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Easter Sunday - "Believe and See" - John 20:1-18

[John 20:1-18] “…Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”


Believe and See

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And if I could see it, I would believe it. Right? “If I could see it with my own eyes, then I could believe.” “I want to believe, but I need to see.” Or, more cynically, “I only believe what I can see.”

Of course, if we do see something very amazing – something spectacular that defies our reason – we say, “I see it, but I don’t believe it!” “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

We, in fact, often deny things that are right before our eyes – or right under our nose – if those things are contrary to what we expect – or contrary to what we would like to believe. Our preconceptions and predeterminations can influence us more strongly than evidence, proof, and sight.

Among the many things we see in our Easter gospel readings from Holy Scripture, one is that even for Mary Magdalene and other disciples, believing in the resurrection of Jesus took more than seeing it.

To start, believing the resurrection of Jesus took more than hearing of it.

It’s Sunday morning, the third day from the Lord’s suffering and death (counting Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in their way of counting days). Jesus had taught His disciples, multiple times, in plain words, throughout their time together, that He would be crucified, would die, and, on the third day, would be raised from the dead.

Yet on the third day, His disciples and Mary Magdalene and others do not go to His tomb expecting Him to be alive. They expect a deceased body.

We know from Mark’s Gospel that when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early that morning, she came carrying spices, along with the other women, to further anoint the body of Jesus – which was their custom for caring for the dead.

We read this morning, that when Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb and saw the stone rolled away, she didn’t say, “He’s risen! He’s risen! Just as He said!” No, instead she ran to the disciples, Peter and John, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” [John 20:2]

Peter and John run to the tomb. They look in. They go in. Only then does it dawn on at least one of them what’s going on – “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead” [John 20:9]. They did not wake up that morning expecting a risen Jesus.

Mary Magdalene, that faithful woman who loved her Lord so much, remained in great distress. She remains at the empty tomb, weeping in sadness. Peter and John go home.  

Mary then even sees two angels, dressed in white. The angels ask her, “Why are you weeping?” And again she answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

Mary then turns and sees! She sees the resurrected Jesus standing outside the tomb! Sees with her own eyes! Yet, she does not see. She is looking at her Lord right before her eyes but still does not know Him as the resurrected Jesus. “She turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

This isn’t unique to Mary Magdalene. Later that day, Jesus will appear to two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-35]. They also will not recognize Jesus. Not until they recognize Him when He breaks bread at their table.

Maybe it’s that Jesus’ appearance is so different in His resurrected glory, as opposed to His humiliation, that they just can’t recognize His looks. But Mary doesn’t confuse Jesus with a mighty king or an angel from heaven. Mary confuses the resurrected Jesus with the gardener, the groundskeeper.

Looking right in the face of her resurrected Savior, Mary Magdalene, Supposing him to be the gardener”, said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”

When does she believe? We remember it: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’” Then she turns and says, “Rabbi!” “Teacher!” Suddenly her seeing eyes were opened. She could finally see what was already right in front of her eyes.

Coming to faith in your crucified and resurrected savior Jesus Christ is not a matter of seeing something that isn’t already there. It’s a matter of coming to know what is already true. Trusting in the salvation and mercy of your Savior isn’t a matter of seeing better proof.

Believing is a matter of Jesus Himself opening our eyes.

In our Easter day Epistle reading from Holy Scripture, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, the Apostle Paul writes: I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive…”

In the four Gospels and in this Epistle, we see that many eyewitnesses saw and believed the resurrected Jesus (most of whom were still living at the time the New Testament scriptures were written, and therefore able corroborate the events). All of these who saw with their eyes still had to see with the eyes of their hearts being opened to believe by God’s power.

“In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see” [Isaiah 29:18]. And “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” [1 Corinthians 12:3].  

We are all those who must say, “Though I was blind, now I see” [John 9:25]. “I was lost, but now I’m found.” “I was dead, but now I have been made alive.” [Luke 15:11-24]

And we remember the words of Jesus, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” [Matthew 11:25]. “The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name…” They “follow Him, for they know His voice.” [John 10:3-4]

The resurrected Jesus called His disciple by name, “Mary”. She heard His voice and then saw rightly. Jesus called you by name when He made you His disciple in Baptism, “‘_(your name)_’, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The difference between seeing and not seeing isn’t about evidence, proof, or reason. We all by nature walk in blindness due to sin, not even seeing what we do see of God’s work. Faith, thanks be to God, comes to us by the word and power of the resurrected Lord who does open our eyes.

What we see and believe in Jesus is good news: That the Son of God died for sinners. That in Him we are forgiven of our offenses. And that death, hell, and grave are all conquered by His all-sufficient sacrifice on our behalf.

Death doesn’t hold Him. Death is finished. He is risen, never to die again [Romans 6:9]. He conquered death and grave for your sake, so that, in and through Him, you too will be raised and live eternally. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.” [John 11:25]

How am I able to believe? How can I come to believe that which I now doubt? Jesus has promised, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” [Matthew 7:7-8]

Faith in our risen Savior Jesus is from our Savior Himself. It is a surer and more certain knowledge than sight. May the Lord grant each of us this faith to believe in Him. Amen.

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