In the Gospel according to John, Mary goes to visit Jesus’s tomb before the sun rises on Sunday, only to find the stone rolled away. She finds Peter and John. In response to her news, they race, literally, to the tomb. John lets us know that he arrives at the tomb first. But as John stands outside the tomb celebrating his victory, Peter is the first to go all the way in. After Peter, John too walks into the tomb to see two piles of linen wrappings, one from the body and one, neatly rolled, from the head.
At this point, John tells us that the “beloved disciple” (for John never refers to himself in the first person), the “one who reached the tomb first…saw and believed.” Yes, he did just tell us for a second time that he was the first to get there…what is up with that?
What comes next is a bit perplexing for me. Some translations say “for as yet they did not understand” others say “until now they did not understand” that Jesus “must rise from the dead.”
OK, so what I want to know was exactly what is John saying that he believed? Did he believe that Jesus had risen from the dead? Throughout John’s gospel, he has played around with the idea that those who can “see” physically miss the point, while those who are “blind” are really the ones who see. And belief for John is always a verb, an action. So, now John says he can see. And that he believes. This would lead us to think that he understands something more profound than he did before he walked into the tomb. And yet the very next sentence says, “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”
No wonder, as Christians, we have such a hard time carrying God’s love and good news out into the world. Jesus’s own disciples left the very tomb from which Jesus arose and simply returned to their homes. If you continue in the Gospel of John, you will find out that they not only returned to their homes, but they huddled together in fear behind locked doors. They weren’t excited, they weren’t filled with joy and amazement. They were confused and afraid. They saw, they believed, and they had no idea what to do.
And they left Mary Magdalene standing at the entrance to the tomb in tears. The story doesn’t say that they explained anything to her on their way past. They just headed home. Then, Jesus appears to Mary. She doesn’t recognize him until he calls her by her name. In many of the stories of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances, it is in the breaking of bread that Jesus is recognized, but for Mary it is in her naming, in that moment of familiarity with her as a person. Mary’s reaction is very different from that of Peter and John. She immediately runs to tell the disciples that she has seen Jesus. This is the last we hear of Mary in John’s gospel account. She says, “I have seen Jesus!” and exits.
We don’t know if Mary went on to tell others, beyond the disciples, of her encounter with Jesus. We don’t know anything else about Mary’s story in the canonical gospels. I wish we did. When the disciples abandoned Jesus, Mary was still there at the cross. In earlier stories, she anointed Jesus’s feet with precious oils. She sat and talked with Jesus when all others were distracted with the daily household tasks. From all we can tell, Mary seemed to “get it” when others did not. So, I want to know how her life changed from that moment forward. But, alas, the gospel writers leave that to our imagination.
The rest of the story belongs to the men, trying to find their way out of fear and consternation. Trying to come to grips with their denials, their abandonment, their doubts, their indecision, their own vocational calling in a post-resurrection world.
Maybe we know more about their story because their story is, more often than not, more like our own. Maybe the gospels are written for those of us who stumble through times of faith and doubt, through the quagmire of vocational choices, through indecision and denial. Maybe we hear about the stories of the disciples after the resurrection because we need to know that we are not alone. And that fear and doubt and uncertainty are a part of what it means to be human.
Today, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, with open joy, with a whole tradition of stories and songs. We wish one another “Happy Easter!” and shout out “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” with sure and steady voices. We have two thousand years of history and tradition on our side. But the gospel writers wanted us to remember. To remember that it wasn’t always that way. To remember that sometimes believing doesn’t come with a correlated known behavioral expectation. Sometimes we believe but we don’t know quite what that means.
We are part of an inclusive homeschooling group. The faith background of the people in the group varies greatly. During a planning meeting, one woman noted that many of the people in the group are probably “believers.” She knows my background, so I’m assuming that I would be one of those folks that she was referring to. I’ve never thought of referring to myself as a Believer. It seems like a strange term, the name of a Monkees song, but not a personal label. Of course, I don’t think of myself as a Non-Believer, either. Maybe I’m just uncomfortable with any black-and-white dichotomy that someone tries to pigeonhole the whole world into.
Maybe it is the act of lumping all people of faith into this category of “Believer” that makes the term seem so strange. (Would those of Muslim and Jewish and Buddhist and Hindi and Taoists all fall under the Believer umbrella? Are the Atheists all alone in the Non-Believer bucket?) Or maybe it is because many people who use the term “Believer” do NOT intend it to be meant for people of all faith persuasions that I tend to shy away from it, as if there is a certain check list you have to meet to be called a “Believer.” They use it as a way of saying who is part of the “in” crowd and who is the “outsider.” It’s one of the reasons that we are in an inclusive homeschool group. I didn’t want to have to sign off on the more narrow-minded faith statements that often accompany the Christian homeschool groups.
To me, what it comes down to, is that we all believe in something. Paul Tillich would call it our “Ultimate Concern.” I heard an interview on TED radio tonight on belief. One of the guests on the show was a guy who, I think, would say he is a non-believer. He called himself a secularist. And yet he was yearning for something that he thought religion alone seems to offer. He didn’t have a name for it, but in how he described it, it was a sense of community and ritual and tradition. His definition of religion may have simply been too narrow. It seemed synonymous with superstition. Through his words, it sounded to me like he saw. He just saw things differently. I would even say he believed (though he would probably disagree with that). But like Peter and John, he wasn’t quite sure what he believed and he certainly didn’t know what that meant.
We are at a strange crossroads for faith in the world today. I think humanity will look back and say that we have lived through another Axial Age, a period in time where society and religion were reinvented. It is a messy process to live through.
What Jesus wants to communicate to the disciples, I think, is that the triune God is there with them through all of that messy discernment. That God is with us always. And that we each have important work to do to carry on the work that Jesus started, work of compassion and justice that is relevant throughout all of time and in all ages.
As my Lent (and Easter Sunday!) blog ends, I will leave you with a question. Now that your eyes are open, what do you see? What exactly does believing mean to you?
As for me, I’m going to keep writing, keep exploring these questions and others with you, my readers. I won’t be posting daily, but I will be back periodically to share my wandering and my wonder with you all. Until then,
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May you be held gently in the hollow of God’s hand.