Yes, I know Easter is a long way off…but some folks asked me to share a sermon I delivered in class today. The assignment was to preach an Easter sermon using John 20:1-18 and Colossians 3:1-4 for a congregation comprised of ‘regular’ members and the ‘C and E’ crowd.
It’s Easter Sunday and we are gathered here to celebrate!
After all, we’ve been through the agony of Good Friday, the grief and nothingness of Holy Saturday, and now here we are on the most joyous of days! The tomb is empty – so let’s celebrate!
But wait…Easter Sunday does not start with joyful celebration; it starts with darkness and an empty tomb.
So, before we rush to say that ancient Easter greeting (you know the one that begins Christ is…), like Mary Magdalene, let us linger at the mystery of the open tomb.
Empty tombs are not cause for celebration; empty tombs raise questions: where is the body? Who took the body? Why did someone take the body?
At this point on Easter Sunday, all we have is a tomb that confronts us with its emptiness, demanding an answer as to its meaning.
Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. So, with Peter, the beloved disciple, and Mary, we rush to fill this vacuum with perfectly rational explanations.
Like Mary, some conclude that Jesus’ body was removed from the tomb by an unknown ‘they’. Perhaps ‘they’ were the Pharisees or maybe the Romans or even Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea?
Mary reaches her conclusion after seeing “that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (20.1). This was enough evidence to convince her someone took Jesus’ body from the tomb. So, she rushes to Peter and the beloved disciple to share with them her perfectly rational conclusion: “They have taken the Lord out the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20.2).
Of course the two disciples rush to the tomb to confirm the truth of Mary’s conclusion. The beloved disciple arrives first and peeks in the tomb and sees grave clothes lying there.
Peter, known for his boldness, enters the grave to investigate further and sees the “cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself” (2.7).
Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple reach different conclusions on the evidence presented.
Mary concludes that Jesus’ body was moved by unknown parties to an undisclosed location. Her grief becomes all the more pronounced as she weeps outside the tomb.
The silence of the text suggests that Peter leaves knowing nothing. He is agnostic about what happened; Peter concludes that he simply cannot know what happened one way or another.
Peter’s agnostic silence is underlined by the response of the beloved disciple who “saw and believed” (20.8). However, the question is: saw and believed what, exactly? We might immediately conclude that he saw the empty tomb and believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Rather, we are told that the beloved disciple saw the head cloth and linens and believed.
What is clear that he did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead because, he, along with Mary and Peter, did not yet understand the scripture (cf. 20.9). The beloved disciple believed that Mary’s conclusion was correct: someone moved Jesus’ body.
As rational as these conclusions are, they offer no definitive closure. Empty tombs can only ask questions, they cannot offer answers. So, the questions of the empty tomb remain.
You see, Mary and the two disciples were basing their conclusions on what is humanly possible. The considered the evidence at hand and deduced the only rational conclusions possible: 1) the body was moved; 2) we simply don’t have enough evidence to conclude anything.
Each of these conclusions leads to a particular action.
For Mary, the uncertainty about where Jesus’ body is compounds her sorrow. Paralyzed by her grief, she lingers at the tomb, hoping for the answer to where Jesus’ body is.
For Peter and the beloved disciple, there is nothing to do but to go home; go home and resume the lives they had before they answered Jesus’ call; go home with more questions than answers.
Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple are left with their sorrow, the questions, their logic, and ultimately their despair at the vast emptiness and nothingness of the tomb. The empty tomb, in many ways, stands as a powerful metaphor of their own spiritual state, and, for some of us, our spiritual state.
Whereas the other Gospel accounts of the resurrection narrate the events of Easter Sunday in quick succession and end rather abruptly, the author of John’s gospel intentionally slows down the action. The author does this in order to make us linger in the questions the empty tomb raises, pushing us to reach our own conclusions about what happened.
And, as we’ve seen, there are only two possible outcomes: the body was moved or we simply can’t know. After all, seeing is believing, right?
If that is where the story ended, that would be the logical conclusion.
However, this is not the end of the story. Moreover, because it is not the end of the story, the author of John’s Gospel is asking us to question the way in which we are seeing things; what lens are we looking through? Are we looking through the lens of Scripture?
