John 20:1-18

Dead people stay dead.

The first time I learned this – really learned it – I was about 8 years old, attending the funeral for my 101 yr old great grandmother. It’s a formative memory, mostly because it was my first experience with an open casket funeral. At one point during the visitation I snuck away from my mother, and ducked back from the crowd while a speech was being made in the other room of the funeral home, and I walked up to this open casket, all alone.

Was that her? Was she there? I remember standing, looking, and then the moment of truth. You know what I did: I looked side to side, then reached out my finger and touched Great Grandmother’s hand. Shivers run down my spine even as I tell you that story today.

My children might one day remember attending their great grandfather’s funeral – my grandfather, “Papa,” who passed at age 90 earlier this year. My wife, Jenny, and I did little to prepare them for his open casket funeral, choosing instead to process the experience with them as they had questions. So that night, after a moving service where they saw their father cry, a graveside internment, and lots of time with extended family, I thought they might want to talk. At the least, I wanted to.

“What did you think about the funeral today?” I asked my 4 yr old daughter, Della, at the end of the day as she bounced on the bed at the Hampton Inn.

“I looooved it!” she said.

Not quite the reaction I was expecting, but she continued. “I got to sit next to my older cousins, and I got to play. AND I got to see Papa.”

“Well, that’s right,” I said, pulling her pjs over her head, “And where is Papa?”

“He’s in the ground”

“Well, right his body was buried today, but where is he really?”

“In the ground. I saw the hole, and Nana is in the hole in the ground next to him.”

“Right, Della, his body is in the ground. But Papa is really in Heaven,” I said, ending the quiz. “When we die we’re safe with God forever. That’s where Papa is, and that’s where we’ll be someday.”

“Ohhh” she said. “Except not really… he’s in the ground.”

I guess we’ll take that up again when she’s older. Then again, what will I say? Do we reach some age where this all becomes clear? Where is he? Really?

He was in the tomb. That’s what they knew that day. Those that stuck around long enough saw the stone, the hole, the entombment. Death was definitive and final for them – a reality as cold as the walls of the cave where their Lord had been laid.

So as our passage begins, Mary arrives not for a resurrection, but for a burial. She makes her way to the garden not because she believed this was the first day of a new creation, but because she wanted to check on things and make sure all was secure. All we need to do is look at her hands for the evidence of her expectation. She’s not carrying an Easter array of flowers, but spices for a burial, along with the weight of her grief, all of it rounding her shoulders and lowering her head as her feet strike the path with the rhythm of mourning and defeat.

It was over, it seemed. Pontius Pilate signed the death order, and covered the tomb with stone, positioning guards against anything disruptive, Rome exercising its authority over life and death once more.

The cross – where Mary was one of the last to leave him – was still perched outside of the city, visible against the early morning horizon with it’s daybreaking message of “this is the way things are and will always be.”

Maybe Mary looked at it and remembered the stories of others who had hung there, like Judas the Galilean or Theudas of Egypt – leaders who sought revolt or resistance until Rome struck back executing the leaders publicly and shamefully, to see their movements disperse never to be heard from again.

Or maybe Mary recited that Psalm she had heard him quote at the last, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As much as we embrace the promise that “Sunday’s coming “ in our Easter parlance today, Sunday wasn’t coming for her. For them.

The gospel writers agree. Each of the four tell different parts of this Resurrection story – no single telling could ever be enough – so their details differ, they describe different actors and sometimes diverging experiences, but all four gospels are utterly consistent on two points. First, nobody – nobody – was expecting a resurrection. But they also agree on a second point: the body was not in the tomb.

Where is he, really?

Mary is the first to wonder. She’s the first one there. The first to run and tell what she sees. In a transcendent moment she becomes the first to see the resurrected Christ. The first to touch him. The first to hear him call her name. But notice, she’s not the first one to believe.

Mary believes as Jesus speaks her name in the garden. But before Jesus ever appears, amidst all the questions of where he could be, someone else believes the resurrection. And we don’t even know his name.

