At our celebration of the Eucharist on Easter Day we will hear, as we always do, the account from John’s gospel of the discovery of the empty tomb and a first encounter with the risen Lord (John 20.1-18). He tells how Mary goes early in the morning to complete, what the disciples could not complete because of the Sabbath, the burial ceremonies for Jesus, or perhaps she goes simply to spend a little time with her thoughts in the quiet of the early morning.
John brilliantly gives us a sense of the panic in Mary’s mind as, finding the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, Mary runs to find Simon Peter and tells him, They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him.
Peter’s state of mind is no less panic-stricken. He runs, with the disciple whom Jesus loved, to the tomb and runs straight into the tomb. By contrast, John (if he is indeed the beloved disciple) is much more measured. When he reaches the tomb he hesitates, perhaps out of fear, but it seems more likely that it is out respect, or awe – a realisation that something remarkable has happened. Perhaps that is why of the three disciples at the tomb it is John who believes first. Mary and Peter are still not thinking clearly.
Although John is said to believe, and that it is from that moment that the disciples understood the scripture, that he must rise from the dead, it seems likely that he hesitated again and did not immediately share that belief and understanding with the other disciples. Certainly, he didn’t share it with Mary and, in terms of believing that Jesus has risen from the dead, the appearances in the upper room appear much more decisive than the discovery of the empty tomb.
Mary has not been persuaded at all by the empty tomb. She remains at the tomb and when she meets who she takes to be the gardener her questions are not about the possibility of Jesus having risen from the dead; they are still about where the body has been taken.
Much will be made of the empty tomb in sermons throughout the world as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But it seems that in terms of coming to faith an encounter with the risen Lord was much more persuasive and significant. Secondarily, the witness of Christians who had encountered the risen Jesus was crucial in the early growth of the church. That’s why Paul is so emphatic in speaking about, not a tomb that was empty but about who Jesus had appeared to (1 Corinthians 15.3-8). Do the gospels place so much emphasis on the empty tomb because they are writing for Christian communities and not to persuade non-believers of the truth of Jesus’s story?
The empty tomb, which we are so happy to proclaim as evidence of the resurrection, seems, for the first disciples, to have been a symbol of anxiety, panic and fear. It is the encounter with the risen Lord that reassures, settles and strengthens. Each appearance of Jesus to a disciple strengthens, not only that individual’s faith, but also the faith of the church.
It is meeting with the risen Jesus that transforms lives and that brings growth. As those who have met him and had our lives touched by him it is crucial that we do as the first disciples did and tell others about what meeting the risen Lord has meant for us.
The empty tomb changed no one’s life; meeting Jesus has transformed millions of lives – starting with Mary Magdalene.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!