“Come, Step into Easter” (John 20:1-18)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018
The disciple Jesus loved; he was with Simon Peter, huddled, hiding, scared, defeated. Jesus had died on Friday in the worst way possible, broken and bleeding on a Roman cross. He, the beloved disciple, was there. He wept alongside the women who followed Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the other Mary (the one married to Clopas), and, Mary, the mother of Jesus. None of the male disciples other than him were there. They had fled. He stayed. He looked into Jesus’ dying eyes.
That’s when the Lord entrusted care of Mary into his hands. That’s when the lump in his throat became unbearable. Then, they thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. He was gone. This disciple and the women returned home to find Simon Peter drowning in shame.
The longest Saturday in the history of Sabbath days passed. At sunrise on Sunday, the women woke and headed out, arms loaded with spices. They were going to anoint Jesus’ body.
“The tomb will be guarded,” Simon Peter croaked. Ignoring him, they stepped into the morning shadows, grief-stricken but resolute. He dismissively waved them off and sank back down into debilitating sorrow. The Beloved Disciple stared after them.
An hour later his heart stopped as Magdalene burst through the door. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2). Simon Peter staggered to his feet and was out the door. The Beloved Disciple, for a moment, stood paralyzed, and then dashed after Peter. Briefly, they ran side by side before the younger man sprinted past the husky fisherman.
Arriving at the tomb, seeing the rock rolled aside, he paused. He looked in. The linen wrappings were there, but no body. The head cloth had been intentionally, neatly rolled up and set aside.
As he stood pondering this, a wheezing Simon Peter barreled past him. He followed Peter into the tomb. And he remember Jesus’ words. “When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in the father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20). Raised to life again? Was this …? He looked at Peter. Peter moved out of the tomb. He followed. Slowly, they walked back to the house.
“They asked him, ‘You are not one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not’” (John 18:25). If he ran for 1000 lifetimes, Simon Peter could not escape the moment he uttered those words. As he fled into the bleak night, into the infamy of history, the weight of his denial settled upon him.
His self-pity grew more pathetic when, after he had made his way back to the house and sat brooding for hours, his reverie of shame was interrupted when the Beloved Disciple and the Marys’ returned. How could he look at them? How could he speak to them? As briefly as possible, they described the crucifixion that he in his cowardice had skipped.
He stared vacantly into the eternal void. Somehow Saturday passed. He ate nothing. He said nothing. He just felt. Again, the activity of those around him roused him, just a bit. The women were headed to the tomb to perform burial rituals. He barely noticed their departure.
A while later though, he was snapped out of his stupor when Mary burst in the door. . “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2). Simon Peter jumped to his feet, lumbered out the door, and moved as fast as his thick legs would carry him. They have taken the Lord? As he chugged up the bath, the lithe body of the younger man, the one dubbed the Beloved Disciple, zoomed past him. He had only been vaguely aware of the quiet youth’s presence the last couple of days.
Now, he looked ahead to see him timidly peeking into the tomb. Simon Peter pushed past him. He saw what Mary had described. The burial cloths were there, but no body. Where was Jesus? Oblivious to his younger friend, completely confused, he turned and headed back to the house. Halfway there, he was aware that his young friend was beside him. They shuffled along in silence. He could see that the younger man had a strange gleam in his eyes. He didn’t know what it was.
The two men didn’t even notice Mary Magdalene as they headed back to the house. Nor did she see them as she walked back to the tomb, her vision still clouded by sadness, blurred by a flood of tears. Alone at the tomb, she looked in and saw two young men in white, radiant with purity. She had never seen anyone like this. She knew it, but it didn’t register.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” The voice was tender and fierce, if a voice can be both of those things.
Trembling she said, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where that have laid him” (20:13).
This was too much. She couldn’t talk to these men. As she turned from them, there was another. There was something about this man too. It was all too much.
Though she thought it not possible, His voice ripped through her soul even more than theirs. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Why do people keep asking me why I am weeping? Her voice was not much more than a whisper. “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (20:17).
“Rabbouni!” She flung herself at his feet. She held him, a second time washing his feet with her tears. His hand was so strong, so gentle on the back of her head. Taking her by the shoulders, he raised her to her feet.
“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20:17).
When she got back to the house she told them, “I have seen the Lord.”
