Easter: The Undoing of Death

The events of that momentous day two millennia ago have eternal, cosmic implications, and yet they resonate in history—our history.
Easter-Resurrection

On that momentous Sunday morning, almost 2000 years ago, while the world was still wrapped in its sin-induced darkness, the Light of the world rose from the dead! The Lord Jesus had shattered the bonds of sin and death. He announces: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now, look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18).

The four Gospels have different portraits of the resurrection of Jesus. Each set of narratives is precious and significant in its own right. The last two chapters of John are a great pastoral resource for God’s people. Jesus gently and lovingly deals with his disciples; he enables them to overcome grief, doubt, and shame to become glorious witnesses of his resurrection and joyful servants of God’s people. Let us reflect on the events portrayed in John 20. (It will be great if you could also read along in your Bible).

John 20:1-10: The Tomb is Empty

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb while it is still dark. John’s Gospel is heavy on symbolism; the symbols of night and darkness, as well as light and day, pervade the narratives (1:4; 8:12; 13:27, 30).

Mary was probably not alone, though John does not specifically mention it. (notice the “we” in 20:2; Mark 16:1). But why does Mary come to the tomb? To find some connection with the one who had given her life. She just sought some comfort in expressing her love for her Lord by anointing his crucified body.

However, she wouldn’t have had any great expectations. In Jesus’s time, there were a few stories of gods who died and rose again – not unlike the dying and rising of plants. But no one ever expected to see a real person to emerge from the grave.

The greatest cosmic fight had just taken place. Jesus had entered the kingdom of death and emerged as the Victor!

When Mary saw the stone removed and the tomb empty, she assumed the obvious: somebody had stolen the body. Mary ran to the other disciples. Then two disciples came running to the tomb. What was going on? They saw the strips of linen and the head cloth, still lying in its place inside the tomb. Peter shakes his head in incomprehension (cf. Luke 24:12). The puzzlement of the disciples, here and elsewhere in the other resurrection narratives, is a further reflection of the event’s authenticity.

The other disciple, enigmatically called “the beloved disciple” in John’s Gospel (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), went inside the tomb. He sees and believes. In this Gospel, he becomes the first one to believe in the resurrection (see 2:19-22). As an ideal disciple in John’s Gospel, he becomes one of the “blessed” (20:29); those who believe without seeing. (The only other beatitude in John is in 13:17.)

Remember this Gospel’s goal is that the readers/hearers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing they may have life in his name” (20:31). For the beloved disciple, the sight of the burial cloths revealed the otherwise-unthinkable truth, borne out of love. This was no grave robber’s doing. The Lord Jesus had been raised from the dead.

The resurrection happened at night, or early morning. No one except God and the angels witnessed it. The greatest cosmic fight had just taken place. Jesus had entered the kingdom of death and emerged as the Victor!

The two disciples go back home; but not Mary. Jesus was, in a sense, her home, her world. She remains, struggling, in deep darkness and grief.   

John 20:11-18: Mary, Weep not!

Mary weeps. Death brings deep grief. Always. Then she looks up to see two angels. They ask her why she was weeping. Through her tears, she cries: Someone has taken away the body of ‘my Lord’.

Then the readers are told that her Lord stands close by and asks her the same question – teasingly, yet in infinite love. Mary does not recognize Jesus yet. She mistakes Jesus – now in his resurrected body – to be the gardener.

This grieving disciple is chosen to be the first one to see the risen Lord. Jesus tenderly calls her by name. No extended drama here, unlike his long-drawn conversation with two downhearted disciples before they recognize him (Luke 24).

The Lord calls: “Mary”. Now she recognizes that loving voice. “Rabboni!” she cries out ecstatically. The reader of John will remember the good shepherd whose sheep recognize the voice of their faithful shepherd who lays down his life for them (10:11, 14). Mary in her incredible joy clings to Jesus (Matt 28:9). But the Lord assures her that this was not necessary. There had been a radical change in the nature of their relationship.

Jesus’s disciples, would no longer need to seek out the physical presence of Jesus. Once Jesus ascended to the Father, our resurrected Lord would be present with believers, always, through the Holy Spirit. What a glorious assurance!

A single definitive act of God had taken place. This would have cosmic implications. The living God had now won the battle against the last enemy, death (1 Cor 15:26).

