April 16 lesson: God’s Love as Victory Over Death
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God’s Love as Victory Over Death
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 2: God’s Caring, Saving, and Upholding Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 16, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: John 20:1-10; 1 Peter 1:3-5, 8-9
Background Scripture: 19:38-42; John 20:1-10; 1 Peter 1:3-9
Someone told about a friend who was caught in an elevator in New York City during a power failure. He was caught along with several other people, all strangers to one another. They were riding up in the elevator, shoulder to shoulder, not speaking, when suddenly the elevator jerked to a stop. Immediately, everything went dark. The friend said fear and panic took over. Everyone talked at once, and then they all got quiet.
That’s a pretty good description of the “night” – an elevator full of people in the darkness out of power.
Scholars inform us that the symbolism of night and darkness is a characteristic of the Gospel of John. Among the references to darkness found there, we are told that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (John 3:1). Evidently he didn’t want anyone to see him. At the Last Supper, after Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, had received the bread he immediately went out (John 13:30). The scripture makes clear, “it was night.” Jesus himself gave warning when he said, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:14). The point is, it was night which incorporated the death of Jesus. It was night when all hope ended for the followers of Jesus.
But our scripture lesson says, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” (John 20:1). Why did Mary come in the middle of the night? As Fleming Rutledge, well known Episcopal priest, put it, “One thing is for sure. She does not come expecting the Resurrection.”
From John’s account, it is unclear what Mary intended to do since the stone would have prohibited her from accessing the corpse to care for it. However, she was surprised to find the stone already moved, so she ran to tell Peter and another disciple of her concern that Jesus’ body had been taken.
According to scholars, “the other disciple” is a phrase that appears five times in John’s Gospel. Here he is also identified as the one “whom Jesus loved,” which is the designation applied to this disciple on four other occasions in John. Near the end of the Gospel, that same disciple is recognized as the one “who is testifying to these things and has written them” (John 21:24). This, of course, pointedly suggests the common assumption that “the other disciple” is John.
So, then, it was to Peter and John that Mary went with the news, and they immediately set out for the tomb. Perhaps being the younger of the two, John outran Peter to the tomb. But when they came to the tomb, while John looked in, Peter entered the tomb.
We are reminded that the tomb should not be confused with our traditional image of a grave. We traditionally dig deep holes in the ground and then we cover with dirt the remains of the deceased. It would be nearly impossible for visitors to enter a grave. But our understanding is that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was more like a room that had been carved out of rock (Matthew 27:60). Therefore, the body was laid there, but not buried. And that is why the tomb could be entered by these visitors.
We will remember that at first John bent down and looked into the tomb and saw “the linen wrappings lying there” (John 20:5). Later, things began to happen in John’s mind, even as he entered the tomb and viewed the linens at close range. If someone had removed Jesus’ body, why should they leave the grave clothes? And then something else struck John – the arrangement of the grave clothes were not disturbed or disarranged. No thief who had stolen a body would leave behind such carefully set-aside wrappings. The whole point is that the grave clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off. They were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them and left them lying. All this suddenly penetrated to John’s mind and heart. He realized what had happened and he believed. He believed that the empty tomb bore witness to Jesus’ having conquered death.
Broadly speaking, it appears that the disciples did not anticipate events based on Scripture. Even though Jesus himself foretold what would happen to him, they kept being surprised. As we have been reminded, it was only after events had occurred that they came to understand them in light of Scripture. And, of course, for the most part, this is standard human experience.
Verse 10 says, “Then the disciples returned to their homes.” Because no word for home or shelter or dwelling is used here in the original Greek, one scholar prefers the “Young’s Literal Translation,” which says that they went away again unto their own “friends.” They were visitors in Jerusalem, and so it seems more likely that they would return to their group than to “their homes.”
The Nature of the Victory
Who of us who cheered for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 will ever forget that game? As you recall, the Falcons were leading 28-3 late in the third quarter and looked like they had the Lombardi trophy, symbol of football supremacy, in the bag. But then we watched in disbelief as quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots relentlessly stormed back in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history and defeated the Falcons in overtime. Fans in the stadium and those millions of us watching on television were absolutely stunned in disbelief.
During the events of Holy Week, however, the scene is even more dramatic. The game is lost and time has run out at the cross. Toward the end, the opponents had taunted Jesus and mocked him to make a comeback (Matthew 27:39-44). But in their mocking they knew he couldn’t do it. No one could come back from the cross.
