story appears in the newspaper again, or on radio or TV, prisoners who have been arrested on other charges are likely to brag about the murder they committed. So Donny’s siblings agreed to be interviewed for a front-page newspaper article regarding their grief and sadness. Details regarding Donny’s memorial service were publicized. Police urged the siblings to watch the attendees closely, because sometimes a murderer will show up at the funeral out of curiosity.
There were no surprises at the memorial service. The police developed no leads. Then, about a month after the memorial service, my secretary called me from my afternoon visits with shut-ins. “Someone is in the office to see you,” she said. “I suggest you come right away!”
Returning to the office, I saw a man sitting in a chair near the secretary’s desk. “Hi, Pastor,” he said. “Do you recognize me?”
“No,” I answered, even while I was thinking, “You look like Donny, but I just led a memorial service for Donny; so I don’t know you!”
“I’m Donny,” he said.
My head started spinning. I stared at Donny in disbelief. I know I felt some of the emotions attributed to the early disciples when they heard about Jesus being alive.
Where had Donny been all these years? Actually, he had never left town. He had simply drifted into the shadows of Albuquerque street life. Eventually, he sought and received help from a Christian organization that works with people and families struggling with issues such as unemployment, homelessness, lack of medical care, and chemical dependency. With the help of a Christian couple who provided a place to live, he gave up drugs and began attending church, where he again heard God’s Word proclaimed. Yet, even then, it was a long time before he realized his family thought he was dead.
I had the privilege of taking Donny to one of his sisters, and I witnessed some of those same emotions Mark and Luke recorded, including trembling and bewilderment. In fact, his sister nearly fainted when she saw Donny.
Yes, Donny was alive. Yet, there was even less reason for us to tremble and feel bewildered than for the disciples of Jesus following His resurrection. After all, we had not seen Donny dead. We were only told the remains were his. Followers of Jesus saw Him die on Good Friday. They saw His body as it was placed in the tomb. They knew He was dead.
I will never be tempted to feel a sense of superiority over those followers of Jesus who were troubled when they looked at Jesus that first Easter. My experience was nowhere close to theirs. If I felt a huge swing of emotions, why wouldn’t those early disciples feel them even more strongly?
Now, having experienced Donny’s return, the report of Luke makes sense to me: “He showed them His hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, He asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’” (24:40–41).
It took a large amount of convincing for the early disciples to celebrate the resurrection. Now I have an idea why!
Postscript: Police forensics personnel explain that DNA testing of relatives to identify the remains of a person is not as precise as the testing done when a suspect’s DNA is available and the goal is to “match” the DNA at the crime scene. You will be pleased to hear that, as of this writing, Donny is practicing his Christian faith and observed his fourth year of sobriety Dec. 18, 2008.