A few years ago my Kentucky friend Ray Bagwell buried his father, a man from what we call ‘The Greatest Generation.’ His name was Bill Bagwell, though he was just called ‘The General’ by his friends around town. There’s a chapter in Bill’s life that deserves telling and will do your soul some good.
When Bill was 17 he signed on with the Navy and left his home in Texarkana, Texas to be stationed at Pearl. That was 1936. We know what happened at Pearl in 1941. By 1942 Bill was fighting in the Philippines, and when it fell to Imperial Japanese forces he was taken captive. He was shipped to Osaka where he languished as a POW in horrifying conditions – just as portrayed in “Unbroken” – until his liberation at the war’s end in 1945.
When that happened the prisoners were starving and diseased and in need of extended treatment to restore their health. Stripped not only of human dignity but identification as well, the men were slowly nursed back to wholeness.
Finally, in the middle of 1946 Bill was sent back to the US. When his ship docked in California he disembarked and phoned his folks back in Texarkana, but when Bill’s dad got that call and heard the voice say, “Dad, it’s Bill” he hung up on him, thinking it to be a prank call.
Now it’s hard to imagine this in our social media-saturated, smartphone world, but in all the time since the Philippines had fallen, the only word about Bill his parents had received was that he was ‘KIA’, Killed in Action. After several months of silence, he’d been declared dead. The death certificate was issued, they had his memorial service, the US government paid the life insurance policy, and everyone moved on with their lives, through the tears and sadness of a lost son.
In California, Bill got a train and headed to Texas. When he got to the station, he phoned home. His dad hung up on him again! Before he did, Bill told him “I’m at a bar across the street from the station.” Angry and eager to settle the score with whoever was pulling this cruel stunt on him, Bill’s dad – the sheriff of Texarkana – headed to the bar. He walked in and nearly fainted. He grabbed the son he hadn’t seen in almost ten years, the son he thought was dead, and in that bar two men hugged and cried.
Then his dad said, “How we gonna tell your mom?”
That was a day the Bagwells never forgot. Their son was back from the dead and they were amazed!
Maybe you think the Gospel is a cosmic prank call. I can’t blame you. Over and over again the Gospels tell us that when people heard the news that Jesus was alive – back from the dead for real, not just a case of mistaken death – they didn’t believe it. They intellectually hung up. That makes sense. After all, people don’t rise from the dead.
Or walk on water. Or feed multitudes from a few loaves and fish. Or are born of a Virgin.
Or die with the weight of the shame and guilt of the fallen human race and the power of death and hell painfully pulsing through every limb and culdesac of their soul.
Is it hard to believe Jesus did all of that? Thomas thought so. And yet, this incredible claim – that God became as we are to make us as he is, that he came to where we are to remake this world to look like heaven itself, that Christ has died and Christ has risen and Christ will come again – this Gospel that Christ has died for our sins and been raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, still rolls away the stone of disbelief and misbelief from hearts today.
I pray the same Spirit that conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb, empowered him to offer himself up in death on the cross, and then raised him from the dead, will come to you and grant you the remarkable gifts of faith and new life today.
Christ Jesus lives. And this is no prank call.
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