Sermon Text: John 20:1-18
When I was in the Holy Land recently, I had a chance to actually see some ancient tombs, including these. There was nothing special about these tombs. They weren’t tourist attractions. They were just on the side of a road somewhere in Galilee. Notice the stone beside the tomb?I had always pictured the stone as a giant boulder, similar to one that might flatten Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. But that’s not right. These stones are chiseled into the shape of a wheel. They’re made to roll inside a groove just below the entrance to the tomb. Tombs aren’t like caskets. Families reused tombs over and over again. They’d put the body in the tomb. Come back a year later after decomposition, remove the bones, and place them in a “bone box,” or ossuary. And the process would repeat itself. So the stone had to roll fairly easily. The reason they wrapped the body and prepared the body with spices and perfume is to cut down on the smell when they went back in a year later.
Mary goes to the tomb “on the first day of the week,” while it was still dark, and sees the stone rolled away, and what is her first thought? Jesus has been resurrected? No, of course not. It’s clear that none of the disciples expected Jesus to be resurrected. Jesus had talked to them about it, but they didn’t grasp the concept, which is understandable. Resurrection was far beyond their imagination. It’s true that most Jews believed in resurrection for the righteous dead at the end of the age, but no one believed that it had ever happened or would ever happen to any one person before that time.
The Huffington Post, an online news and opinion website, had an article on Easter this week written by an author who said that he just couldn’t swallow the idea that Jesus was bodily resurrected.
And maybe some of you struggle with this question? [Texted questions here?] If so, can I just say that I have studied and read and gone to a world-class theology school, which was not exactly Sunday school, if you know what I mean. They didn’t spoon-feed you. I am a scientifically minded person, having been an electrical engineer. I tend to be naturally skeptical, and I tend to make friends easily with non-Christians who are skeptical. I know all their arguments. I’ve argued with them. I don’t think I’m gullible or naive. Yet I believe strongly that Jesus was bodily resurrected—I believe it more so than ever—and I believe strongly that the resurrection is a very well-attested historical fact. You can’t prove it scientifically—it’s only happened once in history, after all. But in that sense you can’t prove any ancient historical fact. We don’t have cable news reports, video evidence, newspaper accounts, DNA, or fingerprints—all we ever have in ancient history is this or that document or record or artifact, and the inferences that we draw from them. It just so happens that when it comes to the resurrection of Christ, we have relatively more evidence than most events in history. My point is, I don’t believe you have to check your brain at the front door of the church on Easter Sunday.
Unlike the author of that blog post… This author’s number one reason for not believing in the resurrection is because of the sobering finality of death. We’re all going to die, he said, and when we do, we’ll find like everyone else that death is “pretty fatal and pretty final.”
Like so many skeptics over the past 300 years, what he’s really saying is that people who lived a long time ago were dumb, and aren’t we so much smarter today? That’s nonsense. Don’t you think Mary is weeping in verse 11 because she’s already figured out that death is “pretty fatal and pretty final”? And she didn’t need modern science to teach her that! In fact, people living in the first century were far better acquainted with death than we are, since death was a more commonplace event in one’s life. They understood that when people died they stayed dead.
I once heard an interview with scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, who was asked to give an account for the large number of people in the first century who genuinely believed that Jesus was resurrected. And he said, in his smart-sounding English accent, “Oh, well, we shouldn’t be surprised by that. When a charismatic leader died long ago, legends and myths often sprung up about their conquering death.” And he’s just completely wrong on the facts. They didn’t just spring up. In fact, in Jesus’ day there were plenty of charismatic, messianic leaders who, like Jesus, lived and died martyrs’ deaths, and exactly none of these other leaders was said to have been resurrected. People were not so gullible or eager to believe in Christ’s resurrection that they experienced a mass hallucination.
Moreover, the disciples wouldn’t risk their lives to steal Jesus’ body so that they could claim that Jesus had been resurrected. As I said, it’s clear that they didn’t expect Christ’s resurrection; and even if they did, without the resurrection appearances themselves, who would believe them? And what would be their motive for lying about the resurrection? A life of deprivation, suffering, persecution, and sometimes early, painful death? The fact that people did believe in this case that Jesus had been resurrected is because many people saw and experienced Christ’s resurrection— there were more than 500 mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15—most of whom, he says, are still alive, so you can ask them! Paul was himself the last eyewitness.
