The Disciple Jesus Loved
Easter 2017, John 20:1-18, Good Shepherd
The Rev. Mark A. G. Huffman
The author of John’s gospel could have written a less complicated story. “Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved went to the tomb. The tomb was empty and they saw the linen wrappings lying there and believed that Jesus had risen from the dead! Hallelujah!” And they all lived happily ever after.
But of course life and death, faith and doubt, you and I are more complicated than that. By being honest about those complications I believe John’s gospel reveals that there is room faith and doubt, you and I and a variety of responses to the empty tomb and the Easter story and that they are all covered by God’s saving, death conquering promise.
First there is Mary. Though the disciples and apostles who are identified as such in the gospels are all male; with one exception it is only Jesus female followers who are with him when he dies and without exception only the women come to visit his tomb on the first Easter morning. Not without good reason the men are all hiding in fear, but not the women. And so it is the women who have this time honored place as the first to hear the news that Jesus is risen , the first to see the risen Jesus, the first to proclaim the good news of God’s Easter victory.
In John’s gospel it is Mary all alone who comes to Jesus tomb on that very first Easter “while it was still dark.” While “dark” is certainly meant to describe a night that has not quite yet given way to the new day, it certainly also describes Mary. She is “in the dark.” Jesus is dead and she comes to the tomb in the intense darkness of her grief when it is still heartbreakingly fresh – replaying no doubt the horrifying scenes and images of Jesus violent, agonized, humiliating death by crucifixion over and over in her mind.
John’s gospel doesn’t tell us why she comes to the tomb. The body had already been prepared for its burial by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea when they placed it in the tomb the day before, so it wouldn’t be for that.
Perhaps she is drawn by the same things that draw us to the tombs of our beloved dead. We go to grieve. To remember. To seek some sense of peace. We know they aren’t really there, and it doesn’t really satisfy but it’s as close as we can get to the one we loved, the one we’ve lost.
While it was still dark it’s not so dark that Mary can’t see that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty.
We know this is good news. The stone was rolled away. The tomb is empty. They’ve become phrases we use to proclaim God’s Easter victory.
But Mary is still in the dark. Indeed her darkness, her grief, her wretchedness only become deeper. He’s not only dead, but they’ve stolen his body she tells Peter and the other disciple. Even in death she wails and rails in anger and anguish they won’t leave him alone.
Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb. And we have this funny scene of the other disciple outrunning Peter and getting to the tomb first, but then while he pauses at the entrance to catch his breath and look before his leaps Peter comes chugging along and without stopping just barges on into the tomb ahead of him. One of the early church fathers, from the first centuries of Christianity, Ishodad of Merv says that the reason the beloved disciple was able to outrun Peter was because he wasn’t married.
Be that as it may, Peter and the other disciple have very different responses to the empty tomb. They both go in. They both see the tomb is empty. They both see the “linen wrappings lying there and the cloth that had been on Jesus head not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” But whether or not it’s Peter’s marriage again that causes it, they don’t respond the same.
Peter doesn’t seem to know what to make of it. The text tells us that after seeing for himself that the tomb was indeed empty he just returned to his home. We don’t know if he shares Mary’s fear that someone has stolen the body, but one way of the other the empty tomb apparently does nothing for Peter. It doesn’t necessarily deepen his grief but neither does it inspire his faith. Indeed, it won’t be until Peter has encountered the risen Jesus three times and had a long and painful conversation with Jesus as they walk along a beach by the Sea of Galilee that Peter’s abandonment and denial of Jesus is finally healed and made whole and he could be said to believe.
However, unlike Peter and Mary as well, the Beloved Disciple on seeing the empty tomb has a very different response. The text tells us “he saw and believed.”
Why? How? Peter and Mary see exactly what he sees but they don’t believe. In fact soon Mary will see angels in the tomb and yet continue to weep. What makes it possible for the Beloved Disciple to see what the others can’t see. To believe not based on the fullness of an encounter with Jesus risen presence but on the emptiness of his tomb.
I’ve wondered if it’s not his “belovedness” that makes it possible. Only John’s gospel distinguishes this one follower of Jesus as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Whatever else this strange and unique designation may mean I think it means that he’s the one who had no doubt that Jesus loved him.
