John’s 20th chapter is one of the most moving in all of Scripture, with so many moments intimate, emotional, and as personal as the disciples who witness Christ raised. One scholar has said the chapter is like an encyclopedia of all the ways that people respond to resurrection, even to this day. Mary preaches, Peter races, Thomas doubts and wants to see for himself, and the disciples lock doors in uncertainty and enduring fear.
Amidst this range of reactions, we can probably find something of our own emotions and actions this Easter morning. And I wonder if that might be especially true for some of us in the sometimes overlooked, passing reference to the disciple called “beloved,” because at first, his response is hesitation.
As John tells it, “The other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there… but did not go in.”
It’s early on the first day of the week when Mary discovers the stone removed and the grave clothes in a pile, and she runs to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, who, just as soon as they hear, shoot off and run to see for themselves. There’s so much running in this passage, with all of the adrenaline, enthusiasm and fast pace… until it comes to a halting stop. The beloved disciple has pulled away from Peter, but when he reaches the tomb John’s gospel says he bends down to look in, he sees the linen wrappings, but he does not go in. He stops. Shortly after that, Peter, who is always hyped up, arrives and charges straight into the tomb. But not this other disciple. Not the Beloved.
He stands at the entrance of the tomb, which is ultimately the doorway to a new world in the life and hope of Jesus Christ, and the disciple we know as beloved, stops, pauses. He hesitates at resurrection.
What would cause a person to do that? Well, life can do that. Life can make us hesitant. Suffering and pain can cause us to slow, to wonder if anything more is ahead of us. Dashed hopes certainly lock us in place. And the beloved disciple had experienced all of this and more, and just in the course of a weekend.
We don’t know everything about the Beloved, but we do know what he’s seen. Remember, this is not an average disciple with moderate commitments. This is the one whom Jesus loved with a notable and name-able love. The one always seeking to be close to him. The one so faithful, so loyal, that when the others are off hiding under rocks or behind locked doors in self-preservation and Jesus looks around from the cross for one on whom he can depend, his eyes find only the Beloved, and he says to him, “Son, behold your mother.” Jesus entrusted to this disciple the care of the mother he leaves behind. Because this beloved disciple is the last to leave the cross. He saw it all. He has lived through absolute trauma by the time he arrives at the entrance of the tomb. He had once had hopes so high for what it would mean to follow Jesus, but his life has not turned out anything like what he expected or planned.
And you experience enough of that unforgiving, jarring reality, which is all too plentiful in this oh so real world, and it makes you hesitate. In fact, that’s exactly what crucifixion was intended to do.
For Rome, this was not merely a method of execution or elimination of a person, but the spectacle and pain of it all was also a means of intimidation and control of an entire population. Rome raised crosses to say: “We’re running this world… We are the masters over life and death… We will decide whether anything will change… We will dictate the direction of your life.”
The Beloved, and indeed all the followers of Jesus, had heard of others who had suffered like their Lord — those like Judas the Galilean or Theudas of Egypt – ancient leaders who sought revolt or resistance to the system, until Rome struck back, executing the leaders publicly and shamefully. And then it worked as intended, as their movements dispersed, and they were never heard from again.
And when that happens, when the world so often just continues as it was, well, the sensible people give up the ridiculous idea that anything will change. You hear enough of that story with all of its finality and limitation and you start to live your life by that script. You become hesitant, even cynical at the possibility of new life.
It’s not that the Beloved has abandoned hope. Remember initially, the beloved disciple runs, too, moved by the testimony of Mary and the possibility it could be true. He’s actually faster than Peter, and had pulled away from him to arrive first. So it’s not that he has no hope at all. It’s that something reflexively stops him at the threshold. Something reflexively protects him from hope, I think. “Hope is a dangerous thing in a place like this,” says Otis Red Redding to Andy Dufrane in the Shawshank Redemption. And we don’t need the smooth voice of Morgan Freeman to tell us that hope is a dangerous thing outside the tombs of this world.
The tomb might be a doorway to a new world, but the beloved stops in the only world he has ever known, where hope is in constant danger, and peace is denied the light of day, and mercy seems to be encased behind stone, and his friend’s mother is depending on him. Pontius Pilate signs the death orders in this world, and covers tombs with stone. The broken people stay broken there. The dead people stay dead.
And if this loved and loyal disciple hesitates in such a world, surely you and I have the same reflex in us. Mary’s testimony brings us right to the entry of the tomb once again today, and so often we stop. Some of us have been hovering here for much of our lives.
