Holy Week, celebrated from Palm Sunday with the celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, to Good Friday, celebrated with a Tenebrae service as we reheard the story of Jesus’ trial, condemnation, crucifixion and burial culminates in this very important morning. This morning is hailed as the pinnacle of the Christian year. It is important for us as we gather in the church, but I find it to be just as important for the lives of God’s created beings all around the world who may not yet know the love of God in Christ. How can such a Christian message be so important to those who do now know Christ as Lord and Savior? That will be our focus today.
To get at this focus, our attention this morning will be more on the disciples who ran to the tomb than on Mary, who steals the show in the resurrection account offered in John’s Gospel narrative. But in order for us to comprehend why that first Easter Sunday 5k between Peter and the Beloved Disciple was so important, let us first give due time to Mary’s encounter with the resurrected one.
Mary came to the tomb early on that first Easter morning – a Sunday, the first day of the new week. It’s not mentioned in the scripture why she decided to visit the tomb. Some have suggested she went to anoint the body – but other Gospel accounts tell us that Joseph and Nicodemus have already done this work. I like to think that Mary was there so early in part because she couldn’t sleep. Have you ever experienced the loss of a loved one … it keeps you up at night. I think Mary was there so early because she missed her teacher and friend. I think she wanted to sit in the presence of Christ, even if it meant outside his tomb.
She’s up early, missing Christ, and she goes to the tomb in cloak of darkness. It’s likely that she went so early to go unnoticed. We had seen that the disciples and others who had followed Jesus fled away from their association with Jesus following his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. While Mary and others were present at the crucifixion, we know that some turned and refused to admit their connection with Jesus.
That was, after all, the purpose of the Roman form of capital punishment. The hope on the part of the Romans was that offering the punishment in such a public way, people who witnessed the event would begin to fear the Romans, give them their allegiance in a mentality of fear, and flee any association with the person on the cross.
So, perhaps in great distress and feeling so alone, but also knowing there could be repercussions of visiting the tomb of an adversary of the Roman Empire, Mary arrives early in the darkness of the morning, likely hoping she will be undiscovered.
As Mary approaches the tomb, even in the darkness, she notices the stone that had closed in the tomb has been rolled away. She doesn’t bother at this point to look in, she turns and runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple, who we are told is one whom Jesus loved. She fears that Jesus’ body has been taken by grave robbers – a sadly common occurrence of the time. “They have taken his body,” she says, “and we don’t know where they have laid him.”
The two disciples run to the tomb to verify her account. We’ll come back to the two disciples running this all important race – but by the time they have arrived and discover her story to be true and leave, Mary is back at the tomb. The text tells us that the disciples returned to their homes, but Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Finally, she looks into the tomb and finds two men seated there dressed in white. The text tells us that she saw two angels – indicating for us that she knew she was in the presence of Holy beings.
They ask her why she’s crying, and she says the same thing she said to the disciples, “They have taken his body, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”
She then turns around and sees a third man – whom we know to be Jesus – standing there. But the text says she does not yet know him to be Jesus. She thinks him to be the gardener. And, a third time, she speaks her same concern, “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him.” In that moment, Jesus speaks her name, “Mary.”
She relooks at him, and now knows him to be the Christ. “Rabboni,” she exclaims – “teacher!” John’s Gospel tells us in Chapter 10, “[Christ] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … [They] follow him because they know his voice.”[i]
The scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what happens next, but we can imagine that she leaps to give him a great hug. That would be the expected reaction from anyone seeing a loved one whom they thought they had lost. And in the midst of that embrace, Jesus speaks once more, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go, and tell the others I am ascending to my Father and yours, to my God and your God.”
So Mary goes forth and she announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
I have seen the Lord.
Mary is the only one on that sacred morning who can claim these words as her experience. “I have seen the Lord.”
Back to the disciples: Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.
We could debate for some time as to who is this other disciple. There are multiple opinions in the academic and theological world as to this other disciple’s identity. Some believe it to be John the Apostle, including many early writers of Church history. In more modern times, the identification of this disciple has been more disputed. If you read John 19:26 in a more literal fashion, it makes the argument that Jesus’ brother, who we believe to be James, is the beloved disciple. The scripture reads, “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’” But we could also part from the idea that it was one of the 12 at all. It could have been another follower of Christ, a disciple, who just happen to fall outside the normative 12. In the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, we read twice that Jesus loved Lazarus. In John 11:5, the text reads, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” And then again in John 11:3, we read, “The sisters sent a message to Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”
With so much debate as to the true identity of the other disciple, it is hard to glean much from their encounter of the empty tomb. If the other disciple is Lazarus, the encounter with the empty tomb and the freshly folded burial clothes, brings up all kinds of personal recollection of having been in burial clothes himself. Remember in his resurrection, Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out,” and then instructs them to loose him from his burial clothes. Imagine returning to a similar site of one’s own resurrection.
Yet, if the disciple is James, he’s running to the empty tomb of his brother. Again, such an understanding would bring up all kinds of personal feels that would apply to James, but that wouldn’t apply to John or Lazarus.
However, regardless the identity of the other disciple, we know about Simon Peter. The scripture is fairly clear as to his identity.
