TEXT: John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed … (John 20:1-8)
On Friday, Christians all over the world marked the death of Jesus. At the church I’ve been attending, we joined in that somber commemoration with a special worship service. It was a “Tenebrae” service, wherein the Passion story was told as candles were snuffed out, one by one, until the sanctuary was in near darkness.
To say it was moving … Well, that doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Like so many Good Friday services, this one was designed to make us feel like we were there—as if we, ourselves, were eyewitnesses to the events.
We heard Pilate ask what he should do with Jesus.
We heard the crowd shout: “Crucify him!”
We heard Jesus’ final words: “It has been completed.”
And we heard three loud thuds as the heavy stone was wrestled across the entrance to his tomb. This was high drama.
The various people who read the gospel lessons made the liturgy come alive. It was readers’ theatre at its best.
I think it also made everyone present uncomfortable. And I believe I understand why.
Good Friday is too real—isn’t it? For many of us, Good Friday feels a lot more real than Easter Sunday. And it is a brutal reality.
It’s the same reason so many people refuse to see a film like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ; we don’t want to face the truth about what happened to Jesus.
The cross is too messy, too painful—too real.
We don’t want to look upon it. We would rather flee from it, which is what most of the disciples seem to have done, in the gospel accounts.
In fact, it seems to me that—even for some of the most sincere Christians—Jesus’ death seems much more real than his resurrection. Which makes sense, I guess—because death is just way more familiar to us.
Almost all of us have been touched by death in some way—and all of us will be. Most of us have lost loved ones.
Death is familiar. Death is real.
But resurrection … that seems entirely foreign, doesn’t it? Much less real. Much less vivid … perhaps even too good to be true.
I think most of us consider the Good Friday account to be literal—a more or less accurate reporting of the events. But I suspect that many of us—even many professing Christians—regard the Easter story as allegorical.
I have to say, it is difficult to condemn anyone for harboring that kind of skepticism. Because we all know people who have died … but very few of us know people who have come back to life.
As I consider that fact, I realize there’s not much I can offer to support the assertion that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Not much, that is, except my own personal testimony.
My personal testimony of resurrection has to do with my son Samuel. He’s in fine health today—a successful man in his 30s with three small children of his own. But when he was a tiny infant, he very nearly did not survive his first month of life.
Sam was born with a very serious heart defect, and wound up having open-heart surgery when he was only 24 days old. He barely pulled through the operation. In fact, he “crashed” while still on the table.
For the better part of a week, Iris and I waited by his side in the Pediatric ICU … not knowing whether he was going to live or die. For my part, I was so convinced that he would not live … that I enquired about donating his organs.
But of course, he did live—and, against all odds, he thrived. Sam always did much better than the doctors expected—actually, much better than they could ever explain.
Finally, they gave up trying to explain it, except by saying—as Sam’s cardiologist was fond of remarking to other physicians: “This child is held up in prayer.”
So you see, I believe in resurrection because I’ve already seen it happen. God gave me my son back from the grave. I do not find it hard to believe that he would do the same for his own Son. I don’t need any further proof. My personal experience is compelling enough.
It occurs to me that, in the end, perhaps it is only personal experience that can make resurrection vividly real in someone’s life.
If you’ve read the gospel accounts, you’ve probably noticed that even the disciples did not at first believe that Jesus had been raised.
For example, in chapter 24 of Luke, it says that—after Mary Magdalene and several other eyewitnesses reported that Jesus had been raised—the apostles did not believe them, because their words “seemed to them an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).
They only believed once they had their own encounter with the risen Christ. Remember?
John tells us about that later on in chapter 20, where he says:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked … Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20)
But you may also remember that one of them—Thomas—was not present at the time, and he refused to believe that Jesus had been raised. He didn’t believe until a whole week later, when Jesus came back—just for Thomas—and said, “Peace be with you.”
Apparently, none of the disciples believed in the resurrection of Christ—until something happened to them that made it impossible for them to not believe!
Kind of like what happened to Iris and me when Sam was just a baby. I think it’s safe to say that—for my wife and I—doubt really is not an option, any longer. That is God’s gift to us.
What makes us so special? Well … nothing! We are neither extraordinarily faithful nor extraordinarily virtuous people—and we were even less so back then!
Which is why, today …
Today, I find myself wondering whether these sorts of encounters are more common than we think they are—moments when the risen Jesus shows up in our lives … shows up for us … just as he showed up for Thomas, and Mary, and the others.