So, because Mary understood, like us moderns, that death was “pretty fatal and pretty final,” her first and only thought upon discovering the empty tomb is, “They’ve stolen the body!”—not “he must be alive!” That’s also why she’s weeping. We can all relate to that, can’t we? Most of us have not remained untouched by the sobering finality of death.
I presided over a funeral last week for a friend of my in-laws named Bob, who died at 76. Bob either committed suicide or was murdered. The police hadn’t yet made that determination as of last Saturday. Bob’s sister-in-law and some friends eulogized him. The sister-in-law spoke first, and she was a funny and gifted speaker, and there was much laughter—so much so that it started to feel like “Evening at the Improv.” A part of me was jealous because I was thinking, “How can I top that when I give my homily? You don’t want the opening act to steal the show.” I’m just being honest. But as I listened to her, I was starting to wonder if I showed up at the right funeral—I thought this was the man who—one way or another—died in a tragic, terrible way. I was relieved, therefore, when her tears of sorrow and grief finally started to flow.
Good, I thought. These people still need the gospel of Jesus Christ! They still need Easter!
See, Easter is the very climax of the gospel because we all know too well that death is “pretty fatal and pretty final.” That’s the point of Easter: Jesus is the first and only person to conquer death. Apart from Christ, death is bad and evil and contrary to God’s original plan for Creation. By conquering death, we who believe in him will share in this victory! So that we can now say with the apostle, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? But thanks thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”†
Life is good. I saw that on a T-shirt somewhere once. And, indeed, for whatever reason, God has convinced me of this a little more each day over these past few years. I am learning, ever so slowly, to appreciate every moment of life as God’s gift—without taking it for granted; without measuring my life against other people’s lives; without always wanting something I don’t have. Inasmuch as it’s not good, it’s often my own fault! God doesn’t owe me a thing—and look at how richly he blesses me! Every moment of life I enjoy, every breath, every heartbeat. It’s all a gift. It’s all grace. And look at how richly he blesses that Bedouin shepherd boy I saw in the Holy Land, who, by our living standards has nothing, but he was laughing and smiling because he also knows that life is good.
Life is good, but the problem is that even the best-lived life in this world is incomplete. I’m thinking, for example, of a family friend we called Aunt E.E.—one of the most joyful, energetic, and faithful saints I’ve known—who died peacefully in her sleep at 99-and-a-half-years-old. You may know people like that. Even Aunt E.E.’s life, as rich and full as it was, was incomplete and unfinished. And most of the rest of us don’t live lives that are as good as that. We all have so much potential, you and me! So much good in us—but because of sin and evil in this world it often goes unfulfilled. We all have this deep longing God, for love, for beauty, for justice, and for freedom, which can never be fully realized in this world. We all feel the pain of lost love or lost loved ones; we all experience regret and sorrow and loss. And the fearful prospect that death robs us forever of the opportunity to love and be loved, to heal and be healed, to find forgiveness, to make right a wrong, to enjoy this good Creation—all this unfinished business of life! It hurts to think about it. Doesn’t it?
My father died 15 years ago of cancer. He was frail for the last year of his life. One of most heart-breaking memories of that time is that he would sometimes cough uncontrollably when he ate—and he loved to eat! That was hard. Eventually he had a feeding tube installed. The last couple of months of his life he was bedridden. But he found God as he was facing death, and he was at peace. Not long after he died I would have these extremely vivid dreams of Dad—as if he were as real and present to me as you are. But here’s the thing: when I saw him in my dreams, we would be talking and catching up, and it would take me a few moments to realize that Dad was walking around. And I would say, “Dad, what are you doing? Get back in bed. You shouldn’t be up like this!” But Dad was happy and energetic. His color was good. He was healthy. I’m convinced that that these dreams were God’s way of reassuring me that Dad was safe with him, and that he was going to be O.K. When I see him in resurrection, he will be whole. That’s one meaning of Easter.
Nearly everyone’s favorite part of today’s scripture is when the risen Lord calls Mary by name. That’s when she recognizes Jesus. I noticed something this week that I had never seen before: Mary is facing Jesus, mistaking him for the gardener, asking him if he’s taken the body, could she please get it back. And Jesus, still facing her, says, “Mary.” And what does it say in verse 16? “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’” She turned. She wasn’t facing away from him, but when she called her name, she turned… That’s not a literal turning. She turned in her heart toward Jesus by faith. That turning made all the difference in the world to her—not just in some distant future in heaven, but right now.
Has Jesus called you by name? Have you listened? Are you listening? Will you turn toward him?
† 1 Corinthians 15:57