believing without understanding

John 20:1-10

Good morning.
And it is a good morning, isn’t it?
Just because it’s Easter.
And a happy Easter Sunday to you all.

What a week it’s been!
Thursday evening we gathered
remembering the last supper—
all the sadness and anger, the love and hope.
Friday, Jesus died—
we killed him again—
allowed the darkness to overwhelm the light—
extinguished the light that illuminated too much.
Yesterday, reflecting on the disciplines and traditions of our faith,
we wondered what they mean
within the silence of God.
And today?
Today we proclaim, “He is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”
That’s our first affirmation today

I decided to list affirmations today.
It’s a good day for affirmations, don’t you think?
So that’s, appropriately, our first one.
He is risen!
“He is risen indeed!”

And in the context of reflecting back on our week,
that affirmation is the affirmation of the church year, isn’t it?
Based on Scripture,
but not conforming to any particular telling of the story,
right?
Because there are four different tellings of the Jesus story
(more if you count some of the epistles),
and the church year is a generic story—
an assimilation as the story of our tradition
expressed in liturgy.

Our second affirmation comes to us out of our experience—
particularly where our experience runs into the church year—
slams into it.
Because as we consider the last few days
in the liturgy of our church,
in the tradition of the church,
in the story narrated in and by the church year,
what was once a chronology (an unfolding story)
is now truth—our truth,
and where we are in the story varies.
That’s our second affirmation.

And what that means
is that even on Easter Sunday morning,
there are those crucifying Jesus—
even in Easter Sunday morning worship
amidst alleluias, flowering crosses and easter hats.

As baptists, you know, I hope
that we stand for the principle
of the separation of church and state.
Someone posted on facebook a while back
the suggestion we stand for the principle
of the separation of church and hate!
For as long as the church speaks hate and discrimination—
as long as the church does not confront
those speaking hate and discrimination,
it does not live the Easter it celebrates.
iI lives Good Friday claiming Easter.

The story as our truth
also means that there are today
those yet grieving the God they can’t find—
maybe the God they once knew, but gave up on,
maybe the God they’ve been longing to know,
but can’t find,
maybe the God who can’t penetrate the grief
or the anger that surrounds them.
Of course, the story as our truth
also means Jesus is alive—
that love lives.

What our story affirms is the truth of the details of this story—
the truth of love and the truth of the betrayal of love,
the truth of grief and a world of pain,
of death—
and of resurrection.
It affirms all that,
but not the time frame for our experience of it.
That it has all happened
does not mean it has all happened for me.
That’s the affirmation of our experience talking to our liturgy.

We move with our third affirmation
into the affirmation of the ongoing conversation of our worship
as we begin today our EasterTide worship series.
You’ve probably noticed we do a lot of worship series.
They highlight the ongoingness of our worship conversation—
the ideas too big for any one service—
the ideas that build on each other—
that develop—that grow—
that are in conversation with each other.
How very important to affirm a conversation too big to finish—
to important to end.
Easter takes more than a day.
It actually takes more than a season too,
but a season’s better than a Sunday!

The fourth affirmation comes from the larger story of Scripture.
We often miss the larger story focusing as we do
on some smaller selection in closer detail.
So we’re very intentionally looking at more
than the first ten verses of the 20th chapter of John’s gospel.
Through EasterTide, we’re going to consider the whole chapter.
Because John tells stories no one else does.
And tells stories like no one else does either.

And I’m going to tell you right here at the beginning
where we’re going with all this.
Through the weeks to come,
and through the series of resurrection stories in this chapter,
I invite you to notice that
while all the experiences are different,
yet though different, all related.
So Mary gets Peter and the beloved disciple,
and they leave Mary at the tomb where she encounters Jesus.
Then Mary tells the disciples;
then Jesus comes to the disciples,
but Thomas wasn’t there,
so Jesus comes again with Thomas present.
And one story leads to another,
and the characters weave through the chapter
as different stories are woven together in resurrection affirmation—
related in the intertwining of the different experiences.

