|"The Empty Tomb" by He Qi|
Scripture can be found here...
There’s a mystery at the heart of John’s gospel. Have you ever noticed? The other disciple. The unnamed disciple. Also known as the “beloved disciple.” “Disciple” means “learner,” by the way. To be a disciple is to want to learn, all you can, from the one you are following.
Have you noticed? Have you wondered? Who is this special person? The one described as “the one Jesus loved” as he races towards the tomb?
The idea that Jesus had a particular beloved does not sit well with me. This person, who shows up at the last supper, late in the game, if you want to know the truth—fully halfway through the gospel! He’s missed an awful lot of the really good stuff. Jesus has already turned water into wine, and healed a blind man, and stopped people from shaming a woman taken in adultery, and saved a child’s life. He has already broken down barriers of religion and ethnicity and gender by talking to the woman at the well as if she were an actual person with thoughts of her own. He has wept at the tomb of someone he loved, and then gone and raised that man from the dead. This other disciple is late to the party.
But there he is, leaning against Jesus after supper, and after Jesus has washed everybody’s feet—and I do mean everybody’s.
And then the beloved shows up during Jesus’ trial, following him around, trying to stay close, despite all the obstacles that get in his way—mostly soldiers, truth be told.
And then, there he is at the cross, one of the faithful remnant: the women and the beloved disciple. One of the beloved’s most important lessons comes in the moments when Jesus is dying on the cross. Even in the midst of his death throes—sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying—Jesus takes a moment to create a new family, a new community. He gives his mother and his beloved into one another’s care. Here you are, he says. You are for each other now.
And he is there on Easter morning.
The beloved disciple isn’t the first one at the tomb. That honor belongs to Mary Magdalene, no matter what gospel you’re reading. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, so early it is still dark out. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. Some say she goes to properly prepare the body, with herbs and spices and oils. But in our story, she goes without explanation, drawn there, the way we are drawn to the graves, and the photographs, and the scent lingering on the sweaters of the ones we love who have died. And whatever her reason, her visit is disrupted by the disturbing reality that the stone—the probably 2000 pound stone that had been rolled in place to close the tomb—has been removed. And backing away, the way you run from an accident to get help, she runs.
She runs to find Simon Peter and the other one, the beloved disciple.
What follows can only be described as a race.
The two set out together, but the beloved disciple is the faster runner. Maybe he is younger? Hasn’t yet blown out his knees with poor body mechanics hauling 300 pounds of fish out of the Sea of Galilee? Maybe it is his love that carried him?
He outruns Simon Peter. And he bends down to look into the tomb, but doesn’t go in.
When Simon Peter arrives, he does go in… and there he sees the evidence, the linen grave clothes that had been wrapped around Jesus, like the swaddling clothes of a baby. And that funny detail of the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head, separate from the rest, rolled up, as if someone had sat there, maybe a little groggy, absentmindedly pondering what to do next. Maybe some gardening would be nice.
Then the beloved disciple enters the tomb too. And he sees, too. And he believes.
He believes. Even though it is still very early—early in the day, early in the game, early in the whole gorgeous seedling of an enterprise that will end up being something they will call “the Way,” and we call “church” or “faith community.” He believes, even though he and the others haven’t yet had a chance to sit down with the scriptures to work all this out. He believes.
And then they leave, the beloved one and Simon Peter. They return to their homes—which are more than a hundred miles away, at least a four-day walk for someone in pretty good shape. Whatever they saw, or understood, or believed, their response in that moment is to go, head for home.
Mary, on the other hand, stands there weeping. And her hesitation to depart, her tears, her grief… well, in a certain way I suppose they are rewarded, aren’t they? Because someone who looks like he’s been gardening shows up, and calls her by name, and he walks with her and he talks with her, and tells her that she is his own.
But I am still wondering about the other disciple, the one the author of this gospel refuses to name, which means, we can all project all kinds of things on to him. We can make him John, or we can make him Lazarus, or we can make him Nicodemus. We can make him a her.
A bunch of us sat together the other night and we studied this passage, and we wondered together. Who is it?
Well. I am going to let you in on the secret. I know who that beloved disciple is.
You weren’t there at the beginning. You didn’t get to be walk Jesus for his many miracles—you didn’t get to see him make a paste of mud and spit and restore sight to a blind man. You didn’t get to eavesdrop on his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. You didn’t get to hear him call, “Lazarus, come out!” and see a dead man stumble from a tomb.
You found Jesus when he had already given his life to be nourishment for his people—you found him around the table. You came to Jesus when he had already shown, by washing the feet of all and sundry, that the core of this community, the heart of this faith, is forgiveness. You discovered Jesus when he was lifted high on the cross, and, just as promised, he gathered all kinds of people to himself—including you. He commended his community into your care—pointed to the church and said, “There she is. Take care of her.” You listened to the testimony of the ones who were first at the tomb—you looked into it yourself, and you believed.
You are the beloved disciple.
There is a mystery at the heart of this gospel. Have you noticed?
And it turns out not to be about Jesus playing favorites, but about something much more powerful, much more relevant to you and to me. It’s about a space that has been created in this story for us to enter and encounter God, the Word made flesh, dwelling among us here and now. The beloved disciple is every one of us who have listened to the witness, passed down from generation to generation, and who, along with all those other witnesses, are drawn, early in the morning, to the place where death is no more, sorrowing and sighing and pain are no more, for he is risen. Thanks be to God. Amen.