Easter, Year C
John 20: 1-18
In our Gospel reading for today, we have four characters: Mary Magdalene, the unnamed beloved disciple, Peter and Jesus. Mary is the first who we encounter. She was the first to go to the tomb, presumably to anoint the body. When she arrived she found that the stone (which was more like a boulder) was rolled away. She didn’t investigate further. She did not look inside the tomb. She immediately ran in panic and told Peter and the beloved disciple what she had seen. She assumed that the body has been stolen or moved.
The beloved disciple was the next to approach the tomb. He and Peter raced there. He got there first and peered in. Peter was close behind and rushed in past him. It was only after Peter went in that the beloved disciple entered the tomb. Once in the tomb he saw the linen wrapping, the clothes that Jesus had been wrapped in before he was buried—that was when he saw and believed. The text also said that he did not understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. This is a little confusing, but I will come back to that.
The last person to arrive at the tomb was Peter. While he was the last to arrive, he was the first to go in. He was always impulsive—act first and think later. The Gospel of John does not tell us what Peter thought. However, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Peter was amazed. Both the beloved disciple and Peter left as soon as they had seen the tomb. Mary stayed and wept.
Each one of these disciples of Jesus had very different reactions to the empty tomb. Peter was amazed, which means he was in a state of awe and wonderment. The response of the beloved disciple is somewhat mysterious. It says that he saw and believed but it also says that he did not yet understand the scriptures about Jesus rising from the dead. We know what he saw. What did he believe? I am not sure it matters. The point is that he believed in something. The empty tomb gave him just enough faith to believe in something.
Then there was Mary. We have the most information about her reaction. The first time she saw the empty tomb, she ran away scared. But she came back and this time she stayed. She stayed and she wept. One can only imagine how much she had already wept. She had stood at the foot of Jesus’ cross while he was slowly dying. I imagine that on this day she might have been hoping for some closure to her grief. What she found was a gaping hole—not closure.
Out of nowhere appeared two angels. Mary did not recognize them as angels. Had she realized who they were, she might have figured things out a little more quickly. Instead she told them that they had taken away her Lord and she did not know where to find him. Jesus then appeared and asked why she was weeping. She didn’t recognize him either. Only when he said her name did she finally realize that not only was her Lord alive, he was standing right next to her.
Each of these disciples reacted to the empty tomb in different ways, but it would be a stretch to say that this empty tomb allowed them to believe in the resurrection. At worst it made them even more scared, and at best it gave them something to think about. It was only when they saw Jesus in the flesh did they truly believe.
Yet today, I stand before you asking you to believe something based on a story that someone told 2000 years ago. I don’t even have an empty tomb. This story goes against everything that we know and believe about how the world works, how the human body works.
Each disciple’s faith journey was different. They met Jesus in different places. Jesus approached them in different ways. The beloved disciple believed in something, but could not fully comprehend what it all meant. Mary only believed when she heard the risen Jesus say her name. It would seem that the beloved disciple and Peter only truly understood the resurrection when Jesus made a dramatic entrance into the room where they were hiding.
Much like the earliest disciples we all experience faith in different ways. Some of us don’t need a lot of convincing. We have heard the stories since we were small and it just stuck. Some of us don’t fully understand it all, but we still believe—we are not sure what we believe, but we believe in something and that thing leaves us wanting more. Some of us are content with the mystery and wonder of it all. Then there are many of us who look at that empty tomb and think, “What happened to Jesus? Where did my Lord and Savior go when I needed him most?”
There is something that Mary can teach us. She teaches us to rest in our doubt, and our fear and our grief. The other disciples left. They figured, well there is nothing else to see here. Mary stayed and she wept…until Jesus called her by name. I cannot help but wonder why Jesus came to Mary first. Why not the beloved disciple or Peter, the rock on whom he would build his church? Why did he appear to the person who seemed the most confused, the slowest to understand? Because she stayed. She stayed at the foot of the cross when he was crucified. She stayed at the empty tomb when she was afraid, confused, and probably a little angry. She stayed.
Sometimes we confuse faith with magic. We think it should be effortless and immediate. We imagine it coming in visions and transcendent experiences. For some people, that might be true. But for most of the people I have talked to, including clergy, faith is a struggle. It’s a long walk full of confusion and confidence, doubt and assurance, grief and joy. That might not be what you want to hear on Easter. Easter should be about joy and candy. While it is more complicated than that, there is joy and love and even transcendence on Easter. Because at the end of Mary’s journey, her trips back and forth to the cross and to the grave, she was able to proclaim to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” That is the most any of us can ask for, a moment where we can say with assurance, that we have encountered the living God.
Consider the times in your life when you have encountered God. It doesn’t have to be majestic. It might be very simple. When have you have felt close to God: the birth of a child, (the baptism of a child) the first time you felt love as an adult, the holy moment when you held the hand of a loved one as they slipped into the next world, a harvest moon that took you by surprise, the rainbow you saw because you were stuck in traffic on the HRBT. I will give you a moment. Those moments are precious and holy.
What makes these moments faith sustaining is the ability to put them in the context of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. That is why we meet in church to talk about these things. Sure you can experience God outside of church. Here is where we make the connections (between the ordinary and the extraordinary and to one another.) Sometimes it’s not all about joy and candy. Sometimes it’s cold and rainy. So we come together to remind ourselves and one another of these holy moments, to help one another see them more clearly. That way we can say together, “I have seen the Lord.”