So, following the game, the crowds dispersed. The antagonists went home happy and gleeful. Their side had won: Jesus was finally dead and out of the way. The others who had supported Jesus had also left but were overcome with grief and sadness. The One on whom they had placed their hopes had been crucified. The scoreboard had been turned off; and the game was in the record books.
A hillside that had earlier been filled with teeming crowds is left with Nicodemus and Joseph struggling with the dead weight of Jesus’ corpse. It was the very least of what they could for him now.
But then it happens! Mary goes to the tomb. Then Peter. Then John. And in the face of their natural disbelief, they suddenly begin to realize what has happened. It is unthinkable! They are witnessing the greatest comeback ever. The game that was already lost has been won, even after it was over. As scholars remind us, no one saw this coming, even though Jesus himself had predicted it. That is the remarkable nature of this victory.
Nell Mohney, well-known author, wrote book a few years ago with the title “Don’t Put a Period Where God Put a Comma.” This is the message of Holy Week!
The Un-nature of the Victory
It is not unusual on Easter Sunday for well-meaning leaders and preachers to point to the signs of spring outside and tell about the resurrection of Jesus. They will tell about flowers, leaves, and new life, and it will be lovely indeed.
But as scholars point out, it will also be somewhat misleading. Nature does not provide an adequate analogy for the resurrection of Jesus. If what happened in that empty tomb happened in nature, then there would be no objections or skepticism from our scientific-minded culture.
At this time of the year, the trees do have new growth. Simply stated, the leaves are beautiful signs of life. And after the bareness of winter, these new leaves are truly welcome. But note that these leaves are not resurrection.
Last fall, the leaves on the trees turned yellow, orange, and red. After that, they turned brown, fell from the trees and were dead. Piles of dead leaves could be seen everywhere.
The question is, where are these dead leaves now? What has happened to them? Wherever they are, they are not green and growing on the branches of the trees. The leaves that were dead are still dead. They are more dead now than they were last November. Almost needless to say, they did not come back to life. And, as we are reminded, those trees that are adorned in new life were never dead.
If the trees themselves had died last fall, then they wouldn’t have leaves today.
On the other hand, what happened to Jesus does not happen in nature. As scholars make clear, in nature, living things keep living until they die and once they die, they stay dead. However, Jesus died, and then he lived again. And having died, he now lives eternally. For sure, that is not natural at all.
The Personal Nature of the Victory
In our scripture lesson, we have been focusing on the remarkable nature of the victory of Christ in the resurrection. And now we come upon another critical aspect of that victory. It is personal.
As we understand, the other disciple looked into the tomb, saw what was – and wasn’t – there, and he believed. If, in fact, that other disciple was the author of the Gospel of John, then we can begin to grasp something of the significance of that moment and that account. For think about how John’s Gospel understands belief.
The author of John’s Gospel explains that his whole purpose in writing is “so that you may come to believe” (20:31). The witness of John the Baptist was “so that all might believe” (1:7). Scholars inform us that time after time, the pivotal, personal question Jesus asks in John’s Gospel is: “Do you believe?” (1:50, 9:35; 14:10; 16:31).
Belief in Jesus leads to becoming children of God (1:12), eternal life (3:16, 6:40), and freedom from condemnation (3:18).
Consequently, when the narrator says that the other disciple “saw and believed” (20:8) it is a moment of immense significance. The victory of Christ in the resurrection has personal consequences and impact when a person believes. By faith, Jesus’ victory becomes my victory, your victory, as it offers each of us freedom and life and makes us a child of God.
And we are told that this is also the same good news that Peter shared with his audience. The resurrection is not a victory at a distance. Rather, through it, “he has given us a new birth into a living hope…(and) an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading and kept in heaven for you (I Peter 1:3,4).
So Jesus won the victory on Easter Sunday. And while we contributed nothing to that victory, by faith, we can claim it personally as our own. Thanks be to God!
The late William Sloan Coffin was speaking for numbers of us when he said, “I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory, but as a presence.” I say again, “Thanks be to God.” Happy Easter!
- Have class members discuss why nature does not provide an adequate analogy for the resurrection of Jesus.
- Why is what the other disciple “saw and believed” important? (John 20:8)