WHAT THE DISCIPLE SAW AND UNDERSTOOD

This homily was delivered on Easter Sunday, 20 April 2014, based on John 20:1-9.

Eugène Burnand: Peter and John Running to the Tomb
Eugène Burnand: Peter and John Running to the Tomb

This event is one of the earliest ones concerning the Resurrection; it happens early Easter morning. As we read from the Gospel, Mary Magdalene shows up at Jesus’ tomb while it is still dark, but is surprised and distressed to see the stone removed from Jesus’ tomb. So she rushes away to report this to Simon Peter and another disciple (whom many identify as the Evangelist) and tells them her very logical conclusion that the body of Jesus has been stolen.

Curious and disturbed about the news, the disciples decide to check it out for themselves. They’re understandably worried and clearly eager to find out because we’re told that they run to the tomb. In fact, the other disciple runs faster than Peter–either because he’s more fit or more desperate, we’re not sure–and arrives at the tomb first. We don’t know why, but probably out of courtesy, he does not go into the tomb until Peter gets there and in fact, he lets Peter go in first. 

Inside they find only the burial cloths, all rolled up and folded properly away. And there it is–that one verse that, for me, is the most stunning in this whole passage: “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.” The Gospel does not mention Peter’s reaction, so we only know about this other disciple.

But this verse, for me, is stunning because of what comes before and after it. What did this disciple, in fact, see?

From what comes before the verse, we know the answer: Nothing! Just an empty tomb with the burial cloths neatly tucked away.

And to make things worse, the evangelist follows that up with a curious sentence: “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”

Now tell me, if you were the disciple who ran all that distance, but saw nothing in the tomb and understood nothing of the Resurrection, would you believe?

I probably wouldn’t. I would if there were some foolproof remnant of a miracle–like an angel standing guard, as some other accounts of the Resurrection have, or even any human witness of the actual resurrection–or if I at least understood something of some relevant Scripture passages. But this disciple had neither visible evidence nor adequate understanding.

Yet he believed.

I think what we have this Easter morning is a lesson about faith from this disciple: what believing means and what it entails. There seems to be three things about faith that we can learn here.

First of all, to see is not to believe. This disciple saw virtually nothing, so seeing is not a necessary condition for believing. Yet in today’s world so many of us demand concrete and foolproof proof as a condition for believing. But that’s not how faith operates; that’s not how one believes. So this Easter morning questions us: Can we believe without seeing?

Secondly, to know is not to believe either. The disciple did not believe because he understood the Scripture and had all the necessary knowledge about the resurrection. We are, in fact, told very explicitly that he and Peter did not understand Scripture. Again, these days we seem to demand that we know or understand first before we can believe. But here we see that knowing isn’t the same as believing. In fact, we are told quite the opposite: We believe precisely because we don’t know or understand enough. If we knew or understood, that wouldn’t be faith. That would be–you guessed it!–to know and understand. A second Easter question: Can you believe without understanding?

Finally, to believe is to think and then to decide. Believing involves reasoning and deciding. Biblical scholars tell us that the detail about the burial cloths folded properly is significant because it indicates that the body of Jesus wasn’t stolen. If the body had been stolen, the robbers would have taken the burial cloths along with them. They would have been in a hurry and also they wouldn’t have left the burial cloths because these could be sold. So the disciple who believed did some reasoning here before actually believing. But note: His reasoning wasn’t fool-proof. It didn’t warrant a conclusion that was 100% certain. So his reasoning still required him to make a choice, to decide whether or not he would believe.

And that’s exactly what he did: He made the choice to believe. Contrary to the common notion, therefore, believing does not seem to involve certainty. Believing doesn’t mean “we’re 100% sure!” It means “We’re not sure; therefore, I’m making the choice to believe.”

Neither does believing require seeing supernational evidence or possessing some special knowledge. Rather, believing is about making use of your reason, but because reason will never be sufficient, believing involves making a choice, a decision. This is what we mean by taking a “leap of faith”: There’s no 100% guarantee, but because it seems to make sense, we choose to believe.

This is the nature of faith because this is the way the Lord works: He works quietly, and chooses the way that’s low-key. If we had been Jesus, we probably would have come up with a big production number for Easter, complete with special effects and computer-generated images–if only to convince the disciples once and for all that we’re the real deal, and most of all, to show our enemies, especially those responsible for my death, how dead wrong they were for crucifying us. We would leave absolutely no doubt about our resurrection and about our true identity as the Messiah. We would leave no room for doubt or questions.

But that’s the way of the world, not God’s. The God of Easter is a quiet and hidden God, who prefers to leave some room for doubts, for questions, for decisions–and yes, for faith.

So without the benefit of seeing or understanding, would you choose to believe in the quiet, hidden God of Easter?

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4 thoughts on “WHAT THE DISCIPLE SAW AND UNDERSTOOD”

  1. Thanks for the beautiful image. I have never seen this before! There is much to be gleaned from just looking at it! We often hear and see images of the women at the resurrection. What a great counterpoint!

    Thanks for the reflection. The resurrection stories this week are a treasure for we can find ourselves in both the holy women and men of the Gospels.

  2. Hello Fr J,
    Your online retreat this year cut deep into my heart, allowing me to renew tough decisions for O.Lord; life decisions that would carry consequense requiring more faith and with His grace love.

    I now understand, in a whole new way, faith in God’s way – quiet and low-key.

    I thank God for you and your mission!

    Happy Easter too!
    Gilda Tanalega-Garbanzos

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