Scripture: John 20:1-18
Last week, Augusta National played host to the most prestigious of the four major golf tournaments, the Masters. And I was deeply moved by the press conference that Masters-winner Scottie Scheffler held afterwards. Because like so many championship-caliber athletes, he used his platform as an opportunity to bear witness to his faith in Jesus Christ and to glorify God. He said, “The reason why I play golf is: I’m trying to glorify God and all that He’s done in my life.” He went on to say that as important as his golfing career is, his “identity isn’t a golf score.”
He said his wife reminded him of this truth before he began the fourth and final round last Sunday—enjoying a three-stroke advantage over his nearest rival.
He said, “Like Meredith [my wife] told me this morning, [before the final round] she says, ‘If you win this golf tournament today, if you lose this golf tournament by 10 shots, if you never win another golf tournament again,’ she goes, ‘I’m still going to love you, you’re still going to be the same person, Jesus loves you, and nothing changes. And all I’m trying to do is glorify God, and that’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’m in this position.”
But here’s what I want you to consider: It’s been two-thousand years since Jesus walked on this earth. Why is Scheffler, who has just been awarded one of the most glorious trophies our world has to offer… why is he at a microphone, in 2022, talking about Jesus?
Who would have guessed, two-thousand years ago, he’d be doing that, given what happened on Good Friday—when this whole Jesus movement, this kingdom-of-God project, seemingly went down in flames with Christ’s shameful death on a Roman cross?
To say the least, Easter changed everything… and in today’s sermon I want to explore the meaning of Easter in three points. Today’s scripture is about coming to faith… Overcoming death… and becoming part of God’s family.
First, coming to faith…
I’ll never forget—about ten years ago—seeing best-selling author and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins being interviewed on TV, not long after he published his best-selling anti-God book called The God Delusion. The interviewer asked him how he explains the testimony and behavior of Jesus’ disciples after Jesus died if the resurrection didn’t occur. And he said, in his very smart-sounding English accent, “Oh, well… in the ancient world when charismatic leaders died, these sorts of legends about their being resurrected happened all the time!”
I’m sure he’s a better scientist than historian because he’s completely wrong on history!
This popular myth is easy enough to refute from scripture: In Acts 17, Paul presents the gospel to some of the most learned, scholarly, philosophical men of the ancient world, in Athens. And his presentation is going pretty well—at least at first. But then he gets to verse 31 and says that God raised Jesus from the dead. Then the next verse: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.”1 And this was the point at which Paul had to abruptly end his speech.
Well, hold on… If ancient people were so gullible, and they routinely believed that charismatic leaders were resurrected, why did these Athenians mock Paul? According to Richard Dawkins, they should have said, “Oh, yes… Of course, Paul. Resurrections happen to people all the time. Makes perfect sense!” But no… they mocked instead… They mocked because they knew that when people died, they stayed dead.
And Mary Magdalene knows that, as well. She finds the tomb empty, and notice she doesn’t say, “Hooray! Jesus has been resurrected, just like he said he would be”? No. She runs back and offers the other disciples the most likely explanation, the one that makes the most sense: Jesus’ tomb had been robbed and his body stolen.
My point is, contrary to popular myth, Mary and the other disciples were not gullible people. They were not easily persuaded that Jesus was resurrected. During his earthly ministry, Jesus had even told them that he would be resurrected, but that was so far out of the realm of possibility that they must have thought he was speaking in parables again, if they understood him at all! They knew from personal experience, from common sense, and from the medical science of their day that when people died, they stayed dead.
Besides, while many Jews did believe in a resurrection2—they believed it was something that happened to everyone all at once, at the end of history. Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, no Jew ever believed it happened to one person in the middle of history. That was against their strongly held religious convictions—and all of Jesus’ disciples were orthodox Jews.
What would have caused these faithful Jews to completely revise their understanding of core religious doctrines? Nothing other than this fact: they were convinced that it really happened! Jesus was resurrected.
But getting back to Professor Dawkins, I’m sure he would find this fact surprising: There were dozens of would-be messiahs a century before and a century after Jesus lived. Like Jesus, they were charismatic leaders. Like Jesus they had devoted followers who loved and believed in them. Like Jesus, they died violent deaths at the hands of Rome. Yet, unlike Jesus, when they died their violent deaths, not one time did any of their followers claim that their messiah had been resurrected. Not once! It only happened after Jesus died.3
I wonder why?