John says that when Mary saw the stone removed and the tomb empty, she ran and went to Peter and one John calls, “the other disciple.” The two of them run to the tomb, keeping pace with all of the questions and fears racing in their minds. This “other disciple” arrives first, but he stops short. He stoops and surveys the scene. He sees grave clothes left, but still he squints into the early morning haze, trying to understand what has happened. Where is he, really?

The temptation has always been to squint our eyes and look for some proof that will help us understand it or explain it. Eugene Peterson has recalled a preacher in his youth launching into an Easter sermon on “The Thirteen Incontrovertible Proofs of the Resurrection” – a sermon that went on for 90 minutes, by which time no one really cared any longer, focused only on the deeper truth that they were ready for Easter lunch.

For all our stooping and squinting – all our gathering of the evidence and artifacts meant to prove definitively that all of this really happened – the resurrection will not submit to our rational standards.

Resurrection provokes a deeper question. It’s a question of truth. If human reason – our ability to understand – is the sole arbiter of truth, and if truth is limited to what we can see, analyze, explain, or squint our eyes to discern in the early morning haze, then resurrection is absurd, and the only rational explanation is “They have taken away my Lord.”

But if there is possibility not confined to human understanding, then we live in a whole new situation. A new heaven and a new earth. A new way of seeing and believing. A God beyond reason. And a world not limited but full of hope and possibility.

That world can’t be scrutinized from the outside looking in. So this other disciple crosses the threshold of that tomb, entering into that cold place where dead people have always stayed dead to find that the tomb is empty. He still doesn’t understand. But John says he sees and believes. Notice that. This one who doesn’t understand is the first person to believe.

In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott, an adult convert to Christianity, talks candidly about her own experience as a recovering alcoholic and single mother whose life was literally saved by her encounter with Jesus Christ through a small Presbyterian congregation in California. Out of her own experience she writes, “When God is going to do something amazing, [God] always starts with an impossibility.”

Resurrection is an impossibility. Death is the inevitability. We have known it so well it sends shivers down our spines even now.

“I’ve had enough of this,” several of you have said to me as we’ve gathered in the last month to grieve and mourn the deaths of too many of our friends and brothers and sisters in our community of faith. Too many luminaries on our altar table. Too many visitations in the Atrium. Too many poundcakes in the oven. We say with the American poet, Dorothy Parker, “When it comes to death, I do not approve.”

Our intimate experience as a church is reflective of all the corporate evidence of pain and death that swirls about us. We have friends who are struggling for life. We feel despair over the state of our world. We are weighed down by the suffering seemingly flowing to the ends of the earth. Innocent people die from all kinds of means. Death seemingly producing only more and more death. We wonder, does the fate of this world really matter? Is our story heading somewhere? Shoulders rounded and heads lowered, death can become for us not the merely the conclusion of life, but the substance of it.

Maybe you saw that after Palm Sunday bombings of Egyptian churches killed 45 people last week, Coptic Christians in the city of Minya decide they would not be celebrating Easter. The Minya Coptic Orthodox Diocese said that Easter services this year would only be limited to the liturgical prayers “without any festive manifestations.” (1)

Because Christ comes to those who aren’t celebrating. Christ comes to those cannot even begin to imagine an Easter. Those for whom a Sunday seems an impossibility. Those whose hands are full of spices. Those holed up and locked in, until they hear a knock at the door and frantic news that the body is gone.

“I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday.” Anne Lamott wrote these words over a decade ago, reflecting on her mother’s sad struggle with Alzheimer’s and the start-up of the Iraq War. “I don’t have the right personality… for the crucifixion: I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection—the resurrection vision of the kid in our Sunday School class who drew a picture of the Easter bunny outside the tomb: everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates!” Then she shared this enduring words, “We’re Easter people in a Good Friday world.” (2)

That’s where we spend so much of our lives – the space between death and resurrection, where fear carries the day. Pontius Pilate signs the death certificates. Rome wins, as they always do. Promises are broken. Hopes laid open. Tombs are left closed and guarded against any chance of change. Broken people stay broken there. Dead people stay dead. Most mornings it’s all we can see through the haze.

