Text: John 20:1-18 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
20 Now on the first day of the week Mary Mag′dalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 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.” 3 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;9 for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo′ni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18 Mary Mag′dalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
Here we are this morning, at Ground Zero of the Christian story. The arrest, the trial, the brutal crucifixion, the holy death – all of that is behind us. The light of eternal life shines down on us, and we bask in it.
But, though all that was equally the case for Mary and the disciples, they did not realize it that morning. They did not have the advantage we have of knowing what was to come. Mary, the first of the followers of Jesus whom we encounter is this passage today, did not know what had happened; she did not know what was going to happen next. Even though Jesus had made no secret of his coming resurrection, either to her or to the rest of the disciples, when the horrible day came and she saw with her own eyes the brutal reality of the Crucifixion, well, it was easy to let those comforting words slip away.
We read that Mary gets up early and goes to the tomb. The other Gospel accounts state that Mary came to the tomb with spices to use for preparing the body. They also state that Mary was not alone.
But John leaves all that out. John’s account focuses on Mary Magdalene. It’s like John shines a spotlight on her; everyone else recedes into the background. She comes to that garden, alone and empty handed, in the black of night. It’s an image of utter desolation. Jesus is dead, and with him all hope of a better world. There are no fanfares, no palm branches, no shouts of “Hosanna” – only darkness, the quiet of the garden, and the stillness of the tomb. Mary is alone in this moment with her grief…
…which immediately gets worse. First, she’s shocked by the fact that the massive stone that had been used to block the door of the tomb has been taken away. Then, she peers into the tomb, and discovers that the body of Jesus is gone! This is the final act of cruelty – it’s not enough for the conspirators who had Jesus killed, but now they’ve stooped to grave-robbing!
It was the custom in those days for people to visit the tombs of their deceased loved ones, because they believe that their spirits lingered around the graves, and then departed after the bodies had begun to decay. So this crime of grave-robbing had deprived Mary, and anyone else who visited, of even that bit of solace.
So, with a heart that’s even more broken than it was before – if that’s even possible – Mary does the only thing she can do: She runs to tell Peter and the other disciples about what she has discovered.
And Peter, along with the Beloved Disciple, whose identity is never revealed but whom tradition most commonly says was John the Evangelist, rush back to the tomb with Mary to see for themselves. John considers what they did next to be significant enough that he gives us details. John gets to the tomb first, but doesn’t look in. Then Peter arrives and does look, at which point John also dares to peek into the tomb, and we read that he “saw and believed.”
What was it that he saw that made him believe? What struck him was that the cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body and over his face didn’t look as though someone had just peeled them off and left them disarranged – instead, they were lying there still in their folds, which is what the Greek verb κείμενα (keimena) means. In other words, “the grave-clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off; they were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them.”
This indicates that something unusual, something very special, has taken place. By contrast, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, he came out of the tomb still all wrapped up in his linen cloths – but this scene is entirely different. The cloths being neatly folded and the napkin for the head lying in a separate place shows us that this is a carefully laid out scene, subtly but unmistakably designed to show the disciples and followers that something unique has taken place. Lazarus had been revived but Jesus has been resurrected, and the two events are quite different.
This is the essential point that is at the very heart of the Easter story and what we believe as Christians. When confronted by that empty tomb, John sees and believes. He doesn’t even have to see the risen Christ to believe: The empty tomb is enough. And I think that’s a key point for us all as Christians: The empty tomb is the basis of our faith. As nice as they are, we don’t need to see great miracles so we can believe. As much as we want them, we don’t need to have profound answers to prayer to believe. We don’t require writing in the sky or a vision of Jesus to believe. The empty tomb is enough…because it is the greatest miracle of all. The empty tomb is the most profound answer to humanity’s deepest question. The empty tomb is God’s message to us.
But let’s get back to Mary for a moment. We left her in tears after reporting the theft of Jesus’ body; and we find her now standing outside the tomb, hardly daring to look inside. Kind of like us when we hear something scratching on the door or see a murky shadow pass the window in the twilight. We know we ought to investigate, but we just can’t quite bring ourselves to do it. But, after Simon Peter and the John leave for home, she does manage to gather up her courage and does look in – and sees something that she will never forget: Two angels sitting on the slab, one at the head and the other at the foot. And they ask her why she’s weeping (as if they didn’t know!). She still doesn’t quite grasp what’s going on and answers that somebody’s stolen the body of her Lord, and she doesn’t know where it is now. Then she turns, and there’s Jesus standing there. He asks her “whom do you seek?” But she still doesn’t get it! She thinks he’s the gardener and asks him to let her know where the body is. But then Jesus simply says her name – “Mary!” – and everything changes.
“Whom do you seek?” That’s a question for us, too. We are not here today simply because of tradition, or convention, or family ties. Those are superficial things. We know, down deep, that we are here today to affirm and celebrate the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus, the One who calls us by name, to join him in his resurrection life.
The Easter message is a message about something that really happened. It’s not an abstraction or an ambiguous “maybe” event. It happened.
Theodore Parker Ferris writes, “the important thing is this, that in spite of all the differences and peculiarities and eccentricities of the reporters, all of them did their best and succeeded amazingly well to put into words one staggering fact: that Jesus who had been killed on a cross, buried, and sealed in a tomb, was alive! Now that is what happened. That is the core of the Easter message.”
How astonishing! How incredible! How wonderful!
And the most wonderful thing of all for us today is that Jesus did what he did for us! In the face of that, how can we help but rejoice and sing? How can we help but be thankful? How can we keep ourselves from sharing that message with others?
So, the next time you’re feeling discouraged, the next time you’ve got your back to the wall, the next time you just can’t take one more step – remember: You have nothing to fear or worry about. Remember that God raised Jesus from the dead so that he is a real presence by your side, and he will not let you or your loved ones go from his presence! Not ever!
And to all this, we joyfully dare to proclaim:
THE LORD IS RISEN!
HE IS RISEN INDEED!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of John, Vol. II, The New Daily Study Bible, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, © 1975, 2001 The William Barclay Estate, p. 311
 Ferris, Theodore Parker, This Is the Day, “Some Plain Words About Easter,” Wilcox & Follett Co., 1951, p. 177