He saw and believed…but he did not yet understand.
Let’s be honest: this is an odd story. Granted, it’s pretty central to our whole enterprise here. Without this resurrection thing, there’s not much reason for us to be here today – or any day, for that matter. What grabs me today, though, is this little nugget about John, the beloved yet unnamed disciple in the story. When he enters the tomb, he sees that it is empty, and so, we are told, he believes. But he did not yet understand.
John believed…but didn’t understand. Believed what? Understood what? Is it saying that he believed that the tomb was empty, but didn’t understand that Jesus was alive? Possibly…but I think if that were the case, he would be as despondent as Mary and join in the hunt for the body.
No…as strange as it may sound, I think it’s more likely that John believed in the resurrection before he understood it.
That’s not too much of a stretch, really, is it? We have gut feelings, those initial reactions where we just know something is wrong – or right – long before we can put words to those feelings. And there are probably a lot of us here who feel like John when it comes to faith. We believe that resurrection is possible – even believe that Jesus rose from the dead – but remain clueless about the mechanics of it.
At the same time, there are probably a lot of us here – and way more out there – who can’t believe in something so absurd as resurrection until we first understand it. Is it really too much to ask to see proof before we agree? No one expects us to sign a contract if we don’t get to read it first. Why should the resurrection be any different?
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We think things through. That’s what separates us from the rest of the animals, isn’t it, the ability to reason? Without that, we would be no more than hairless apes, giving in to every whim and urge.
It’s kind of adorable that we think so highly of ourselves. The truth is that we are a bundle of logic and feeling. And there are times when we need to let feeling take the lead.
Some of you might know the story of the Getty Kouros, an ancient Greek statue that the Getty Museum bought for nine million dollars in 1985. Before making the purchase, they put it through rigorous scientific testing to gauge its authenticity. The problems came after they paid for it. Several times, the Getty invited art experts to come at marvel at their purchase. And it happened repeatedly: the expert would walk in and immediately get a feeling that the piece was a fake. And the more the statue was studied, the more that initial feeling seemed to be true. Now, the statue bears a label saying, “Greek, about 530BC, or modern forgery.”
The experts who spotted the fake right away had spent years practicing their craft. Starting in internships and working their way up, they logged thousands of hours looking at archaeological finds to the point that their gut would know a fraud from the real deal long before they could explain it. Believing before understanding? It’s what we’re wired for. And the more we practice, the more we can be like John, where a mere glimpse of an empty tomb tells us everything we need to know to believe.
Remember: John and the other disciples had followed Jesus day in and day out for at least three years. We don’t know how much they knew of the faith prior to Jesus calling them. But by the time Easter came around, they had logged enough hours to recognize a miracle long before they could understand it.
Do we? Or have we even put in the time? If the goal is to build up muscle memory for faith, then we need to log the hours. And when we do, we will not only know the truth in our guts. We will know enough to trust that feeling, the glimpse that tells us all we need to believe. Understanding will follow…sometimes we just need to give it the time it needs.
So if that’s our destination, having enough practice under our belts to recognize miracles, then what’s the path? How do we get there?
I’d like to meet the person who invented the pedometer. What a brilliantly simple concept: an inconspicuous device that clips onto your waist and counts your paces. 10,000 steps a day is the goal, a distance that is an indicator that we are doing what we need to in order to keep fit. In essence, we have taken this complex idea of physical fitness and have managed to boil it down to a simple, achievable goal.
I would love find the faith pedometer. Faith is complex. Is there something that would help us boil it down to something simple so we can log those faith hours?
If you have been reading this blog at all this year, you probably have a hunch of what I’m about to say. As a community and as individuals, we have been growing toward a daily practice of five minutes of prayer. And as I’ve said before, what I have found so rewarding about doing so is how it seems to tune me into God’s wavelength, heightening my awareness to the extraordinary shining through the ordinary. I still think that’s a worthy goal to strive toward.
A couple of weeks ago, we wrote our individual commitments to prayer down. Those commitments now hang in the Narthex.
I’m also aware that, for many of you, Easter is one of the few times you’ll darken the door of a church over the course of the year. I know you don’t come to hear a guilt trip from the pulpit, and that’s not what I want to do. What I do want to do is encourage you to consider is that church could be a key part of building up that muscle memory, of logging those hours, of refining those feelings so that a mere glance at an empty tomb tells us everything you need to know.
I was fortunate enough to be raised in a healthy church environment. I sat between Grandmommy and Granddaddy each and every Sunday. I followed along in the hymns and the Bible readings. I knew the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. That was all fine and good. But when my first real adult crisis came along, when a loved one faced an illness that threatened to take them away, that’s when all those hours bore fruit. The muscle memory kicked in. When words eluded me, the Lord’s Prayer bubbled up and took their place. The years of practice took over and gave me the faith I didn’t have so that I could hold on until logic and understanding finally caught up.
Look: there are so many things we are willing to stretch ourselves to the point of discomfort. We get up earlier than we would like because of what time they want us at work. We wage the battle to make sure the kids go to school, even if they don’t want to, because we know it will matter down the road. We stay up late to crunch for that exam. We get up early to get to the gym. We watch our diets and our wallets as a matter of discipline.
So here’s my question: how does faith fit?Or does it? If the job goes, if the education fizzles, if we are dangerously ill, if the loved one is no longer with us, when life hits that crisis, will we have the faith to hold on until understanding can catch up?
A couple of months ago, post-it notes started popping up around the church. Some of you probably noticed them today. There are little positive messages on them like, “You are not a burden” or “You are loved” or my favorite, “If I weren’t a post-it, I’d give you a hug.” I’ll admit that I had a role in getting those started, but pretty soon, they started showing up in handwriting that wasn’t mine. It became viral, a kind of Guerrilla Grace.
But there’s a problem with these notes: they’re in the wrong place. Let me rephrase that: these are the kinds of messages we need to hear and see in church. And there are too many churches where, unfortunately, people are exposed to the exact opposite. It’s just that…these are the kinds of messages we need everywhere. Imagine: what would it be like if that dysfunctional graffiti on the bathroom walls was replaced with encouragement; or even if there was one shining light, a simple note in the midst of the dreck that says, “God loves you”?
You see, what I believe, what I know in my gut but don’t yet understand is that we can change the culture! But it means we have to get outside this building. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing to come here, to see the empty tomb and recognize the miracle that it is. What is crucial is what we do with that belief. If we keep it to ourselves, that’s just selfish hoarding. But if we, like Mary Magdalene, run to tell the others, that’s how God will use us to transform the world!
So I’ve got an assignment for you today. Take your own post-it notes (which, by the way, were invented by a Presbyterian). Spend some time writing messages on them, notes of affirmation, of love, of Guerrilla Grace. Keep them close by. And when the moment strikes you, put it up wherever you go. At home, at work, at school, be a part of this amazing movement that lets the world know how much it is loved. Share it. Repeat it. Spread it! Believe it, even if you don’t yet understand it.
The truth is that one of these notes may be just the glimpse someone needs so they can believe the tomb is empty.
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!