An Unexpected Resurrection
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.” (John 20:1-8, NIV)
“For until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead.” (John 20:9, NLT)
I first stumbled across Eugene Burnard’s most famous painting, “John & Peter Running to the Tomb,” several Easter’s ago. Like all great art does, Burnard’s humanist portrayal of the frantic apprehension John and Peter felt while sprinting to the tomb of their Rabbi and friend early Sunday morning moved me deeply, pulling back the curtain on the chaotic, messy reality that the resurrection of Christ must have been for his closest friends. Something about Peter’s breathless hope, hand desperately clutching his heart, coupled with John’s worried eyes, hands clasped in prayer, simply unravels me over and over again the more my gaze lingers upon Burnard’s masterpiece.
Have you ever considered the following? In the triumph of a joyous Easter hymn, dressed in our Sunday best, deeply relieved that the tense struggle of our Lenten fast, which culminates in the despair of Good Friday, has finally passed by, we often overlook just how closely our (lack of) faith mirrors the mixed, emotional, strangely muted response of disbelief from the disciples to the living, resurrected Christ, alive again in their midst. It’s as if they cannot will themselves from their own
power to hope again, the resurrection of Christ simply too unexpected for them to conceive. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus went to such lengths to appear as intimately and normally as possible to his followers in the period following his resurrection. People who have had their deepest hopes dashed in despair need extra time to internalize something so surprising, after all.
A cursory glance through the final chapters of each Gospel supports this perspective, and finds us joining John and Peter in the sprint towards a tomb that shouldn’t be open and empty. Consider:
The point? Resurrection is that terrifying, that confusing, that painful, and that unexpected that even the risen Christ himself has to go to extreme lengths to open the minds, hearts, and eyes of his closest followers before they ‘see and believe.’ Simple, human behaviours such as logical reasoning, the touching of skin, eating a piece of fish, and calling a dear friend by name are required to overcome the deeply pervasive – yet patently false – belief embedded within humanity that death is final, and cannot be overcome. Living in a broken world, ‘still to be redeemed in fullness,’ we struggle to push through the scar tissue that encircles our hearts in fear, clouding the judgment of our minds.
Our eyes see, and yet still fail to believe.
If all of this is actually true of Jesus – if it truly is “impossible for death to keep its hold on him,” (Acts 2:24), then how do we witness the resurrection of Christ in our own world, Jesus alive in our midst? We are so removed from the physicality of those first moments – the ability to touch his wounded side, to question his understanding of the Old Testament prophets, to see a miracle repeated once again.
In all honestly, I wish I had a better answer for this all too human response. Rather than the quiet, solid faith of John the Beloved, I find myself sharing Peter’s frantic confusion, Cleopas’ nagging theological questions, and Mary’s paralysed emotional state, the resurrection too unexpected to comprehend, let alone internalize and believe.
I find solace in the shadow of the resurrection in a few things, and in this I find hope: the patient gentleness of the risen Jesus to stick with his followers, appearing over and over again until they finally saw and believed; and the knee-jerk response of another frantic man earlier in the Gospel narrative, confronted with the limitless power of Jesus telling him that “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23) – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
The resurrection of Jesus was certainly unexpected. But the wellspring of power and trust available for us through this unexpected return to life is certainly not. It has always been there, hidden just beneath the surface, awaiting discovery.
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