Our Easter Gospel is John 20:1-18.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He 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. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
As we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we offer grateful thanks for the greatest gift ever given, God granting us forgiveness of our sins, a new relationship with Him, and the promise of eternal life. Jesus came to be with us, to be like us. He was obedient even unto death, in order to lead us to salvation; telling and showing us what we must do in order to enter his kingdom. The Gospel reading from John 20 provides us with some different perspectives on the activities that morning, seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene and the two disciples who came back with her after she had discovered the stone rolled away. We can learn much about human reactions and our faith by looking at how the Resurrection affected these three. Let’s look at each of them in order and see what we are being taught.
Mary comes to the tomb early on the morning after the Sabbath to visit. It has been a long night, waiting for daylight so she can come to make sure that the hasty burial preparations of the day before the Sabbath are adequate. Imagine her shock at seeing the massive stone that covered the opening rolled away. Her immediate assumption was that someone had taken Jesus’s body. It was certainly believable, given all that had happened that week. Perhaps grave robbers had stolen it, hoping that they could ransom it back to his followers for a good price. Maybe those who had him crucified had taken it away so his disciples wouldn’t even have a place to come to visit and remember. It could have been the Romans, hoping to avoid any more unrest after an already tumultuous week. All of these thoughts might have raced through Mary’s mind as she raced to tell Peter and the disciples what had happened.
Certainly we can understand the way she felt. When our loved ones die, we treat the body with dignity, and lay them to rest, even though we know they have gone to be with God. When there is a disaster that claims lives, such as during severe storms or the devastation of 9/11, we spare no effort to retrieve those who were lost. During times of war, we often hear of soldiers braving enemy fire to recover their comrades who have been killed. Why are we so concerned about dead bodies? Scientists tell us they are made up of several different chemicals and are mostly water, not worth a lot in terms of cash value. However, we value them because they were created by the hand of God, and because for some period of time, in the form of friends and loved ones, they were inhabited by the very breath of the Living God. Our friend Mary likely felt the same way.
She relates what has happened to Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. While both men are members of Jesus’s closest group of friends, they are in very different situations as they run back to the tomb to see what has happened. Peter, who boasted that he would follow Jesus even unto death, had denied him almost immediately after his arrest, and was not present at the Crucifixion. Perhaps he is running to the tomb to try to atone for his fear and failure before. The disciple Jesus loved is never named in this Gospel, but most theologians believe it is John. He was with Jesus through it all, accompanying him to the foot of the cross, where Jesus told John to care for his mother, Mary. John is younger than Peter, and beats him to the tomb. He looks inside and sees the grave clothes, but doesn’t enter the tomb. A few moments later, Peter arrives, out of breath from exertion and peeved at being second. While the Gospel doesn’t record it, Peter’s ego, which is larger than he is, has already been wounded by his lack of courage over the last few days and he likely elbows John out of the way, like some Abbott and Costello routine, to at least be the first to enter the tomb. He sees the grave clothes left behind, as well as the head cloth…what might that mean? Why would grave robbers have left those? Peter and John were both present when Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, and he came from the tomb still wrapped in the grave clothes. It’s more than they can figure right now and they leave to go back to where they are staying.
I’m sure that at this point Mary is thinking “Thanks for nothing guys! I come to you for help, you come out, look at the tomb, shrug your shoulders and say, “yeah he’s gone”, and you head back to bed!” Now, in their defense, guys have never been good at looking for things, in closets, in basements, in cupboards…just ask my wife. Call it lack of attention to detail, short attention span, whatever – we just aren’t blessed with that ability. Mary, sad, tired and likely frustrated with the whole situation, begins to cry, but she also looks into the tomb, and as usual, the woman finds something the men did not. There are now two angels in white inside the tomb who ask her why she is crying. By now, Mary is past the point of analyzing, she has only one thing on her mind – where have they taken Jesus? She doesn’t even acknowledge that they are angels, she just turns around, and comes face to face with the risen Christ. In the state she is in, we can hardly blame her for not recognizing Jesus. He asks, as the angels did, why are you crying, but he also asks who she is looking for. Back at the beginning of John’s Gospel, this is the first question Jesus asked of those who came to him after his baptism in the Jordan. Mary repeats what she has told the disciples and then the angels, “They have taken him away and I don’t know where they have laid him.” Then, Jesus calls her by name, and she recognizes him! She reacts with joy, as any of us might, and tries to embrace him. He gently declines, telling her not to cling to him for he has not yet ascended to the Father. He commissions her to go share the good news with the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, declaring them all children of God by way of the statement “my Father and your Father, my God and your God”.
Are you able to see yourself as Peter or John or Mary? Peter who had failed so badly before, at least makes the effort this time. He doesn’t see the risen Christ at the tomb, but at least he went. John, who was always there is there again, but he doesn’t see Jesus at the tomb either, and they both leave. Only Mary who was there first, and was persistent in her effort to find Jesus actually meets Jesus at the tomb. Later Peter and John and the others will encounter the risen Christ in different ways. Each of these three have a lesson to teach: Peter, that even when we fail, we are called to try again and can regain our relationship with Jesus; John, that even if we have always been faithful we can sometimes fall short, but again, there is always grace. Mary teaches us to be unswerving in our faith effort, to never give up even if others do, and that we are all called to share the joy we have found in the Resurrection with everyone. Undoubtedly, at some point in our lives we have been like each one of them – afraid, confused, finding that even our best is sometimes not enough. Jesus tells us that it’s alright, that we can always turn to him when we are in need, and he is always ready to take us back when we repent.
The cross brought an end to Jesus’s time on earth in human form. In rising, he left behind the grave clothes to show us that he has transcended death and mortal life. His ascension in glory to sit at the right hand of God Almighty proves that his promise of eternal life is real. We are all called by name, just as Mary was at the tomb that morning, and given the task of sharing his story and his love with the whole world. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Amen.