Seeing is Believing….an Easter Message

Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 Trinity UMC              “Seeing is Believing”

Scripture:   John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.

The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.

Then 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.

Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;

and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Our Scripture this Easter morning is the story of the grieving, disappointed followers of Christ trudging to the burial tomb on the third day after his crucifixion….having spent their Sabbath day in shock over the brutal betrayal and death of Jesus that they had witnessed on Friday. Now the women are going to the tomb on Sunday morning to complete the ritual burial practices, further anointing the body after the hasty burial by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea late on Friday afternoon before the start of the Sabbath at six pm.

We are people who rely on our senses- seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. God-given senses that allow us to evaluate, understand, and enjoy our world and to respond to it.  We often require physical proof in order to believe what we are told. “Show me” is a phrase that is heard not only in Missouri, “The Show Me State”, but also heard anywhere that people seek to understand, or teach or to persuade one another of something. We see in the Bible again and again the power, especially of seeing and being able to touch and engage with something, instead of merely hearing about it.

  • After Jacob and his sons came to Egypt for refuge, to escape the drought, he said to Joseph, I can die in peace now for I have seen for myself that you are still alive. His sons had told him, but he was unbelieving until her saw Joseph.   Gen 46:30
  • Gideon, the skeptic who tested God not just once, but several times, said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!” Judges 6:22
  • King David prayed a prayer of gratitude as he prepared to turn over the rule of the kingdom and the building of the Temple to his son, Solomon, humble and grateful for how the people were supporting his own long desired goal of seeing the Temple built. God told him that Solomon would build the Temple. After seeing the outpouring of generosity of the people for the building of the Temple David thanked God saying, “And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you.”   1 Chronicles 29:17
  • Job’s friend, Eliphaz the Temanite, spoke directly and sharply in an attempt to understand why Job had suffered such pain and loss, “Listen to me and I will explain to you; let me tell you what I have seen.” Job 15:17
  • Solomon, bemoaning the uselessness of human attempts to find meaning in life through one’s own efforts, said “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14
  • The Apostle John, as he wrote a letter that became the permanent record we have in the Bible, said, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”   John 1:34


Education professionals tell us that the more of our senses that can be engaged in a learning process, the more likely students are to actually learn, understand, and retain the information presented.

Generally, we are told that

  • 7% of message we hear and retain is communicated through words that are spoken.
  • 38% of message is communicated by the context, as we understand it, and how we feel about what we hear.
  • 55% of message we receive and interpret is based on what we see- facial expressions, body language, visual aids, etc.  Seeing IS believing!

Each of us has a certain standard of proof that we require to be presented to us before we believe. For many it will require visible evidence. Also, it often depends upon from whom the communication or proof is coming. For some, the proof required is minimal. For others, it is enormous. I have one nineteen year old friend who shared with me recently some outrageous things that she had believed as a young child. I looked at her incredulously as she shared with me some of the deceptions she had believed. Her explanation was that her sisters, who were a good bit older than she was, had told her these things and since she trusted them and thought they probably knew what they were talking about, she essentially believed everything they told her.

William James a 19th century physician, philosopher, and psychologist said, “Memory for events is concerned with specific personal past experiences.” My young friend had little experience to argue with what they said. She was naïve and uneducated compared to her older sisters, so she simply believed what they said, even some of the whoppers they told her. She shared with me how foolish and, in some cases, even humiliated she had felt later when she discovered the truth about some of the things they had told her.

Truth that is heard proclaimed is registered and considered in the context of one’s personal experience and the standpoint of the credibility of the one who speaks. It will be believed if it resonates with one’s own personal experience and understanding of reality. It is likely to be believed if it comes from someone who is considered authoritative, even if one has little or no experience with which to confirm what is being told. But truth that is heard and then lived out, tested, proven, understood and integrated into one’s personal experience becomes truth that is believed, embraced and may well be fought for and defended to one’s death.

