Weeping Outside the Tomb

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

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Every time I read the Resurrection story from the Gospels – and, especially the version of the story as found in John – I cannot help but be struck by the breathtaking juxtaposition of heart-wrenching emotions: rejoicing and weeping, excitement and depression, victory and defeat, faith and doubt. Here, at the focal point of our faith’s eternal proclamation, where there should be comfort, joy, acceptance, and un-wavering faith, we find instead a whole slew of conflicting and competing emotions.  Why?

Certainly the disciples couldn’t have been so blind!  Certainly they could see an empty tomb and realize that Jesus had been raised!  Certainly Mary Magdalene, having found the tomb empty, must have realized that death couldn’t be the end of her Lord, and that this empty tomb couldn’t be the product of nefarious activity.  And, yet, there seems to be a refrain – found in all four Gospels – that the Resurrection took most of the Disciples by surprise.

Their varying emotional responses, their skeptical disbelief, their confusion, their grief-filled tears … all of this reflects a deeply seated lack of faith. They had traveled with Jesus for years, had heard him preach, had experienced the truth of his words in their inner-most souls, had seen and – in some cases, personally experienced – the power of his healing touch and divine presence.  And, yet, when it came to the open, empty tomb, doubts and tears were what flowed rather than faith and joy. If those who were intimately acquainted with the historical Jesus could express, through words and actions, such a lack of faith, why should we be surprised when our own responses to the empty tomb, to the Resurrection message of victory over sin and death, is often tainted with expressions of doubt, fear, and even rejection?
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“Mary, why are you weeping?”  Jesus’ question is pertinent not only to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples – Peter and his denial, Thomas and his doubts, and all the rest in their deserting him in fear – it is the question which each of us needs to hear, too.  We also find it difficult to see the truth of the empty tomb through our tears – tears of pain and division, arrogance and skepticism; tears which cloud our spiritual senses and make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the risen Christ in our midst.

In John’s Gospel the one called “the Other Disciple” is not only John, he is quite frequently a literary stand-in for you and me … for all those readers of the Gospel who are supposed to know the truth, meaning, and reality of the Resurrection.  Indeed, he is far more a literary device than he is an historical person, and yet it is probable that at least some of his words and actions are those of John.  It is regrettable that more of us can’t be like the Beloved Disciple … seeing and believing.  So often we either see and don’t believe, or we don’t even see. So frequently we’re like Mary, incapable of looking through the tears of this life to see the Resurrected One, standing in our presence.

I’ve had people tell me: “Greg, I just don’t believe in resurrected bodies.  Souls, yes. Spirits, yes.  I can accept a spiritual resurrection, but this physical stuff is beyond our experience and beyond what science tells us is possible.”  While not an outright denial of some kind of resurrection, it is still an expression of serious doubt that allows the tears of this life – the supposedly “scientific” expectations and interpretations of “reality” – to come between us and faith in Christ. Many who say these kinds of things end up spend a great deal of time questioning, seeking, and often never finding the “truth.” The details of “the faith” go beyond their modernistic expectations, which get in the way and block their ability to see “truth.”  Indeed, this is a plague that infests most of what once was called “Christendom” … it is not unique to just Liberal or Modernist Christianity.  It infects us all: traditionalist, spiritualist, Modernist, and post-Modernist alike.

We expect to see a Jesus who meets the preconceived notions and expectations which we bring to our faith.  For spiritualists, Jesus is usually some kind of a self-help guru; for traditionalists, Jesus is frequently conceived of as being either a “prosperity preacher” or a moralistic fault-finder; for the modernist, Jesus is frequently the anemic, inconsequential, impotent creation of ivory-tower academics; for political activists Jesus is some kind of a social worker or community organizer, more interested in temporal justice than in where that justice is touched and transformed by eternal grace. The weird truth is that Jesus is, at the same time, some of all of these and, yet, far beyond any.
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The true Jesus – indeed, the Biblical Jesus – refuses to be confined to the narrow limitations of our expectations.  The Resurrected One denies our doubts and calls forth our faith – and not an anemic faith which will only see or believe that which we can understand or explain.  No, the Resurrected Christ calls us to expressions of faith in the unbelievable: in real resurrections, in transformed lives, in miracles, in the Holy Real Presence of God in and for a broken and hurting world … not a far off, distant, unknowable God, but a God made known to us in Jesus Christ.

It is in the face of doubt, the face of fear, the face of the impossible, that faith is called forth from us, and empowered, by God’s grace.  We cannot believe on our own; we must know, experience, and live within the Real Presence of Jesus in order to truly believe and then truly act on our beliefs … we must be infused by God’s grace to faithe.

It is in this way that the Eucharist is the “Resurrection Meal.”  Far from being just a memorial of his death, it is a present day, every-day, “eternal-now” experience of the Resurrection power of Christ Jesus.  When we partake with faith we experience the miraculous out-pouring of the love of God into us anew and afresh for our living as members of the Body of Christ.  Some have asked me, again, why I hold Holy Communion so dear … this is why!  It is in and through this Holy Sacrament that the very Real Presence of God, which raised Christ Jesus from the dead, comes to be with and transform us and raise us from the spiritual death of our sin-sick souls.

Every Sunday – every Resurrection Day – let us wipe away the tears of doubt, fear, pain, oppression, reluctance, and greed.  Let us wipe away the tears that cloud our vision and, like Mary and the Disciples, obstruct our view of our Rabbi, our Resurrected One, Jesus the Christ.  Let us wipe away the tears and look not upon the One whom we believe Jesus to be but, rather, upon the One who is our God, our Lord and Savior, our Brother and Friend … Jesus.

© 2010 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.