What if, as a society, we were less skeptical? What if we did not heap ridicule upon those who would report miracles?
If we did not cling so tightly to a purely scientific worldview, perhaps we, also, would behold the risen Christ. Perhaps Jesus is, even now, standing before us, saying: “See my hands … look at my side … Do not doubt, but believe!”
I have heard recovering addicts speak about their sobriety in terms of “resurrection,” describing it as an experience of “being brought back to life” or even being “raised from the dead.”
I’ve heard AA members say that stories of personal recovery can give hope to those who hear them; that one person’s testimony makes others believe that the “Higher Power” can save them, too—that recovery is possible for them, also.
Over about a quarter-century of pastoral ministry, I have seen broken relationships mended—even dead marriages brought back to life—because individuals decided to trust in Christ’s promise of forgiveness, and then found themselves able to forgive, in turn.
I’m certain most pastors have collections of stories like that—examples of resurrection in the midst of everyday life.
Charles Henderson is a prominent American theologian—the author of numerous articles and books—who has lectured at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. He is also a Presbyterian minister with extensive pastoral experience. On an internet site called “Godweb,” Henderson relates the following anecdote:
… a small boy of about seven … was stricken with a fatal, ferocious and fast-growing cancer. He had been treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering with every sort of therapy known to science. But nothing further could be done.
Perhaps they could administer one more dose of some experimental drug, but actually there was no real hope of recovery. And the side effects could only complicate the progression of the disease.
So the family and the doctors gathered in the little boy’s room for a final conference concerning his treatment. They had tried almost everything, what could they possibly think of next? Finally the boy spoke up in a clear, crisp voice, “What I really want to do is to go home and learn how to ride my two-wheeler.”
The bicycle had been a Christmas present. It had those little trainer wheels attached. But before the boy had gained enough confidence to remove the trainer wheels the cancer caught up with him and he was sent to the hospital. Learning how to ride a two-wheeler was the last thought the doctors or the parents would have contemplated. It just didn’t seem possible. The boy was already physically weakened, why encourage him to do something that clearly would not be possible for very long even if he could succeed.
But the boy insisted and the resistance of the doctors and his parents melted away … And home they went.
Not thirty minutes after they had settled in, they were out in the yard, the boy insisting that his father take off the training wheels and let him have a go at it.
Obediently, but anxiously, his father took out his wrench and removed the training wheels to let him go. To their surprise, after only two false starts and one fall the boy was able to steer the bike …
“And now,” he said with mounting assurance in his voice, “Now I want to ride it by myself all the way around the block.”
Before anyone could stop him, he was off, up the street and around the corner out of sight. There were those few minutes of suspense as the parents, brother and little sister, waited for him to appear at the other end of the block, and after what seemed an eternity, there he was, headed for home, a gigantic expression of triumph and satisfaction written on his face.
When the excitement had settled down, the boy retired to his bedroom, and asked if he could be left alone with his little sister. He had his father bring the shiny blue bike into the bedroom. It sat there in the corner, a gleaming symbol of life. Then the boy turned to his little sister and said, “I won’t be needing the bicycle anymore. I want you to have it for your birthday. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.”
After telling that story, Charles Henderson makes this observation:
From under the shadow of death, and in the midst of life’s deepest tragedies, there comes the resurrection of life. In giving his life for us, Jesus revealed that we too can move from moments of trial toward the joy which Christ’s true disciples share. We too can make it through periods of boredom or self-absorption and find that sense of purpose which is God’s will for us. We too can confront sickness and physical suffering and come through the valley of the shadow of death to believe that we are held in God’s right hand.
We don’t need to spend our days grasping and grubbing for all we can get, when all we can ever desire is God’s free gift of grace.
We can follow Christ’s footsteps until at last we are part of that great homecoming at the end of every resurrection story.
We too can look forward to the day when we are embraced in the warm and welcoming arms of our creator and hear those words of praise: “Well done, good and faithful servant, now enter into the joy of your maker.”
Like I said, I think all pastors have stories about resurrection. But the only reason we have them to tell is because they keep happening to people—people just like you and me.
For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, human life is chock-full of examples of the grace of God being poured out upon us—breaking open our graves and rolling away the stones that seal us off from the future that Jesus offers us.
It has been said that the lesson of Good Friday is: “the wages of sin is death” … and that may be so. However, the lesson of Easter is different. Easter morning tells us this: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Thanks be to God for this greatest of gifts. Amen.