In our sermons over the days of Eastertide, we are considering various responses to resurrection, including our own. If the gospels are any indication, there’s no right or wrong way to respond to resurrection. The gospels give us a whole encyclopedia of the ways people respond to Jesus’ empty tomb and his return to his followers. Some see and believe, some look around in bewilderment, some doubt but come to believe in time, some race from the tomb to tell the story. There’s no uniform response to this moment, with all of its mystery and possibility. That means there’s space for all of us and our reactions, too. Sunday’s sermon was focused on Mary’s reaction in John 20:1-10. Listen or read below.
The beloved disciple and Peter run to the tomb.
If you and I were to race there today – or at least to one traditional site of Jesus’ resurrection – we’d find a church, built in the 4th Century under Constantine’s rule, called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or sometimes the Church of the Resurrection.
My friend Scott traveled there once, part of a large tour group throughout Israel and Palestine. They arrived at the site and – like the beloved disciple in our passage this morning – they paused and waited outside. In their case, they were assembling and waiting for their turn to enter. As they stood outside catching their breath and taking it all in, amidst all the tradition and majesty of the site Scott’s eye was drawn to an old metal sign affixed to stone outside the church. He couldn’t read it, it was so faded by the elements, but walking up and looking closely he saw that it said, “Please: No Explanations Inside the Church.” (1)
If you’ve traveled to Israel – maybe on one of the tours led by our former pastor, Dr. Lolley, or more recently by Dr. Pressley – you know that “explanations” are the commentaries provided by tour guides, who are part of the enormous tourism industry of the area. At sites all over Israel, and especially around Jerusalem, you’ll see groups of tourists and pilgrims huddled around their guides, listening to their “explanations.” The Church of the Holy Sepulchre put up this sign because they wanted the noise kept to a minimum, and thus “No explanations inside the church.”
But how often do we fill up our Easter days with the noise of explanation? Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century, taught for most of his life at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He once explained how he always turned down invitations to preach on Easter Sunday, and instead he chose to sit in the pews of one of the more liturgical churches – an Episcopal or Roman Catholic Church, where the emphasis was on music and the sacraments, and the sermon was brief. Perhaps that’s a surprising move for one whose life was devoted to putting words around God, but Niebuhr said he did not want to be “subjected to some preacher making a fool of themselves trying to explain the resurrection.” (2)
No explanations. Not inside the church. Not inside the tomb.
I wonder if that’s why the beloved disciple stops. Did you notice that in the story? 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, more than just about any passage I can recall. It’s like everyone’s been drinking Red Bull with all of the adrenaline, enthusiasm and fast pace. Until it comes to a sudden stop.
The beloved disciple had pulled away from Peter, but when he reaches the tomb John’s gospel says he bent down to look in, he saw the linen wrappings, but he did 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.
There are so many different ways those who have followed Jesus respond to his resurrection. There’s a whole range of reflexes. Yet so often we limit the story to the enthusiasm of Peter – that bolt of adrenaline that would send someone running inside to see. But sometimes 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. To hear John tell the story, that’s also one way that a disciple might respond to the new life of Christ.
What would make a person stop right at the threshold of resurrection? Especially this person – the disciple so loved by Jesus. That opening to the tomb is a doorway to a new world. Outside of it, the beloved has his feet firmly planted in the world where hope is in constant danger, and peace is denied the light of day, and mercy seems to be encased behind stone, and the vulnerable all eventually suffer under Pontius Pilate. The broken people stay broken there. The dead people stay dead.
And he stops there, because it’s all he’s known and all 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 and Jesus looks around from the cross for whom he can depend on, his eyes find the beloved as he says, “Son, behold your mother.” Jesus entrusted to this disciple the care of the mother he leaves behind. Because this disciple is the last to leave the cross. He saw it all.
So, as the gospel writer describes at the start of the passage, “it’s still dark” for the beloved and for all of them who have lived through the silence after that Friday, in between death and resurrection, where we hope – how we hope – things will be made new but we can’t even conceive of how. In that darkness we can recall so vividly the pain and suffering we’ve seen, but we have not yet seen any evidence of resurrection. So he stands there, around the edges of it all. He’s peering in, but maybe not wanting to enter and have his hopes dashed again. He’s not able to believe that this time anything will be different. He’s not able to imagine the doorway leads to anything but more death, more disappointment. How could he conceive of anything else?
If this loyal disciple hesitates, surely you and I have the same reflex. 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 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 as Jesus made God out to be? What would that mean for our lives? What would it call forth in us? How might that change us?
Or maybe we have seen enough of the Good Friday world to wonder if another world is even possible, whatever might be or not be through that entryway into the tomb. The writer and preacher Pam Driesell evokes this as she describes a friend who was struggling to explain the meaning of Easter to her 4 year old – an experience to which many of us can relate.
“Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?”
“I am sure he will bring you jelly beans. But, remember, Easter isn’t about the bunny. It’s about Jesus.”
“But will they be purple?”
“Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn’t the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.”
“Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?”
“I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?”
“Okay” the little girl said and paused for a minute, “Mommy…”
“Will he bring me tootsie rolls too?” (3)
We can appreciate this mother’s struggle. Because her daughter will not always be 4-years-old. Sooner or later, and still later again, that little girl and all of God’s beloved children – indeed, all of us, – encounter a Good Friday scene that can be life-altering. And we need more than bunnies and jelly beans. We need much more than sugary sweet statements and candy-coated platitudes.
