The resurrection of Jesus Christ took everyone by surprise. In spite of the fact that our Lord had said he would be raised, and that he would raise up all on the Last Day, it was not something that his followers were expecting. Instead, it came as a complete shock.
Living in faith on this side of Easter, it seems easy to judge the disciples because of this. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we would have been any different. The disciples of Jesus had followed our Lord for nearly three years. They had seen him perform incredible miracles. He had fed more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. He had walked on water. Not long ago he had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. After seeing all of this, how could anyone really expect Jesus’ life and ministry to end as it did on Good Friday?
Yet Jesus had been arrested on Thursday night – betrayed by one of his own apostles. He had been condemned to death by the Jewish leaders, who then maneuvered Pontius Pilate into having Jesus crucified. Friday morning Jesus hung on a cross. On Friday afternoon he was dead. A Roman solider had made sure of this fact by piercing his side with a spear. Then in a rushed action of final love and devotion, John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had buried Jesus in a tomb before sundown on Friday. In less than twenty four hours, Jesus had gone from the Messiah they followed to a dead body in a tomb – the body of man who had been crucified.
Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ disciples. She had been there at the cross when Jesus died. She had then observed the Sabbath – Saturday. It is hard to imagine the shock and grief that she and all of Jesus’ disciples were trying to process that day. What had not changed was the love she felt for Jesus. And so we learn in our text that on the first day of the week, with the Sabbath past, Mary came to the tomb early, while it was still dark.
However, when she arrived she saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection capture the confused and frenetic nature of that morning. John tells us that “she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’” She reported to Peter and John that the tomb had been opened and someone had taken Jesus’ body.
In response to this news, Peter and John ran to the tomb. We learn that John got there first, and that when he stooped and looked in, he saw the linen clothes in which Jesus body had been buried. When Peter arrived, he entered the tomb and saw that linen clothes had been folded, and that the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face was placed off by itself. Then John entered the tomb and we learn “he saw and believed for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
Then the two disciples went back to their homes.
Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb expecting to find death. After all, that is the purpose of a tomb – it is the final resting place of a body. Jesus had died on the cross and had been buried in that tomb.
But when Jesus spoke during Holy Week about what was about to happen, he did not describe it only as death. He said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus was going to die, but this was to carry out God’s saving purpose. A little after this he went on to say, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Jesus Christ died as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – who takes away your sin. His death has yielded the fruit of freeing you from God’s wrath and judgment. We learn in this Gospel, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Or as Jesus said a little later, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Our Lord came to free us from sin. And freedom from sin means life – eternal life. Jesus referred to what was about to happen as him being glorified. During the evening of Maundy Thursday before his arrest, Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to the Father. He said this was good thing for them, because he would send the Spirit. Jesus was glorified as he carried out the Father’s saving will by dying on the cross, rising from the dead, and ascending to the Father. These are, in John’s Gospel, one movement that curves down into the tomb in death, and then up out of the tomb in resurrection and ascension.
After telling Peter and John about the tomb, Mary Magdalene had returned to where the body of Jesus had been. We learn that she was weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She replied that someone had taken away her Lord and she did not know where they had laid him.
Then Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing. However, John reports that she did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Then our Lord said to her, “Mary.” In hearing Jesus’ voice, Mary was called out of her grief as she recognized the risen Lord. She answered, “Rabboni!,” which means Teacher.
Our Lord said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
In joy Mary had taken hold of Jesus. Yet the good news about Jesus’ resurrection was something that needed to be shared. And so our Lord sent Mary to the disciples to announce that he was alive and would be ascending to the Father, just as he said he would. We learn in our text that Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and shared what Jesus had told her.
Mary went to tomb expecting death. But instead, what she found there was life. She found that Jesus lives! He has risen! And because he has, in the crucified and risen Lord we have life. We have life now, and life yet to come.
As I mentioned earlier, Jesus said, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life.” Because Jesus has risen from the dead, you already have eternal life now. As John says in his first letter, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are.” We have the life of the forgiven children God. We have fellowship with God. We belong to him, and we always will. Sin no longer stands as a barrier. Death itself cannot change this fact.
And at the same time, because Jesus has risen from the dead, we know that he will also raise us up on the Last Day. Our Lord said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I myself will raise him up on the Last Day.”
These two facts are exactly what Jesus expressed as he approached another tomb – the tomb of Lazarus. There he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Because you believe in the risen Lord you will never die. Your life with God cannot be ended by death. You have been born again of water and the Spirit, and that life with God will never end. If your body dies, you will be with Christ the risen Lord. You will live with him.
This is a great comfort as we think about our family and friends who have died believing in Jesus. It is a great encouragement to us as we face the reality of death. But at the same time, we also need to pay attention to what Jesus said to Mary: “Do not cling to me.” The risen Lord had a body that Mary could touch. Jesus’ resurrection was a resurrection of the body – a resurrection of the flesh. Though transformed so that it is now immortal and can never die again, the resurrected body of Jesus was the same body that had been buried in the tomb on Good Friday.
Jesus will do this for us as well when he returns on the Last Day. His resurrection provides the model and pattern for our own resurrection. John went on to say in his letter, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything for the disciples. We learn in our text that when John saw burial clothes folded up and the face covering set in a different place he believed that Jesus had risen. Then John adds, “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” The resurrection of Jesus opened up a new and complete understanding of the Old Testament. As we heard in the reading on Palm Sunday about the entrance into Jerusalem which fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah: “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.”
And it changed how they lived. John says in his first letter, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” It does the same thing for us. Because we know the Lord who in love laid down his life for us and rose from the dead, we too now seek to love others just as Jesus has loved us.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on the first day of the week, early while it was still dark. She went there because of death. But when she left the tomb for the second time that day, she did so because of life. She went so that she could report to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” She found that the tomb was empty, and instead she met Jesus Christ who had risen from the dead. Jesus Christ is risen. Because he is we have eternal life now – life with God that can never be taken from us. And we know that on the Last Day, Jesus will raise our bodies to be like his.