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Are You Looking For?"
When Jesus died, it was of course a deep loss to his friends. They had lost a close personal friend. Now, that might sound like an understatement. But I’m not so sure. You see, we have the advantage of hindsight.
We have knowledge of Jesus that they did not have at the time of his death. And I have serious doubts as to whether they really believed, at Jesus’ death, that he was the Messiah.
I am sure that their minds were in a state of confusion, that they were trying to make sense of the week’s events; but is it not likely that they might have been believing only that a very close friend had been crucified?
Well, let’s look in on what is happening after the day of the crucifixion, and after the following sabbath.
According to the opening to the twentieth chapter of the gospel according to John,
“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 where are the disciples, anyway? How is it that Mary happens to be the first to show up at the tomb? But then, according to John’s gospel, at the foot of the cross there were four persons close to Jesus: three women and one male disciple.
So much for the silly argument that women should never be priests or pastors.
But it is Mary who discovers the open tomb.
“So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “Then have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Now, Mary has not looked inside the tomb, but she is assuming that there must have been good reason for the stone to have been removed. So, Jesus body must have been removed. Or stolen.
But Mary was not one of the twelve, so we can’t know how much she really knew of Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps she had no idea that there might be such a thing as a resurrected Christ. But right now, she is pre-occupied with the apparent disappearance of the body.
On the other hand, the disciples must have had a different perspective.
“Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.”
They didn’t ask any questions; they didn’t say, “Yeah, well, we’ll check it out after breakfast;” they simply headed for the tomb. And this was not a leisurely Sunday morning stroll.
“The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”
So they know that something is up. We don’t know what’s been in their minds for the last few days, but this news strikes sparks. Were they only concerned, as was Mary, with an apparently missing body?
Or were some of the other teachings and prophesies of Jesus coming to mind? They WERE excited, but for what reason?
On the way to the tomb John outruns Peter. Now we know that John was probably younger, stronger, and faster than Peter; but was that WHY he outran him? John was supposedly the disciple beneath the cross. Peter was the disciple who denied Jesus three times. Was Peter fearful of what he might find?
“[John] bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.”
He has arrived first, but is hesitant. He sees the burial garments, separated from any body, but is reluctant to enter the tomb. And we must wonder: is he in a state of shock? Is seeing the cloths enough evidence for him, that he wishes to see no more?
Perhaps, at that moment, he is simply struggling with what it means.
“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.”
So, Peter, following after John, does go into the tomb. And we know that it is not fear that has held him back. Indeed, he is eager to see what the tomb does or does not hold.
At this point, it is probably well to look at these three responses to the open tomb and ask ourselves where we fit in our response to the resurrection.
Are we like Mary, who only sees that the tomb is open; or are we like John, who only looks inside; or are we like Peter, who enters the tomb? In many respects, the truth of Christ is like that open tomb.
Many times I find myself standing and staring, but not knowing quite what to make of it; other times, I look inside, but am fearful of venturing further; and then there are those times when I am eager to plunge ahead.
And so, Peter has entered the tomb, and he finds that the cloth which had been on Jesus’ head is rolled up in a place by itself. What must Peter have made of this? It must have been clear that this was not the work of a grave robber.
The signs are that something very careful has taken place.
“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.”
John’s behavior is probably not unlike that of many Christians. We rush ahead, wanting to find the truth, and then, when we get close, we back off a bit, we hesitate, and we need some leadership. For John, Peter provided that.
Peter, on the other hand, is like many who may not dazzle us with their performance, but their faith is nevertheless strong and sturdy. The race to the tomb is, therefore, deceptive. Although John appeared to have won it, Peter crossed the finish line first.
But when we are told that they “saw and believed,” what exactly would the writer of the gospel have us understand that they believed? He goes on to say, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
Does this mean that they had no inkling from Jesus teaching of what was to happen? Did they really believe that all that had taken place was nothing more than that a person had died?
If the tomb looks like it has not been robbed, what conclusion are they to draw from this situation?
And the writer of this gospel closes this passage with this dry verse: “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”
Is that all? Did they run back or did they walk? Did they talk excitedly about this, or just discuss the weather? Or perhaps they were frozen in silence, trying to make sense of their experience. Did that experience make any difference to them?
Now, this all may sound like I’m being really hard on Peter and John. But what I sense in scripture is that they are not truly living in the truth of the resurrection, but that they are rather living in the past, a past without that truth.
And as Christians, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about the resurrection: What does it really mean to us? On the Monday after Easter Sunday do we go back to living as if the celebration of the resurrection never happened? Does it make any difference in our lives? How do we feel differently because of Christ’s resurrection? Or do we need something dramatic, such as Mary’s confrontation?
“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.”
Did Peter and John see these angels? Apparently not. Maybe it was because Mary was so deeply grieved that she is able to witness this scene. Perhaps it is because she experiences the loss of Jesus so intensely that she can have this experience.
But isn’t it striking that Mary was the first to arrive and the last to leave? Peter and John run, look around, and go home. But then, Christian commitment is much like that. Some folks give it lip service, while others become deeply involved in what they believe. And those who are more deeply involved are more likely to have more moving experiences than others.
“[The angels] 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.”
Was that what Peter and John thought also? Or did they know otherwise? If they did know otherwise, why did they not tell Mary? I would suggest that they did not know. They knew Jesus was gone from the tomb, but they weren’t sure what to make of that.
“When [Mary] had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”
Now, this will not be the last time that Jesus will be unrecognized by those who previously knew him well. And we need to ask, “Was Jesus appearance changed?” Or did grief cloud their senses?
Or did it just seem too impossible that it could be Jesus, that it must be someone else? Perhaps there is some truth in all of these.
But more important here is the character of Mary Magdalene: one of the last persons to see Jesus alive from the foot of the cross, the first person to see the open tomb, and the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. It is true devotion and commitment rewarded.
“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.”
Notice that these are not grand entry lines that Jesus is using, but rather draw out the genuine person that Mary is, caring and unselfish. It is a delicate exchange, but no more so that what follows.
“Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”
And how is it that she has recognized Jesus? I would suggest that hearing her name spoken has cut through her grief and caused her to see as she could not see before. But more interesting is the manner in which she addresses Jesus.
It is not by his name, nor by “my Lord,” but by “Teacher.” It is the personal relationship which she feels toward Jesus that marks this setting.
I find this a most remarkable event. I believe that Jesus chose to first reveal himself to the person who, when times were the worst, continued to show the greatest devotion to him.
And, I believe that Jesus continues to reveal himself in a variety of ways, to those of us who, when times are the worst, continue to show great devotion to him.
“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 sisters and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
And Mary has been chosen as Jesus’ messenger to tell the disciples and all Jesus’ friends, that the resurrection has taken place.
“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.”
Three visitors to an open tomb. And three different kinds of responses. Jesus’ followers really didn’t know what, exactly, to expect in those days following the crucifixion.
They were caught up in a variety of confusion and emotions; and all we can do is speculate from scripture regarding how they were feeling. But even today, after millions have heard the story, there are millions of different responses to that empty tomb.
And what is our response? For myself, I would hope, in my seeking, to somehow find first the eagerness of John in looking for the truth of Christ. I would hope that I could find the courage of Peter as he entered into that tomb to confront the truth of Christ. But I would also hope that I might find the dedication and devotion and faith of Mary, whose patience brought her into the full presence of Christ.
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