“Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.”
When we experience something that does not make sense, we may feel alienated by the strangeness, by the unknown, but we quickly recover by interpreting the strangeness away. In fact, we hardly ever permit strangeness to linger long and for many of us the sense of wonder that may be quickened by the unfamiliar is a long lost memory of childhood. The poet or the mystic may get caught up in wonder even without the lure of oddness, but most of us seldom experience the world with the blessedness of a naïve heart. Rather than a world fresh as falling rain, we experience not the world, but our frequently unexamined interpretations of experience. The world comes our way as pre-interpreted, prepackaged sheaths of meaning that allow us to move through life a little quicker so we can get on to things we think are important or things we want to do. But occasionally we experience something so weird, so incongruous, and so unexpected that it defies interpretation because we don’t even have words and categories to talk about it. Such is the case with the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was completely new, so different from anything that had ever happened that the very newness of it disabled the disciples’ natural tendency to interpret and it took some time for the Church to know, to understand what happened on a tiny piece of real estate in Jerusalem on the first Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion.
Today we will open up the narrative and elaborate the events that shed light on what happened to Jesus on the third day after he died. And I shall begin by saying that what we call the “Resurrection” happened to Jesus. I am stating the obvious, but only because, flawed interpreters begin here, attempting to reduce the resurrection to something that happened to the disciples, not Jesus. So we begin by making it clear that the resurrection of Christ is not an artistic way of saying that his disciples were not defeated by his death. It is not the case that shortly after his mangled, dead body was placed in the tomb that his disciples decided to only think good thoughts and suddenly discovered the power of positive thinking. That did not happen. They were transformed, yes. But their transformation was a response to the very real bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
This is what happened: Jesus suffered a savage scourging and crucifixion and he died about 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, late-bloomers, wrapped his body in new linen cloths and they wrapped his face with a sudarium, what our text calls a “napkin.” That was a piece of cloth placed under the chin and tied in a knot at the top of the head of the deceased person. It was used to keep the mouth of the deceased shut. After adding about 100 pounds of spices to the lines wrapped around his body, the placed him in Joseph’s new tomb, in a garden, next to Calvary. The women who loved him, watched all this at a short distance.
Pilate, at the Pharisee’s request, dispatched a specific type of guard, the “koustodia,” or as we would say, the custodians. This was a troop of Roman soldiers, trained to establish and maintain a chain of custody for legal reasons and in this case to keep custody of the body of Jesus. The “koustodia,” sealed the tomb, thus establishing Caesar’s custody over the lifeless body of Christ. The seal itself was a cord stretched across the stone and held in place by sealing clay that was stamped with the official signet of the Roman governor. The seal meant that the tomb had been inspected by the officer of the “koustodia,” and everything was in proper order. Anyone tampering with the seal would be tampering with Roman which would be like poking a sleeping lion. All that was accomplished before sunset on Friday.
“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.”
Early on the third day, before sunrise, Mary Magdalene and other women went to the tomb in order to complete a proper Jewish burial. When they arrived the stone was rolled away, the seal broken, and the Roman soldiers were gone. Mary, probably assuming that the Romans had taken the body, ran to Peter and the other disciples, who were likely staying in the rented room in which Jesus had instituted the Eucharist, and told them that someone had taken Jesus’ body. Peter and John ran to the tomb. John beat Peter to the tomb but he waited for Peter to enter first. He saw the linen cloths scattered where Jesus was laid. And the head covering was not with the other burial cloths, but it was rolled up neatly by itself.
“Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.”
John followed and he saw what Peter saw, the grave cloths and the neatly rolled up head covering and the text says, “he saw and he believed.” What did John believe? He did not that Jesus had been resurrected. What John did believe was Mary’s report that someone had taken the body of Jesus. That is what wrote, after stating that he saw and believed, “For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” His point is that at this point the Apostles had no understanding of the resurrection. Jesus was crucified and someone has moved his body, just like Mary said. Peter and John returned to the other disciples, leaving Mary at the tomb.
Mary had not slept much if at all and her last real meal was probably with Jesus. She had seen horrific things. Her grief was agonizing. Her affect is flat. She was drained, exhausted, burned out. But, Mary mustered the courage to look into the tomb and she saw two Angles sitting there.
“But Mary stood without at the sepulcher weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulcher, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”
Ordinarily, if anyone really sees an angel it is traumatizing. In the Book of Revelation John sees an angel and he passes right out. Had Mary not been worn out from grief and fatigue she would have frozen in fear and trembling at the sight. But very little of her experience was registering. Be attentive to the text. This is the very picture of what is called clinical grief. Even when the angels speak, she answers flatly. What keeps her going, what literally enables her to put one foot in front of the other, is a single question: “Where is Jesus’ body?” Mary turned around as to walk away from the angles and Jesus was standing right there. She mistook him for the gardener and again begged for his dead body. The narrative Mary brought to his tomb, is not a resurrection narrative. Not until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary,” does she return from her oblivion. Maybe it took a few seconds to sink in but when it did she fell at his feet crying out “Master!” Without any categories to understand what was happening, without any prepackaged resurrection narrative available to her, she simply gave herself to this event and his love. No one in the world could say Mary’s name like Jesus. There are two things I want you to understand: Though Jesus was standing right in front her, at that point she did not understand, she did not have our understanding of what a resurrection is and she probably thought it was like Lazarus coming forth. He sent her to Peter with the message that he is risen from the dead. According to Luke some of the disciples went back to the tomb after this but they did not see Jesus and they fell deeper into despair.
Now at this point, it was hardly Noon in our narrative, but the disciples were leaving Jerusalem because it had become a dangerous place for people who followed Jesus. Among those getting out of Jerusalem were two disciples returning to Emmaus. You know the story. They were utterly crushed by the crucifixion. And as they were walking home, Jesus began walking with them but they did not recognize him. These men had a story to tell: “We had hoped that Jesus would restore the nation of Israel.” The resurrection has nothing to do with their story. But at the end of journey as the resurrected Lord broke bread their eyes were opened and they knew their companion to be the resurrected Christ. They turned around and as fast as they could they walked back to Jerusalem to the place where they knew they would find the other disciples and they cried out, “The Lord is risen indeed!” Other disciples were returning to the upper room because Jesus had appeared to some of them just as he had appeared to the women. And then suddenly Jesus came and stood in the midst of them and cried out, “Peace be unto you!” And they were filled with fear and great joy.
Day One began with Jesus’ morning appearance to Mary and it ended with the Church in Jerusalem gathering around Peter and the other Apostles. The Church gathered around the Apostles and that became the rough and ready way of identifying the Church: “Where the Bishop is there is the Church gathered.” But, as you know Thomas was inexplicably absent that first Easter Sunday. The next Sunday, Thomas was in Church when Jesus appeared again at the celebration of the Eucharist. Next we have Jesus’ appearance by the Sea of Tiberias. And a few years later St. Paul wrote the Church in Corinth that the resurrected Christ appeared to over 500 disciples at one time and most of whom were alive at the time of his writing that letter.
This is the reality of what happened to Jesus and his disciples. Without this, without the literal, historical reality of our Lord’s resurrection, then any theological, spiritual, mystical or allegorical meaning, is built upon nothing but wishful thinking.
Everything I have laid out here really happened and I have only skimmed the surface. The meaning for us and all creation will take all eternity to unfold. One last point: Caesar will never stop trying to take custody of the Body of Christ one way or the other. But regardless of how high and mighty, how menacing, how ominous he appears to be — he is puny and he will die. You belong to Jesus and only Jesus has custody of you, body, soul and spirit — and that is for good. Christ is risen from the dead. And you are in Christ!