Resurrection happens (part 2)

As we saw in part 1 of this post, Mary Magdalene was shocked to find an empty tomb on Easter morning. Her reaction was probably one of horror, not merely confusion; someone had committed an act of desecration against her beloved Master. Fearing that someone had taken the body, she ran back to the other disciples.

Hearing her report, the men hurried to the scene of the crime. Here’s John’s account:

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. (John 20:3-10, CEB)

It was not, of course, a footrace; it’s scarcely imaginable that the two men would have had anything in mind other than getting to the bottom of Mary’s fevered tale. But John tells us nevertheless that the beloved disciple arrived first. For whatever reason, he bent down to peer inside the tomb but didn’t go in. Peter, being Peter, didn’t hesitate. As soon as he ran up, he went straight in; only then did the other disciple enter.

They both saw the same thing. The body was gone, but the linens used to wrap it were still there. Most importantly, the cloth that had been used to wrap Jesus’ head was folded or rolled up and set aside.

That fact is significant for two reasons. First, John probably wants us as readers to remember an earlier story involving a face cloth: the raising of Lazarus. In that story, Lazarus emerged from the tomb with the cloth still wound around his head. Jesus had to tell the stunned crowd to unwind the poor fellow and let him go (John 11:44). That, in other words, was a story of miraculous resuscitation; Lazarus would one day die again. This was the miracle of resurrection. There’s a difference. Jesus didn’t need anyone to unbind him.

Second, from the perspective of the disciples, the sight probably convinced them of one thing: whatever had happened, it wasn’t grave robbery. Mary Magdalene had worried that someone had taken the body — but if so, the people responsible were compulsively neat about it. Sure, let’s take the body. But come on, guys, we don’t have to leave a mess!

John doesn’t tell us Peter’s reaction to all this, though Luke says that he saw the linens and went home “wondering what had happened” (24:12). In John’s account, only the beloved disciple is said to have “believed.” At the very least, we might imagine him as being deeply awestruck that something miraculous had happened. But even then, he didn’t have the whole picture, for John tells us that both he and Peter had yet to understand how the whole biblical puzzle fit together (cf. also Luke 24:25-27).

So here we have the responses of three of Jesus’ disciples to the most important miraculous sign in the entire gospel: the miracle of the resurrection. Mary doesn’t understand at all. Peter is probably still trying to figure it out. And the beloved disciple (perhaps John) “believes” —  but his belief is incomplete.

There’s an important lesson here, I think, for how we understand the nature of faith. That will be the subject of Sunday’s post.

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