Easter Faith (John 20:1-18)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015
Upon seeing the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene ran to the disciples and said, “They have taken the Lord” (20:2). Could Jesus really be taken somewhere He did not want to go? She knew he had power other men could not even dream of having. But she watched him die. Yes, a corpse could be dragged about, used by one group for its purposes and by another for theirs. But, if he was a corpse, could he be “the Lord?”
Mary reacted before thinking things through and before remembering things Jesus had said, including that he would die and then rise.
This morning we will look at the way three of Jesus’ disciples responded to his resurrection. I do include Mary in the group of Biblical disciples. A disciple is a passionately devoted follower of Jesus. That Mary Magdalene came to the tomb after Jesus was dead and buried shows her devotion. That she grabbed hold of his resurrected body to worship him by hugging his feet shows her passion (Mt. 28:9). Mary Magdalene was a disciple.
The Gospel of John tells us three came to the tomb on Sunday morning, first Mary Magdalene and then Simon Peter with the Beloved Disciple.
Mary arrives first, sees the stone rolled away, and runs to the disciples. She follows them back to the tomb and hears their report that the tomb was empty save for Jesus’ burial cloth. They inspect, and then leave. She lingers and looks in.
It is not empty! Two angels in white are sitting there. Because angels appear often in Bible stories, we may think people in those accounts were accustomed to visits from divine beings. They weren’t. The appearance of angels shocked them as much as they would you or me. Except, not Mary. Mary continued worrying about “they,” whoever they are.
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
“They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” And she turns away from the angels. What about asking them what happened? They are messengers from God. Couldn’t she say, “Hey, where is Jesus?” Nope, not Mary. Most people in the Bible drop to the ground in fear when they meet angels. Mary just turned away.
Turning from the tomb, she bumps into one she takes to be the gardener. I don’t know why she could not recognize Jesus. Was his appearance altered? Were her eyes blinded? I don’t know.
She thinks he is the gardener.
“Sir,” she says, “If you have carried him away, tell me where and I will take him away” (20:15). She loved Jesus, who she was sure had died, and she wanted to keep on loving him. She didn’t really think about how she would move a corpse around.
When he spoke her name and she realized it was him, she grabbed him. If this account lines up with Matthew’s, then Mary literally grabbed Jesus feet with such enthusiasm that Jesus had to tell her “Do not hold onto me” (20:17).
In her reactions on resurrection morning, Mary demonstrated a very hasty Easter Faith. She jumped to conclusions at seeing the tomb empty and those conclusions led her to a series of missteps that were only cleared up when the resurrected Lord spoke her name.
As hasty as she acted, she was also quite faithful. She did not flee but instead stood at the cross, staying with him as he died. She did not hide, but went to the tomb to honor him one last time. The resurrection shed light on different aspects of Mary’s character that show flaws but more importantly show her to be a true follower of Jesus.
It had a similar effect on Simon Peter. Here we stick to the way John’s gospel presents him. He was extremely outspoken. When crowds abandoned Jesus, Jesus asked the 12 if they too wanted to leave. Peter was the disciple who pledged to stay. He said, “Lord, to whom [else] can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). It was a shining moment for Peter, one of the rare times that insight matched the words his mouth blurted.
At the foot washing, Peter was the one who initially refused to let the master was his feet. He would not have his Lord stoop before him. When Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter asked that his entire body be washed.
In the garden of Gethsemane, the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. One of the disciples attacked one of the soldiers, cutting off his ear. Only John tells us the disciple to do this violent act, antithetical to the way of peace and love Jesus taught, was Peter.
It was Peter who, when Jesus predicted all the disciples would abandon him, promised to stay true. Then in John 18, we read that Peter not only ran, but when confronted, denied knowing Jesus.
John presents a blundering, act first, think later (or think never) man in Simon Peter.
The morning of the resurrection, he and the beloved disciple heard Mary’s report that the tomb was empty and Peter did not hesitate. He ran to the tomb. When he got there, Peter kept right on going. The other disciple waited, but Peter barged right into the empty tomb. He surveyed the contents: linen wrappings, the head cloth intentionally rolled up, and no angels, and no body. Neither Peter nor the other bumped into a familiar but unrecognized gardener. They came, they saw, and they went home.
If Mary’s Easter faith was hasty but also faithful and true, Simon Peter’s was blundering but also bold. His tendency to act first got him in trouble plenty of times, but Jesus loved him for it.
After the resurrection Peter declared he was going fishing and six other disciples followed his lead. They were out in a boat, and they saw a man walking on the beach. The beloved disciples recognized that it was Jesus. Peter, true to form, dove in, literally. He swam to Jesus, his Lord whom loved so much. Hasty and faithful, blundering and bold, the resurrection brought the true Easter faith out of both Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter.
