Mindful that this is the last time I get to preach to you on Easter Sunday, I feel like I should leave no stone unturned, no question unanswered. But as I did some reading about the gospel of John’s version of that first Easter, I realized that if I wanted to tie up every loose end, I picked the wrong story. John is my favorite story of the resurrection, and we’ll get to why, but there’s an awful lot going on in what we will hear, so let me begin with some other issues, which hopefully speak to us about what it means to believe that Jesus is risen from the grave.
For starters, John begins his story by saying that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb that morning “while it was still dark.” Did she go by torchlight? What was her hurry? Why not wait until the sun came up?
John likes the image of light versus darkness. Remember that at the start of his gospel he says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” If we are reading John and tuck that in the back of our minds, when we get to the story of Easter morning and read that Mary comes to the tomb “while it was still dark,” we might start to think, hmm, but “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” We might start to think that in chapter one, verse five, John has given us a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen in chapter twenty. Just maybe.
Incidentally, one of the first encounters John records between Jesus and someone is when the Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus, and they have a conversation about being born again, or born from above. Guess when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus. Hint; Nicodemus doesn’t believe, doesn’t understand who Jesus is. So he is in the – dark, in terms of his faith. Sure enough, John tells us that he comes to Jesus “by night.”
All of us probably live in the dark at times in our lives. When we don’t feel good, when we get burned out, when a job or an important relationship, or finances turn sour, we feel the darkness. When we wonder what God is doing, why God doesn’t seem to be on our side, or just isn’t there, we feel the darkness. Today, of all days, we remember that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Next, John tells us that when Peter and “the other disciple”, who is never named, look into the tomb, they see the “linen wrappings” which John has told us had been used to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. John even tells us that the unnamed disciple sees them, and then says Peter “saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” Doesn’t that seem like a lot of detail about something that doesn’t seem to matter? If the tomb is empty, it’s empty. Why tell us that these things have been left behind, one of them “rolled up in a place by itself” no less?
Again, we need to back up in John’s gospel. John records seven “signs” which Jesus performs, beginning with turning water into wine, which is my favorite, and concluding with the most impressive, the raising of Lazarus. Here’s what John says about Lazarus coming out of his tomb: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
Oh…so, Lazarus comes out still all wrapped up, face and all, but Jesus… See the contrast? Notice that there is no description of Jesus coming out of the tomb. None of the gospels provide such a description. But we do know that Jesus comes out unbound, because we know the wrappings are left in the tomb.
Lazarus is resuscitated. He comes out the same way he went in – bound in cloth. Jesus is resurrected. God raises him not to a continuation of the same life he has had but to new life. He is unbound, freed from the constraints of mere human existence. John will emphasize this point when he talks about Jesus appearing to the disciples in a house after his resurrection even though the doors are shut.
The difference between resuscitation and resurrection is crucial. Through our faith in Jesus the Christ we are not promised extended life or another shot at this life. We are promised new life. And this new life begins in the here and now. The new life we experience in Christ means we no longer have to live according to things like “the more the better” or “whoever dies with the most toys wins”, although there’s something to be said for that last one. In our new life we are free to love and to be loved. In our new life we are free to love God and love our neighbor, because we come to see that doing so leads to the most satisfying, most fulfilling life we can have. In our new life we are free to be the loving, loveable person God has created us to be.
Next, why didn’t Peter and the other disciple see angels in the tomb? The other disciple looks in, Peter goes in, but no angels. Yet when Mary looks in, there are “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.” It doesn’t seem likely that the two disciples could have missed seeing them. So why do they appear to Mary and not to Peter and whoever?
In this case we can’t back up in John’s gospel to get some help with this question. In the earliest copies we have of John, this is the only time angels are mentioned. And unlike in Luke, in John Mary Magdalene appears only as a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion and here at the empty tomb. So why does she get special treatment in the form of a conversation with angels?
In the Bible angels are messengers, sent by God to bring a message to someone or some group. They don’t appear very often. Luke likes angels. An angel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son, John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel (it’s even less often the angel is named) appears to Mary to tell her she will have a son, Jesus. An angel, unnamed, tells the shepherds they might want to go see the baby Jesus.
But in John, the angels in the tomb are the only angels who are mentioned. So obviously there’s something very special going on. And it’s something special for Mary Magdalene, and only Mary Magdalene. The angels have only one line, and it’s a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Apparently in this case, we need to look ahead in John instead of looking back to find some help. Mary answers their question, saying, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Remember that she first arrives at the tomb in the dark. Obviously that darkness, that lack of belief, still engulfs her. The empty tomb at this point tells her only that the body of Jesus has been moved. But the angels’ question sets the stage, prepares the way, for what happens next.
I can’t recall a time when someone told me an angel had spoken to them. So it may seem like this part of the story is far beyond our experience. On the other hand, I have heard stories of how people have felt cared for and led by God during the hard times of life. I’ve heard people speak of the importance of the support of a faith community. I’ve heard people say, but for the grace of God, things could have been even worse. God may not send us an angel. But God is able to speak to us and work in our lives in many different ways, even when it seems like we’re living in darkness.
When she has replied to the angels, Mary turns around and there is Jesus, whom she has seen just two days earlier, when he is crucified. But she does not recognize him. How can that be? No doubt she has been one of his followers before that fateful Friday, perhaps for years. Now, just two days later, she doesn’t recognize him? Is it still dark? Does he look different? Are her tears blurring her vision?
We don’t know. There is one similar story, in Luke. It says that after Jesus’ resurrection two of his disciples are walking to the village of Emmaus. A stranger joins them and they have a conversation. Only when they sit down at the table together do they realize that it is Jesus.
So maybe he does look different. Or maybe Mary and these disciples simply cannot believe that he is alive until they have unshakeable evidence. In the case of the two disciples, it is when Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.
In Mary’s case, it is when he calls her name. Mary! Mary! And she replies, Teacher! Suddenly, she realizes that Jesus is alive! It’s not the gardener. It really is Jesus! And she knows that when he calls her name. And that’s why this version of the Easter story is my favorite, because I believe that in one way or another, at some time or other, we know Jesus the Christ is alive because he calls us by name. Amen.