Through Jesus he knows he is loved. He knows it’s about love. That life, God, even what’s happened to Jesus is somehow about love. Somehow love is behind everything – even Jesus suffering and death. Love is the source and the destiny of all things – God’s desire to love us. God’s longing to love the world through us, and he knows and believes it.
Like the others surely he didn’t understand why Jesus had to suffer and die, indeed why any of us have to suffer and to die. But when he sees the tomb is empty he intuitively knows it’s not because the body was stolen, it’s because something good has happened. Love has happened. Love has done this. Love has come again. He may not fully understand the how and what of it all but he knows the why. Love – that’s why the tomb is empty.
St. Augustine once said it’s not so much that we believe through seeing but that that we see through believing. The beloved disciple believes that nothing can separate us from God’s love not even death and so he is able to see that the empty tomb is not a reason to weep, not an ambiguous or confusing reality – it’s a sign of Love’s victory.
Unlike Mary he doesn’t yet know what to do with it. Like Peter he too just returns to his home to mull it over. But he believes.
And then once again there is Mary. Weeping outside Jesus tomb. She bends over to look into the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus body had lain. But not even the shining presence of angels can lighten her darkness. They might as well have been garden gnomes for all the impact they have on her. It’s one of the few times in scripture when the first thing an angel says isn’t “Do not be afraid” because apparently she’s not. She’s too overcome with her grief even to be afraid in the presence of angels. “Woman, why are you weeping?” is all they say to her.
Then she realizes she’s not alone. There is someone in the Garden with her. Whether because of her tears or because something is altered about him, she supposes him to be the Gardener. Which when you think about it isn’t entirely wrong.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the Lord tended and walked in the garden paradise he had created for us until we ruined it. Now in the new creation that Easter brings the Gardener has come again to tend and walk among us. It’s not the paradise it once was, but the Gardener’s risen presence is the promise that it will be.
“Mary!” Improbably, impossibly the life that had been extinguished, the light that had died, the love that had been lost forever was calling her by name once more. Not a disembodied voice from beyond the grave; not a flashing angel touching down for an instant before disappearing once more, but the flesh and blood voice of love, of the one she loved, of life not just in the next world but with her once more in this world as well. “Mary!” called the light the darkness cannot overcome, the love that will not let us go, the life that is not conquered even by death.
Who are you in this story? Where are you this Easter?
Perhaps like Mary you are burdened by sadness or suffering. Perhaps like Mary you are struggling with something or someone that seems hopeless. You need more than an empty tomb. You need Love, Life, Hope to show himself; you need to hear him call you by name in a real, embodied, directly related to your struggles way.
Perhaps like Peter you have come once again to visit the empty tomb, to hear the Easter story but it doesn’t do anything for you. It doesn’t make things worse but it doesn’t make them better either. Life is complicated. Your life is complicated. It’s going to take more than Easter Sunday to untangle and work through the things that you’ve done or have been done to you before you can really understand why the tomb is empty; before you can believe in the risen Jesus; before you can trust that Jesus rose for you too.
Or perhaps you are like the other disciple – the songs, the story, the sacrament, the circle of Christian community that surrounds you this morning. You see and believe. You believe and so can see the love of God pouring out of everything and everyone, this morning.
Whoever you are there is no judgement. There’s only promise. It’s not wrong or bad to be Peter or Mary that’s certainly not the point of the story. By the end of the story – the end of John’s gospel – not just the other disciple but Mary and Peter too, will believe Jesus died and rose for them. Whoever you are that’s the promise of this story for you too – that this is your story and that Mary or Peter though you may be there is in the end nothing that can separate you from God’s love – not your doubt or your despair, not even death.
Truth be told whether your name is Peter or Mary or John or Sarah you are the Beloved Disciple. You are, we are all, the one whom Jesus loves. Your journey to faith and faithfulness may be more complicated than it is for your stand in in the Easter story. You may need to hear him call you by name. You may need him to work on you some so you can work through the doubts and difficulties life has thrown your way. But you are no less beloved for it. And the promise of Easter is that because you are the beloved disciple, God’s beloved child, the God we know in Jesus isn’t going to stop, rising and loving and forgiving until you believe it too and can see in and through your life the signs of Love’s victory. Amen.