An Empty Tomb and a Familiar Face
To go to the tomb and tend to my Lord’s body was the final way I could honor and serve Him. Ever since He set me free of all of my bondage, I have been dedicated to Him- I have given Him my time, my resources, my loyalty. I owe Him everything. He is my Lord and my teacher. To see Him live, that is what I lived for.
When He died we were all in shock. It all happened so fast! As I walked to His tomb, I remember with each step struggling to believe our reality- our Teacher was dead. My grief turned to panic when I saw that to stone had been rolled away and his body was gone! Jesus’ body was gone!
The gardener heard my crying and I begged him, “Tell me where my Lord’s body had been taken. Please!” Through my tears, I heard the gardener say my name. He said, “Mary”. As soon as He said my name I knew. This was my Lord, who’s dead body I had come to embalm- talking to me- ALIVE! Jesus is ALIVE! He is the resurrection and the life. He said He was and now we know that He is! He is life for me, for all of us. He is life for you!
The grave was empty because Christ is no longer dead.
That is how word of the resurrection spread. People saw the empty tomb or heard of the empty tomb, or met Jesus after the resurrection and they told others. Each person seems to have responded differently, which makes sense when you think about it.
But let me back up. What you realize when you read the accounts is that no one expected the resurrection. Mary Magdalene did not expect an empty tomb. She worried about who would remove the stone, but after that she expected to further anoint the body of her rabbi and lord. She saw the empty tomb and thought one thing: they have stolen the body and are trying to further disgrace Jesus.
She ran too tell the other disciples and her words came as shock to them. Immediately some of them, Peter and the one described as the disciple whom Jesus loved run to the tomb.
Like John we believe because this is Jesus and he is the resurrection:
Most people believe that the man described as the “disciples whom Jesus loved” is John, also the author of the gospel. It is not certain but I am going to call him John because “disciples whom Jesus loved,” it too long. Nicknames should be short or they should be discarded. John runs to the tomb and see that it is empty, but the narrative goes out of the way to say that John saw and believed. For John this was the final event that made sense of everything that Jesus said, did and was.
This is Jesus we are talking about. If anyone could come back from the dead it was him. We have seen him heal. We have heard his claims. Yes everyone who loses a friend wants to see the friend come back. Everyone who grieves wants to know that the person lives on. But this is different. This is not just anyone. The whole account of the gospel, the whole flow of the Bible, indeed, the basis of monotheism is the truth that God exists and is able to intervene in our world. John see this not just as an empty tomb, but as Jesus’ empty tomb.
This is the Jesus who called him,
who declared himself through the miraculous catch of fish,
who healed lepers
and raised Lazarus from the grave.
He was the one who opened up the scriptures
and who washed their feet,
who forgave the one crucifying him.
He is the one that the Baptist called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” What does a lamb do at Passover? It is sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins. For John, the empty tomb made all of these threads come together, which is why he believed when he saw. He had been with Jesus when he died. He saw all of the signs; he saw the world go dark.
Maybe you are like John. The empty tomb is not a legend that is understood in isolation, but it is the end of a story that begins with creation and ends with God restoring all things. It is also the climactic account of the gospels which have been trying to tell us from the very first pages that Jesus is unique. He is the Son of God, the light of the world, the resurrection. He tells Mary I am returning to my Father and Your Father to my God and Your God. In other words I have done something that stands alone. I have come from the father and I am returning. Normal people do not talk like this.
John sees that something great has happened but he does not understand everything; the author makes it clear that he does not understand how the scripture required Jesus to rise from the dead. But this resurrection is in continuity with who Jesus claimed to be. The only thing left to do is to follow him.
Many people are like John. Its not that they believe that people rise from the dead, it is that they believe this person, Jesus, who is unlike anyone else, rose from the dead because God is alive. The empty tomb is a sign for the whole world.
But as important as it is to believe in the resurrection — foundational to being a Christian, one of the things God wants you to know — it is still only a first step in your spiritual journey. The Mary part of this story is equally important. Let me show you what I mean.
Like Mary we remember that though he is God he knows each one of us.
Jesus didn’t just “break into history” as both “son of man and Son of God.” He came for you. This scene in the garden between Mary and Jesus reminds us that while the themes of Easter are cosmic and universal, they are also personal. What I mean is that Jesus not only conquered death, he knows your name.
