The Incredible Hope: An Easter Reflection
From last Sunday to today, for this Holy Week, we have been reflecting on all that is incredible about the final week of Jesus' life.
We started last Sunday with the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. The crowds gathered to celebrate his coming among them. They lauded him as their king and gave thanks to God for Jesus. How quickly their loud acclamation changed to cries and shouts for his crucifixion?
From that peak, the story quickly descends into the betrayal of Jesus by his close friends. Jesus gathered his family and called a number of others around himself as his students. For this they were very grateful and followed Jesus on his travels throughout the towns and villages of Galilee, as he shared the good news of God's kingdom coming among them. They learned the most as they watched Jesus in action and received the warmth and kindness of his care and concern for them.
This group we refer to as Jesus' disciples. After carefully nurturing this group over three years, how dismayed he must have felt when they betrayed him so easily. Some betrayed Jesus with a purpose in mind; others simply because they were protecting themselves. Nevertheless, their betrayal would have weighed heavily on his heart --- emotional suffering we would call it today. Not only emotionally did Jesus suffer because their betrayal culminated in Jesus' arrest, trial, conviction, and death by crucifixion.
So, we left the story, on Friday, gazing up at the cross, as did the disciples so many years ago. Entering into their memory, we can almost sense the pain they would have felt at knowing that Jesus' last interaction with them was knowing their betrayal --- they didn't even get to say goodbye. Their hope was lost as the body of the one they assumed to be the Christ was placed delicately in a stone grave.
In our favour is the fact that we reflect on this story from a position post-Easter. We know that the story did not end on what we now call Good Friday, just as Jesus was able to endure those painful events precisely because he knew that his story would not end there. Jesus experienced these events from a human frame of reference, yet having a divine perspective. That perspective enabled him to imagine the results, and the many that would benefit, so that he could walk boldly towards that cross.
This is a glorious mystery. Let us now step forward into that portion of the story which makes all the difference for us. Let us proceed from Jesus' betrayal, through his crucifixion, into an incredible hope!
The biblical passage that I would like us to explore this morning is found in The Gospel of John. So follow along as I read the passage Jn 20:1-18:
Read biblical passage aloud from Bible at hand.
In this passage, the focus is on the response of his disciples to the news of Jesus' resurrection. Surprisingly, they did not all respond in the same way. Interestingly, it is the collision of despair and faith which paves the way for belief and hope.
The Resurrection of Jesus
In John's account of Jesus' resurrection (Jn 20 1-18), the lone figure of Mary Magdalene approached the tomb (:1-2). Her approach would have been in respectful trepidation: Her Lord had died, the focus of her hope; but his body needed tending. Out of love, admiration, and respect, she opted to provide the care required, although she would most certainly have preferred that it was not necessary.
Her first approach represents the first response: She saw that tomb was opened, but did not draw near. She quickly assumed that the body had been stolen, humiliated, desecrated. She jumped to conclusions without knowing for certain what had really happened because she failed to research the situation fully.
Too often, people we know have all sorts of opinions and judgements about faith in Christ, but have not spared a moment to actually research the truth. They prefer their ignorant conclusions and spare no time to consider the alternatives or the implications.
Two disciples approach the tomb (:3-10), as a result of Mary's report, and represent the second and third responses. As an aside, I love the subtle posturing of John, who fails to name himself in his account, but certainly puts himself in a good light, as the fastest runner, etc.
Posturing aside, John reached the tomb first, but did not go in. He looked in and saw the evidence of Jesus' resurrection, but was still too full of fear to approach properly. He saw the evidence, but did not draw close.
John's first response is the second of our four, and is akin to the academic of religion, but who remains a non-believer (aka partipants in the infamous Jesus Seminar). They look into the things of God, but remain detached and dare not get to close, else they discover truth and believe.
Peter's response, followed by John's second, represents our third category of responses. They enter the tomb and study the evidence. Peter and John are here akin to the dutiful Christian, who performs their religious duties, hears the words describing Jesus, but turns away unaffected (cf. James 1:23-24. They would certainly say that they believe --- and probably do --- but to no avail as far as spiritual transformation is concerned.
Peter and John believe, but they remain confused, "for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead" (:9). They take the resurrection for granted; just as I am taking for granted that they actually believed that Jesus was resurrected.
Mary reported to the disciples that "they have taken the Lord out of the tomb [...]" (:2a). When the account tells us that John "believed" (:8b), it does not state specifically that he believed that Jesus was resurrected. From the context of the passage, we would probably be more correct in assuming that Peter and John believed that Jesus' body had been stolen. Their belief in the resurrection came later.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Mary remains outside the tomb after the other two disciples returned to their homes (:11-18). Why did she remain? Because it was now confirmed that Jesus' body was indeed gone. Thinking that it had been stolen, Mary was devastated. Her Lord and hope was dead and now his body had been desecrated. Her emotional suffering was now complete; so she wept.
