The Gospel for March 27th, 2016: Easter Sunday
“For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (9).
They didn’t understand. As a result, we see confusion and fear and for good reason. Let us consider what they did understand. The circumstances of their faith were frightening and unfathomable at that moment. Jesus, their beloved and Messiah, has been betrayed by one of their own, crucified viciously and unjustly, and His buried body has disappeared from a seemingly impregnable tomb. By all rational understanding, the bottom has completely fallen out from their dream for a savior incarnate.
Reading today, we know the happy ending: Jesus is risen. He has conquered death. Our faith is justified. Should the three disciples have known? Jesus did try to tell the apostles. But who in their right minds at the time would believe that this was God’s salvation plan? Under the circumstances, their despair and fear is understandable. Therefore, I think the significance of the discovery of the empty tomb is more than merely a plot detail to be briefly acknowledged for the sake of continuity before reaching the climax of the salvation drama. Instead, I see a lesson for today’s Christians to consider in John’s gospel on this Easter Sunday. The lesson is this: the fear of Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple as they confront the mystery and truth of Jesus’s disappearance is like our fear every time God challenges in ways we don’t expect. We fail to ignore the reasoning and the logic of the world and allow ourselves to become panicked, even though we may well be on the cusp of God’s loving embrace. We are at risk of turning away precisely at the moment when we should move forward in faith to where God is leading us.
In examining their reactions, we can see the familiar havoc that fear can wreak. Yet we also see the necessity and ultimate victory of faith over fear. First, Mary did not go in the tomb when she saw the stone removed. Aghast at the implication of her wrongful conclusion, she runs to tell the others, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put them” (2).
Their return is marked by the sort chaotic sprint that one would expect as all three, filled with adrenaline at the startling discovery, run back to the tomb, disbanded instead of together. The beloved disciple, commonly thought to be John, arrives first. He looks in the tomb, sees the discarded burial cloths and hesitates to investigate further, clearly afraid to confront the truth. However, Peter, embracing his role as leader, walks in boldly. Surely he too was uncertain, yet he clears the way for all them to accept the reality that Jesus is no longer there by entering. Acceptance of this hard truth will be necessary in coming to grips with the fact of the resurrection. Peter’s example is key: we must not fear facing God’s truth. Like the Church to which Jesus entrusted him, Peter moves forward in faith–as he undoubtedly learned he must do on the waters of Galilee–and brings others with him. While their confusion and apprehension remain, the step of entering the tomb brings them all closer to the revelation than they were previously during those dark hours of despair.
It should be noted that the unveiling of Jesus’s resurrection soon follows. Mary stays by the tomb weeping, where she encounters the risen Jesus first. Imagine if she had not gone back to the tomb with Peter and John; she would have missed the revelation that changed everything. Granted, eventually she would have known. But God lead her there so she could announce the good news of Christ’s victory to the apostles. As for Peter and John, would they have seen Jesus’s appearance to them as some sort of malevolent phantom later if they had not witnessed themselves that he was no longer in His tomb? We can conclude in hindsight that the frightening experience of the empty tomb was a necessary step toward understanding God’s will and salvation for Jesus’s disciples.
On Easter, as we celebrate the basis for our faith and salvation, it is easy to believe in God’s providence and love. At Church, we are awash in His glory and love. However, as we leave Church and return to the world, once again we are confronted with the logic that makes God’s plans for salvation difficult to believe and accept. In the fear that follows those moments, may we remember Peter’s example and boldly walk into the empty tomb to confront the truth, leaving our lack of complete understanding to God. When we do that with the help our Church, we move closer to Jesus and salvation.