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 Preaching John 20:1-18


Compared to all the stories of Easter morning in the four gospels, John offers the most detail. John’s telling of the events at that start of that great day gives us the longest rendition, with the most dialogue and detail, with the most characters and activity.

Notice some of these details. John begins with three references to time on this new morning: 1) the first day of the week, 2) early in the morning, 3) while it was still dark. This makes the case that on this very day—Easter—a new time begins. John elaborates how this day launches the First Day of the First Year of the Risen Lord’s reign. This is to stress how this singular morning shifts the whole world—from BC to AD.  We are all moving from that realm where death holds us captive into another realm where God really and truly reigns. We are moving from the sense that life can feel so separated from God—as Mary felt—to the certainty that nothing, not height, nor depths, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.

Mary is there alone that morning. For those of us in the mainline church who worry about declining membership and declining influence of our churches, it looks like the church, in the shadow of a vicious persecution and a horrid cross, is down to one person. Then the extensive activity and dialogue begin, with much detail, almost too much to absorb. Mary sees the empty tomb; she runs to tell others; Peter and another disciple race to the tomb and find the linen wrappings lying there. If the body was stolen, why did they find the linens? Why were the linens all neatly rolled up?

The details are trying to make a point—real life, with real people, is pushing into a new realm: God’s realm, where the old no longer holds.

The removed stone, the empty tomb, the linen wrappings, the folded and separate head cloth—it is like they were doing the math. It says in verse 8, they “saw and believed.”1

What does it take for us to believe? Is it enough for us “to see” all the details of the story and “believe” too? Can we move too into this new realm where God reigns? That is the question of Easter.

Across my life and ministry, if I have learned anything, I have learned that faith is not just intellectual assent to some ideas, nor is it ever figuring everything out for some kind of spiritual calm amidst life’s storms. Faith, “seeing and believing,” what happened on Easter for Peter and the other disciple running to the empty tomb, is never static, never certain. It is always unfolding, always full of mystery and doubt, always evolving and ever-changing, especially as challenges and changes come to our lives. What we are to be is open—open to imagine what God might be doing, open enough to keep seeking, to strive to discern God’s presence and care in all things. How open and attentive are we to all that God is doing?

We may not ever figure it all out for certain—especially with the things going on in our lives and world: some diagnosis for ourselves or a loved one, a new crisis that keeps us tossing and turning in the night, another tragic disaster somewhere. We may never figure it all out—how does faith make sense out of life? But we are invited to “see and believe”—to open our hearts to the mystery and possibilities of God always present and at work. We are invited to look and be changed on Easter in all that is going on. God never leaves us.

Notice what Mary does that morning. When the others return home, it says Mary stays there weeping outside the tomb. This is a depiction here of that wonderful verse from Proverbs 8:17: “Those who love me I love, and those who search for me will find me.”

The text says Mary “stood” there weeping. But the Greek word is more emphatic: she did not just stand there at the tomb, “she stayed right there,” which is not just where she stood—by the tomb—but conveys something of her heart and loyalty, her fidelity. Again, faith is not just mental assent, believing certain things. Faith is about loyalty, openness, where we focus, how we cast our hearts. Mary is not sure what is happening or what will happen, but she is “staying right there”—near Jesus, near the empty tomb. Mary does not know what will happen next, but she is “staying right there.”

As the details flow—she wept, she bent over, she peered inside—notice how Mary’s fortitude, curiosity, even her fears, lead her to the encounter with the angels. Then within a few seconds, she encounters Jesus, who calls her name: “Mary.” The scene shifts—from old to new, from weeping to amazement. Love prevails. Life and light win over death and darkness. Mary responds, “Rabbouni!” We can sense the New Realm covering Mary, covering us.

Then just when we might be tempted to relax and rejoice, Jesus gives a new mission: “go and tell my brothers.” Easter does not just change us. It changes what we do. God is always about calling, urging us to be about God’s good, healing, hopeful, life-affirming work in the world.

Easter means life. Easter also means mission. May the Easter news touch us and change us, and lead us to new lives of love and commitment.

Alex W. Evans
Second Presbyterian Church
Richmond, VA

1. F. D. Bruner, The Gospel According to John—A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1139f


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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