(A sermon based on John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday 2013)
Most of us have been there. Someone we love has died. The burial has taken place and we are still in that state of shocked numbness. The day after the burial, the first day that our loved one’s body lies in the grave, is a long and dark day. Maybe a lot of our family and friends have dispersed, returning necessarily to the routines of their lives. Or maybe a few are hanging in there with us for one more day, hoping against hope that they can do something to help.
The Saturday that Jesus’ body was in his tomb was such a day. The disciples huddled in hidden rooms, no doubt wondering if they might be next. Jesus’ followers were understandably crushed. As the travelers on the Road to Emmaus told the man who walked with them on Easter Evening, a man who was in fact the resurrected Christ, “we had hoped that he was the one who was to redeem Israel.” Was he just another of those messianic pretenders that came along with great regularity in Israel? Was he just another rabbi whose sense of calling led him to go too far? Maybe none of us know what it is to give yourself over completely to a person or to a cause and then to become disillusioned by the reality. But that was where the disciples may have found themselves.
Maybe they should have seen what was coming. Jesus had certainly given them hints and a couple of times had actually come right out and said it. But I think that we don’t want to be too hard on the disciples. After all, it’s not the kind of thing that you grasp readily. Furthermore, it’s not as if we are all today living the kinds of lives that you would expect someone to live who has met a resurrected Savior and whose life is lived in the light of that resurrection. It ought to make quite a difference, you would think.
So it came to pass that Mary Magdalene, whose life had been transformed by the grace of Jesus, went in what we can imagine to be great sorrow and great grief to visit the tomb of her teacher. It was still dark, John tells us, and in the dark is where Mary was in more ways than one. I imagine it as a quiet morning, the pall of Friday’s tragedy still hanging over the land, the birds trying as hard as they could to pierce the gloom with their songs, the sun stubbornly insisting on shining and thus forcing the world to go on. Through the darkness she trudged, her head held down. Lifting her eyes as she arrived at the tomb, she saw something she had not expected to see—the stone had been rolled away.
If you’ll allow me a little imagination here, I see heaven being all abuzz as it had been ever since it had happened. Heaven had seen God do some amazing things over the years but never had heaven seen anything like this. Never had the power and the grace and the love of God flowed out in such excess; never had there been such rejoicing and such praising and such singing, not even when Abraham and Moses and David had come home. They had heard Satan’s screams claiming that it was unfair; that had been fun. All that remained now was the human reaction. People were so unpredictable. As Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb, I can imagine Michael nudging Gabriel in the angelic equivalent of his ribs and saying the angelic equivalent of, “Wait for it.”
We don’t know what Mary’s immediate reaction was. Did she cry out? Did she have to catch her breath? This much we do know. Things started to happen. She ran to tell, rushing to find Peter and the Beloved Disciple to give them the only report that made sense to her: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Blood was starting to pump again. Peter and the Beloved Disciple got into a foot race to the tomb, the other disciple arriving first and looking in but not entering, Peter arriving second but went into the tomb first. The Beloved Disciple “believed,” we are told, so something was beginning to dawn on him. Yet, shockingly (at least I am shocked), “the disciples returned to their homes” (v. 10). Maybe they needed to contemplate. Maybe they were still confused. But they wouldn’t stay at home for long.
Mary, on the other hand, remained at the tomb, weeping. She continued to grieve over what she presumed to be the fact that Jesus’ body had been taken. Mary’s a good role model for us here. Utterly confused but absolutely devoted, she hung in there and kept asking her question. She asked the angels whom she apparently didn’t recognize as angels. She asked Jesus whom she clearly didn’t recognize as Jesus; she thought he was the gardener. All she wanted to know was where the body of her Lord had been taken. Finally, when Jesus called her by name, she realized that his body had been taken right out of the jaws of death and right out of the grip of despair and right out of the clutches of defeat. And in that incredible moment when Jesus called her by name and she called him by name, thereby establishing the first personal relationship between the risen Lord and a believer, everything changed. For Jesus’ disciples, despair would give way to hope, fear would give way to courage, failure would give way to restoration, and misunderstanding would give way to clarity.
Why? Because death had given way to life. Because when Jesus rose from the dead and entered into a personal relationship with his disciples as the resurrected Lord his life became available to them in a new way. Before long we’ll arrive at the Day of Pentecost and we’ll see again the empowerment of the church by the Holy Spirit, an empowerment that is still ours today. When Jesus rose from the dead that Sunday morning, in a very real way his disciples rose from the dead, too. Their dead faith rose, their dead hopes rose, their dead dreams rose—and they had risen to a new and better life because now they understood that Jesus was in fact the Messiah through whom God’s great victory had been won.
I’m not much on trying to argue with someone over the reality of the resurrection. I believe with all my heart that I have a personal relationship with the risen Lord and that by grace through faith he is present in my life and that he will never leave me or forsake me. Still, if I were looking for something with which to prove the resurrection of Christ, I would point to the disciples. What could have possibly transformed that rag-tag, scared, clueless, hopelessly inconsistent gang of misfits into a force that literally, in just a few decades and along with Paul and others, spread their faith across the known world? What could have changed those disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested into people who would gladly give their lives in service to their Lord? Nothing explains it like the resurrection of Christ. Nothing else could have changed them so and given them such singleness of vision and such clarity of purpose. Nothing else could have given them such a life.
Do you know the resurrected Lord today? He is the life that you need. You can live as God intends for you to live; in Christ God will work to make you everything that God intends for you to be. In Christ God will forgive you of your sins, set you down right in the middle of eternal life, and give you comfort and strength beyond your wildest imagination. But he will also give you a life of purpose. He will give you the willingness and the desire and the gifts to be what he needs you to be in his kingdom. If you do know the Lord, if you are a believer, then I want you to ask yourself these questions. Are you really living? Are you being open to all that God wants you to be and do?
When Jesus rose from the dead he brought life to his followers, too. Holy Week lingers when we live …