Sermon 3/27/2016: “Responses to the Resurrection”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: John 20:1-18
Day: Easter Sunday 2016

“Responses to the Resurrection”

Eugène Burnand, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection,” 1898 [Public Domain]

I want to look at what our gospel lesson today tells us about responses to Jesus’ resurrection, but first I want to poke a bit of fun at John.

One of the things that seminaries teach beginning preachers is to never be the help of our own sermons. “If you ever tell a story about yourself,” they taught us, “you shouldn’t be the hero. Better yet,” they added, “remember that the sermon’s not about the preacher, but about Jesus.” To this I would add that you should always be wary of preachers whose sermons lift themselves up.

I wonder if John, the named author of our gospel lesson today, was ever taught this lesson. Because John calls himself “the beloved disciple,” and “the one whom Jesus loved.” As if Jesus only loved him. Ha! Aren’t we all beloved disciples of Jesus? Doesn’t Jesus love each and every one of us best?

And John—according to John—is the disciple who does everything right. By contrast, in Mark’s gospel the disciples—all of the disciples—are constantly getting things wrong. Not John! John is the most beloved and apparently the fastest disciple also. At least, John was faster than Peter because he outraced Peter to Jesus’ tomb.

In John’s gospel, John always did the appropriate thing, the right thing. Did you notice in our gospel lesson today? John even graciously let Peter go into the empty tomb first. But we didn’t hear that Peter instantly believed Jesus has been raised from the dead. No! John, when HE went in and saw the empty tomb, HE believed right away.

Maybe we can forgive John, Jesus’ first disciple John that is, for all this hubris. After all, Jesus’ original disciple John was long dead by the time John’s gospel was written down. What we may be seeing is the pride of the church community in Ephesus, a church community which John himself had founded. A sort of knock against the Roman church community, with which we associate Peter, and a sort of knock against the Jerusalem church, in which we guess that Mary Magdalene might have been prominent. The reality is that all three of these early visitors to Jesus’ empty tomb were hugely responsible for telling the whole world that Jesus rose from death, that Jesus had defeated death. So in a way the eventual response of all three to Jesus resurrection was to go tell others what had happened.

These three didn’t respond the same way to the resurrection initially, though. Did you notice that Peter and John returned to their homes? The resurrection had occurred, and they just went home. No singing “Up from the grave he arise,” or Christ is alive” or even “Jesus Christ is risen today,” as we will do in today’s service. Peter and John may have believed—more or less—but they just didn’t have our vantage point.

Giotto di Bondone – Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene – Noli me tangere (detail), 1320s, fresco, from Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Mary Magdalene didn’t go home. She stayed outside the tomb weeping and saw an unexplainable sight: two angels in white, wrapped in light, sitting in the tomb where she had expected to see Jesus. Most people, if they saw angels, would run for home also. Not Mary Magdalene. SHE stayed and had a conversation with these being. So she was courageous.

Then Mary had a conversation with Jesus, who she didn’t recognize, demanding that he tell her what he had done with Jesus’ body. So Mary didn’t yet believe, either. Until Jesus called her name. THEN she both recognized Jesus and believed that he had risen to life again. Then she went and told the disciples she had seen the risen lord.

Collectively, John and Peter and Mary Magdalene show us how we are to grasp the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection.

  • JOHN simply and immediately believed, according to those in Ephesus. And don’t some of you simple believe this account? Don’t YOU simply suspend rationality to do so? Blessed are those who simply believe.
  • PETER needed to think his way into belief, needed time and space to puzzle out what had happened and what he needed to do as a result. And don’t some of US often need time to enter into the truth of this miracle? And don’t some of US often need time to enter into the truth of this miracle and what Jesus’ resurrection means for us? Blessed are those who wonder about the resurrection.
  • MARY MAGDALENE needed to hang around long enough to hear Jesus call her name. THEN she believed. And furthermore, Mary then immediately went and told others what had happened. Don’t some of us find ourselves waiting to hear Jesus call our names, those who need Jesus’ help in believing in him? Blessed are those who don’t give up on faith before they are faithful.

I was tempted to end here. After all, today is Easter, the day in which we rejoice that Jesus is alive. But year after year, I have noticed, there are atrocities all around Easter. This year’s version is 31 people dead in Brussels, although truth be told, this is because there is a year-round atrocity here in America or somewhere in the world. So how, you may wonder, does Easter speak to our human propensity for mass murder?

The songwriter Brian Wren (who was born in 1936 and thus saw the world at war) gives the best answer. So I’ll use Wren’s answer, as his is a lot more succinct (and even lyrical) than I could manage:

In every insult, rift, and war
where color, scorn or wealth divide,
he suffers still, yet loves the more,
and lives, though ever crucified.

Christ is alive! His Spirit burns
through this and every future age,
till all creation lives and learns his joy,
his justice, love, and praise.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen, indeed. Alleluia.

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