Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb...
We receive on Easter morning the blessing that Jesus spoke to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believe.” Reflect upon all that you see. Come to faith, like Peter, or Mary, or John. Just come to faith.
Not everyone sees the same thing. In each of the Gospel of John’s miracle stories, two people stand side by side, one believes and the other doesn’t. Like the wedding of Cana, the servants who pour the water that has become wine, believe and see. The master of the feast doesn’t.
Jesus has to do some pretty silly stuff to get people to believe that he’s alive. In John 20, he lets Thomas poke him in the side. In Luke 24:36-48 he eats a bit of fish. Don’t think of a nice salmon broiled with butter. No. The disciples are poor folk in Jerusalem during the height of the tourist season. The city is three days away from the sea. The fish is likely to be boney. Think a pounded piece of perch from Galilee, dried on the dock, packed in salt — the bottom of the barrel. Jesus has a resurrected body. He’s not hungry. He does it so that they will believe.
So believing is really important. We need to believe that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. That believing in Jesus has the power to change our lives. And that Jesus died, intentionally, to save us from our sins. And that Jesus is alive again, and promises to make us alive again when we die.
Yet believing seems to be something that we can’t control. God knows that real spirituality has to be cultivated slowly and diligently in our lives. He doesn’t overwhelm us with obvious “that’s got to be God” moments. He scatters a few spiritual ah-has over the years. Yet, we are commanded to believe.
While the moment of belief seems to be out of our control, we are responsible for putting ourselves in the right place. Most of the disciples hung together, even though it was difficult, after Jesus was crucified. The came back to the upper room, swimming upstream against their doubts. They put themselves in a place, and with a fellowship, where faith was possible.
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:
One of my favorite paintings is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” Thomas is shown sticking his finger fully into the risen Christ’s side. You look closely at the painting (if you dare) and the finger is literally under a flap of Jesus’ skin. But, what I have sometimes failed to see because I am intrigued by Jesus willingness to be examined, is that two other disciples are leaning in, watching what Thomas is doing. Perhaps they, too, have incredulity.
That word, incredulity, is well chosen for the painting. We rarely use the word today. Instead we often say that a situation is “incredible,” that is, the thing itself lacks believability. It has a credibility problem. This can be said about a book by Steven King or a movie about Harry Potter. The work has a problem. We don’t trust it. Fiction is supposed to be credible. It is enough to make an author pull his hair out!
There is strange contrast between Matthew’s telling of the first Easter and John’s. For John, seeing the miracles of Jesus requires faith. In each of John’s so called ‘signs,’ two people stand side by side seeing the same thing, and one believes and the other doesn’t. Like the wedding of Cana, the servants who pour the water that has become wine, believe and see. The master of the feast doesn’t see and thinks that some strange trick has been done, causing the best wine to come last. So John tells every miracle, dividing the seeing and believing from the merely confused. But in Easter, which is the grand conclusion, John gives us two people who see nothing, and yet, both believe.
We don’t know when Jesus begins his friendship with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. I suspect (and have written it into my novel, “Bethany’s People”) that they’ve known each other since before Jesus was in ministry. John’s Gospel has Jesus going frequently to Jerusalem; and Jesus doesn’t go as a tourist. He seems to know the place like a native. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem. It was Jesus’habit to stay there.
This is a poor village, and Lazarus’family connects with Jesus on a gut level. They know the disparity between the rich and prestigious, in their upper quarter of the city, and those who live near the dung gate or out on edge of the Negeb in Bethany (House of Poverty). Jesus did his ministry in Galilee just outside the posh Tiberias, but never going inside the place.
Such friendship precedes faith. You have to believe that Jesus shares your pain before you can believe that he is Messiah. Many people have a fact-based, I-believe-it-because-I-was-taught-it, belief in Jesus. The Gospels never show Jesus asking for this kind of belief. He instead, looks for those who will be intimate with him. The reason we have communion as frequently as we do, is because friends eat together. Wedding services have ritual to represent this fact, both in the cutting of the wedding cake and in the serving of communion. Martha cooks, and Jesus eats there as often as he can.