John 20: 1 – 18

Rev. Sabrina Ingram


In a study a group of radiologists were asked to examine a series of chest x-rays, to look for lung cancer.  Unknown to them an unexpected picture of a gorilla had been inserted into the x-rays. This gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.   83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it.  It’s a human tendency to see only waht we expect to see.  Has that ever happened to you?  I’m frequently amazed that I can read a scripture a thousand times and then I suddenly notice a phrase I’ve never seen before.  I saw what I thought was there, not what really was there.   While people claim that “seeing is believing” the truth is we see what we believe.  We see what we believe we are to see.


In John’s gospel he gives a real life example of this.  After his crucifixion Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb.  The Sabbath day of rest was starting so the body was quickly wrapped in burial cloths with Jesus’ head wrapped in a separate smaller cloth.  A huge rock sealed the doorway.  That Sabbath must have been a horrible day with the heaviness of grief pressing down on the hearts and souls of Jesus’ friends.   On the Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene slipped away from the group to go to the tomb to mourn.  There she discovered the stone was rolled away.   Her mind quickly processed the information.  Jesus was dead, the seal to the tomb was broken – his body must have been moved.  She went running back to the disciples and breathlessly announced, “They took the Master from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.” (vs. 2)    My heart aches for Mary when I hear that; after my Dad’s funeral the casket was immediately taken to store it until the ground thawed and he could be buried.  I had no idea where they’d taken him and I found it extremely disturbing.  Others here also know the anguish of not knowing where the body of a loved one is lying.  Mary didn’t know where Jesus had been taken or what had become of his body.


Mary’s news grabbed the attention of Peter and John who ran to the tomb.  Peter went in and saw the grave cloths lying right where Jesus’ body had been; the head wrapping was neatly folded and placed in another spot.  Either these were the tidiest tomb raiders ever or something else was going on.  John, remembering Jesus had predicted he resurrection, realized what had happened – Jesus had risen from the dead!  “He saw and believed!” (vs. 8)  John saw the evidence and the evidence informed what he believed.  But let’s have a look at poor Mary.


Most likely Mary had heard Peter and John’s report.  She had witnessed John’s excitement and heard his explanation.  But Mary, convinced Jesus was dead and had been stolen, couldn’t think differently.  In her grief, she saw what she expected to see.  Mary sat outside the tomb weeping.  After a while she got up and peered in the tomb.   John is very clear about what Mary saw, “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.” (vs. 12).  Two angels in an empty tomb and still Mary wept.  When asked by the angels, “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.” (vs. 13)   Her story is unchanged; a rolled away rock, an empty tomb, folded grave cloths, 2 angels and still Mary saw what she believed to be true: the body of Jesus had been stolen.   At that point who showed up but the risen Jesus?  Even in this face to face encounter, Mary didn’t recognize Jesus.  She mistook him for the gardener.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (vs. 15)   Still Mary saw what she was inclined to see and said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”   It wasn’t until Jesus called her by name that her eyes were opened to this new reality.


Now, I don’t judge Mary harshly.  Many people today still have trouble seeing the risen Christ.  Since people do not normally rise from the dead, our brains refuse to process the Biblical witness.  We dismiss the firsthand accounts of Peter and John and even Mary because what they saw is, in our limited understanding, simply not possible.   We know that the Romans crucified many people and so our minds accept the fact Jesus was crucified.  We see what we believe.   What are you looking for?


We can do this theologically as well as intellectually.  The Church has done this for years – many denominations have promoted images of Jesus on the cross while others emphasized the death of Jesus being God’s completed act of salvation.   The outcome of this is that we’ve fostered oppression, restriction and guilt.  The Christian walk has been turned into one of harsh criticism, mistrust of self and joyless striving to appease an angry God.  The Church has a responsibility to uphold the value of grace; as Paul emphasized we have been bought with a price and so we are to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:20).   We also have a calling to ‘rejoice in the Lord always” and it is in the resurrection of Jesus that our joy is brought to fullness and set loose.  If we believe only in our human need for redemption, we fail to see the risen Christ and all the joy his resurrection brings.  What are you looking for?


We also do this emotionally.   Our world is often violent, selfish and evil; Good Friday is where we seek transformation.    Our lives at times are so racked with guilt, grief or pain that we focus on the crucifixion as God’s one great and redeeming act.    We are perpetually looking for forgiveness.  We seek out the cross as a reminder that Jesus suffered for us.   We are mesmerized by the terrible vision which gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ torment.   I’m not minimizing Jesus’ anguish or our need for repentance.  Jesus took our sin in his body on the cross.  He died in our place.  These are profound realities which are painful to affirm.  The cross was step one in God’s plan of redemption.  Step two was resurrection – the conquering of death; the hope of victorious everlasting life.   Sometimes we’re so stuck in the negative aspects of life we can’t allow ourselves to see the blessings.  While the cross is forgiveness, the empty tomb is triumph, freedom, ceaseless living in the presence of God.  When we believe we’re unforgiveable, we see suffering, defeat and death.  We find it hard to believe that in Christ we have the opportunity to live an abundant resurrection life.  In a secret corner of our hearts we want to see the risen Christ and the strength and hope that is ours in him.  What are you looking for?


A few people have remarked on the incongruency of celebrating Holy Communion on Easter Sunday.  Communion reminds us of the death of Christ; through it we remember Jesus’ broken body and spilled blood.  In the early Church however, every Sunday was “a little resurrection” and communion was celebrated weekly.  It’s undeniable that through the act of communion we remember Jesus’ suffering on our behalf.  But remembrance isn’t the only thing that happens during communion.    As we gather around the table of our risen Lord a transition takes place; all the benefits of Christ’s resurrection come to pass.  Through communion we are united with the risen Christ who mediates between ourselves and God allowing us entrance into God’s kingdom where we are brought before the very throne of God.  We pray in Christ, and he, through his Holy Spirit, prays in us.  Our union gives us entrance into other aspects of ministry as well; not only prayer but service, mission, ministry, love – all the ways in which the kingdom of the risen Christ is present in our world.  During communion the Holy Spirit forms us into the Church, Christ’s body, at times broken and drained, but as we share in communion we’re united with Christ, with one another and with every Christian of every place and time.  Here we see God’s dream of one covenant community of love and peace.  We are drawn together in community through our communion with Christ, and we also come as individuals whom the risen Jesus knows and loves. Here we are ‘his friends” the ones for whom Jesus lay down his life.  As his faithful friends we’re not only reminded of our salvation but we are spiritually nourished so we can continue to grow to be like Jesus’ in our faith, hope and love.   This is also the sacrament of celebration; as we gather around the communion table to feast, we gather around the King’s banquet table to enjoy the wedding feast of his Son.  Here we are “raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2: 6).   As Dostoevsky said, this is the place where we “touch other worlds”.   Christ’s table is the place of greatest joy as we enter for a moment into the new heaven where peace reigns and sorrow and crying are no more.  Our Lord invites us to his table to see not only his sacrificial death but his triumphant, life-giving, hope-filled resurrection.  What are you looking for?  What will you see and believe?