Because in the case of Jesus alone, his disciples were convinced that he was resurrected—so convinced, in fact, that most of these men would later lay down their lives for their conviction that Jesus had been resurrected. And you may say, “Yes, but people die for false religious beliefs all the time—what about the 9/11 terrorists? Well, sure, people get martyred for false religious beliefs—but they don’t do so while knowing that those beliefs are false.
I say this because many skeptics of the resurrection want to say that the disciples were part of a conspiracy: they stole the body to convince the world that he was resurrected; they knew that it wasn’t true. But if they knew it was true, why would they die for that belief? They wouldn’t!
I could go on… There’s much historical evidence that the resurrection really happened, and I love talking about this stuff. Instead, I’ll leave you with one more interesting and hard-to-explain fact that corroborates the truth of what the gospels report. It’s this… In today’s scripture, as in the other three gospels, the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the resurrection were women.
If the disciples of Jesus wanted to invent a story about Jesus being resurrected, they would never use the eyewitness testimony of women. Why? Because in this very patriarchal, chauvinistic culture of the first century, a woman’s testimony was not considered trustworthy. In fact, it wasn’t even admissible in a court of law. So if you wanted people to believe you when you said that Jesus was resurrected, you wouldn’t tell the story like this… It’s considered embarrassing to the cause of the Christian movement. A second-century Roman opponent of Christianity named Celsus even complained that the resurrection couldn’t be believed because it was a tale first told by a bunch of “hysterical women.”
So the only reason why John and the other apostles and evangelists told the story like this—with women at the center of the resurrection story—is because of the inconvenient fact that it also happened to be true! Which lends credibility to the resurrection itself!
I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And I suspect most of you who are listening to me do as well… But if you don’t yet believe in the resurrection, I want to say, you’re in good company this morning! Because in today’s scripture, you’ve got three of Jesus’ closest disciples—Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, otherwise known in verse 2 as the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved”… And these three close disciples of Jesus also didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus… at least not on Easter morning! Not at first! Each one had to come to faith in the resurrection… And today’s scripture describes how two of these three do come to faith—Peter, the third, will come to faith later on Easter evening.
So that’s Point Number One: Today’s scripture isn’t about gullible people who are eager to believe in some seemingly impossible miracle—because that’s just the way people were back then. No, Jesus’ first disciples were skeptical people like many of us who had to overcome their doubts and come to faith in the resurrection based on the evidence…
Point Number Two: Easter means overcoming death.
So as I say, Mary Magdalene, and some other women, came to the tomb on Easter morning not to encounter the living, risen, glorified, resurrected Lord; they went there to prepare Jesus’ body for a proper Jewish burial.
Because they were afraid that that hadn’t been done very well.
Remember: Jesus died around 3:00 on Friday afternoon. It was early spring. Sundown was happening soon. At sundown the Sabbath began. So Jesus’ body had to be taken down from the cross and quickly prepared for burial before the Sabbath began—they couldn’t do any work once the Sabbath started. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were the two men who prepared Jesus’ body for burial—and you can read in John 19:39-41 about the 75 lbs. of myrrh and aloe these men used… and the linen cloths they wrapped Jesus’ body in.
But they had to work fast to get it done before sundown and the Sabbath, so the women on Sunday morning were likely concerned that it hadn’t been done well. So they went on Sunday morning, after Sabbath was over, to “finish the job.”
Do you know why, by the way, it was important to wrap Jesus’ body—almost like a mummy—in spices and perfume? Because ancient Jewish burials were a two-step process: You put the body in the tomb, roll the stone over the entrance. And then one year later, after the body had decomposed, you would go back into the tomb, collect the bones, and place them into a “bone box,” or ossuary. And if another member of the family died before that year was up, you’d have to repeat the process. Open the tomb, close the tomb. This may sound strange, but tombs were made to be reused… opened and closed many times. Not to be too gross, but you would wrap the body in spices and perfume for one simple reason: to minimize the smell when you had to open it back up!
Okay, so that’s what the women are planning on doing. But when they got there, and found the tomb empty, they reported the news to Peter and John.
