A Sermon for Easter Day
Based on Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
One of the great wonders of that first Easter is that the earliest witnesses repeatedly told how utterly unprepared they were for the discovery they came to make. You would think that over the years of telling and re-telling the story of Jesus that they would want to smooth over the rough edges and not leave behind a record making themselves look so stupid. The very people who had been with him for three years, who had learned from him and seen what he had done for other people, betrayed him, denied him, fled at his arrest, were absent at his death, and neither anticipated nor discovered the empty tomb.
He took them from their jobs, their families, and their homes and everything looked so promising. They thought he was the Messiah -- well, he didn't go around saying it exactly -- but what he did was enough to convince them: he healed people, he taught the unteachable, he showed love to people no one else loved, dignity to the disrespected, acceptance to the neglected. And it all worked. He had crowds, a reputation, a devoted following. Nobody thought he was going to Jerusalem to die. Why die? A Messiah doesn't just die. He talked about the kingdom of God that was at hand. And when they watched him they could really see God at work. The only thing that didn't fit was the stuff about giving his life, giving it as a ransom for many. His death? It wasn't supposed to end that way. Messiah doesn't die. But he did. And once he did, it was clear to them, they later admitted, that that was the end of it. Period.
So when they looked inside the tomb, the stories tell us, they thought someone had put the body elsewhere. Or yet still maybe they weren't quite that sure. So they ran back and forth in utter confusion, worrying about the graverobbers and the body-snatchers. Except one: the beloved disciple whom nobody knows -- the one who reached the tomb before Peter did, out-jogging him by just a half-minute. And when Peter caught up, and they both stood there looking in, they saw what Mary saw. And then the Gospel writer gives us a brief editorial: "The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they (i.e. Mary and Peter) did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
As we should by now always expect, the writer of the John's Gospel leaves us with a little aside which upon further reflection is never just so little. Mary Magdalene and Peter have discovered the empty tomb, but it hasn't done them any good at all. They are not leaping with joy with "Christ is risen, He is risen indeed" on their lips -- they are still scurrying around wondering who got into the tomb and made off with the body and where it is now. Only one is a believer here on this first Easter Sunday morning, only one -- and he had something more than the empty tomb. The Gospel writer knows that seeing Jesus' tomb empty is simply not enough. An empty tomb by itself constitutes no proof of anything at all. Something more is needed. And the other disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved, had something more.
Of all the mysterious figures in John's gospel, this beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus' loved, is the most mysterious of all. From the inquiring Nicodemus to doubting Thomas, from the brothers Peter and Andrew to the sisters Mary and Martha, to Nathaniel and Philip and Joseph of Arimathea -- it is this disciple whom Jesus loved who is always on the margin of events but somehow winds up stealing the show. While everyone else has forsaken Jesus and fled, there is the beloved disciple at the foot of Jesus' cross being given Jesus' mother as his mother and he as her son. He is the one sitting nearest to Jesus at the Last Supper, the one who in the midst of the others' silence asks Jesus who the betrayer is, and after everyone has gone back home to their jobs he is the one who first recognizes the Risen Lord on the shore of the lake, and on Easter morning it is he, not Mary or Peter, who is the first believer. He always seems to be there at the important moments, asking the important questions, making the important observations; yet throughout John's Gospel we do not even know his name. The beloved disciple, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is never named.
Church tradition has identified this beloved disciple as John the son of Zebedee and the author of the Gospel of John, but whether or not this church tradition is correct, it is important to recognize that nowhere in the gospel of John itself is this identification ever made: the "disciple whom Jesus loved" is never named.
As early as the second century interpreters of John's gospel have asked what the author's intention might have been in not naming this beloved disciple. And already then they saw the secret that the Gospel-writer had woven into his narrative: the beloved disciple is a symbol of the church, the fellowship of Jesus' disciples throughout the ages. In the beloved disciple the Christian believer of every age finds him- or herself close to Jesus at the Last Supper, close to Jesus at the foot of the cross, running with joy on Easter morning to discover the empty tomb, ready in the midst of his daily work to be sent out to do mission by the risen Lord. The disciple whom Jesus loved is a figure of invitation: an invitation to each one of us to see ourselves in his place, throughout the story of Jesus.
That means, if the writer of John's Gospel has his way, that each time we join in the Lord's Supper we ask who the betrayer is, and honestly ask, so that we might be ready for confession and restoration again. That means that in the midst of our daily routines -- from the lakeside to the city streets -- we are able to see the risen Lord sending us out to do mission and not to be surprised when we see our nets filled to the breaking point. That means, if John is to have his way, that one who is next to you here at the foot of Jesus' cross is your mother and sister and son and daughter and brother and father, and you theirs, and that you take each other into your care. And it also means knowing that on Easter morning the discovery of the empty tomb is not enough; because more is needed than that.
"Then the other disciple, [the disciple whom Jesus loved], who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they (i.e. Mary Magdalene and Peter) did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
We aren’t told here what Scripture he knew that the other two didn’t. But it does say he knew something that they didn’t. Maybe he was thinking of Psalm 16:10, that God would not give his own up to the grave or allow them to see corruption, or Hosea 6:20, that after two days he will revive them and on the third he will raise them up; or Isaiah 25:8 that God always swallows up death or drowns it in victory. But those passages themselves rest on promise after promise before them. He remembered that death met Israel in Egypt, but did not prevail; that death met Israel at the Red Sea, but did not prevail; that death met Israel in the wilderness, and in the Exile -- there was plenty to go on, plenty to recall from scripture, plenty for the beloved disciple to remember when he stooped to look inside the tomb -- at least enough to know that when death met God's own on Calvary it would not prevail. The disciple whom Jesus loved, whom Jesus loves, knows that you cannot take the Promise of God, hang it on a cross, lay it in tomb, and expect to find it there lifeless forever. "The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
It took the others a bit longer, but not much longer. It took them a bit longer than the beloved disciple. In fact, it took them all a while to realize why it took them so long to realize it. Why? Because they all had had other plans, other plans for God, hoping that God would do things their way, forgetting what it meant to have a God who made promises -- and had always kept them.
They all tell us it took them a while to believe, because they had to figure out what believing in the Easter faith meant. Believing in the Easter faith meant giving up all their plans for God, and to let God plan for them. Believing in the Easter faith meant the rejection of all their attempts to make God come out their way. It meant quitting all attempts to stand over God and to make God accountable to us. It meant giving up every attempt to prove God on terms acceptable to us -- for otherwise God would not be God -- and to live out our lives under the terms of God's own gracious acceptance, an acceptance offered to every one of us as a gift. It took them all a while to see that the one whom God raised from death was the one who said "Thy will be done," and not another.
Believing in the Easter faith means getting to know the Scriptures again. It means coming to listen to the Word of God that is applied here every time your family of faith meets together. It means being with them to receive the Lord’s body and blood into themselves and taken him with us out into our world. The Easter Gospel is the invitation to let ourselves be led by the crucified and risen Christ, who has broken through the dying and now offers us life, authentic life, to live as God wants us to live. The Easter Gospel gives us real meaning and real purpose in our lives, and real hope for the future, into God’s eternity.
That hope is expressed in Easter’s wonderful refrain: "Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!"
-- Richard L. Jeske