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"The Easter Trifecta"

People come to Easter services in different circumstances of faith. John’s account of the first Easter presents three different responses to the empty tomb. Mary’s confusion, Peter’s ambivalence and the beloved disciple’s lack of understanding indicate that we can be on the way to full faith, even if we don’t show up for the Easter service with full faith.

We put much effort into Easter Sunday. The choir has rehearsed. We have put up decorations. You can’t miss the flowers. For all of that, what happens inside of us because of Easter? We know the main message that Jesus rose from the tomb, but what happens inside of us?

John gives us a small vignette with three characters. Each one reacts differently to the empty tomb. For each person, encountering the empty tomb started a process. By verse 9, the three characters have come to different points in the process.

Of the four gospels, only John has Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb by herself. John typically shows us one character at a time. To represent the Pharisees, John gives us Nicodemus. To represent the Samaritans, John gives us the woman at the well. Did John know that we relate better to one character than to a group? In John, Mary comes to the tomb in the darkness. In John, we do not know why she comes to the tomb. Could she have come to care for Jesus’ body if she expected a stone to block her way? Did she come to grieve? Does she come alone while the darkness still surrounds her so no one else will see her tears and hear her crying?

We know for sure only that she came to the tomb on Sunday morning. But a surprise awaited her! The stone no longer stood at the entrance to the tomb. She feared the worst: Someone had taken Jesus’ body. Perhaps she feared that Jesus’ enemies would not honor even his dead body.

In a great display of energy, she runs to two of the disciples. Within our passage for this morning, Mary leaves the stage. At the end of the first scene, she feels confused and sad. She does not know yet about the resurrection. She knows something has happened, but she does not understand.

The two disciples who hear Mary’s story form an interesting pair. Peter, a leader among the disciples, has earlier denied Jesus, but John does not reveal to us any shame or guilt that Peter might have felt. The other disciple remains a mystery to contemporary readers. John calls him only “the one whom Jesus loved.” Who exactly was this beloved disciple? The author of John gives us clues, but we don’t know for sure. Scholars have scratched their heads about his identity. If we stick with what we know for sure, we will call him simply the beloved disciple.

These two disciples run off to the tomb. Our minds race as they race. What does Peter feel? How do we understand this beloved disciple? Why does John tell us about this footrace? Are some scholars correct that this footrace represents both the tension and the solidarity between two different branches of the early church? John gives us many scenes that have layers of meaning. The footrace represents the energy and curiosity about the empty tomb, but maybe also a message about branches of the church coming together because of the resurrection.

If we look only at the scene John gives us, we see the passion and energy of two men running toward the tomb because of what Mary has told them. With their hearts pounding in their chests, they act like boys each trying to get to the playground first. One thing we can say about this opening scene of John’s first Easter: Emotion spills over everywhere.

The beloved disciple reaches the tomb first, but Peter goes in first. If John tells us about two branches of the early church, both can claim a victory in the footrace. We can explore this theme at another time, but the resurrection gives us some basis for, if not unity, at least common ground in the church. Whatever our differences, we claim solidarity in the new life, the triumph of the resurrection.

So, Peter enters the tomb first. Let us not miss the significance of what Peter saw: He saw the grave clothes lying in the tomb. This seemingly small detail teaches us much about what the empty tomb means. If we think back to Lazarus, he came from the tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes. Lazarus got a second chance at this life. Jesus defeated death in bringing Lazarus from his grave, but Lazarus experienced resuscitation, not resurrection. The limp grave clothes, on the other hand, indicate that Jesus experienced the transformation of resurrection. In resurrection God makes us new, heals us, recreates us. We remain ourselves, but we participate in God’s new creation.

After Peter entered the tomb, the beloved disciple followed. We assume he saw the same grave clothes that Peter saw. And something happened inside the beloved disciple: He believed. In John’s customary terseness, he tells us only that the beloved disciple believed. John typically portrays an encounter with Jesus as leading to belief.

We have to tease out some of what John means by “believe.” The disciples first believed when Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana.1 Apparently, they all believed simultaneously. Later in chapter 2, John tells us that the disciples believed the scriptures after the resurrection because of Jesus’ interpretation of the cleansing of the temple.2 John does not tell us whether believing in Jesus happens all at once, or over and over again, or if the different times when the disciples “believed” indicate growth in faith. A healing can lead to belief.3 The Samaritans in a village believe after the preaching of the woman who encountered Jesus at the well.4 A man healed of blindness believed after a long process, indicating that John understands that we do not all follow the same path to belief.5 John tells us that he wrote his gospel so that we readers would believe.6

John does not explicitly tell us how the process of believing works. Does belief emerge spontaneously within us? Does it bypass our ability to control it? Thomas famously declared that he would set conditions on his belief.7 Belief remains somewhat mysterious.

Within the passage, the beloved disciple believes, but John does not tell us that Peter believed. He does not tell us that Peter chose not to believe. He does not tell us what went on inside Peter’s head or heart. At the end of verse 9, we see three people with three responses to the empty tomb: The beloved disciple believes but does not yet understand. Mary remains sad and confused. And we do not quite know what to make of Peter.

Perhaps those who decide what we should read this day showed some wisdom. In a sense, they cut into the story. In verse 11, we pick back up with Mary, in a touching scene where she meets the risen Jesus. If we stop at verse 9, however, we might find ourselves more easily.

How do we come to church on Easter Sunday? Have we come dutifully because of the importance of the day? Have we suddenly realized how long we have stayed away? Do we come here after much energy and preparation for the service? Do we come here with some measure of faith, but also much uncertainty? Do we believe, but not quite understand? Do we think something happened, but don’t know exactly what?

Within this sanctuary this morning are surely many different responses to this day. Some feel joy and believe in the resurrection. Some might feel confused about all the talk of the empty tomb and raised bodies. Some might have come with emotional conflict, self-doubt or guilt. John seems to understand all the different responses. Cutting the reading off at verse 9 gives us some breathing room, even if we miss the scene between Mary and Jesus.

If we don’t yet believe as deeply as we wish, well, neither, apparently, did Peter. If we have some faith, but don’t fully understand, well, so did the beloved disciple. If we believe the resurrection but think we have not lived as bravely and honestly as we ought to, well, so did Peter. If we find this day confusing, so did Mary. Throughout the Gospel of John, the author takes pains not to rush us. The disciples believed, but perhaps needed to renew that belief from time to time.

However you react to this day, do not despair. We can open ourselves to belief, but if it doesn’t happen when we want it to, John seems to understand that. We can feel grateful for the faith we do have at this point. Let us give thanks for the empty grave clothes that Peter saw. Let us take the faith that we have now, and trust that because of God’s victory over death, what we have can grow.

1 John 2:11.

2 John 2:22.

3 John 4:53.

4 John 4:39.

5 John 9:38.

6 John 20:31.

7 John 20:25.


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