I wonder when it will be for that little girl. Which is really to say, I wonder when it will be for my children. I guess nothing haunts my quiet moments and silent fears any more than that question of when it will be that they come to know this oh so real world. When will they be bullied, or betrayed, or heartbroken? When will they look in the mirror and have to face that they’ve been the bully or the traitor or the heartbreaker themselves? When will they encounter human suffering, or injustice in a way that locks them in place? When will they experience the loss that is life-altering? When will they encounter cruelty, or oppression, or discrimination in this world in a way that astonishes or paralyzes them?
When will it be for our children? When was it for you? And how long have you been standing there outside the tomb? Maybe you’ve let the Peters of the world charge in ahead of you with their blind faith and reckless abandon. But, I wonder if staying in place isn’t also an easy choice. Sometimes it can be just as mindless. In fact, reflexive hesitation might be just as easy as blind faith, in the end.
Mary’s story can only take us so far. It brings us all the way up to the entry. But we have to decide to take those final steps. There are no explanations inside the tomb for what happened there, or all that’s happened since. If we’re looking for explanation, we’ll never get any farther than the beloved. But if we take another step, we might find something else.
The author David Dickerson describes a time when he was 28-yrs-old and felt like the black sheep of his family, mostly because of his dismissal of the faith shared by the rest of them.
Dickerson had studied religion in college. If you’ve done the same, then you know that after a semester of a college religion class, you generally have things figured out… or at least you’ve figured out all that you don’t know, all you can’t explain. And it can be very hard for some people, from some churches or background, to reconcile their intellectual curiosity with the faith that formed them, especially if they come from a community of faith that purports to have it all figured out and seemingly has no space for question or doubt. Thank God that doubting Thomas and this hesitant beloved disciple didn’t belong to a church like that, but David Dickerson did. He had never made peace with the rigid faith of his childhood. Just the opposite, in fact. He had made it his mission to deconstruct the conservative faith of his family.
So this 28-yr-old “black sheep” sat down at a diner with his father to do just that. It was a showdown, whether his dad knew it or not. Dickerson was just waiting for any mention of the virgin birth, or the antichrist, or the resurrection. He was locked and loaded with his counterpoints.
And so he said, “So, dad, what’s your life like right now?” And Dad said, “Well, I found a new church home.” Dickerson heard “church” and perked up, but though “eh, church, not much to argue about there… people go to church.”
And Dad said, “You know, it’s a small church, and the pastor found out that I play the accordion, and he made me the music minister. That’ll be nice.” And again, Dickerson thought, “Meh, music ministry, no, nothing there.”
And then the father said, “You know, this other kind of exciting thing is happening. I’ve been praying about it, and I think I’m going to be a missionary.”
And that was it. The younger Dickerson came to the edge of the seat, and said, “Oh really? A missionary? Where are you going to go?” And then his dad said, “Oh, Spain.”
And Dickerson snapped, “Oh, of course. Of course you’re going to go to Spain. That is so arrogant… oh, those poor Spaniards that need you…” And he began to challenge the whole missiological model, listing his incisive challenges to conceptions of salvation, and the notion of heaven and hell, and the elements of imperialism and colonialism in the history of Christian mission, on and on, strong point after strong point.
His father was quiet, and he finally said, “David, I’m really proud of everything you’ve done. And I’m really glad that you enjoy studying all these things, and thinking all these thoughts. But I’ve got to tell you, when I became a Christian, it saved my life. Before I became a Christian I was miserable. I wanted my life to end. I wanted to get a divorce from your mom. And I can’t really explain it, and I know it doesn’t make much sense, but here’s what I know: I followed Jesus and my life changed.”
Dickerson had wanted to get to a kind of truce where it was like, “Well, we’ll agree to disagree, but I see your point. It’s a good point.” But he said he felt like he had lost completely. Because he realized that he could think back on his childhood and remember the time when his dad changed. He became someone new. And while he could argue with a slew of rational explanations, he couldn’t argue with his father’s experience of faith.
So, poised for the counterpoint, what he said to his dad was, “Oh, look, here comes the waitress.” And they got their Sprites, and had their hamburgers, and they looked at each other, raised the glass, had a bite. And Dickerson said his dad didn’t know it, but they were having communion. (4)
We’ve come this far because at some point Mary’s story reached us. It echoed through history and found our ears. It moved our feet. Some of us ran the whole way, but now we’re short of breath, still standing around the edges, considering what we will do next, if anything at all. We won’t find any explanations. The gospels don’t even give us that. They don’t tell us how Christ was raised. But they do tell us what it meant, and who he met, and what difference it made in their lives. They do describe what it is to experience Christ. And they tell us about the new world beyond the entryway to the tomb.
What would it mean for you to lay down some of what you carried here and take a few more steps?
As John describes it, “Then the other disciple, the one who reached the tomb first, went in. And he saw and believed.”
And dear God, let it be.
- “No Explanations Needed…” in Baptist News Global (April 2016)
- P.C. Enniss, Journal for Preachers (Easter 2003)
- Pam Driesell, “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans” in Day1 (April 2011)
- From “Know When to Fold ‘Em,” This American Life (April 8, 2011)