The Gospel reading at St John’s this Easter Sunday was, John 20: 1-18.
In the reading there are three characters, Peter, the other disciple (whom many believe to be John) and Mary Magdalene.
They all go to the empty tomb and see for themselves Jesus is not there. Each one has a different reaction and I wonder which one you feel more closely drawn to this Easter.
Peter was not the first to arrive but he was the first to enter the tomb. He looked at the wrappings neatly folded, and said nothing, or at least nothing worth recording. Why was this, surely the missing body of his friend and teacher should prompt a reply? Could it be that he had thought back to the resurrection of Lazarus, where once resurrected Lazarus appeared in his wrappings having to be cut free. This seems to not be the case here, it is a very different set up, the wrappings are neat and folded, no sign they were torn off as a body was freed. Maybe, then, Peter was speechless because he was in shock that someone might steal a body, but then why bother to unwrap the body and neatly fold the wrappings? Surely, moving such a dead weight would be easier if it were bound up. Could it be that Peter was simply too confused and upset to offer anything other than a defeated and confused silence.
Our other disciple, John, enters the tomb and sees and believes. Amazing, he now believes Jesus has been resurrected…
But wait, if that were true why did he not celebrate?
What did he believe?
It is unlikely John believed Jesus was resurrected as we understand it today because nobody was expecting Jesus to either die or be resurrected. Even today, there are only a few Old Testament passages that could be understood as talking about the resurrection. God was doing a new thing, God was turning reality on its head and as a result our gospel writers struggle with what to make of it. You get a sense of this confused wrestling in the writing, this section of the gospels doesn’t fit well into a literary genre, it has odd details that a well-polished and thought through story wouldn’t. For example, what does describing the two disciples running offer the listener (or reader) which gives insight into the story, nothing other than it happened. This clunky and awkward writing is trying to convey something that the writer has no real framework for, therefore it is unsurprising, as there is no real precedent and or worked through theology for what happened.
But perhaps I am being hard on John, it is possible to believe and not have the whole of the Christian faith worked out, or even a full and comprehensive understanding of the resurrection, which is good news. And how we can come to believe is varied such as this lovely quote shows…
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true.
Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
― Charles W. Colson
So, we are left wondering what did he believe? For not only did he fail celebrate, the line following (John 20:9) suggests he (both John and Peter) had not truly grasped the reality altering enormity of the situation, of the empty tomb. Again, what did he believe, was it the claim of a woman that the tomb was empty? (women’s testimony was not often taken as seriously as men’s) Did he believe the missing body was somehow a sign Jesus had conquered the world as he had claimed he would? (John 16: 33)
Perhaps telling of both of the disciples is that they left the tomb and returned home (John 20:10). There was no singing, no rejoicing, no dancing and we are given no hint they ran to tell anyone anything. For them, reality was the same that day as it had been the day before. Neither seeing or believing had brought them any joy or altered their reality.
Mary remained after they left, I think she was too broken, to upset to move. Her Lord, someone she cared for greatly, someone who gave her hope and love had died and worse still, his body had vanished. Maybe it was her grief that kept her from seeing the angels as angels, maybe it was the same grief and confusion that kept her from recognising Jesus, but as he spoke her name her reality was altered for ever.
Some say, here we see an example of Jesus resurrected body being at the same time familiar but not recognisable. Perhaps a much less supernatural explanation lies in the text. John’s account begins in the dark (a motif of this gospel -moving from dark to light) could it be then, that as she looked up through eyes blurry with salty tears and a mind in the throws of confusion and grief, the bright morning light broke into the tomb creating a silhouetted figure in the door way? Either way, in that brief moment her life would be changed, set on a new course, for ever.
It’s an odd thing but as a parent or as a child you hear certain voices above all others. Whether you’re a parent calling your child to you or it’s you’re mum calling you in for tea, you know that voice and how that voice says your name. No other voice will say it just the same, this is how it was for Mary who was lost in her tears. The voice of Jesus cut through the darkness of her grief, like the first brilliant rays of light on the horizon. It was at once familiar and impossible.
Her response ‘Rabbouni’ meant more than teacher, it was a rather gushing and loving ‘my teacher,’ it was an incredibly personal reply. This personal quality to her reply matches Jesus own very personal call to Mary, her name. This one moment, one word, shows us a God who works in an intimate nature with people, transforming their lives with a personal relationship, one where God knows your name; it is a reminder the good shepherd knows his sheep and he calls them by name.
Mary’s response is to cling to Jesus, to ensure he doesn’t leave again! We shouldn’t find too much fault in this action, for we would all do the same on meeting again our loved one for who we our mourning. However, this could also be seen as an analogy for the church and its relationship to Jesus which then presents as a problem. For too long, it could be argued the church has clung to Jesus, trying to hold him there where the church is, confined, to sit at the feet of Jesus in the comfort of his presence, rather than taking the good news out to the lost, the least and the last, to those who have just as much claim and right to encounter Jesus. But for Mary, she is not allowed such comfort, she is to become the first person to share the good news, to become the apostle to the apostles! A woman, someone who society did not value as equal to men was now trusted with world transforming news. God, through Jesus, again chooses a woman to handle one of the most important roles in redeeming the world. The Triune God shared something remarkable with Mary, and so what we understand to be reality was to be forever cracked, to be shown for all that it is and all that it is not.
‘The resurrection is about an all-important, decisive and central moment around which the whole of human history pivots is now turned in a new direction; something has happened in history that has altered what is possible.’ This impacts us today in many ways and one way is; if God can turn history on its pivot, then we are to believe that in all sort of human situations it is possible for things to be different.
Christian’s can proclaim a God who is alive and is at work transforming the world through the Holy Spirit and the work of the church now. Christian’s as the body of Christ are called to be sharers of the gospel, to run, like Mary, and tell those outside, the lost, the least and the last; we have a saviour who loves you, knows your name and is calling you. All too often though, we become embarrassed or shy about our faith and we return to the empty tomb looking to cling on to Jesus again. Except Jesus is no longer in the tomb, Jesus is out there in the world calling in the least, the last and the lost.
So I wonder, as you look at the empty tomb who are you feeling like today;
Peter who was speechless perhaps confused by the empty tomb,
John who saw and believed.
Both of which simply went home.
Or Mary who encountered the risen Jesus and ran with joy in her heart to share the good news.
 Rowan Williams, God with Us: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection – Then and Now, 2017, 88.