And they go running to the tomb. And which disciple, do we learn, was a faster sprinter? Obviously John… Three times he tells us that he was the first to arrive at the tomb. Scholars love speculating about why John emphasizes this point: I think, first of all, because it was true, and John was there, and this was how it happened… This has the mark of eyewitness testimony. Also, John was much younger than Peter, so it’s natural that he was faster… But even more, I think he means to communicate something symbolic by it; that it’s John’s subtle way of emphasizing that he was the first of the disciples to believe in the resurrection—even before he encountered the resurrected Lord…
And it’s clear here that he came to faith based on something he saw inside the tomb itself… And what he saw gets at the heart of the meaning of resurrection.
And what exactly did John see, or what did he notice, or what did he piece together about the empty tomb that Peter didn’t see or notice or piece together? They both saw the same things, after all… the linen cloths in which Jesus’ body was wrapped… and the face cloth…
And even here, by the way, is more interesting evidence for the resurrection: If grave robbers had stolen Jesus’ body, they would not bother to unwrap it first. Grave robbers never did that back then! First of all, grave robbery was a capital offense under Roman law. Grave robbers don’t have time to do that. They want to get in and get out as quickly as possible.
Also, we can’t be sure of this, but many commentators believe that when John says the grave cloths were “lying there,” that that description indicates they were lying exactly where his body had lain, as if Jesus didn’t even need to unwrap them… as if he passed through them.
Remember: While Jesus’ resurrected body was physical… in today’s scripture Mary Magdalene embraces Jesus. Elsewhere we see him eating and drinking. Later in this same chapter, Jesus offers to let Thomas feel the scars in his hands and side. But also… His resurrected body is able to pass through a locked door. He’s able to disappear and reappear—like he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaeus. This is the Bible’s way of showing us that Jesus’ glorified, resurrected body was different from his body before; it had changed. It was a physical body, but it was more than a physical body as we understand it today.
And here is our first important clue about the meaning of Easter—and this is what led John to believe in the resurrection: Because John remembered an event that happened about two weeks earlier… when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus tells the dead man to come out of the tomb. John 11:44:
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”4
Unbind him and let him go? When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he comes out still bound by the linen cloths that his body was wrapped in, still wearing the cloth that covered his face. He needed bystanders to remove them.
Jesus, meanwhile, clearly had no trouble removing his grave cloths… whether he passed through them or not. Jesus even neatly folded the cloth that was over his face! What a strange detail—the very detail that John noticed just before he came to faith!
What does it all mean?
What it means is that when Lazarus was raised from the dead, two weeks earlier, his dead body was resuscitated. He was still weak, still frail, still mortal. Maybe he went on to live another 20 or 30 years, we don’t know. But he was raised to life… by all means… but only to die again later.
It’s clear to John that this is not what happened to Jesus! His body was transformed! His body would last forever!
Why? Because while Lazarus escaped death for several more years, Jesus conquered death forever!
And the Bible even says, in 1 Corinthians 15, that what Christ’s glorified body is, ours one day will be… after the Second Coming, when we’re resurrected into a renewed, redeemed, restored world where heaven and earth become one. We’ll have bodies like Jesus5… ones that aren’t frail, that don’t get sick or disabled or diseased… ones that last forever!
Many of you have heard that I got a skateboard for my birthday in February—technically a longboard. I have been learning how to ride it, and I’ve been riding it a few times a week. And I know what many of you think: “Pastor Brent is having a midlife crisis.” To which I say, if that’s what it is, there are more expensive ways to have one! It’s not like I got a motorcycle or a Corvette or something!
But also… It can’t be a midlife crisis because what are the odds I’m going to live to be 104? And you’re like, “Well, the odds are not very good if you keep riding that skateboard!”
But riding a skateboard is a dream come true for me… Because my mom would never let me have one when I was a kid—even after Michael J. Fox rode one in Back to the Future, and all my friends were riding them! My mom, God bless her, was overprotective.
So here I am at 52, fulfilling a lifelong dream! And I love it.
