Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he lay buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the third day after his death, the first Easter, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for Jesus and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.
But faith is such a tricky matter! If we but read the newspapers or watch the news coming out of Syria or Turkey or France or Belgium, it is easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would brutally kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace is dead and buried—The End! But to be honest, it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word!
We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. Paul contended with his fellow Jews trying to convince them that the Resurrection of the Messiah was foretold in scripture if only they had the eyes to see and the ears to hear the truth. Later, St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today. He wrote his Gospel for one reason and one reason only: that all generations might know the truth about what God did in his day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, honest portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted to his death and later to the mystery of the empty tomb.
The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the tomb. One disciple is forever changed; the other is merely mystified. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand. Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle (at least for now).
Mary Magdalene, who evidently didn’t even try to keep up with the boys, arrives back at the tomb. She has no real reason to be there. Jesus’ body is gone, so there is no longer a body to anoint for final burial. But here she can feel close to Jesus and grieve. Like the boys before, she peers into the dark emptiness of the tomb. But the tomb isn’t empty! She encounters a pair of messengers from God, for that is what angels are, messengers. They start up a conversation with Mary, but, before they can deliver their message, they are interrupted. Jesus himself, in a form not readily recognized even by his close companion, appears to Mary Magdalene. Why, one wonders, did Jesus interrupt the angels in the performance of their duty? Perhaps because Mary’s devotion and her grief called out to him. Perhaps only he could give her the consolation she so desperately needed. And so he came to her and called her by name. Though his glorified body was no longer immediately recognizable, Mary knew the voice of her Good Shepherd when he spoke her name.
Mary wanted to cling to her Lord. She wanted him back as her teacher and daily companion. But Jesus indicates that she must let him go, so that he may ascend to the Father. For as we are told elsewhere in the Gospel, only then can the Holy Spirit be sent to watch over the struggling Christian community. Jesus then gives Mary a commission. He makes her, in a sense, an apostle to the apostles. He sends her to carry the news to the other disciples, who are hiding out in their homes in fear and despair. She is to tell them that Jesus has been raised from the dead for their sake, and for their sake he will be ascending to the Father in Heaven. Mary fulfills her commission, prefacing Jesus’ message with her own simple testimony: “I have seen the Lord.” Perhaps they didn’t all believe, for later that evening Jesus comes to a group of disciples hiding from the Jewish authorities and reveals himself to them as well. (But I am getting ahead of myself. That is the Gospel for next Sunday!)
Some Christians, even some priests, have difficulty with the story of Jesus’ resurrection. I have heard folks tell me that the story of the Resurrection is a beautiful metaphor for how God can bring good out of evil. And I will admit that some stories in the Bible, stories that convey deep truths, are probably not based on historical fact. The story of Adam and Eve comes to mind. But, in my humble opinion, the Resurrection story is both true and factual. Granted, the story, taken in isolation, might not convince a jury in a court of law. Nor can it be verified in a scientist’s laboratory. But that is not to say that there is no evidence to its historicity! Ironically, the most convincing evidence is the fact that the first person to see the Risen Lord was a woman. If the disciples, or the early church, had decided to fabricate a story from whole cloth about Jesus’ returning from the dead, you can bet your bottom dollar that the witnesses in that story would have been men—and only men! First-century Palestine was thoroughly patriarchal, and the testimony of a woman counted for very little.
Moreover, if the Resurrection were a hoax and a fraud, it is inconceivable that the disheartened band of disciples would regroup as they did and go out into the world to spread Jesus’ message at the risk of their very lives. For who would be willing to die a martyr’s death for what they knew to be a lie?
So if there is any nagging doubt in your mind about the Resurrection, let it go! Believe in your heart that Christ was raised. Trust that God’s love for you and for the world is stronger than death. Trust that the Risen Lord is just as present with you here today as he was with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb. And then act on that trust! Lay claim to the gift of eternal life!
Outside his tomb, the Resurrected One gave Mary Magdalene a commission, which she faithfully fulfilled. Well, all of us here today who are baptized have been given a commission by Jesus as well: to bear witness to Christ wherever we may be and to the best of our ability to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. The reward for our faithfulness is nothing less than eternal life with God.
We are all apostles of the Risen Lord. And frankly folks, it’s a case of all hands on deck! If you look at what’s going on in the world today, you can see how desperately the world needs to know that there is something more, that there is meaning to our existence, that evil and death do not have the final say. And it is our duty to share the hope that is in us. Granted, the task is daunting. But we are not in this alone, for the Holy Spirit has been sent to us to both comfort and inspire. And should you find yourself discouraged and out of touch with the Resurrection hope, return to today’s Gospel story from John to renew your faith. For if anything in this world is true and worthy of belief, it is this: Christ is risen!