Easter Sunday
April 9, 2023
Reflection — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Happy Easter, everyone!

When I was on vacation last week I spent a lot of time browsing in tourist trap souvenir shops, as I’ve done on pretty much every trip I’ve ever taken. This is not an unusual activity for a traveler to engage in but, for my entire life, I’ve always done so with a very specific purpose in mind.

And so I made my way past piles of t-shirts and other tchotchkes in numerous establishments throughout Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in search of one thing and one thing only — that spinning rack displaying those little personalized license plate keychains.

I approached it in each place with a renewed sense of hope and excitement, as if I were doing so for the very first time; I rotated it to the “B” section and got to work, even though I already had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen.

Barbara. Barry. Ben. Brad. Brielle. Brittany. Brendan. Bruce.

There was no Brent. There’s rarely, if ever, a Brent.

Thanks Mom and Dad for not naming Jason like you’d originally planned — there’s always a little license plate keychain for Jason.

I’ve endured this disappointment many times over the course my fifty-plus years on this earth, and I’ve mostly made my peace with it,  but this time was different — and by “different” I mean not altogether bad.

You see, my most recent spate of souvenir strikeouts led me down an unanticipated path as I was thinking about what to say to you all on this blessed morning. They say that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade; and so when life (once again) yielded no tiny license plate keychain with my name on it, I turned it into an Easter sermon. This isn’t really all that surprising, though, because life and faith really do inform each other in all sorts of ways.

When I retuned from my trip, I sat down to read today’s passage from John’s Gospel for the umpteenth time — and it’s an incredible story. Like many people, I’ve found myself drawn to the experience of Mary Magdalene as she stands there weeping outside of the tomb, talks to angels, meets Jesus (without realizing that it’s Jesus), hears him call out to her by name, finally recognizes him for who he is, and runs off to tell the other disciples about all that’s happened. Mary Magdalene is the first person to encounter the resurrected Christ, and this is a really big deal.

But this time, my focus constantly kept coming back to someone else in this story. He doesn’t actually get a name (which would have made it even more difficult for him to get himself one of those little license plate keychains). Yet, we’re told that the one known only as “the other disciple” is the very first person to believe in Christ’s Resurrection. And this is a really big deal too.

Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb in the early morning darkness of that very first Easter and, seeing that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance, senses that something is up. Noticing that Jesus’s body isn’t where it’s supposed to be, she immediately runs off to fetch Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved; she tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

So Peter and other disciple run towards the tomb to see what’s up. The other disciple arrives first; he bends down and peers through the entrance. He sees the linen that was wrapped around Jesus’s body lying there, but he doesn’t actually go in (we’re not told why, but I imagine it’s because he was pretty terrified). When Peter shows up he enters the tomb and sees the same things the other disciple already did (albeit up closer).

And then it happens; as John describes it: “the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

He saw and believed, this beloved disciple did, even though all he actually saw was an empty tomb and some bits of cloth. He doesn’t get a face-to-face meeting with the Risen Christ like Mary Magdalene does; Jesus doesn’t stand there and call out to him by name: “Hey, beloved disciple, look over here — it’s me, Jesus!”  

He saw and believed, this beloved disciple did, even though he didn’t understand. Now, keep in mind: this is someone who heard Jesus preach and teach, someone who witnessed Jesus healing people, someone who saw Jesus walk on water and feed five thousand people with a few fish and some loaves of bread. And this guy didn’t understand what was going on that first Easter morning.

I have to be honest with you: I’ve never seen Jesus face-to-face, he’s never called out to me by name, and I don’t really understand what was going on that first Easter morning either. But the fact that the beloved disciple didn’t get it makes me feel a whole lot better about the fact that I don’t.

And yet here I am — along with all of you — drawn together once again in this place on this day to celebrate something that surpasses our capacity to understand it.

In the wee, small hours of that morning two thousand years ago, there was no dogma about which to agree or disagree; and there was no angst about the church staying from the way it had always done things. No one had coined the word “Resurrection” to describe what happened to Jesus; and the doctrine of the Trinity — God as Creator, Son and Spirit — wouldn’t be formulated for centuries to come.

But there was the memory of a person who showed us the way by living life to the fullest, by calling us to love God and our neighbor;

there was the stinging grief over a loved one lost;

there was an empty tomb that created all sorts of confusion;

and there was a newly-kindled hope that death just might not be the end of this after all.

And maybe that’s still all there is — a story and a calling, a complicated mixture of sadness, joy, and hope — and a mystery, always the mystery.

But that’s a lot —and maybe it’s all we’ve ever really needed. And perhaps the whole point of this unnamed disciple’s role in this strange story is to remind us that our experience of faith isn’t really all that different from his.

So live into that mystery, Peter, James, John and Mary — and you too, beloved disciple.

Live into that mystery Barbara, Barry, Ben, Brad, Brielle, Brittany, Brendan, Bruce – and you too, Brent.

Live into that mystery Aaliyah and Aaron, Zack and Zoe and everyone in between.

Live into that mystery today and every day.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed!

Alleluia! Amen.