Interestingly, it is only at this point that she looks into the tomb herself. Remember that earlier she had only witnessed the tomb entrance having been opened. Now, despite her grief, her curiosity takes over, that same morbid curiosity that makes most of us slow down our cars as we pass the scene of an accident. To her surprise, she found that there was two angels in the tomb where Jesus' body was supposed to be.
Can you imagine her fright? But they spoke tenderly to her, asking after her grief, and she repeats her earlier statement to the disciples: "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him" (:13; cf. :2). Despite the fact that she now felt that the body had indeed been stolen, she expressed her yearning to find the body and tend to it, and she had earlier planned.
Then Jesus appeared and spoke tenderly to Mary. Her consistent desire to draw near to her Lord, even though he was now only a stolen corpse, revealed her sincerity and authenticity of faith. This fourth response hearkens back to Jesus' explication of the Beatitudes (Mt 5 1-12):
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted [...]
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled [...]
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Rom 5 6-8).
Mary certainly was all these things and became the first one to see Jesus in his resurrection. All glory, majesty, and honour are his! Praise be to God!
Mary did not understand what was happening around her; at first she hesitated to find out, but eventually her longing compelled her to seek out her God, and she found him. Of course, in her overwhelming joy she reached out to him to express her worship and affection, but was rebuffed.
I can't exactly explain why John records that Jesus hesitated at her advances, other than to say that, like the rest of this chapter indicates, John's Jesus is more concerned with helping her to believe, which she already did. The verses that follow our chosen passage describe Jesus as interacting with other disciples in different ways so as to also help them believe --- showing his hands to the disciples (:20); inviting Thomas to actually touch his wounds (:27) --- which John declares at the end of the chapter, to be the express purpose of his entire gospel:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believed that Jesus is the Messiah,e the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20 30-31).
This passage describes four different possible responses to the good news of Jesus' resurrection, only one of which leads to saving belief in Jesus --- that is the belief that follows an encounter with the living Christ!
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
I could take up a lot of your time right now given you all the data and evidence that supports the contention that Jesus did in fact come back to life: The empty tomb, the grave clothes, his appearances to his disciples, etc. But you could hear all the evidence, even see the artifacts for yourself, and still not truly believe.
But if, like Mary, you hear the evidence and then yearn longingly for the implications of Jesus' resurrection to be real in your life, then you will find God! Better yet, I guarantee that God will make himself known to you! How can I make such a claim? Because John earlier recorded the most famous verse in the Bible, which tells us:
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 (Jn 3 16).
Given all the crap --- pardon my language of realism --- that Jesus had to suffer in the week prior to this point, why would he be willing to endure the betrayal and the pain? I can only explain using an illustration, borrowed from a famous UK evangelist by the name of J John:
I have here a crisp, new 20 dollar note. I think that it's pretty special, and it is worth exactly 20 Australian dollars.
Now what if I were to crumple it up? How much is it now worth? It is still worth exactly 20 Australian dollars.
What if I were throw it on the ground, step on it, and perhaps even jump on it a few times, and rub it in the filthiest dirt that I could find? How much is it worth in that state? Exactly 20 Australian dollars! (and soon to be worth more in American dollars)
In God's eyes, we will always be worth so much to him --- regardless of the depths to which we fall and soil ourselves --- that he will always be willing to do whatever it takes so that we can be reconciled to him --- even if it means becoming a human and enduring the worst. From a human frame of reference, this is a glorious mystery; from a divine perspective, it was and always will be worth it.
Ok, so he loves us. Isn't that enough? Unfortunately, no. Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection are a wonderful gift that must be received through faith and belief. Real faith and real belief. There are no half-measures and no "what if I'm a good person"-sort of excuses! But look at the benefits of belief: Eternal life!
Now lest you think that only comes into effect after our death, remember that not long after the utterance of the statement recorded as John 3:16, Jesus qualified this phrase "eternal life" by stating "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (10). This qualification actually expands "eternal life" so that it starts now, with belief now. The choice is yours.
From Jesus' betrayal we are led through the cross and into an incredible hope. That hope comes from knowing that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection mean something. We can believe that Jesus is exactly who he said he was and demonstrated himself to be. We can know God's forgiveness and be filled with his love when we believe that all that Jesus went through was for us. That incredible hope fills us with confident awareness that life is worth so much more than it appears because God said it was so.
Will you believe?