John 20:1-18 (New International Version, ©2011)
The Empty Tomb
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
I preach a lot about ethics. Before Lent we had been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount and next week I plan to pick it back up again. The Sermon on the Mount is just packed full of ethical jewels. Jesus calls us time and time again, not only in the Sermon on the Mount, but really throughout the entire Bible, and shows us how we are to live as his followers, how we are to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
But today we are not talking about ethics. Today we are talking about redemption. Today we are talking about reconciliation. Today we are talking about rebirth. Today we are talking about resurrection because today is Resurrection Sunday, a day we commonly refer to as Easter. It is today that we celebrate the fact that Jesus is not dead, but that he has risen and all those that are in Christ will be raised with him for eternity.
We have come through Lent. We have experienced Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And all of these days are meant to be times of reflection, sacrifice, and sorrow. But today is a time of celebration! So feel free to shout out as you feel led today!
In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene is going to the tomb of Jesus early on Sunday morning. Jesus had been crucified and placed in the tomb rather quickly without a proper burial because the Sabbath was about to begin and a Jewish person could not participate in the Sabbath rituals if they had been in contact with a dead person the night before. So Mary was going to the tomb of Jesus to likely anoint him with herbs and fragrances; a way of mourning the loss of her good friend. But when she gets there, she sees that the stone has been rolled away and she assumes that someone has stolen the body of Jesus.
So Mary runs back to where Peter and John are sleeping (hiding?) and she tells them what she has just found. So Peter and John run to the tomb and they see for themselves that the tomb is empty. John tells us that they saw and they believed. I think this means that they believed Mary that the body had been stolen, because John also notes that they did not yet understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead. So they go home, dejected, confused, and probably more than a little ticked off. They believe someone has stolen the body of Jesus.
Mary, however, sticks around. She has a little conversation with some angels hanging out in the tomb. This whole talking with the angels thing doesn’t seem to bother her. I guess she was used to abnormal things taking place. But then the gardener asks her why she is crying, and she tells him about Jesus’s body being taken away. But this isn’t the gardener that she is speaking to. No, it is Jesus himself. And for whatever reason, she doesn’t even recognize him. She doesn’t recognize him, that is, until he speaks her name…Mary.
Jesus was dead, but now he is alive. There is no doubt about it, he was dead. You can’t get any more dead than he was. There is no such thing as sorta dead or kinda dead. Jesus was dead. And now he is there in the flesh and blood. Mary had planned to anoint his body with herbs and fragrances, but instead she is covering him with hugs and adoration.
What does all of this mean? What does resurrection mean? Why do we get so excited about Easter Sunday? I have a few thoughts on this.
Resurrection means that today does not have to be like yesterday (or the day before). The followers of Jesus have probably just experienced the worst couple of days of their life up to this point. Just one week ago they saw Jesus ride into town on a donkey and claim the kingship of Jerusalem. They thought that things were finally going to start going their way. They thought that they would be appointed to various positions in Jesus’s cabinet and that they would be powerful in their own right. John: secretary of state. Matthew: secretary of the treasury. Peter: secretary of defense. It was all coming together for them! But then their world fell apart.
One of their own betrays their leader. The Jews and the Romans take Jesus to trial and he is sentenced to death. But yet perhaps the disciples still held out hope at this point. Maybe he will free himself. Maybe God will swoop down in the last minute and save Jesus. Maybe God will send a legion of angels to come and kick some Roman booty. But none of that happens and you are now afraid for your own life. So you hide out of fear. You hide out of fear that today is going to be just like yesterday. You hide because you don’t want that to happen again. (Second person is intentional) Resurrection says that today doesn’t have to be like yesterday.
Resurrection says that death does not master us. If we look at the life and death of Jesus, they (we?) did everything they could to this guy. He was falsely accused, and tried in a mockery of a trial. He was beaten and tortured with the hope that he would change his tune a bit. He stood beside Barabbas when Pilate offered to free one captive and Jesus listened to the same people who yelled “Hosanna to the son of David,” now yell “We have no king but Caesar.” (Jn. 19). Jesus ultimately was nailed to a cross and hung there until he died.
But what happened next? Jesus didn’t stay dead for long. Come Sunday morning he came out of that tomb and I can hear him saying in my head, “Is that all you’ve got?” This makes me think of a song that was released in 1997 by the British group Chumbawamba known as Tubthumping, but more commonly referred to as “I get knocked down.” I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.
This is what Paul means in Colossians 2:15 when he talks about Jesus defeating the principalities and powers. By standing up to their injustices, taking their beatings, and remaining true to his calling, Jesus defeats evil; Jesus defeats death itself. He stands up on that first Resurrection Sunday and he looks death right in the eye and he says, “Is that all you got?” Resurrection takes the very worst thing that this world can throw at us, death, and says, “Death, you are not my master. I do not fear you. I live in the resurrection.”
Resurrection tells us that this world matters. When people think of resurrection, a lot of the time they say something along the lines of this being a sign that one day we will be with Jesus forever in heaven. And I do believe that is true. But there is much more to resurrection than just going to be with Jesus in heaven. Resurrection affirms this life; resurrection affirms these bodies. When God created the world, he said, “It is good.” Resurrection tells us that God will make it good again.
I believe that when we die, those who are followers of Jesus Christ join him in heaven where we exist as a disembodied spirit. We will dwell in that place for however long it takes until Jesus comes back to this earth to redeem it. The book of Revelation tells us that Jesus will then make a new heaven and a new earth. There will be a city and there will be a river. And this world will be like God intended for it to be when he first created it, before we came along and messed things up. And Jesus will call out, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Then those who are in Christ will be raised from the dead and they will be given new bodies, ones that don’t hurt so bad, ones that are not and cannot be afflicted with pain, suffering, cancer, or tooth decay. And all evil and suffering will be destroyed, thrown into a pit.
