Grammar and Punctuation Matter

John 20:1-18

I received a couple of novelty t-shirts this past Christmas, which I interpret as my family telling me that it is time for me to loosen up a bit. Usually, I’m a straight up polo kind of guy. You’ve seen novelty t-shirts before, they are those shirts with witty sayings and images that usually convey a double meaning. For instance, the first one included five commas followed by a picture of a chameleon. It was meant to be a reference to the song “Karma Chameleon.” The other shirt read, “‘Let’s eat kids.’ ‘Let’s eat, kids.’ Punctuation saves lives.”

Which brings me to my topic for this morning. Every year, on Easter Sunday, I like to focus on…grammar. Grammar and punctuation, to be precise. Stay with me here.

Lent is over, spring has sprung, and the tomb is empty! And as they like to say in liturgical churches, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” And since we tend to get a little more liturgical around Easter, how about this one: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

Why do we say “He is risen” instead of “He has risen?” We don’t bake bread and say, “The dough is risen!” You don’t go to the beach and say, “The tide is risen!” You say, “The bread has risen,” and “The tide has risen.” And in that second liturgical saying we seem to change it up a bit. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Past, present, and future.

There is actually a theological reason for the tense of this little linking verb. “Has” is clearly in the past tense. Jesus died close to 2,000 years ago. That happened. And it is okay to say that Christ has risen. On that first Easter Sunday, the women and the disciples found an empty tomb, and later many saw him face-to-face. So yes, I believe the resurrection of Jesus to be a historical event. It happened in the past, so grammatically speaking, it is appropriate to say that Christ has risen.

But we say “Christ is risen.” This is in the present tense. Theologically speaking, Christ not only rose from the grave in the past, but he continues to live today. The resurrection of Jesus is an ongoing event. It happened in the past, and it continues to happen today. Jesus brings new life each day.

Our Easter text comes from the Gospel of John. Most scholars agree that this gospel was written by the apostle John, the one who had a little sailboat with Peter and James. We all know how awkward it can be when people refer to themselves in the third person. It annoys Kevin when people do that. So to avoid referring to himself in the third person, John chooses the more awkward option of referring to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.”

            You all might be close to Jesus, but I’m the disciple that Jesus loved.

I just don’t have the heart to tell him that Jesus loves everyone.

In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’s tomb early Sunday morning and sees that the stone has been rolled away. She thinks that someone has stolen Jesus’s body, so she runs to find the disciples. First she finds Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, John. When they get the news that the body has been taken, they run to the tomb.

John gets there first, presumably because he is younger. He stands outside the tomb and sees that it is empty and Jesus’s grave clothes are lying there. Peter shows up, runs right into the tomb, and he too sees that the tomb is empty.

Then in verse 8b we read this: “He saw and believed.”

Did Peter and John see the empty tomb and believe that Jesus had risen from the dead? No, they believed Mary when she said that someone had robbed his grave. Verse nine, written by the hand of John himself, says, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”

So what do Peter and John do? They go back home.

Let’s come back to the metaphor of grammar and punctuation for a minute. Many different people have been given credit for this saying, so I can’t say for sure who the original source is. Just know that it is isn’t me. It has been said that we should never put a period where God puts a comma. A comma is used to separate two parts of a sentence. When you read a comma, you pause a bit. Your voice changes inflection slightly. But the two parts of the sentence are connected and essential for us to understand the other part of the sentence. A period, on the other hand, marks the end of the sentence. Sometimes a period is called a “full stop.” This is not just a pause, not just a change in inflection or emphasis. This is the end.

Never put a period where God puts a comma. John and Peter run to the grave upon hearing that the body of Jesus had been stolen. They had been following this guy for three years, thinking that he might be the messiah. He might be the one to bring healing and wholeness to the people. But now the tomb is empty; his body is missing.

Full stop.

Or as the disciples on the road to Emmaus say about Jesus in Luke 24:19b-21, “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

Full stop.

And Mary, when the resurrected Jesus himself asks her why she is crying, she replies to him, thinking he is the gardener, “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.”

Full stop. End of sentence. End of paragraph. End of the story.

Never put a period where God puts a comma. This story isn’t over. This sentence isn’t even over. Where everyone had put a period, Jesus comes along with his pencil and turns that period into a comma.

Jesus shows up and he says, “Mary. It’s me. Go tell the others.” Jesus shows up and explains the scriptures to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. You’re reading it all wrong. This isn’t a period, this is a comma. There’s more to the story.

Christianity is about pointing out the commas when all people can see are the periods.

This is a great word to hear when a brother or sister passes away, because we Christians believe that the end of life is just a comma. But I think that this message applies in so many other areas as well.

I love what pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book Pastrix: “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pulls us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”

We may think that these graves are periods, and they can be if we allow them to be. But with God and a little help from others, those periods can be turned into commas.

Back in November, our friends at Waynesboro Mennonite Church marked a milestone in their ministry. They have been holding weekly “Celebrate Recovery” meetings for 10 years. Celebrate Recovery uses the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous to minister to people with addiction. The only difference is that Celebrate Recovery is unapologetically Christian, naming the “higher power” as Jesus Christ. I’ve been in the church during one of their meetings, and you should see the rough group that walks through the doors of that building. In ten years, Waynesboro Mennonite has ministered to over 300 alcoholics, drug addicts, sex, and food addicts. There are people who have experienced the grave, and thought it was the end. The grave was their period. The church has shown them that it can be a comma.

Years ago, I walked with a friend who was going through a divorce. I can’t imagine the pain one feels when they go from thinking that they have the rest of their life to spend with someone that they love, to never wanting to talk to that person again. Depression set in, thoughts of self-harm became common. He lost not only his wife, but his job, then his car, and finally his home. He was in a bad place; he was in a grave. He had placed a period there.

I heard recently that he had relocated, looking for a fresh start. He got married again, found a better job. It seems like things are going well for him again. Don’t put a period where God wants a comma.

My friends, I’m going through some things right now myself, just as I’m sure you are. It is so tempting to dwell in the grave and put a period at the end of the story. But this doesn’t need to be the end. That period can be a comma. And while I’m not going to stand here today and promise you that things will get better tomorrow, I will promise you that this isn’t the end.

We are a people of new life.

We are a people of hope.

We are a people of resurrection.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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