JOHN 20:1-9

MARCH 27, 2016

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

(Play Audio)


            Author, sociology professor, and former university president, Tony Campolo, tells the story of hearing an African-American pastor preach on Good Friday. This pastor began his message by quietly saying, “It’s Friday and my Jesus is hanging dead on a tree. But it’s Friday, and Sunday’s coming.”

            One of the congregants yelled, “Preach, brother, preach!” It was all the encouragement that preacher needed.

            He grew a little louder. “It’s Friday, and Mary’s crying her eyes out and the disciples are scattered like sheep without a shepherd. But it’s Friday, and Sunday’s coming.”

            And he keeps working that one phrase over and over again, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” until he reaches the climax of the message. And he shouts out, “It’s Friday!” and the whole congregation stands up and with one voice shouts back, “But Sunday’s coming!”

            Well, folks, it’s Sunday. Hate has done its worst and love has triumphed forever. It’s Sunday and Jesus Christ has risen from the grave.

            Just about everyone here today knows the story of the first Easter. The details vary from Gospel to Gospel. That’s what happens when you depend on the testimony of eye-witnesses, and no one thinks to get out his or her cell phone and record the event for posterity.

            In John’s Easter account, it was very early on a Sunday morning. In fact, it was still dark. Mary Magdalene, who loved Jesus so very much, was making her way to the tomb. Some people believe Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute before she met Jesus, but we also don’t really know that for sure. Mark, in his gospel, tells us that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her (Mark 16:9). We don’t know what that means. The seven demons likely refer to a complex illness, but that’s just an educated guess. Whatever the seven demons referred to, it was life-changing for Mary Magdalene and she became one of his most devoted followers.

            Mary was unprepared for what she found that morning. The stone that had sealed Christ’s tomb had been removed, and Jesus body was gone. Not knowing what else to do Mary runs to find two of Jesus’ closest disciples, Simon Peter and John, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him!” Notice the resurrection never entered her mind. She thought grave robbers had stolen the body.

            I heard of a Sunday School teacher who had just finished telling her third graders about how Jesus was crucified and placed in a tomb with a great stone sealing off the only way in or out. Then, wanting to share the excitement of the resurrection, and the surprise of Easter morning, she asked: "And what do you think were Jesus' first words when he came bursting out of that tomb alive?" 

            A hand shot up into the air from the rear of the classroom. It belonged to a most excited little girl. Leaping out of her chair she shouted out excitedly, "I know, I know, I know." 

            "Good," said the teacher, "Tell us." 

            Extending her arms high in the air she sang out: "TA - DA!”

            According to John, Jesus first words were not “TA - DA.” His first words were, “Woman, why are you weeping?” In other words, Mary was devastated. She thought someone had taken the body of the one she loved. Resurrection had not entered her mind.

            That leads me to the first thing I want to say this Easter morning. First, I want to say despite Easter Sunday, Fridays are still very much a part of life.

            While Marshall Shelley was editing the notes for what would become The Quest Study Bible, his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter who was severely disabled both mentally and physically. Shelley, who is editor of Leadership Journal faced another test of his faith eighteen months later when a second child was born who lived for only one minute. And then, six months after that, his first child died. It didn’t matter that she had significant limitations. There was an enormous hole in his heart.

            Shelley was full of honest and hard questions for God. We can understand that. We’ve had those same questions ourselves. Marshall Shelley asked those questions. Afterward he said, “God’s not offended by our questions. In fact, God invites them!” We don’t know how God renewed Marshall Shelley’s faith after those two tragedies, but  somehow God did.

            We are not the first followers of Christ to face Fridays. Fridays are a part of life’s fabric. Even for Easter people.

            British author Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a letter to his friend Bill Buckley.  Muggeridge, among other things, is credited with bringing Mother Teresa to popular attention in the West. Anyway, Muggeridge wrote a letter to William Buckley, that great conservative mind, and in it Muggeridge made this profound statement. He wrote,


            As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly - that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about - the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies - is suffering, affliction.


            He’s talking about life’s Fridays. He’s talking about every dark night of the soul.  Even good people, people of strong and impeccable faith experience them. Just read the sequel to the Gospels, the Book of Acts. The Bible is very forthright about Fridays.

            That leads me to the second thing I want to say. The Bible is equally clear that Friday is not God’s final word. Sunday is God’s ultimate answer to life’s most profound questions. Death and darkness have been defeated. Christ is risen from the grave.

            On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John were confused. Where is his body? Peter and John start a footrace to the tomb. John, being twenty years younger, outruns Peter and arrives first, but, for some reason, is reluctant to go in first. He bends over and looks in but he does not enter. Maybe it’s out of respect for the elder, Peter. Maybe he doesn’t want confirmation of what Mary Magdalene had reported. Maybe his heart cannot take the reality of Jesus’ missing body. Something, though, holds him back.

            When Peter arrives at the tomb, however, he plunges right in as he always plunges right in. He sees the grave clothes and the burial cloth. After a period, John goes in, too, and also sees the grave clothes. The scene has a different effect on John than it did on Peter. It may be that John perceived the position of the clothes as a sign that this was not a robbery. The grave clothes were in good order. If thieves had gone with the body, the clothes would not have been so well arranged. Whatever the reason, John makes a point of saying that the younger disciple “believed.” Believed what?  Mary’s story or maybe John was beginning to remember the things Jesus told them.

            The ordered grave clothes should serve as a metaphor for us as well. It should remind us that while we are mourning, God has already ordered things for our good. The reality of the resurrection instructs us that there is victory on the other side of our pain, that it is not over until God says it is over.

            Many years ago an article appeared in Time magazine about a man named Sutherland. Mr. Sutherland’s son was missing in action in the Second World War. There was no word whether the boy was dead or alive. Not knowing for sure whether is son was dead or alive, Mr. Sutherland nourished the hope that somewhere, somehow his son was still alive.

          One Easter Sunday morning as he was walking through King’s Cross Station in London on his way to church, Mr. Sutherland saw across the multitude a familiar face, a face he thought was his son’s. They locked eyes for a moment, then the man that he believed to be his son turned and walked hurriedly away and was lost in the crowd. Mr. Sutherland was convinced that his son was alive and had amnesia. He withdrew all of his savings and spent everything he had traveling across England and Scotland posting pictures of his son and his own name, address and phone number. 

          Every Easter Sunday morning Mr. Sutherland would position himself in King’s Cross Station and search out every face to see if he might find his son again. He had been doing that for ten years when the Time article was written.

            There is a great deal of sadness in that story, but there is also a lot of love in this story. Mr. Sutherland eventually passed away, and I have no doubt that he did one day find his boy, though not in the place he had been looking. He found him when he was himself in the arms of his heavenly Father. The Bible is very forthright in acknowledging life’s Fridays. But the Bible is equally clear that Friday is not God’s final word.

            And that brings us to today, Easter 2016, and let me close with a story. A first year seminary student was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before, he was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

            The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” “Then there is no reason to tell you” he said. “The service has ended. Go in peace.”

            Now the dean was angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will will receive an incomplete for the semester.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

            The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed.”

            He is risen. Tell those who don’t know.  Amen.

[1] Much of message borrowed from “Sunday’s Here” a sermon by King Duncan.