Wow! What a story! Now, it is not just a story. It is, truly, an act of God. And, as a true act of God, it stands outside of our ability to prove. We’d like to be able to hold up a smoking gun, produce a body, offer evidence that is beyond dispute. But we cannot. This is a matter of faith, and no matter how much evidence we may find, the gap can only be closed by faith.
For so much else in the story of Jesus we have solid evidence, even evidence outside of the gospel accounts, that makes very clear the basic shape of Jesus’ life, his work as a teacher and miracle worker, his unique message of the kingdom of God, and his death by crucifixion. However, when it comes to the resurrection, we come up empty. Literally. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20.2).
Today, we are going to examine the empty tomb and the hidden Jesus, first, in a search for evidence and, second, in the context of God’s new creation.
Through the season of Lent, the preparation season for the days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, we have looked at the seven signs of John’s gospel, signs that frame the first half of the gospel account. Today, we come to John’s account of the Resurrection. I am struck by the differences between the seven signs and this great event. The signs point to Jesus, they reveal something about him and his kingdom. They are designed to push us towards faith, towards faith as making a decision whether or not we shall trust and follow Jesus.
Each of the signs involves some very tangible things, some evidence of what Jesus has done. He turns water to wine. He heals an official’s son, a paralyzed man, a man blind from birth. He feeds thousands. He walks on water. He raises Lazarus from the dead. Definitely things to hold on to.
But here, whey they approach the tomb, they find it empty. Peter and the Beloved disciple see graveclothes. That’s not much evidence to go on, but we are told that the Beloved disciple believed. Perhaps, he realized that grave robbers (a common enough crime in that era) would have taken everything, and certainly not tidied up after themselves: “The cloth that had been on Jesus’ head ... rolled up in a place by itself” (20.7, see Raymond E. Brown, 1970, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible 29A, p 1007). It is interesting that the Beloved Disciple was the first to believe and understand. From John’s perspective, it is love that opens the door to faith (Brown, 1005).
When Jesus shows up in the story, it is as if he is hidden. There’s a problem of recognition, a common feature of the resurrection stories in the gospels. Again, it is interesting that Mary and the disciples are not expecting this news, are not ready for it. And the stories the primitive church told make it clear: Even believers were surprised. They were not making up a story.
Once Mary realizes who he is, Jesus tells her not to “cling” to him, for he is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20.17, see Brown 1012-1013). So much for something to hold on to. After Jesus raised Lazarus, you could go meet Lazarus, get his autograph, look up his address in the phone book. After Jesus’ resurrection – which is an entirely different thing than resuscitation of a dead body – he makes appearances, but his presence with his people has changed. His presence with us is now permanent and by the Spirit: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. ... The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything” (14.18, 26).
Early this morning, some of us gathered at Mount Rose cemetery for a SonRise service. The only empty graves there are ones that haven’t been used yet. Jesus’ tomb is empty, and Jesus is hidden. Don’t cling to the old world, because a new one has come.
We said that the seven signs of John’s gospel complete a “week’s worth” of signs, an echo – one of many echos – of Genesis in John, particularly of the seven day creation cycle. These seven signs are signs of God’s coming new creation. But resurrection occurs “early on the first day of the week”. Resurrection is the beginning of new creation (see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope). Resurrection proclaims that the “old has gone, the new has come” (Isaiah 42.9, 65.17).
The tomb is empty. This is no small detail in John’s focus on new creation. This tells us that what God has created – including human bodies, including Jesus’ body – is not designed for destruction or decay. It is intended to be “re-created and transformed” (Brown, citing Moule, 978). It is intended, in the words of Paul, “for glory” (1 Corinthians 15). The tomb is empty.
Jesus is hidden, as a gardener. Again, no small detail. The story of creation began in a garden, and the first human was the gardener. The story of new creation begins in a garden, and the second Adam, Jesus himself, is the gardener. Jesus is making the creation new, making us new. And, inviting us to join him in his work. (See N. T. Wright, opt cit, and Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours that Changed the World).
Far from minimizing the importance of our bodies or our world, the empty tomb and the hidden Jesus tell us just how important these tangible things are to the work of God in the world.
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen, indeed!