So I’m going to end up suggesting
that we get too hung up on agreeing about stuff—
on needing particular words or images or affirmations—
a particular way of talking about resurrection—
a way of understanding it—
affirming it,
when within our Scripture—our sacred texts,
different people had very different experiences
as part of their faith journey—
as part of their relationship with Jesus,
and that was okay.
That’s affirmed in our sacred text.
That’s an incredibly important affirmation

We’ve gotten too interested, I’m afraid, in determining
what someone’s religious experience should be—
how someone should “know” Jesus.
gotten more invested in what they should believe,
than we have in the energy and potential
of ongoing conversations and insights
stemming from the celebration of different experiences.

We talk about personal relationships with Jesus,
but then want them to conform to some ideal paradigm—
some normative dogma,
instead of honoring what personal means—
in part, different for everyone.

As part of this, I’d like to suggest
we have made belief too much about understanding.
Not sure I’ve ever told you all
how much I wanted to believe before I did—
before I could.
I was, after all, a preacher’s kid—a missionaries’ kid,
and my sister was baptized before me—
my younger sister.
I remember so specifically at a church in Tennessee
(we were on furlough),
at the end of a worship service—
every head bowed, every eye closed,
“If you have not accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, raise your hand.”
I did.
“Now if you believe that Jesus will save you, leave your hand up.”
I did.
Because I did.
“Then come forward and accept Jesus as your lord and savior.”
And my hand slowly came down.
There was a step missing there.
I couldn’t go forward.
I didn’t understand.

Then, in high school,
during a worship service in a small Swiss baptist church,
actually not paying any attention to the sermon (ignore that part!),
I experienced light.
Not sure how else to describe it.
Call it a baptism of light—
an embrace.
Call it an illumination.
Now please understand, I still didn’t understand,
but I believed.

And have never doubted since.
I still don’t understand.
I’ve rejected God since.
I’ve been very, very angry at God since.
But have never doubted.
Maybe I yet will,
and that would be fine—
part of the faith journey.
Might make for some interesting sermons!

So as much as I love to think through Scripture—
think about Scripture,
it’s never about understanding it.
You know that, don’t you?
It’s about loving it—affirming it—celebrating it—
exploring it—playing with it.
It’s about a certainty that does not come from facts,
but a deep sense of truth.
That’s another affirmation.

So with affirmations in hand from our tradition (the church year)
from our experience, our worship,
several from the larger context of Scripture,
our next affirmations comes from our particular text—
those first ten verses of the 20th chapter of John.

And while I started numbering them—
started with the idea that I might even end up with seven,
now they start coming fast and furious.
So … enjoy!

Our story is one that begins with what we look for in the dark.
Because there are lots of options!
While all four gospels have women at the tomb
early in the morning,
this is the only gospel that specifically indicates
it was still dark.
And in the dark, Mary went looking for Jesus.
Not really, right? I mean he was dead.
She went to his grave.
She didn’t have anywhere else to go
to be close to the one she so missed.
Most of the places in Jerusalem
had taken on negative associations in the last week.
Maybe she would have gone back to the room
where they celebrated the last supper,
but the restaurant was closed,
or maybe it was that same upper room where the disciples were,
but she didn’t want to be around them.
She just wanted to be somewhere—
somewhere she could be physically connected to Jesus—
to remember.
To grieve.
To cry.
And she saw the stone rolled away.

And because this isn’t a cheap predictable horror movie,
she didn’t go into the open tomb by herself!
She ran off to find others instead.
Specifically Peter and the beloved disciple.

Allow me to point out several things I find interesting.
Peter’s obviously portrayed
as a leader and representative of the disciples in all four gospels,
while the beloved disciple is the invisible man in the synoptics
(Raymond E. Brown, A Risen Christ in Eastertime
[Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991] 67),
and even in the fourth gospel
is never mentioned by name—
only by the nature of his relationship with Jesus.
Maybe because he’s valued only in relationship with Jesus—
not in terms of his own identity his own status—
not as leader as representative—
who he will be in the early church—
what role he will play.
So they represent two kinds of important,
and we’ve tended to focus on the Peter kind of important,
but Mary knew she needed to find both—
or that she would find them both together.
Maybe they knew their mutual significance!

