There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16). In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.
I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:
1 Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs, yet refuse to believe:
◦ "the world"; "chief priests"; most "Jews" and Pharisees (12:37); even the "brothers of Jesus" (7:5)
2 Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs and begin to believe, but don't fully recognize Jesus' identity:
◦ some crowds (6:36); some of the early "disciples" (6:64); some of "the Jews" (8:31; 11:45; 12:11)
3 Those who come to believe in Jesus, but are evidently afraid to acknowledge their faith publicly:
◦ Nicodemus (3:1-10), some of "the Jews" (12:42); the parents of the man born blind (9:18-23)
4 Those who encounter Jesus and come to believe in him, and are recognized as his disciples:
◦ the core group of disciples (1:50), the Samaritans (4:41-42), the man born blind (9:35-38), Thomas (20:24-29)
5 Those who believe even without seeing signs, on the basis of hearing the words of Jesus and/or other witnesses:
◦ the royal official from Capernaum (4:53); Martha (believes before Lazarus is raised, 11:27); later believers, down to today (cf. the Thomas story, 20:19-29; and the first conclusion to the Gospel: 20:30-31)
Stage 1 - Hearing and not believing: Yes, some of these people snuck in today — they may be relatives and teens who couldn’t find a way to avoid attending church. We live in an age where religion gets blamed for everything wrong with the world. The story we want these people to see and believe, has nothing to do with politics or organized religion. It is the simple witness of God with us. Let them be John pondering the mystery of a folded napkin, or Mary, embracing the friend she just saw die.
Stage 2 - Accepting the story of Jesus as a great man: Many of our best church leaders are here, they can’t accept the identity of Jesus as fully God. On Easter, Mary Magdalene has to let go, Jesus is more than she can grasp. Your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to preach a miracle that goes beyond our ability to reason and pigeon hole.
Stage 3 - The private believer: I was taught that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite company; see where that got me. Jesus makes his death and resurrection a public event. The post-pentecost church can’t be private. Let this Easter take you out of your comfort zone.
Stage 4 - The recognized disciple: This is where we all pretend to be. It means that what we saw at Easter has set us on a life long challenge to live as instruments of God’s power. Discipleship is a wonderful thing, but let’s all take a moment to recognize that God practically had to knock us over the head with a two by four to get us here. We have been slow learners when it comes to spiritual things. Easter can be very successful if you just help those who are stage four to recommit to being ‘all in’ with their discipleship. We can save the next stage for next week with Doubting Thomas.
Stage 5 - Those who believe without seeing: These are those who have a ‘child-like’ faith. They simply know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of by our reasonable religion (Hamlet).