One of the greatest gifts of serving a congregation with multiple clergy is that I don’t have to preach both of the big sermons every year. Becca and I have the luxury of alternating Christmas and Easter, which gives us a couple of years between tackling the well-worn stories that we all know and love. Still, every time my name does come up to preach one of the two biggies, I stress about it. Big time. I want to say something new, something brilliant, something that brings you all back next week. Of course, it isn’t all about me, and after 2,000 years of sermons on the Incarnation and Resurrection, there isn’t much left that hasn’t already been said. So it was, with great joy, that I read through my go-to sermon prep resources and found something I had never seen before.
It was in a commentary published by Alicia Myers, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School. Published in April of 2020, I had far too many things on my plate to read any commentaries that Easter, and so I’m two years late to this party. In her post over at Working Preacher, Professor Myers rehashes the various experiences of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved each had.
Mary was the first to arrive. Having violated the Sabbath laws by walking such a great distance before sunrise on Sunday morning, Mary found the stone rolled away and immediately assumed that someone had stolen the body of her friend and Rabbi. John doesn’t say that she even took a second to look inside. Instead, Mary did what any sensible human being would do, she took off running for help. She went to find the two people who were closest to Jesus – Simon Peter and the aptly described, Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. Breathless, she told them what she assumed to be true, “Someone has taken the Lord.” Just as Mary had done, they started running.
Some scholars believe that the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved was John simply because the Gospel that bears his name has him winning the race back to the tomb. Whoever he is, upon reaching the tomb, he looked in and saw the burial clothes empty. Quickly, the more impetuous Simon Peter flew through the opening in the rock and stood, shocked, by what he saw. Crumpled up linens in one corner, the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ face nicely folded up in another, and not a sign of Jesus anywhere to be found. The other Disciple finally entered, saw the same scene, and John says, “he believed.”
For as long as I’ve been hearing John’s Easter story, I have assumed this meant that in that moment, this Disciple suddenly remembered everything that Jesus had told them. How, on at least three different occasions, Jesus had told them that he would die and rise again. How, on that mountain where Jesus was transfigured, Elijah and Moses talked with him about the plan of salvation. How Jesus had promised to go and prepare a place for them so that he might take them to his Father’s many mansions. I have always thought that finally, in that empty tomb, everything made sense, and the disciple believed that Jesus was the Messiah, who died and rose again.
Here comes Professor Myers, who points out what actually happens next, a portion of the text that I apparently never hear. John says, “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.” *Mind Blown* They didn’t get it. What the Disciple believed wasn’t that Jesus had risen from the dead. No, he didn’t understand that yet. Instead, he believed what Mary believed, that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, and totally unsure of what to do next, he just went home. To sulk. To mourn. To worry. To pray.
This response makes a ton of sense, of course. Dead people don’t come back to life. Dead people stay dead, and so, when they are famous, or infamous, as the case may be, and their body disappears, the first assumption probably isn’t, *snaps fingers* Resurrection. The first thought is, logically, “Well, that stinks. Somebody stole his body. Let’s go home and figure out what to do next.” For the first time ever, I finally see what is really happening in this story, and I’m flabbergasted. Maybe you are too.
One person does stick around, however. Mary is too shaken to just go home. Stuck between grief and anger, Mary stands at the entrance of the tomb and does the other logical thing, she weeps. As she wept, she took her first look inside the tomb and saw, not the crumpled up grave clothes, but two angels, who asked her why she’s crying. “Someone took my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him,” she replies, still fully convinced that her dead Rabbi is still dead. She turns around, sees a man she assumes to be the gardener, and answers his question in a similar fashion, “If you took him, please tell me where he is.”
It isn’t until she hears her name, “Mary,” that Mary Magdalene has the epiphany that I’ve always assumed that other Disciple had. In an instant, she realizes the miracle that has happened. Her friend, her Rabbi, her Lord has been raised from the dead. Mary no longer believes that his body has been stolen. She now believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead. Before she knows it, Mary is being commissioned as the Apostle to the Apostles, sent to proclaim the Good News for all the world, “I have seen the Lord.”
If it were left to Simon Peter and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, we might not be here this morning. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they would have seen the empty tomb, believed that Jesus was gone, and headed back to Capernaum and a lifetime of fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Something kept Mary at that tomb early Sunday morning. Maybe she was paralyzed by grief, or maybe it was the Holy Spirit that kept her close so that she might see and come to believe. Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we are here this morning to share in the celebration that comes from believing in the unbelievable miracle that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we have the privilege of taking our turn in building the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. May you be blessed with the faith of Mary Magdalene this Easter Day, and believe, deep in your bones, that love always wins, that hope conquers fear, and that joy comes in the morning. Amen. Alleluia.