The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
Easter Day, Year C
27 March 2016
This is the third in my Holy Week sermon series entitled, “Through John’s Eyes,” because the Gospel texts this year for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day are all taken from John’s gospel. On Maundy Thursday I preached on “The Last Supper through John’s Eyes,” and on Good Friday I preached on “The Crucifixion through John’s Eyes.” This morning, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on “The Resurrection through John’s Eyes.”
To begin with, John was not the first to see the empty tomb. It was Mary Magdalene. But then she immediately runs and finds Peter and “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved,” which is John’s way, I believe, both of referring to himself, and of putting us, as those whom Jesus also loves, in the midst his narrative.
John tells us that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “early, when it was yet dark.” In John’s Gospel, the words “dark” and “night” have symbolic as well as literal meanings. For instance, when Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John notes ominously, “And it was night.” Here, the fact that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb while it is still “dark” indicates both that it was literally before the dawn, and therefore not yet officially Sunday, but also that she was still “in the dark” about the resurrection. Even though Jesus had predicted his resurrection, Mary does not go to the tomb expecting to find it empty. Rather, she goes there presumably so that she can mourn. It is evident that she does not expect that Jesus has indeed been resurrected by the fact that she tells Peter and John, “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.” Who does she suspect has moved the body? She does not elaborate; but we can conclude from this statement that she is still “in the dark.” She is a witness of the empty tomb, but not yet a witness of the resurrected Lord.
Hearing this startling news, Peter and John run to the tomb. John tells us that he got there first, which may strike the reader as something of a random detail, but tradition has it that John was the youngest of the disciples, and so presumably the fleetest of foot. But instead of rushing right into the tomb, he simply looks in and sees the grave clothes lying there. Then Peter catches up, and in his typical bull-in-a-china-shop fashion, probably doesn’t even stop but runs right in. And he sees the grave clothes, and the cloth that bound Jesus’ head, “not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.” In other words, somebody has tidied up. This is a subtle detail, because John is telling us, essentially, “this was no hasty break-in.”
In any event, John decides to follow Peter’s lead: Peter is always leading the way, even when he comes second, you see, and John enters the tomb. And the last five words of the reading we heard this morning are, “and he saw, and believed.”
And he saw, and believed.
What, though, did he believe? John himself is obscure on this point. The very next two verses state, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” Rather anticlimactic, isn’t it? John believes, but he as yet does not understand, and so he simply goes home, as does Peter.
Not only do they simply leave, but they leave Mary there, all alone, weeping, which I for one find very ungentlemanly of them. But who am I to judge? They’ve just had a profound shock to their systems, after all.
If you’re familiar with this story, you’ll recall that Mary then encounters the Risen Lord, whom she at first mistakes for the gardener, but when he calls her by name, she recognizes him, and he commissions her to be “the apostle to the apostles,” to go tell them, “I have seen the Lord.”
While it is tempting to focus on that part of the story featuring Mary and Jesus at center stage, I am interested in pausing at the five words that end this morning’s reading, “and he saw, and believed,” and ask again, what did John believe? After all, if we are to see the resurrection through John’s eyes, we must ask: What did he see, and what did he believe?
Even though at this point in the story John did not at yet understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead, we can say that John’s experience of the empty tomb was the beginning of belief, which was cemented when he saw for himself the Risen Lord.
I started off this sermon by saying that I hoped to reflect on the Resurrection through John’s eyes, and yet I find it much easier to imagine the Last Supper and the Crucifixion through his eyes than it is to imagine the Resurrection. I suppose this is because it is easier for me to imagine the reality and texture of the first two events compared to the mystery of the resurrection. I have eaten many a supper and I know all too well what suffering and death are. It is not difficult for me to place myself in the Upper Room or beneath the Cross. But I have never seen an empty tomb, at least not one whose occupant left it on his own two feet. And so I am left wondering: What did John see that made him believe? Or perhaps the question is rather: What did John believe that made him see?
This last question is perhaps easier to answer than the other, because John tells us exactly what he believes: that because Jesus was raised from the dead, those who believe in him have the gift of eternal life. That because Jesus was raised from the dead, we can share in that eternal life in the here and now, that is, we can begin to live it today. We do not ourselves need to wait until we are dead to enter into eternal life. For if we see the resurrection through John’s eyes, we see it as a present reality that affects our very being and profoundly influences who we are and who we want to be, both in relationship to ourselves and in relationship to others.
Some of us present have been given the gift of a sudden conversion to faith in Christ such as that which Paul had on the road to Damascus. Others of us can say that we have faith in Christ, but that there has never been anything particularly dramatic about it. Some among us may have had faith in Christ at one point, but aren’t so sure anymore, or perhaps you’ve never had faith in the resurrection. I personally don’t believe conversion or Christian discipleship need follow any particular blueprint or timeframe. But I do believe that wherever you are on your pilgrimage of faith, even if you don’t perceive any faith within yourself at all, John can be a companion and guide.
And so I leave us all with an invitation and a challenge to take away from this place: Allow yourself to see the world through John’s eyes, and you will come away from that vision with a reordered sense of what is valuable in this world into which Christ became man, for which Christ died, and for which Christ was raised from the dead, as well as a reordered sense of your place in it, and how you might find new life this Easter Day, and every Easter Day for the rest of your life. If you are fortunate enough to learn to see the world through John’s eyes, I can promise you this: Every day will be Easter Day. And I’m not talking about bunnies.