No one slept well that weekend. The events from late Thursday night into Friday had left them all shell-shocked. They had enjoyed one last meal together and Jesus had once more taught them instructing them to love one another as he had loved them. Then they went out to the garden, a lovely place that Jesus often visited to pray. That’s when it all unraveled. Judas came with a band of soldiers and religious leaders to arrest Jesus. A skirmish ensued resulting in Peter lopping off the ear of a servant. Jesus cried, “Enough!” picked up the ear and healed the man, and then they led him away. A kangaroo court condemned him, he was whipped, and Pilate ultimately agreed to crucify him. Now he was buried in a tomb. They honored the Sabbath day of rest, but it was mostly filled with tears and questions about how all of this could have happened so suddenly. They had dreamed about this new way of life Jesus taught about, but now he was gone.
A sermon based on John 20.
Mary got tired of tossing and turning, and finally just got up. She went out while it was still dark, and made her way to the tomb. The dawning sun had provided enough light for her to see that the stone that had been in front of the grave was now rolled back. Immediately fearing the worst—that Jesus’ enemies had come and taken away his body—she ran back to tell the others.
Peter and John—that beloved disciple—were up making coffee. And when they heard Mary’s news, they dropped everything and sprinted to the gravesite, John outrunning Peter. John paused near the entrance, catching his breath. He bent over to look into the cave and saw only the burial shrouds. Peter came running up and went right in. He noticed that the cloth covering Jesus’ face was not with the other linens, but rolled up alone. John came in behind surveying the scene. And then they simply left, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” They came to the place of resurrection and only saw a grave.
Mary herself stayed back, weeping outside the tomb. She looked in seeing those two angels, who ask her why she’s crying. “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.” And then she turns around and sees a man there. It’s Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him, thinking he’s the gardener. He asks her why she’s crying. She responds “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, please tell me where you’ve laid him.” Jesus is there, fully risen, right in front of her, but Mary doesn’t recognize him. For her, the resurrection hasn’t happened yet.
You may have heard about Japanese Holdouts after World War II. These were Japanese soldiers primarily in the Pacific theater who continued fighting following the end of the war, not believing that Japan had surrendered. One of these, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, joined the Imperial Japanese Army in 1940. He learned the technical aspects of guerrilla warfare alongside covert operations. In December 1944, Onoda was deployed to the Philippines on the island of Lubang to put his training to use; the Allied forces were preparing to invade the island. That invasion came in February 1945, and most of the Japanese soldiers either escaped or perished. As Onoda and a few other soldiers got ready to evacuate, their commanding officer ordered them to stay and fight, never surrendering, and he promised to return for them within a year or two.
Onoda and his friends obeyed that order. Though they heard from the locals that Japan had surrendered in August 1945, they didn’t believe it. Leaflets were dropped from the sky in their area with an order from the General of the Fourteenth Area Army to end their occupation and surrender, but Lieutenant Onoda had been trained in propaganda and called the document a fake. One of his friends left in 1949 thinking the war had to be over, and when he was discovered, he told the Japanese authorities about Onoda’s determination. A number of search parties were sent out, only to be thwarted by Onoda and the others firing on them. The men continued their operations, largely against the civilians of Lubang, who found them an occasional irritant when the men made raids for food.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Onoda, the last remaining soldier, was discovered. Word had gotten out from the Philippines, and a Japanese investigator came. He knew Onoda’s name, and particulars of his life, which stopped Onoda from shooting him. It took that investigator’s going back to Japan, finding the original major who had given the order—a man who had become a bookseller—and bringing him to Lubang in order for Onoda to understand that his orders had been rescinded. 29 years later he finally believed that war was over. When he got back to Japan, he found it a much different place with skyscrapers, and a burgeoning tech industry, and so Onoda left Japan for Brazil where he became a cattle rancher.1Read the entire story of Hiro Onoda.
Jesus is standing right in front of Mary, and she still doesn’t believe it’s him. He cannot be alive, so surely this one whom she thinks is the gardener has moved Jesus’ body. And it’s then that Jesus says one word: her name. “Mary!” he says, and instantly she knows. “Rabbi” she exclaims. “Teacher!” and she runs to grab hold of him. Jesus tells her that she cannot hold on to him, that he hasn’t yet returned to the Father. She can’t hold onto him for he has changed.
Immediately, she runs back to tell the others, because they only know what Peter and John had told them which is that the body was gone. Peter and John don’t yet know, they do not understand, and so for them the resurrection hasn’t yet happened either. They’re still waiting for verification. And, it seems, that they don’t even believe it when Mary tells them all Jesus has told her and how he was alive. They needed to see Jesus themselves later that evening before they would truly believe.
I wonder about us. Here we are on Easter morning, on the Day of Resurrection, and we certainly see the empty tomb. But do we see Jesus? Do we see the Risen One? Have we so domesticated the story of Easter, that we don’t fully understand what’s happened? Are we like Peter and John that all we can see are the grave clothes and not the meaning behind them because we don’t understand yet? Are we like Lieutenant Onoda refusing to believe even when others attempt to tell us what’s happened? New life is there in front of us, but do we continue to hold on to the past?
The story of Hiroo Onoda doesn’t end in Brazil. He lived there ten years when he read a news story about a young man from Japan who had murdered his parents. Onoda was shocked that anyone could kill their own parents, and so he moved back to Japan at the age of 61 in order to set up a school for troubled teens. He did that work for another 30 years, until his death in 2014 at the age of 91. He worked longer seeking to help kids in need than he spent refusing to believe that war had ended. He was finally able to see what life could truly be about.
Friends, we are people of the resurrection, and yet far too often we live as if the resurrection has never happened. Sometimes we hold on to the notions in our minds about the way things are to be between Jesus and us, the way our interactions with Christ have been before, primarily on our terms, and think that that is the resurrection in our lives. We may like the way things have always been and want to keep everything the same. But when we encounter the risen Christ—when we encounter the resurrection—things change. “Don’t hold on to me,” he says to Mary and to us. “You can’t keep me the way I was before. Things are changed, and you are changed as well. Live as one who has encountered the resurrection!”
What will resurrection look like in your life now? Will this season of Easter be the time when you recognize the risen Lord in a new way? He comes to us today offering us life—offering forgiveness and joy and hope and love—we will just presume him to be someone else and not truly who he says?
The miracle of Easter begins when Mary recognized Jesus and believed it was truly him. We too experience the resurrection when we let go of the way things should be, seeing Jesus in a new way, and then running to those who share our lives with us, ecstatically proclaiming that we have seen the Lord. That is the beauty of this day. That is why we gather on this morning to celebrate. That is why we are here, so that we too might experience the risen Christ, for he is alive just as he said.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!