Doubt and faith come to a pitched climax on Easter. The entire Christian faith hinges upon the answer to the question: why the tomb is empty?
When we look through the lens of the humanly possible, we believe that the tomb is empty because the body was moved. Our gaze is limited to the bare facts of what is in plain sight before us.
However, the author of John’s gospel wants us to see not through the lens of what is humanly possible; he wants us to see the face of the resurrected one.
Mary lingers at the tomb, numb from her grief. Even the appearance of angels does nothing to assuage her sorrow or sway her from her conclusion that someone took Jesus’ body: “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (20.13). Mary remains convinced of the facts as they present themselves.
Even when she turns and sees Jesus standing there, she does not recognize him. She did not recognize the person whose death she was mourning; she clings to her conclusion that Jesus’ body is gone, assuming that Jesus is the gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (20.15).
The possibility of Jesus’ bodily resurrection remains impossible for Mary.
That is, until Jesus says her name: “Mary”.
One simple word and Mary’s world is changed forever; not only her world, but the entire order of things is completely reversed. The humanly impossible is revealed as divinely possible. No longer does she cling to her conclusions; she now clings to the one who is the beginning and conclusion of all things. More than that, Mary’s name, the marker of her identity, is on Jesus’ lips. He has not forgotten her, but calls her by name. Her identity is forever wrapped in the one whom she embraced; Jesus’ Father is her Father; Jesus’ God is her God.
Mary’s embrace is not only the result of overwhelming relief; it is joyful worship. Because she sees Jesus fully and truly, she believes. She recognizes the one who called her name; she recognized the one was crucified, dead, and buried is now alive, risen from the dead. Worship is born of recognition of who God is and who we are in God. Mary’s embrace is a passionate and worshipful clinging to the one who has defeated death.
But Jesus cuts this embrace short; there is work to be done! Mary must tell the disciples that she has seen the Lord. You see, worship and witness are really the only two responses to resurrection. After all, it is not every day that someone comes back from the dead, never to die again.
Because Jesus’ is the resurrected one, he no longer wears the linen wrappings of the grave; no longer is his face hidden in a shroud. His identity is clearly revealed. Even then, this is not the end of the story. Jesus makes it clear to Mary that he must ascend in order to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. In ‘Bible-speak’, to sit at someone’s right hand is to be identified with the person you are sitting next to. Sitting next to the heavenly throne, Jesus’ identity as the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord is established.
The only way the humanly impossible becomes divinely possible is in and through Jesus Christ.
The only way I can see what God is doing in the Easter story is to believe in the one who defeated death, to hear him call my name.
Therefore, the meaning of the empty tomb means that death no longer has a hold on us. We are not destined to rot in a grave. Rather, because of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, our identity is not in the emptiness and nothingness of death; our identity is in him alone, the one who brings life (with a capital ‘L’) to all who embrace and cling to him; indeed life to the entire cosmos.
Jesus’ resurrection is not the end of the story. Rather it is just the beginning.
Easter is a time for new beginnings. It is a time to put the past behind us as we look to our future in Christ. However, this future is not a distant reality; it begins when we see and believe what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ, when we recognize that that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3.3).
When Paul instructs his readers to set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (cf. Col. 3.2), he is not suggesting that we become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Rather, he is telling us that when we fix our eyes on Christ, we are reminded of who God is and whose we are. This propels us to worship and witness.
We worship the one who calls us by name to follow him, the one who always recognizes us, even when we can’t recognize him because of our conclusions about what is and isn’t possible.
We witness to the one who makes all things possible, including the defeat of death. We proclaim his resurrection and the possibility of new life in him with every word, thought, and action that brings life and light to a world held captive to death and darkness.
Easter is the time to “set [our] minds on things that are above”, to re-discover our identity in Christ, and re-connect with his earthly body, the Church.
At Easter, indeed every time that we gathered as a church family, we are reminded that we belong to him and him alone. I am not defined by my past wrong-doings, my bank balance, or my social status. My future is not defined by the encroaching nothingness of death.
Right here, right now, I am alive because I am in Christ; I am alive because Christ is the risen and ascended Lord.
Now that is something to celebrate!
Will you celebrate with me by worshipping and witnessing to the one who calls us by name?
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed.