Isaiah 25:1-9, John 20:1-10
Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010
Throughout the season of Lent, we’ve been looking at “the historical Jesus.” We’ve been trying to see past the “vision of Jesus which has been “institutionalized” by the Church over the centuries, and the vision we may have made for ourselves which is “comfortable” for us. And for me, one of the best biblical sources for doing that is the Gospel of John. As I’ve said, John always seems to fill out the story more. He always seems to give us a different perspective. And he brings Jesus to life a little more.
The Easter story is no exception. Here in John’s 20th chapter, we have a little more in-depth look at the events of that day, and it comes to us in more of a story form. In fact, it comes in three stories. First, we have the story of these two disciples running to the tomb. Then, we have the story of Mary in the Garden. And then, we have the story of Thomas. And throughout his account, John “fleshes out” for us what all of the Gospel writers pretty much agree on, that the first Easter Day was marked by unbelief. Luke even tells us that the disciples thought the women’s story was a fairy tale! It took a while for the disciples to accept what had happened. And John tells us how that belief first started to come about.
I thought about calling this sermon “Seeing is Believing,” which is similar to a title I used once before. At that time, I used it as a play on the old magician’s phrase, which is often spoken when the magician is trying to trick his audience. But the more I thought about it, it seemed more appropriate to add the word “Not” to this title. Because even seeing on that first Easter did not produce belief, at least not very fast. And even when the people did believe, what did it mean? Because at the end of the chapter, even as Jesus was giving the disciples evidence of the truth of his resurrection, he said to them, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”
I want us to think along those lines today. Because the story of Easter morning is the story of belief coming very slowly. And for good reason. This event could easily be described as being “unbelievable.” Even for the readers – who know the whole story – it’s hard sometimes, isn’t it? Most of us, at one time or another, have probably been confronted by someone who says something like this. “Christianity is nice, and it has some great teachings and all, but you really don’t believe that part about a guy coming back from the dead, do you?” And even knowing the story and being in the church for many years, we might find ourselves struggling with an answer. It is unbelievable! Even if we answer “yes,” it’s hard to realize fully what we’re saying. I suspect that if we had been there that first Easter morning, we would pretty much be like the disciples.
John tells us about the disciples’ path to belief in these three stories. Now, we only read the first of these stories this morning. But I’m going to refer to the other two. So what I’d like you to do is to take some time this week, maybe later even today, and read the whole chapter as one unit. That’s pretty much how John has set up his Gospel. His stories tend to be organized as complete chapters. And by the way, if you’ve done your assignments all along, you will have read most of John’s Gospel by now. If you haven’t, well, you’ve got some reading to do for the final!
As the chapter opens, Mary Magdalene has come to the tomb early, while it was still dark. And when she gets to the tomb, she finds the huge stone already rolled away from the door. So she runs back and tells these two disciples, Peter and “the disciple who Jesus loved,” who is generally thought to be John, the author of the Gospel. And when they heard what Mary said, the two of them ran back to the tomb. There seems to have been a lot of running going on that first Easter!
Well, John gets to the tomb first. John must have been a runner! They always want people to know what place they came in! But Peter goes into the tomb first, and we are given a description of what he found there, even how the grave cloths were arranged. And then it says, “The other disciple who reached the tomb first also went in.” This is John’s way of saying, “I went in, too.” So this is a first hand account! And then it says, “and he saw and he believed.” So maybe seeing is believing. But what did he believe?
Look at the next sentence. It says, “for as yet, they did not know the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” Notice, it doesn’t say, “For as yet they did not yet know what Jesus said about his rising from the dead.” It says, “they didn’t yet know the scripture.” Well, for one thing, the scripture about him rising from the dead hadn’t been written yet! (apart from a very obscure Old Testament reference in Hosea 6:2) Jesus said those things, but the New Testament scripture wouldn’t be written for a number of years! So of course, they didn’t know the scripture. But the implication here is that they didn’t understand? And several versions of the Bible actually say that. So they believed something. They believed Mary’s story, or they believed Jesus was gone. Or perhaps they believed something had happened – something amazing. It’s hard to tell. But in that moment, to “believe,” with all the meaning John gave that word, is doubtful. Just the “seeds” of belief were there.
