Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
April 9, 2023
Easter Sunrise Service
Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”
3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (John 20:1-18 — CEB)
Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved are overcome with emotion. They’re trying to believe something that defies comprehension. On that Sunday morning, as they stand next to that empty tomb, what appears to be the case lies beyond anything any of them can conceive. Indeed, the disciple whom Jesus loved doesn’t believe it until he actually sets foot in the tomb and sees for himself, lying on the ground, the grave coverings and the face cloth that had swaddled Jesus since the previous Friday evening.
Now, John is known for his use of irony. And there’s a deep irony in this scene. However, most of us have heard the Easter story enough times that we get so caught up in the outcome and miss the irony. What Mary Magdelene, Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved are struggling to believe, what they’re trying to come to grips with in the first fifteen verses of John 20, is not that Jesus has been resurrected, but that his body has been stolen.
And what a trauma that would be! Who would do such a thing? How could they do it? Physically, spiritually, emotionally, morally, how could anyone steal a body?
In the minds of the three who discover the empty tomb, grave robbery is the only thing that makes sense, because while it may be unbelievable that someone would do such a thing, it’s not actually beyond belief that it could be done. So, when the disciple whom Jesus loved steps into the tomb and sees for himself the absence of a body, John says he “believed.” What the disciple believes, though, is only what Mary Magdalene said—someone has taken Jesus’ body.
The first witness of that first Easter morning was one of insult to injury. Jesus had been crucified, buried, and stolen. Even when Mary looks back into the tomb and sees the angels, and hears them ask why she’s crying, she doesn’t even imagine resurrection. Why would she? Even when Jesus asks Mary the same question that the angels ask, she remains blinded by her perfectly rational belief in a morally unbelievable prospect. It’s not until Mary hears who she thinks is the “gardener” call her by name that she recognizes Jesus. And that’s when the real work of believing begins—when the relationship is inexplicably restored.
When it comes to believing and not believing certain things, human beings often take whatever road requires less investment or risk. And generally speaking, the greater the mystery surrounding something, the greater the risk in believing it, thus making it easier not to believe. And in certain cases, not believing something is the wiser path.
I refuse to believe doomsday predictions and conspiracy theories because things like that create in their believers the kind of fear that breeds suspicion, enmity, and an ever-deepening reliance on violence, intimidation, and manipulation. And it’s generally true that destructive beliefs create destructive agents.
There’s a different belief-disbelief dynamic at work in the fourth gospel. In John, belief refers to one’s embrace of the presence and power of the mystery that, in Christ, God is doing something so remarkable as to defy explanation. And it’s not just that God is doing something so remarkable as to be inexplicable. Like Resurrection itself, God IS Something inexplicable. And that Something is initiated by love. That Something is sustained by love. That Something is, finally, love itself. This creative and re-creative love is alive—permanently alive—in the Creation. And that love, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be entombed by human selfishness.
As we said earlier, it’s when Jesus speaks Mary’s name that she finally recognizes Jesus and begins to imagine that something greater than foul play is afoot. When she resumes relationship with Jesus, she begins to believe something even more unbelievable than body snatching.
Maybe that’s why Thomas figures so prominently in John. He refuses to believe until he sees and touches Jesus—that is to say, until he, himself, resumes relationship with Jesus.
One thing to remember about Resurrection, is that it’s not the same as resuscitation. When Lazarus was raised, he was resuscitated, not resurrected. His body, being merely restored, would die again. As John suggests in more than one place, the resurrection of Jesus was the raising from one state of being to another. “Don’t hold on to me,” Jesus tells Mary. This whole resurrection thing, it’s a process. And it’s not over. And that night, when Jesus appears to the disciples, John takes care to say that he does so through closed and locked doors where the disciples are hiding from the religious leadership. So, whatever the disciples experience, it isn’t relationship with Jesus as they had known him. Nonetheless, in some way, relationship with him is restored. He’s more than a memory. They encounter him.
Maybe the spiritual belief to which we are called is a matter of facing all the unbelievable and yet all-too-real stuff our world throws at us every day, then listening for and encountering the Christ in the midst of it. And isn’t that our calling as the church? To bear witness to the risen Christ here and now by being ones through whom Jesus restores relationship with the world? That is Resurrection life—a life of peace-making engagement, courageous hope, restorative justice, unprejudiced compassion, and enduring love. It’s a life of Christ-centered relationship with all people and all things. And in those relationships, we encounter and share Jesus himself.
In our family and friends, he is with us.
In our adversaries, he is with us.
In those who annoy us, he is with us.
In believers and non-believers, he is with us.
In creatures both beautiful and frightening, he is with us.
In the faithful passing of the seasons, he is with us.
In our beginnings and endings, he is with us.
In all things, Jesus is alive.
He is alive as the love we give and receive.
He is alive as the compassion we share.
He is alive as justice, mercy, kindness, and joy.
Jesus is alive! For he is risen!
He is risen, indeed!