But you know what I’m not doing? I’m not riding a skateboard because I’m considering the passing years of my life, like sands through the hourglass, watching the grains of sand fall and thinking, “My time is running out. I’m 52, and I’ve never learned to ride a skateboard; I haven’t checked it off my bucket list. And if I don’t do it now, while I’m still physically able and healthy enough, well… It’ll be just one more regret that I’ll have when I’m lying on my deathbed. After all, YOLO… ‘You only live once,’ as they say. I only have this limited amount of time… to do and accomplish and achieve… and enjoy all that my life has to offer… and life is short, after all.”
Friends, that’s a lie, straight from the pit of hell, and we Christians must not buy into it!
Let me tell you about a remarkable woman named Mrs. Mims. She was a teacher at Henderson High School in Chamblee, Georgia, my beloved alma mater. And she was the wife of a Baptist minister, and she clearly used her teaching platform as an opportunity to witness to her faith—within the boundaries set by public school and separation of church and state and all that. But she said this on more than a few occasions: She said, “I could get in a car accident and die on the way home from school today. And if that happens, I will have no regrets. I’m ready to go! After all, God has blessed me with a rich and full life.”
Keep in mind: when she said that, she was in her late forties, younger back then than I am today… Even though, to me, she seemed so old at the time! How old I must seem to teenagers in this church!
But my point is, from my very worldly perspective back then, I thought, “She has so much more to live for! She has so much more to experience! How can she say that?” At the time I was thinking, “I’m not like her! If I die on the way home from school I will have plenty of regrets! Because I don’t want to miss out on anything.”
What I failed to appreciate as a 14-year-old… but which today I honestly believe with my whole heart now… is this: if or when Mrs. Mims died, secure as she was in the knowledge that she was a beloved child of God through faith in God’s Son Jesus, Mrs. Mims wasn’t going to miss out on a thing!
And neither will I! And neither will you, if you believe in Christ!
And this is only true because Easter means that Christ conquered death!
But not only that… Point Number Three:
Easter means, more than that Christ accomplished everything he set out to accomplish on Good Friday! Easter means that God accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins!
One important place we see this is in verse 17: Jesus said to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
If we weren’t so familiar with the story, this ought to surprise us… shock us, even!
After all, if Jesus were like us, what might Jesus have told Mary to say to these disciples?
Considering how most of them abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need;6 considering how they fell asleep on him when he was sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane; considering how one of them—his closest disciple—even denied knowing Jesus three times; considering how none of his disciples believed him when he told them that he would be crucified and resurrected; considering how they were nowhere to be seen while he was suffering on the cross; considering how, even now, when they should be celebrating Easter Sunday, they’re instead cowering in fear in the upper room behind a locked door…
Considering all these things, we might expect Jesus to say to Mary, “I want you to go to those no-good, lousy, sinful, lying, cowardly bunch of traitors who call themselves my disciples, and I want you to warn them that I’m giving them one more chance not to mess things up! One more chance and then I’m through with them!”
That’s what he might have said… That’s what they deserved to hear. But no… Instead, he talks about the change in status that has happened to his disciples as a result of his death and resurrection: “Go to my brothers,” he says. “Tell them I’m going see my Father and your Father.”
There’s no anger toward these disciples. No threats… No punishment… Only acceptance… only love without condition… only grace.
Why? Literally nothing has changed so far in the lives of this no-good, lousy, sinful, lying, cowardly bunch of disciples! At the moment Jesus speaks these words to his disciples, they are still the same.
No… The only thing that happened… here on earth… since last we saw these disciples on Thursday night when Jesus was arrested and Sunday morning when he was resurrected is… Christ’s atoning death on the cross—on which Jesus took all of our sins and suffered the death penalty for them, and suffered hell for them, in our place… so we wouldn’t have to. So that we could indeed live forever with God!
The resurrection proves that our sins are forgiven!
If you’re in Christ, God our Father looks at you, even you—with all your sin, with all your failures, with all your mistakes—and he says, “It doesn’t matter what you do. You’re perfect. I couldn’t love you more!” If you’re in Christ, the resurrection means that God is not mad at you; he’s not disappointed in you; he’s not wishing you were someone else; he’s not holding a grudge against you.
The resurrection means that you’re his son… You’re his daughter… Can you even imagine?
The resurrection means that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, not height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”7
Now, brothers and sisters, I’m going to give you your Easter challenge… Are you ready? Because this is hard… Please go out and enjoy everything that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has accomplished for you and made available to you from Good Friday through Easter Sunday!