You can disagree with me on how things are going to go down at the end of times. To be honest, I really don’t know for sure how it will happen, and I really don’t care. But I believe that Jesus’s resurrection shows us that these bodies and this place do matter. And Jesus is calling us to live lives of resurrection right now.
In John chapter 3, Jesus tells a Pharisee named Nicodemus that if he wants to see the kingdom of God that he must be born again. That kingdom is among us right now, but will not be fully realized until Jesus comes back and reconciles all things. That doesn’t mean that we just wait around until that happens. We live as a part of the kingdom of God right now, making it visible for all to see. We use the bodies that we have and the earth that we have to live resurrected lives today! When we are born again, we are born into a new life that starts on the day that we begin to follow Jesus and it lasts for all of eternity, on earth, in heaven, and then in new heaven and new earth.
Jesus didn’t need to rise from the dead. My understanding of the atonement is that Jesus’s death on the cross took away the sins of the world. Jesus could have just gone to heaven in the spirit to prepare a place for us. But he rose from the dead and told us that we too are to live resurrected lives, making disciples and teaching them to obey the teachings of Jesus (Matt 28:19-20).
The last thing that I want to point out that we learn from the resurrected Christ can be found in John chapter 21. In John chapter 21 we find that the disciples are out fishing after Jesus’s resurrection, but they aren’t having any luck with the fish. As the little song goes, they fished all night, but caught no fishes. When morning came the resurrected Jesus stood on the shore and called out to them to cast their nets on the other side of their boat. And when they did this, they pulled in a huge catch of fish, 153 to be exact.
When the disciples get back to shore, Jesus is there cooking fish and bread over some coals. He offers some to the disciples and they sit and eat together. Resurrection affirms breakfastJ. Mom was correct; it is the most important meal of the day. (That really has nothing to do with Easter, but we can have a little fun today, can’t we?)
This time of year I am always reminded of the resurrection. Not just because Easter takes place in the Spring, but because of Spring itself. Only a few short weeks ago everything was brown and bare. The grass looked dead, the trees were nothing but a trunk and some sticks. You would be hard-pressed to find a flower anywhere in the great outdoors of Virginia and you probably didn’t want to spend much time outdoors because it was a little chilly. But every year we experience a reminder of resurrection when the temperature begins to warm up. And now, at the end of April, we see trees in bloom, full of flowers and leaves. The grass is green and in need of frequent mowing. The birds are singing once again. Spring is a time when we move from despair to hope. In Spring we see glimpses of resurrection.
This got me wondering what other glimpses of resurrection I might catch in my everyday life. How do we experience in part what we will one day experience in full? When I was 20-years-old, I fell from the trusses in a freestall barn. I spent way too many weeks in the hot summer in a cast from my toes to my knee on my left leg. I healed fully, but sometimes I still feel a little pain in my left foot.
I often play basketball on Monday afternoons. But for the last few months I have had a pretty significant amount of pain in my left foot when I woke up the next morning. So I would end up going down the stairs like a man 50 years my senior, clutching the handrail and going down the stairs one foot at a time. My wife tells me that this is probably in part because I always buy the cheapest shoes that I can find.
But by midmorning, I start to feel better. I am able to go up and down the stairs with little to no pain. Then by afternoon I am able to run up and down the stairs like nothing had ever happened. That mini healing is a glimpse of resurrection. I experience in part what I will one day experience in full.
One week ago was the large item pickup day for our neighborhood. One day each year the city of Staunton offers to come to your house and pick up large trash items that the garbage collectors wouldn’t normally pick up. We don’t have a lot of large trash items, but we did have some large brush. We had some large branches come down from a neighbor’s tree and land in our back yard. I collected all of the branches, twigs, and shrubbery that had been trimmed off and I drug that to the curb. And someone else came along and took all of my junk away. They took that junk for me. I couldn’t take it by myself, but they took all of my junk for me. A glimpse of resurrection.
I met a church planter this week. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I met a church planting coach. This is a man who works closely with people that are planting churches, helping them through issues like identity, public visibility, and denominational affiliation. This church planting coach is an interesting fellow. He is a high-energy person, very social and out-going. He has a number of children ranging from high school to young adulthood. He recently became a grandfather for the first time. Things seem to be going his way.
This church planting coach served as a missionary in Southeast Asia for like 20 years. And it was just interesting to hear him talk about his work in Asia, planting churches among various ethnicities and religions and how he was able to see his work there spread to touch the lives of so many people. He then spoke about how he is using his experiences in Asia to work with various ethnic groups in Virginia. Many of the people that he works with in church planting come from Latin America.
After I heard all of these stories of the lives that this person had touched in many countries and at least three continents and among multiple ethnicities, just being so impressed with his love for God and his love for others, he happened to mention that he is a recovering drug addict. He had been living a life as a slave to the needle, living a life that was heading nowhere but destruction. He had been living a life that would cause him to grow further and further away from family members. He had been living a life that was leading him further and further away from God. And today he is making the lives of others better through the restorative powers of Jesus Christ. That is a glimpse of resurrection.
The resurrection tells us that today does not have to be like yesterday. Resurrection tells us that death does not have mastery over us. And resurrection tells us that this world and these bodies do matter. Let us praise God today, because the tomb is empty!