Saint John and Saint Peter saw the empty tomb. John says that he believed what he saw. John does not say whether Peter believed what he saw. What John does say about himself and about Peter is that they did not understand the Scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.
Everything was in its place in the tomb. Peter saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Jesus went to extraordinary lengths to keep the tomb tidy. Perhaps He did it not to be neat, but to show that this is not the work of a grave robber. Grave robbers would have left behind a mess. They have no time to clean. They are stealing a body.
Jesus’ body was not stolen. He awoke, folded up the grave clothes, rolled the stone away, and left the tomb. Some pieces of sacred art show the tomb guards falling backward in fear. However Jesus left the tomb, He is gone. Eyes see what happened, but reason cannot figure out how a human being is able to rise from the dead.
Lazarus was raised from the dead. Peter’s mother-in-law was raised from the dead. Jairus’s daughter was raised from the dead. All three accounts feature Jesus doing the work of resurrection. Now Jesus raises Himself from the dead. No middle man here. Maybe that’s why Peter and John can’t understand what has happened.
John himself says the reason they can’t understand what has happened is because their minds have not been opened to the Scriptures. Jesus will do that for them soon, but for now, looking back in hindsight, John reports that they did not understand the Scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.
The Christian faith hinges on the death and resurrection of Jesus. As we sing in an Easter hymn, “Had Christ, Who once was slain, ne’er burst His three-day prison; our faith had been in vain. But now hath Christ arisen.” The bewilderment of Peter and John is our bewilderment too. It’s not possible for a man who is dead to return to life again, wounds fresh in his hands and side. It’s never been done before or since Jesus did it. Yet here is Jesus before us today, appearing not to Peter and John first, but to Mary Magdalene. She is given the privilege of announcing Jesus’ subsequent ascension to His brethren. Her sermon is five words: I have seen the Lord.
Now a woman is not making sense. She has seen the Lord, yet two men who were in the tomb have not seen the Lord. Who do you believe? Do you believe two of the three most intimate followers of Jesus? Or do you believe a woman who actually spoke to Jesus, first thinking He was a gardener? You’ll probably pick the men, as they were at the grave. They never saw Him alive, but they are close enough to Jesus to believe. Mary Magdalene may have seen a trick of the light, or perhaps Jesus’ doppelganger pulling her leg.
Mary Magdalene has seen the Lord. Her message is certain. There’s no doubt that she saw Him and believed. All it took was one word: Mary. Jesus deals in one word events. You heard a few of those in the last midweek Lenten sermon. When Jesus speaks, what He says happens. Jesus spoke Mary’s name, and it was as if scales fell not merely from her eyes, but also from her reason. It is possible for a man to rise from the dead. Yet Jesus is no mere man. He is the God-Man, the only-begotten Son of God in human flesh, born of Mary, born under the Law in order to fulfill the Law for us.
If Jesus was an apparition or a trick of the light, we had better go eat breakfast before we go home and close the doors on this place for the last time. The Resurrection seals the payment for sin. Jesus’ bodily rising from the grave is the pretty bow on the present given by our heavenly Father to the entire world. It is finished on Friday and made certain on Sunday. No sin is able to accuse us, for Jesus has bled and died for it. No sin is able to accuse us, for Jesus lives to proclaim victory over sin, Satan, and hell.
Because Jesus lives, you live. Saint Paul lays it out in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 in this passage often heard at a Christian burial: What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
This body that we live in now, maggot sack that it is, is a good gift of God. It will be laid in the ground. It will be raised and changed. In the resurrection it will no longer bear the image of the man of dust. This body will bear the image of the man of heaven. It bears that image now in Baptism. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Eastertide, like all church seasons, is a season of getting ready for the next thing. Advent gives way to Christmas, then to Epiphany, then to Lent, then Easter, then Ascension and Pentecost. The next thing is our Lord’s Ascension. It is not a sad occasion, but a happy occasion, for we too will ascend with Jesus in the resurrection, where we will always be with the Lord. There will be a new body, a new soul, and a whole new way of living. We shall always see the Father’s face. His countenance will light up our new existence.
Until then, His countenance shines upon us in the Gifts His Son gives the holy Christian Church. The Father’s Son shines His forgiveness on us in preaching, in absolution, and in the Lord’s Supper. The Paschal Lamb that sets us free feeds us with His own true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins. We eat, we drink, we are absolved, and we are baptized until the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end appears. Our time together here each week is an appetizer of what is to come. Here, with Mary, with Peter, and with John, we see the Lord. Where human reason may not always understand, faith clings to Jesus Christ alone. He atoned for your sin. He is the only Redeemer. He lives for you.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!