“Believing, But Not Understanding” / John 20:1-18

Our reading this joyful morning begins at John chapter 20. Maybe you’ve never thought about this – if John had ended his account of the life of Jesus at chapter 19, it would not have been exceptional. It is a well-known fact that all biographies end with death.

The account of Jesus would have been…

  • About a man of exceptional character
  • The account of Jesus would have been about a man who made extraordinary claims
  • The account of Jesus would have been about a man whose sincerity was never in doubt

In spite of all these things, if Jesus had simply died, the story of the life of this carpenter’s son would have ended with a huge sense of frustration and disappointment. His claims would have been negated; his aspirations would have been unrealized; his teaching would have seemed too lofty to be true.

We might still know about him, but maybe not. Like countless others, he would have faded into the mists of history, never to be heard from again.

When we look back at the histories of great religious leaders, whatever their influence, no matter how many books have been written about them, the major difference between the life and teachings of Jesus and those of any other great religious leaders lies in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead and the others did not.

Let’s consider the first part of our account this morning, the witness of Peter and John, John 20:1-10: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple [STOP], the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

The women visit the tomb early Sunday, probably before 6:00 AM. In John’s account, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned, but the other accounts give us the names of the others. The women, noticing that the stone has been rolled away from the door of the tomb, send Mary to warn the disciples while they investigate further.

Mary runs to find Peter and John, the leaders of the Eleven (remember, Judas is now dead, by his own hand). Breathless, Mary declares that the body was missing from the tomb: “They have taken the Lord.” Mary thinks the body has been secretly removed by Jesus’ enemies. It may have been stolen by grave robbers, which was quite common at the time.

Also, the empty tomb is unusual, since the entrance had been sealed by the authorities – and according to Matthew, it was guarded by soldiers.

Peter and John run to the tomb. By running, Peter and John show they are driven by powerful emotions; but instead of joy, the emotion more likely is concern, anger, or disbelief. We don’t know, but perhaps John is younger than Peter, so John gets there first, but John decides not to go in.

John can still see the graveclothes, but he decides to stay outside. Maybe he thinks the body is still there; maybe he feels he shouldn’t enter out of respect for the dead; maybe he’s afraid of the ceremonial defilement of touching a corpse.

Peter, who by this time had arrived, has no such inhibitions – some things never change. He enters the tomb – he also sees the graveclothes and observes that the head cloth is not lying with the other pieces. Instead, it is rolled up in a place by itself.

This means the head cloth still has the shape the contour of Jesus’ head had given it.

Peter wonders why the graveclothes are in this position if the body has been stolen. A robber would not leave them in good order; he would have stripped the body completely, leaving the clothing in a disorderly heap, or he would have taken the body, graveclothes and all.

Finally, John summons up the courage to enter the tomb, perhaps wondering what has reduced Peter to silence, something most unusual.

Verses 8-10: Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Puzzled but convinced that something unusual has happened, they return to their homes.

Now let’s turn to the second half of our account, Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, verses 11-18: But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary arrives at the tomb after Peter and John. Now she stands alone outside, crying at the loss of Jesus. Mary peers into the tomb and sees two figures in white seated on the shelf where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the foot and the other at the head.

John does not describe the angels for us – when angels appear in the Bible, they are usually recognized by their powers rather than by any significant difference from human form. Mary does not respond to them in any unusual way, possibly because her eyes are clouded with tears. Also, she is probably preoccupied with the loss of Jesus’ body.

The two angels ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

For heaven’s sake, what a question! I thought they were angels! Aren’t they supposed to know the answer to such things?

Now remember, Mary was at the cross, and had witnessed the death of Jesus – this, in and of itself, is distressing and unnerving. The disappearance of the body from the place of burial adds confusion and mystery to her grief. Mary is hoping for the sad consolation of completing the burial, but even that is taken from her.

Mary turns back towards the outside of the tomb and sees a person standing there. She takes him to be the keeper of the garden; she is aware of his presence, but she does not recognize him.

Let me stop here and make a comment – we should not be so hard on Mary for confusing Jesus with a gardener. For heaven’s sake, how could she not recognize him! She has just spent three years with him!

This is Jesus we’re talking about!

A reminder – later that afternoon, when Jesus appears to two others on the Emmaus Road, Scripture tells us they were prevented from recognizing him. Mary is not seeing clearly; Mary is not thinking clearly; and most certainly, she is NOT expecting the resurrection.