The first Germanic tribes in the ancient, tribal days of Northern Europe worshipped a fertility goddess called ‘Austron,’ the goddess of sunrise; the goddess of spring. The frozen winter was over, melting snows receded, and flowers bloomed. The worship of this goddess spread across the north as language evolved and ‘Austron’ became ‘Eostre,’ and then ‘Easter.’[i] [ii]
Then St. Patrick and other early evangelistic missionaries came telling a story – the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Bit by bit, tribe by tribe, Anglos and Saxons came to believe that Jesus was the Savior and that their sins were forgiven. They were baptized as the Kingdom of God took hold at the beginning of the period known as Medieval Europe. As these ancient Anglos and Saxons came to understand that the only true God is the God they knew in Jesus, they were left with a problem. What were they to do with the stories told by their grandfathers and their grandfathers before them, stories of the Goddess of Spring and sunrise, the story of Easter?
The story made sense but not as they had understood it. They realized the resurrection of Christ was the eternal spring, the final sunrise, the flowering of forever. Easter wasn’t the story they thought it was. Easter was the story they had come to know, the story of new life in the risen Christ. These Northern European Christ-worshipers preached the same simple sermon Mary Magdalene preached to Jesus’ male disciples. They said, “We have seen the Lord.”
They stepped into Easter from the darkness of Pagan fertility cults. Once they took that step, nothing ever looked the same again.
Mary Magdalene and later Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple and the rest of the disciples stepped into Easter from the midnight certainty of the permanence of death. Read the accounts of Peter before the resurrection. Read about Peter in the books of Acts, chapters 2-5 and 10-11. He’s a different person. But that is what happens when we step into Easter where we meet the resurrected Christ. Everything we thought we knew goes up in flames.
I see TV commercials about the mind-blowing technology of virtual reality and interactive TV and other new developments. On one AD, the announcer is a motivational speaker who sparks our engines with the triumphant claim, “We are living the future we dreamed about.” Humph! Technology’s got nothing! Resurrection is truly mind blowing. Stepping into Easter is stepping beyond anything we ever could have dreamed, more than we could have “asked or imagined” (Eph. 3:21).
Of course “stepping into Easter” does not mean colorful eggs full of chocolate; it does not mean going to church on that one day of the year, just to make mom happy; it does not mean fancy new dresses or hats to wear to church. It does not mean the preacher dresses up extra nice. Oh, those are fine things. Those might be things we do around Easter time. But stepping into Easter is something different altogether.
The song the ensemble sang invites us …
Come those whose joy is morning sun and those weeping through the night.
Come those who tell of battles won and those struggling in the fight.
Come young and old from every land, men and women of the faith.
Come those with full or empty hands, find the riches of his grace.
Which are you? Have you wept through the night? Are you glowing with joy? Are you right in the middle of a mighty struggle? In the winter of life, can you tell of battles you’ve survived?
We step into Easter when we come from where we are. We don’t pretend to be something else. We don’t “put on our Sunday best.” We are honest about our own lives, our mistakes, messes we’ve made, failures. We come to God as our messiest selves. Simon Peter lumbered to that tomb with nothing to carry by his embarrassment and sorrow. The Beloved Disciple came timidly, peeking in, waiting for others to lead, moving when prompted; but still moving toward Jesus. Mary came under the shroud of death. She was looking for a corpse.
When we see ourselves, our sins for what they are, we come in the same condition. Blindly like Mary Magdalene, timidly like the Beloved Disciple, or shamefully like Peter, we come in our sin. Receiving us in love, Jesus calls us by name and asks, “Why are you weeping?”
In that moment, our eyes are opened. Mary’s sermon becomes our own. Your own testimony is “I have seen the Lord.” From personal experience I can say, “I have seen the Lord.” Because the Holy Spirit has touched your heart, shown you that this story is true and real, you can say, “I have seen the Lord and he is good. I know I am forgiven, saved.”
We come from where we are. We come to Jesus. Yes to church, but church gets confused for a building or an institution; Easter is mistaken for a spring-time holiday. From our deepest pain, we come to Jesus, and thus to a new way of seeing. Death, shame, sorrow, failure – it is all behind us. In the light cast from the empty tomb, reality changes. The world is new and we become new creations. Like Peter, we are no longer who we were before. We have been made new.
All that’s left is to go and tell; tell the world that in Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has come near. In the risen Jesus, salvation has come for all who repent of sin and approach him in faith. If you already know this salvation, go forth on Easter Sunday radiant in resurrection and find a way to share the Good News.
If you have never entrusted your heart, your life to him, you can right now. If you have never announced to the church and to the world that not only is Jesus Lord, He is your Lord, you can do that today. Come. Come and pray with me or with Heather. Pray to receive forgiveness of sins, to receive Jesus into your heart, and to receive new life right now. This is your invitation to step in Easter. As we sing, come, enter the Kingdom of God as a born again child of God.