Maybe the incomprehensibility and absurdity of it all locks us in place. It can’t be explained, then it can’t be accepted, so we’ll come to a certain point but not beyond, letting those with the blind faith charge right in.
Maybe some of us wonder just what we’d find amidst that pile of grave clothes. What if Jesus really is who he claimed he is? And what if God is really as overwhelmingly merciful and loving and inclusive as Jesus made God out to be? What would that mean for our lives? For our church? For our community? What would it call forth in us? How might that change us?
But I think for most of us, the reality is that if we stop it’s because we have seen enough of the Good Friday world to wonder if another world is even possible, whatever may or may not be through that entryway into the tomb. Certainly this last year has reminded us again and again of limitation, suffering, death. When our experience of pandemic began, when we first exited the sanctuary and kept the building closed for safety, some of us even expected, “Maybe we’ll make it back by Easter?” We could not have imagined it would be Easter an entire year later before we gathered in person to worship. And it can be overwhelming to account for what has been lost, corporately and individually, and the real grief we carry.
It’s grief we also hold also for this world that still knows crucifixion, crosses raised around us, with the unjust suffering of so many beloved of God under one Pontius Pilate or another.
And many of us have encountered life-altering Good Friday moments in a way that can lock us in place. I look on a congregation full of loss, and grief, and illness and uncertainty that can bring us to a halt. We’ve encountered cruelty, or oppression, or discrimination in this world in a way that astonishes or paralyzes.
So we know hesitation this Easter morning. We know the pause of the Beloved outside the tomb, because so often we are pausing there with him.
Sometimes Easter is limited to the racing enthusiasm of Peter – that bolt of adrenaline that would send someone running inside to see. But often it’s not fast-paced at all. Sometimes we react with hesitation. Reticence. Sometimes it’s a tentative pause, while we catch our breath, hovering around the outside of the story wondering what it means for us, peering in, but maybe not wanting to enter and have our hopes dashed again.
Well, to hear John tell the story, that’s also one way that a disciple — even a beloved disciple — might respond to the new life of Christ. And I wonder if it might not be a way for many of us that is deeper, truer. A way that might ultimately be fuller and more honest. After all, fast-paced Peter wasn’t at the cross. Peter wasn’t there amidst the agony. Peter wasn’t there when Jesus’ mother wept for her son and he looked for one he could trust with her well being. And Peter doesn’t have to go back and explain to her any of what he might find in the empty tomb. The beloved knows things that Peter doesn’t know, he’s seen things that Peter hasn’t seen.
It reminds me of something once said by the great Baptist preacher, Carlyle Marney. He was an esteemed philosopher and lecturer and was once guest lecturing at a small Christian college when he was asked by a polished religion student to explain the resurrection… to which Marney said, “I will discuss resurrection only if you discuss with me how you are a person who has known honest-to-God failure, heartache, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls of mortality… In other words, I only speak of resurrection with people who know something of a world that makes sense only if Christ is raised.”
So many of us are hesitant, and with good reason. After all, if we’ve been following Jesus closely, then we know things that some people don’t know or at least don’t want to know. We’ve seen things that some disciples haven’t seen, or from which they turn their eyes and avert their gaze. If we’re honest, we’ve experienced parts of this world from which so many would rather hide. So we can let others charge in ahead with their blind faith and reckless abandon. And we can pause. But we also don’t have to live in the pause. Because staying in place can also be an easy, mindless choice. In fact, enduring hesitation might be just as easy as blind faith, in the end.
And the story of this beloved one, is not only a story of pause. It’s a story of pausing in all of your honest hesitation, steadying yourself, catching your breath, and then finding something calling you forward anew. And if you find yourself cynical, hesitant, reticent this Easter, remember, you are also the beloved of God. And if you find yourself slowed, closed off or unable to believe and trust this morning, well, if John’s gospel is any indication, you might be but a few steps away from new life.
So we stand outside the tomb, steadying ourselves, catching our breath. Mary’s testimony echoes through history and rings in our ears. Peter races by our side and rushes in ahead of us to be the first to see. But we pause. And we are not alone. So many others hesitant, wounded, hopeless, weary, grieving, and honest — wondering if it could be true, asking if he did keep his promise to us, trying to imagine if we can live through what we’ve seen and find new life on the other side. So many beloved disciples, just steps from resurrection. May we take those steps together this day.
As John describes it, “Then the other disciple went in. And he saw and believed.” And may it be so for us this Easter.