Then we turn back to Mary. Now remember, she was upset that someone had come and taken Jesus’ body away. When the other two had gone back home, she was still standing there weeping. Then she stooped to look inside, and she saw these two angelic figures, and they asked her why she was weeping. And her answer is the same. “They have taken away my Lord…” That’s still her concern. Then she turns, and Jesus is there. And what takes place is the most intimate and personal of the resurrection stories. So, does Mary then believe? And if so what does she believe? Certainly she believes she has seen the Lord, as she told the disciples. But does she know all the implications of what has happened? Does she say, or do any of them say, that they have seen Jesus and believed the plan of salvation as he Jesus told them? No. They believed that he was alive again. But probably not much more than that.
Well, John wasn’t finished yet. He had one more story. That evening, Jesus came and stood among his disciples – including John, of course. And in that third story there was every indication they believed and understood something – especially when he gave them the Holy Spirit so they could! But of course they were not all there. Thomas was absent. It wouldn’t be until eight days later that he would have his own personal encounter with the risen Christ. And that is where we find Jesus talking about seeing and believing, and how blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. And who is he talking about there? He’s talking about us!
So I ask you, what about us? It’s not clear what the disciples believed that first Easter, other than the fact that Jesus was alive again. But what about our belief? Do we sometimes even have a problem with that? Think about it. “Do we believe all that stuff about a man rising from the dead?” The Resurrection is the heart of the Christian Gospel. Many people have tried to disprove it over the years. And if they were successful, Christianity would have been stopped in its tracks. It would have been over, because the resurrection is its main principle! Jesus is who he says he is because God raised him from the dead! Or else he was not! All his opponents had to do was to disprove the Resurrection. And believe me, those who were most impacted by the resurrection would have done everything in their power to disprove it!
When Buzz Aldrin the astronaut was asked to comment about those who said the moon landings were a hoax, he said this. “Ask the Russians! We were in a race with them to the moon. They were monitoring everything we did. If there was even a hint that we had faked those missions, they would have blown it all over the world press!”
Well, I would say the same thing here on Easter. Ask the religious leadership! Ask Annas and Caiaphas! If there was even a hint that this event called the resurrection was not true, they would have done everything they could to disprove it. And the easiest way for them to do that would have been to have produced the body of Jesus. Yes, they claimed that “the disciples stole the body.” But not only is that not true, if you read Matthew’s account, but it’s also pretty weak. It’s preposterous that those disciples could have overcome the Roman guard at the tomb – without anyone knowing it! But remember also, all but one of those disciples went on to die martyr’s deaths. And you have to ask yourself, who would do that? Who would allow themselves to die in the horrible ways they did for a hoax. Wouldn’t one of them at some point have cried out, “Wait! We faked it.”
The resurrection was the center of the Christian faith as it was spread from it’s earliest days. I was amazed to find out recently that the church didn’t start using the cross as its symbol for hundreds of years. It was the resurrection, the empty tomb, that they preached! And if Christ was not raised, as Paul told the Corinthians, our faith is in vain. It is not true! It is of no use at all! And Jesus’ death was a just a senseless waste of a life!
Now I want to get to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter is… the heart! Because that’s where we believe. If we only convince ourselves the resurrection is true, if it’s only “in our head,” then we’re only giving “intellectual assent.” We believe it happened. And there’s nothing wrong with that! That’s where the disciples started. We must start with that we won’t believe! But! It is in the heart that true belief takes place. That’s the central theme of John’s Gospel – believing that we may have life! Paul told us in Romans that it’s important that we “…confess with our mouth, and believe in our heart that God raised [Jesus] from the dead…” Then he explains, “For it is with your heart you believe and are justified…” (Romans 10:9-10 NIV)
I want to close today by asking the all important question, “Do you believe?” As I said last week, this week, this event changed the course of history. But, do you just accept it happened? That was the first stage of belief on the first Easter day. And that didn’t come easy! But it’s got to be more than that. If it’s not a belief of our heart, it will not change our lives. It might inspire us. It might make us excited when we think about it, but without that belief in our hearts, it will not make a difference.
Seeing is not believing, because believing is not just a matter of accepting the validity of what happened. The disciples believed it happened – eventually. But eventually they would also know that believing is knowing that because of this event, we can know for sure that Jesus is who he said he is. And that believing in him is God’s plan for the restoration of our lives in his kingdom!
…and so, The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! And so are we!
Eternal God, we praise you this Easter day that you have done what you have done for us. Help us to know that Jesus is alive, and because of that we can have life in him. We thank you for your great love for us. And we give you all worship and honor and praise, in the name of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.