There was a third player on the day of the resurrection. Mary reported the empty tomb to Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. It does not say his name was John. Neither does it say that when it reports he was was the only disciple standing with Jesus’ mother Mary at the foot of the cross. The gospel is called ‘John,’ and the gospel’s author identifies himself as Jesus’ ‘beloved disciple.’ Thus early church historians put the two facts together and came to associate the Beloved Disciple with John. But the Gospel itself does not do that, ever. So I will refer to him as the Gospel does, as the Beloved Disciple.
He could just as easily be called the timid disciple. When they are gathered with Jesus at the last supper and he predicts one will deny him, Simon Peter nudges the Beloved Disciple. Ask him who he means. Who will be the betrayer? Acting at Peter’s initiative, he asked, and Jesus answered (John 13:24-26).
Again on the morning of the resurrection, the Beloved Disciple was hiding out until Mary Magdalene reported the tomb empty. He and Peter, not he on his own, got up to check on things. He outran Peter so that upon arriving at the tomb, he was there, for a moment, alone. In that moment he just waited.
After Peter, huffing and puffing to catch up, arrived and barreled right into the empty tomb, only then did the Beloved Disciple follow. The Gospel of John is his autobiography even if he makes himself a minor character and refers to himself in the third person. He tells us he saw the empty tomb and believed and at the same time did not understand. What does that mean?
It could probably be a fitting way to describe a lot of disciples, maybe many of us. We read the story and we say we believe that Jesus rose from the grave and is the son of God and is the Savior of the world whose resurrection makes it certain we will be resurrected. We say we are sure of this, but do we understand it? The beloved disciple admits that even standing in the empty tomb, he did not.
That same evening he was with the other disciples and he was holding up behind locked doors as they all were. Even with what he had seen, he was still plagued by fear of the authorities. In his heart, he believed Jesus has conquered death. His brain was having trouble catching up. Resurrection is so paradigm-shattering, even we who live after the event and after the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, even we who live with a couple thousand years of brilliant Christian history and thought which gives great depth to our theology, even we have a terrible time aligning our heart beliefs with the logic our brains construct.
The Beloved Disciple owned up to his own timidity. He did not try to make himself out to be a star in the Gospel he wrote. Just the opposite; he was so self-effacing, he never mentioned his name. He was not worried about scholars spending 2000 years debating about who wrote the Gospel. He wanted them and us to focus on the Jesus we meet in the Gospel, not the author. Yes, his was a timid faith, but it was a humble faith. We do well to imitate this and we can when our lives point people away from ourselves and to Jesus.
So we have an empty tomb, and examples of Easter faith; it is faith that is hasty but true and faithful. It can be blundering and clumsy, but also courageous and bold. It is timid and unsure, but it is a humble faith that exalts Jesus. Were we to look deeper into John’s Gospel at more disciples, we’d find Nathanael. His faith started out uncomfortably blunt, but he was steadfast.
We’d meet the Pharisee Nicodemus who began with a careful faith that stayed hidden and conformed to the expectations of the temple insider crowd. Nicodemus was afraid of how it would injure him socially if he were seen with Jesus in the light of day. A few years of watching Jesus transformed Nicodemus from this unimpressive caution to a man who risked all he had earned in his life in order to honor the Lord. He went from careful to risky faith.
Of course it is in John that we meet Thomas. The resurrection brought his doubts. If we go through the Gospel carefully and imaginatively, we see that Thomas whose doubting faith was exposed in the resurrection was perhaps the most rational of the disciples. His faith, relying upon reason, may be as helpful as any we study in our post-enlightenment age.
What kind of faith does the resurrection inspire in you? Do you resonate with one we’ve explored or touched upon briefly? The tomb is empty. Let this settle in your mind. Put yourself there. What does it mean?
Try to explain to people who think Christianity is just a fantasy or nothing but garbage that actually it is a faith based upon this man who rose from the grave. Try to imagine yourself attempting to convince nonbelievers that this story is absolutely true, is the best news ever, and is their hope for salvation. The resurrection can be difficult to embrace even when we believe it without question.
What faith does it create in you? However we answer, from our predecessors in the Bible, we know the faith we have won’t be perfect. Our Easter faith will be hasty or blundering, timid or blunt, careful or doubtful. But the resurrected Jesus will love us right where we are, right there in our flawed faith. The risen Christ will make our faith steadfast and bold, rational and risky. He does this because this story is His and he invites to inhabit it. He calls us to resurrection faith which, because of His grace, ends in us being resurrected and living forever.
Is this hard to believe? That’s OK. Believe it as best you can with the faith you have. Jesus will carry us from here into life, life everlasting.