The two disciples ran to the tomb,
and the beloved disciple outran Peter,
but didn’t go in first.
Peter went in first
(John’s version of the first shall be last?!),
but the one who went in last
believed first
(and the last shall be first?!).

It’s funny how that’s been interpreted through the years.
Some say that this part of the story means
that the beloved disciple was younger and so faster.
Why that might be considered important, I have no idea!
Or maybe he wasn’t faster at all, but knew a shortcut!
Maybe was from Jerusalem?
None of which seems important either.
Some have suggested that Peter represented Jewish christianity
and the beloved disciple gentile christianity!
Or the one the Petrine tradition and the other Johannine!
Whatever!

In terms of what’s important,
I’d say, first, it wasn’t a race!
And the fact that we turn it into one
says more about us than about this story.

In terms of what’s important,
I’d go back to the fact that Mary chose these two.
These are the two she sought out.
She went to them.
As different as they are, they were both chosen.
That seems important to me—both kinds of important.
Mary trusted them—
both.

Also interesting,
the development of what’s seen.
You ever played that name game
where I say, “My name is John,”
and then Rae says, “His name is John, and mine is Rae,”
and then Dawn says, “His name is John,
and hers is Rae, and mine is Dawn?”
It’s a memory game, isn’t it?

Mary saw the stone rolled away.
The beloved disciple saw the stone rolled away
and the linen wrappings.
Peter saw the stone rolled away, the linen wrappings
and the cloth from around Jesus’ head.

Don’t forget any of this now.
It’s all important.

And so, of course, there are also the interpretations of the cloths.
Some say their presence undermines the possibility of grave robbers
(Mary’s concern, remember?).
Why would they take the time to unwrap the body?
Others see clues to how resurrection happened—
suggesting that Jesus dematerialized!
Of course, it could be,
seeing as how those specific items were mentioned
earlier in John’s gospel
in the story of Lazarus—
that we’re simply supposed to remember
that he came out of the tomb still wearing all his grave clothes—
all things he would need again (John 11:44).
There’s something qualitatively different going on here with Jesus,
our story suggests (Brown, 69).

So, after Peter had seen all there was to see,
then the beloved entered and, we read,
saw and believed.

Both verbs he “saw” and he “believed”
do not have objects.
So what did he see?
Did he see just an empty tomb?
Did he just see the rolled away stone, the linen wrappings
and the cloth from around Jesus’ head?
What did he believe?
Did he believe what Mary had said,
that the tomb was empty?
That seems kind of easy and obvious and meaningless to me,
but that was Augustine’s interpretation
(Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible:
A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX

[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 841)!

For to say he believed in the resurrection is to rush the story
(O’Day).
Here in this first story of the chapter, after all,
we have no risen Jesus to encounter,
no angels in garments of light hanging around the empty tomb
offering reassuring words of explanation or command.
“He is risen.”
“He has gone before you.”
“Get thee to Galilee.”

What did the beloved disciple see?
The truth.
The enduring truth of Jesus.
The truth of the stories he told.
The truth of what he taught—
manifest in how he lived and loved.

He saw a way of life stretching out before him—
the way of Jesus.
He saw the truth of the way of the world
and the way of Jesus—
and his life a choice.

He saw possibility—
the possibility of a world other than it was—
a world unmade and remade in the image of God.
He saw God’s work of redemption
all wrapped up in the person of Jesus—
and all wrapped up in his own living.

He saw the power of hope.
He saw the mystery of faith,
and the wonder of grace,
and the depths of love.

And what did he believe?

He believed, I believe,
what he had seen in Jesus—
what we have come across throughout Lent—
that you need to be willing to put what is on the line
for the sake of what you think should be.
And he believed the story was not over.
Was not over.
And never would be
until love beat strongly
as the heartbeat of all creation—
pulsing grace and justice
in and through all that is.

This all he saw and believed—
without any encounter with a risen Jesus,
all without understanding Scriptural teaching
of Jesus rising from the dead.

Huh.

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