Easter 2012: He Came, He Saw, But Did He Believe?
According to the Gospel of John, the events of the first Easter unfolded in this sequence:
- Mary Magdalene was the first to visit the Tomb. When she saw the stone rolled away from the door and Jesus’ body missing, she went immediately to tell Peter and John.
- The two disciples came running to check out Mary’s story. John outran Peter, but it was Peter who entered the Tomb first.
- What they observed was an empty chamber with linen burial clothes neatly arranged. John writes that he came, he saw, and he believed (v. 8).
But now we come to a bit of a puzzle. If the disciples believed once they saw the Tomb empty, then why does John add these words in v. 9? – “For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” What could John have meant by this? Why did he criticize himself for his lack of faith? In effect he is saying: “I came, I saw, and I believed, but only up to a point. For I did not know that the Scriptures had foretold that he would rise again … I should have remembered the prophecy in Scripture … I should have known that Jesus had to rise from the dead, because God had already proclaimed this would happen.” And this knowledge of the Scriptures would become absolutely critical for the apostolic faith. The Fathers taught this principle: “When, therefore, they looked at these events in light of the prophecies fulfilled, there faith was from that time forward rooted on a firm foundation” (Cyril of Alexandria, Comm. Joh. 20:9).
But it was not only a matter of knowing the Scriptures, for these were well-instructed disciples. Why were Peter and John so slow to understand the significance of what they had seen? Yes, they came and saw; but what they believed was simply what Mary Magdalene had reported to them, that the body of Jesus was no longer in the Tomb. Just the simple fact – Jesus’ body is no longer there. Because notice what happened in v. 10 – “Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.” Is this the kind of behavior we would expect to see, if they had fully grasped that Jesus had come back from the dead? We would expect them to be overjoyed and full of zeal, waking up the whole city with the electrifying news: “He lives! He lives!” Instead, they were still confused; the full truth of the resurrection has not yet dawned on them.
Jesus had spent much time teaching them, so they certainly did know the Scriptures. They knew the prophecy in Psalm 16 – “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” They were not so dull as to have forgotten what Jesus taught them. Peter himself had confessed that Jesus was God. John had heard with his own ears what Jesus said, that he would win a mighty victory over death. Yet something was missing. They were not ready to come to terms with what they had seen at the Tomb. They had the evidence they needed – He is not here! – but they were slow to draw the obvious conclusion – He lives! The Holy Spirit has not yet come to enlighten their understanding about the resurrection. Thus the disciples went away, not all that much the wiser, to their own homes (v. 10).
Now a lot of us are probably in a similar place where Peter and John were on that first Easter morning. Most of us probably don’t have too much difficulty accepting the fact that the bones of Jesus of Nazareth are nowhere to be found on this earth. “Sure, I can believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But I’m not sure what that means for me. To be honest, it doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference in my life. I suppose I feel a little guilty that my faith is so weak.” But just as no power on earth could have brought Jesus back from the dead, so it is with our faith. Faith is a gift from above, not a work of the mind, and only the Holy Spirit can give you faith. Like Peter and John, you may have to go home and wait for it to come. But come it surely will to those who love God. Jesus promises faith to those who seek it. For some it comes as dramatically as the turning on of a light; for others it is a more gradual process. There are seasons to our faith: sometimes it is strong; sometimes it is weak. Sometimes I must encourage you; sometimes you must encourage me. And so we build up the household of faith.
To understand faith, here is a key: Faith is based on a relationship, not an intellectual process. While Peter and John returned home, Mary Magdalene remained behind at the Tomb. She came to the Tomb when it was dark – the Fathers read this as a metaphor for lack of faith. But she would be the first to see the Lord in the morning light. Her love for Jesus is what opened this door of faith. The disciples did not come to full belief until later, until that first Easter evening, when their Friend and Master appeared to them. Jesus takes the initiative, Jesus makes the approach, but in the order of appearances in John 20, he comes first to those who love him most.
Therefore we must deepen our love for the Good Shepherd who has led us from death to life. We may love the Church in all her splendor, but it is not enough; the Church asks us to go deeper, to the very source of our life. Jesus Christ is more alive than we are right now, and the way he shares that life with us is through a relationship of love, like that first encounter at the Tomb: “Mary” … “Rabboni!”