And you see enough of death, and you start to live your life by its script, so often merely wanting the body to be safe and prepared for burial and never really understanding how it could be any different.

I think that’s why I take comfort in this unnamed disciple today. He doesn’t understand it either. Jesus had died, along with all of his hopes. Hearing him teach and watching him heal, that disciple could begin to imagine a world where God wipes away tears from all eyes, where people sit down together at a banquet table, where everyone has enough, where our resources are given to life and not the ways of death. But that hope had died on Friday. Seeing the emptiness of the tomb, John says this other disciple doesn’t understand. But still he comes to believe. The first believer of the resurrection believes without understanding.

If we are to believe it, too, we have to do what he did. We can’t scrutinize from the outside. We have to enter. John Updike wrote a poem once, “Seven Stanzas for Easter,” which includes these words:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body. . . .
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The other disciple “went in,” John says. He walked through the door. And then, by his story, others followed him, walking into a new world full of hope and possibility. Frightened, discouraged, head hung, grieving women and men were transformed into bold, hopeful, loving proclaimers of good news that they couldn’t stop talking about, even when their lives were on the line. Good Friday grievers became Easter people who lived their lives in the confidence that they didn’t have to be afraid. Peter Gomes said it this way: “The evidence of Easter is a reconfigured Easter people, people who are no longer afraid of the dark, people who dare to live by their affections and not by their fears, people who know that they need not die in order to truly experience resurrection living. . . people who fear neither death nor life.“ (3)

In other words, people like you and I aspire to be. We are the Easter people any time we enter into that belief that death no longer has its control over us.

This past Friday – Good Friday – we all gathered in the evening amidst darkness and silence for a service of shadows remembering the death of Jesus, but some in our church have known those shadows in personal ways. I spent time on Friday driving about Greensboro, dropping in on people from our congregation who to my knowledge have known intimately this “Good Friday world,“ especially recently. I dropped in with a hope and a prayer for the Easter ahead, and maybe a lily to leave on the porch. I certainly didn’t get to everyone who has experienced such days, and there are still some on my list, but I did make it to 10-12 in our community of faith who have known recovery, rehab, mourning, loss, grief, transition.

Including a dear older couple in our church, Art and Rachel, who for health reasons retired this year from the Sanctuary Choir after having sung together for 56 years, ever since they met on their way into rehearsal for Handel’s Messiah over half a century ago. I surprised them at the door and was quickly invited into the living room, where we talked about Easters come and gone, our church, some of their current circumstances. Instead of sadness, there was a sense of hospitality and hope, as we looked looking at pictures of family, and talked about the little one. As I noticed the swingset out back, they talked about how much the great grandkids love it, and how they were coming for an egg hunt today. We shared a prayer and some words of scripture, and as she walked me to the door and we parted ways, Rachel said casually, “Well, Easter is coming. Easter is coming.”

It’s fitting that the gospel says simply that when that impossible day was over, Peter and the other disciple left the tomb and returned to their homes. Because that’s where Easter is known. It’s where we make decisions about how we will live, what our lives will embody, how we will follow him with hope and joy in our hearts breaking cycles of death and loss and fear and believing in a new creation on its way.

That’s what they do – Peter and this other disciple, the first to believe. We still don’t know his name, despite the many theories. Then again, I think we know his name as fully as our own. It’s Alan. It’s Art, and Rachel, and Della Gwen. It’s you.

It’s you, who has believed without fully understanding. It’s you who has had faith without the fullness of sight. It’s you who returns to your home, newly emboldened to unlock the doors and step out of fear. It’s you, who is called to cross into life where so many can only known the cold reality of death. It’s you, unnamed disciples, who now give evidence that the tomb is empty, the dead do not stay dead, the worst is not the last, the broken do not stay broken. It’s you who drop the spices of burial and pick up the signs of resurrection. It’s you who even now can cross from death into new life.

Where is he, really? May we now answer the question with our very lives.


  2. In Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
  3. “What We Forgot to Tell You”