In John’s Gospel, Simon Peter first connects with Jesus in the first chapter of the story. Simon Peter was the brother of Andrew. Andrew said to Simon Peter, “We have found the Anointed One, the Messiah.” Simon Peter went and found Jesus, and Jesus said to him, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas.” Cephas is translated for us to mean Petros, and in Aramaic means ‘rock.’ It is from Petros we get the name Peter. With such a name, it should come as no surprise that Jesus later says to him, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”[ii]
Peter is told he will be the foundation of the Church. No big, right? Nothing like the Son of God telling you that upon you the one, holy, catholic, and universal church will be established.
Fast forward to that night in the upper room. Jesus says to Peter, “Truly, I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will have denied me three times.” Peter refutes this as possible, yet within the following few hours, Jesus’ prediction comes true. Peter rebuffs any association with Christ three times in the midst of the angry mob.
Peter wanders off after the crow of the rooster. We don’t hear from him again until Easter morning. I wonder, what do you think has been going through Peter’s head in the midst of those two nights between his denial of Christ and the morning of the resurrection?
Here is the disciple who has been told he will be the foundation of the church – but he’s the one who denied Christ when Christ was headed to the cross. Judas may have turned Christ over to the authorities, but we’ve never been lead to expect much of Judas. Peter – now, Peter – we have high hopes for this man. He is the rock.
So what do you think his mentality is when Mary comes running in exclaiming that someone has taken the body of Christ? Peter is there – knowing he denied Christ – hearing Mary’s claim aside the disciple whom Jesus loved. Imagine the variance of emotional reaction by the two.
It seems the two don’t give much thought before they take off running. The text tells us they were running together, but the other disciple pulled ahead of Peter. Now – it doesn’t give us much info – it’s possible that the beloved disciple was more in shape, a better long distance runner; Peter could have been the better sprinter. But I wonder if in the midst of that run, Peter starts to think about the events of the past 72 hours. He’s been running from Christ – disassociating himself from Christ – and now he’s running toward the tomb. He’s running alongside a beloved disciple … is he’s comparing himself to the other? Is he fearful that he isn’t worthy to run alongside the one who is beloved? The other disciple has been faithful – yet Peter has not. Does he feel guilt in the midst of the run, and starts to slow up because he’s not even sure he belongs at Jesus’ tomb.
As he runs, I find it easier and easier to associate myself with Peter on this Easter morning. Truthfully, there are likely many of us here who live with Peter in this complex of emotions. “We harbor petty jealousies in our souls for those who seem so blessed by the love of God, so full of confidence and joy. We are resentful of the success of others. Or we promise ourselves that we will not fall away from whatever God has given us to do, but the minute we are threatened in some way, we leave.”[iii]
But we keep running – hoping to find a new life in the empty tomb – hoping something is there that will fill us once more with the hope that Christ has offered in all of his teachings.
Peter and the other disciple arrive at the tomb, and they find it empty. The burial cloths are folded, lying on the bed where Jesus had been laid. The other disciple, the text tells us, the other disciple sees the cloths and believes. But Peter seems to be at a true loss. They both are speechless and they leave to return home.
That seems like such a bum story. Peter ran hoping to find something – perhaps to find a way to be reconciled for his shortcomings, maybe even to offer a confessional. But he returns home, almost more lost than when he began the run.
I said that today’s focus was going to be on how such a message can be important to those who do now know Christ as risen – Christ as Lord and Savior.
Peter left that day and did not know Christ as risen. The scripture even tells us that Peter did not yet understand the scripture, that Christ must rise from the dead.
Get this though, Peter’s lack of understanding does not negate the truth. I love how Dr. Karoline Lewis, of Luther Seminary puts it. She says, “The truth of the resurrection does not need our action for verification. The truth of the resurrection does not depend on our witness for it to be so. The truth of the resurrection does not rely on our willingness to speak words of life into conversations intent on destruction or our determination to free those captive to the deaths that our culture, our world, perpetuate. The truth of the resurrection is true regardless of our testimony.”[iv]
Peter’s lack of understanding does not negate the resurrection of the Lord. So why then is it important to celebrate the resurrection? Why must we come and worship if our lack of seeing and knowing doesn’t negate the significance of the event?
We come and we celebrate Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Christ because there are many like Peter in the world. There are many who are searching for new life and for a way out of the darkness of their life. There are many in this world who have been beat down and persecuted for who they were created to be. There are many in this world who are locked in their own prisons of insecurity and lack of understanding. There are many who out of the darkness claim to know the truth – yet their destructive false-truth is destroying our world. And each of those people needs a Mary. They all need someone who can claim for them, “I have seen the Lord.” They need someone who can claim the truth of the resurrection because in their lives, at this time, they can not.
And so this morning, we come to encounter the Risen Lord, because for some of us, we are Peter – and we need someone else to claim for us the resurrection. And for some of us, we are needed to be a Mary, and to claim for the world that we have seen the Lord. We’ve seen him crucified, died and buried. And praise God, on this day, we have seen him Risen. So in whichever place you may be, may you hear and know this truth – I have seen the Lord. Christ is Risen Indeed! Glory be to God, Amen!