I wonder – how many of us have ever stood in a receiving line at a funeral of a loved one and gone completely blank when an old friend or even a distant relative comes up? And what if, just before the visitation, the body is nowhere to be found?

The person addresses her as a stranger, and like the angels, using the polite salutation “Woman.” He asks the reason for her grief. Mary imagines that the person is the keeper of the garden, so she assumes that he knows she is looking for a body. Mary asks if he has removed it

Would he PLEASE tell her where she might find it that she might take it for final burial.

Mary’s words reveal her devotion – she never pauses to consider how she would carry the corpse of a full-grown man, or how she would explain her possession of it.

Only one thing is necessary to establish the identity of the risen Christ – he utters her name.

One of the strange commonplaces of life is that the most penetrating utterance one can understand, no matter by whom spoken, is his or her own name. How many of us have been in a crowded airport or restaurant, but we can hear our name? Moreover, the way it is spoken often identifies the speaker. I always knew when it was my mom calling my name, especially when she called me James Richard!

In this case, no gardener would ever know her name, and no one else would have pronounced it the way Jesus did.

Mary turns again for a second look, and she addresses Jesus in Aramaic as “Rabbouni.” Literally, it means “my dear lord,” but John defines it in this instance as “Teacher.” In this ecstatic moment of recognition, Mary most certainly prostrates herself before him and clasps his feet.

To Mary belongs the glory of being the first person to see the Risen Christ.

SO – the first person to see the Risen Son of God?  According to tradition, a former prostitute!

In reply to her action, Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.”

Jesus is not refusing to be touched, but is making clear that she does not need to detain him, for he has not yet ascended to the Father. Jesus plans to remain with the disciples for a little while. Mary does not need to fear that he will vanish right away. Ultimately Jesus WILL return to God, and he urges her to tell the disciples. Mary runs to the disciples and announces that she has seen the Lord.

My brothers and sisters, our experience of Easter is one of faith and joy, but for the disciples, it was one of deep disillusionment and gloom. They had been told of the resurrection, even by God himself, but they did not understand it.

Before we close, I want to talk a bit about verses 8-9: Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

I hope this is not the first time in your life you’ve heard the Easter story. I presume each one of us hears it at least once a year. Maybe you’ve been hearing it all your life, year after year.

He saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

So how about it – who here believes Jesus was raised from the dead? How about a show of hands? Who here believes that this the event we are celebrating this morning actually happened?

He saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

OK, so you all raised your hands, and you all have declared to everyone this morning that you believe that Jesus was raised. The clothes were there; the tomb was empty; we have a multitude of historical accounts verifying this amazing event.

But let me ask something else, something more important; in fact, this may be the most important question you will ever be asked in your entire life.

You all said you believe he was raise from the dead – I hope everyone here raised their hand.

But if Jesus was RAISED from the dead, that means only one thing, right? It means he was dead!

Do you UNDERSTAND why Jesus had to die?

Do you UNDERSTAND why God himself left his heavenly throne?

Why God himself became a lowly human?

Why God was

  • Betrayed
  • Arrested
  • Unfairly tried
  • Unfairly convicted
  • And executed between two criminals?

Do you UNDERSTAND why God was forsaken, abandoned by his Father?

Do you UNDERSTAND why God died on the Cross?

Do you UNDERSTAND why God was buried in a borrowed grave?

Do you UNDERSTAND why all this was necessary, planned before the beginning of time?

Because we are nice folks?

Because we somehow deserve it?

Is that why you are here this morning?

My brothers and sisters, I will tell you why – John 3:16-17: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

My friends, without Christ, we are in big trouble. Without the Cross, without the Resurrection, we are on an express bus to hell. We are doomed, without hope, abandoned, adrift.

God did not die for you and me because we are nice folks. God died for us, and was raised from the dead for us. So we can receive the grace-filled promise of eternal life.

He saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

Do you understand this? I sure don’t. I mean really – if I am completely honest with myself, the fact that God would die for me sure doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t die for me, why should God?

Maybe we can’t understand this – God dying for you and me so we can have the gift of a grace filled life…

  • So our sins are forgiven
  • So we are made clean before the throne of God
  • So we can be washed in the blood of the lamb

Do you understand this? I don’t either.

But I sure do believe it – and that’s all that matters.

I pray that you do also.