Then Jesus commissioned Mary as a witness to the other disciples, whom he refers to for the first time, as ‘my brothers’. This Easter, let us be reminded that, through Jesus our elder brother, all believers are included in the family of God as his children (Mark 3:34; Heb 2:11; Rom 8:29). Remember too that on the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to his beloved disciple (19:25-27). Disciples are welcomed into the eternal relationship that has always existed within the divine Trinity.

Also, don’t miss out the encouraging fact that all the four Gospels show that women were the first and dependable witnesses of the resurrection. Today too, women and men are given the same privilege by God, to be witnesses of the Lord Jesus.

John 20:19-23: Jesus reveals himself to Many Disciples

That same evening, the risen Jesus appeared to many of his disciples. It was not the empty tomb that convinced the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They saw him! He cooked breakfast; ate with them; bore the scars of the crucifixion. His was a real body, though different. This body was made of matter of the New Age that has been ushered in by Jesus. No wonder the disciples did not easily recognize him (see 21:12). He offered to Thomas the visible and tangible proof of his resurrected body. Thomas then moved from skepticism to the grandest confession: “My Lord and my God” (20:28).  

After they had seen their Lord humiliated and crucified, the disciples would have felt that their abandoning everything to follow Jesus appeared to be a very cruel joke. They were hopeless; numbed into inaction. But something happened to change that situation. What else can explain the fact that these dejected disciples, a few days later, are bold witnesses, ready to take on the whole religious establishment which just a few days ago had handed Jesus over to be killed? No pious or nebulous idea of the soul being alive could have comforted or helped these tired and frightened disciples.

What else can explain Peter’s boldness, except the fact that he was personally reinstated as a shepherd in person by the risen Jesus (21:15-19)?

A single definitive act of God had taken place. This would have cosmic implications. The living God had now won the battle against the last enemy, death (1 Cor 15:26). This victory over death is now shared by all those who believe. The resurrection of Jesus is now the basic ground of our faith.

The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is like D-Day – the decisive victory has been won! Already! But not yet – fully. The battle is raging, though the end result is assured. V-Day, the Day of the victorious Lamb of God, the Second Coming, is on the way!

Many believers in Paul’s church at Corinth were turning away from believing in a bodily resurrection; apparently satisfied with the more familiar Greek (Platonic) understanding of the immortality of the soul; probably a more spiritualized idea of the resurrection. Paul rebukes them in the significant resurrection chapter (1 Cor 15) of the total foolishness of their position and of the absolutely foundational plank of their faith being the resurrection of Jesus and their future bodily resurrection.

At Easter, and on every other day, we must celebrate the “undoing of death”. (I have borrowed the title of this article is from Fleming Rutledge’s fine book with the same title). We now celebrate the coming of God’s new creation, the inauguration of the kingdom of God in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Paul is very clear: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17).

The kingdom of God that Jesus announced, lived and still embodies in his resurrected body, is the theme song of the New Testament. The remaining stanzas will be sung when the fully-consummated kingdom arrives. The new heaven and new earth will arrive. The whole creation that is groaning will be redeemed (Rom 8:19-25). The resurrection of Jesus is the main signpost to that assured final victory of God, over all sin and evil.

A commonly used analogy from World War II is helpful. About 30 countries were divided up into two opposing military alliances – the Allies and the Axis – where some 100 million people were tragically involved. On June 6, 1944, often referred to as D–Day, the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. This day, in a sense marked the beginning of the end of the war. In the ensuing 11 months, several battles continued to be fought in many of the European nations, and thousands upon thousands of lives were lost in these battles between D-Day and the final V-Day, declared on May 8, 1945. Finally, Western Europe was liberated from Hitler and Nazi Germany, and the War came to an end.   

The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is like D-Day – the decisive victory has been won! Already! But not yet – fully. The battle is raging, though the end result is assured. V-Day, the Day of the victorious Lamb of God, the Second Coming, is on the way!

Meanwhile, you and I are called to be foot-soldiers of this kingdom, going around fighting the war with the weapons of the kingdom: bearing witness to the good news of Christ, speaking truth to power, identifying life-denying policies in our communities, serving in sacrificial love, even serving those who may appear as enemies.

We are to follow the enthroned Lamb wherever he leads us (Rev 14:4; John 1:29), all the while praying, “Thy Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven”.

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