Mary came to the tomb to commemorate Jesus, to remember him, even to pay homage to him. She did not come to the tomb to follow Jesus or to be his disciple. You can’t be the disciple of a dead person. She came out of respect. And there is a very good chance that many of you came here this morning to pay your respects, to pay homage to a great man who told us to love one another and died too soon. If you came for the reason you are in good company. But you need to know that Jesus is a living person, the second person of the Trinity, the son of God and knows your name. This is different from honoring Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln, which can inspire good behavior and give us wisdom.
When Mary hears her name she recognized that Jesus was alive. It was him, her master, her rabbi, her friend. She was not just remembering him but she could now love him. The resurrection means that Jesus is alive and that you can have a relationship with him. This is why it is so important to realize that he knows your name: the resurrection is personal
And yet it would be different. He is returning to the Father, so he was alive but his mission here is done and now he needed to leave the mission to his followers. For some of you, this is what you are being called to – not will you remember, but will you follow. If Jesus were here, physically, and he called your name, what do you think he would say after that?
Don’t be afraid.
Why do you run from me?
How did you get here?
For many of us who call ourselves Christians, the thing that gets us is not that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but that Jesus also died for me. What amazes me every morning is that God is God, over every person, place and time. He rules the universe, but he also welcomes me. Prayer becomes easy, well, easier, when you understand that God welcomes you, knows your name and he says “come speak with me.” This is why so many of us call what we have a “relationship with God.” Because we believe that God knows us and despite how crazy it is, he hears us and he guides us.
But perhaps it is not that simple for you. maybe you can imagine God knowing you or even Jesus speaking to you, but you do not hear good words. Maybe the reality of the resurrection and the personal knowledge of you is crowded out by your guilt or shame. It is not that hard to imagine – consider the other person in this account.
Like Peter we rejoice that the resurrection is about him forgiving us who have failed him
Where is Peter?
Peter goes to the tomb with the beloved disciple and he sees that it is empty. He sees the grave clothes and the burial clothes. He knows that if the body had been stolen the grave clothes would not have been left behind in this manner. He saw Lazarus raised by Jesus a few weeks earlier and he came out in the grave clothes. Here it was obvious that someone rose, laid the grave clothes aside and left the tomb.
Mary has seen him and John believes but what about Peter? What must he have been thinking?
“Even if Jesus has risen he would never want to see me because I have failed.”
Peter had denied Jesus even while he had bragged – there is no other way to say it – he had bragged that he would follow Jesus even to death. And then, when challenged, he had failed. And he was challenged by a servant girl. Jesus had seen right through him. Jesus had said “you will deny me.” And he did. So while the resurrection might be good news for someone else, it could not be good news for him. He would certainly be cast away and the kingdom would begin with someone more deserving, more capable, more humble, less, less of a total loser.
And then Jesus was there in the room with them.
Shalom. That was the word he spoke –shalom — peace with you. He showed them his hands and his sides and they knew it was him. But the message he gave them was not about victory or conquering the world. It was not a challenge to be the best they could be. It was a message of forgiveness and the power they would have through the Holy Spirit. This phrase, “he breathed on them and he said, receive the Holy Spirit”, could just as equally be “he breathed and he said to them receive the Holy Spirit.” In other words this is the way John records Jesus saying “you will receive power from on high.“
He sends us as he was sent. Go into the world and live with them. Use their language and walk with them and share life with them as I have done with you. The power you will have will be the power of the Holy Spirit and the message will be forgiveness. I take this to mean, you tell them how to be forgiven, which is to receive the forgiveness and the atonement that Jesus offers. If they receive me they are forgiven. If they reject me there is no forgiveness. Tell them that.
Today if you want the forgiveness that Jesus offers, tell him that you want his death to cover, to remove your sins. You want to put your sinful self on the cross with him and he will make you a new you. if you do that God forgives you completely. If you reject Jesus, I have no follow up offer. That is what I think Jesus meant.
And so you see Peter had to come to terms with forgiveness to rejoice in the resurrection. He had to realize that Jesus had come to save a wretch just like me. In this sense Jesus did not just conquer death — he conquered death for you. and he did not just die for the sins of the world he died for your sins. And he did not just come for people like Mary who were faithful to him to the last minute, he came for sinners like you and like me, people who have failed him and sinned against him. That is the message of the gospel