Each of us can probably remember a time that we have heard about or been told about something, but until we actually saw it for ourselves we were skeptical and unbelieving. The disciples had heard Jesus say that he must die, but that he would see them again. He had even talked about three days. They had even seen Lazarus raised from the dead but they didn’t want to hear or believe what Jesus said about his own death. He was not the kind of person who would bring violence upon himself or others. He was a beloved rabbi. He was a wise prophet. He taught love and mercy and forgiveness. Crowds followed him. Children adored him.

But the tragic turn of events on that dark Thursday night and horrific Friday had proven the truth of Jesus’ words about him dying. Incredulously, they saw him arrested, beaten and crucified. They saw him breathe his last and the soldiers cast lots for his clothing and plunge the spear into his side. They saw his grieving Mother and his friend John at the foot of the cross as he spoke his final words and died. They saw him removed from the cross. They saw Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the body to the garden tomb. What they didn’t see was the resurrecting power of God in that closed tomb that raised Jesus from the dead early on that Sunday morning.

We hear the words of another person who was close to the events in Mark 16:1-7:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”


Jesus had told his disciples what to expect. He had explained the ancient Scriptures to them, the prophecies, and his fulfillment of them. He had explained his kingdom and his purpose. But their ears and their minds could not grasp what they heard.  It was too unexpected, too contrary to all that they had heard from other teachers, too foreign to their human experience, too painful to imagine themselves believing it. Peter even argued with Jesus on one occasion, urging him not to speak about such things. Jesus’ reply was to point to the influence of evil that such denials evidenced. “Get thee behind me satan!”, Jesus said to Peter. Peter would also take things into his own hands, grabbing a sword and cutting off a soldier’s ear, in an attempt to stop what Jesus had clearly said was going to happen. And Jesus simply healed the ear and followed through with God’s plan.

No wonder Jesus said too them, ““You unbelieving and perverse generation. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” Matthew 17:17.

Another time Jesus said: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9

After their initial awe at Jesus’ teaching and the obvious authority and anointing on his life, the religious leaders of the day later came to try and trip him up, to trick him with crafty questions and later, they mocked him, even after they had witnessed and heard about the miracles he had done and heard what he taught, “The Jews who were there gathered around him, said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” John 10:24

When Jesus did tell them the truth of who he was, they were incensed and called him a blasphemer.   People are prone to hear what they want to hear, it seems. However, when the truth is put right in front of our eyes, when we can no longer deny what is plainly and unequivocally right in our faces, we may believe. Some believe begrudgingly. Others have epiphany moments that become joyful embracing of the truth because that moment of truth makes the rest of their experience, the things they’ve heard and seen, the things they want to believe, make sense.

Peter and John, hearing from the women that the stone was rolled away and Jesus was not in the tomb, came running to see for themselves. They found Jesus’ burial garb lying in the tomb. Great attention is given to the grave clothes in the Scripture. The grave clothes were a linen covering for the body, either consisting of strips or a shroud and a separate piece, a cloth for Jesus’ head which either covered his face or may have been tied around his face to hold his jaw in place. John’s description indicates this facial cloth was lying separate from the burial shroud and was folded or rolled neatly.

A friend had written me about a story she had read on the internet about the meaning of the folded napkin. Most of that story, though entertaining and reasonable by today’s customs, has no foundation in the ancient Jewish or Roman practices. Since the grave-clothes were found in very good order, it suggests that Jesus’ body was not stolen away while guards placed there by the Romans slept. Robbers of tombs had been known to take away the grave clothes and leave the body; but none had ever been known to take away the body and leave the clothes, especially when it was fine linen and new, as Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus’ burial clothes were. One would, presumably, rather choose to carry a dead body with the burial clothes around it than uncovered. Even if robbers had taken Jesus’ body, is it likely that they would have stolen the body, left the grave-clothes behind, and taken the time to fold up the linen napkin?  Since Jesus’ resurrected body was able to appear later to the disciples inside a locked room, it seems he simply arose from death and passed through the grave clothes, just as he did through a wall. With the body gone, the clothes were presumably collapsed, though perhaps retaining some of their shape due to the spices. The fact that the head covering was folded or rolled up in a separate place suggests that Jesus may have tidied up before leaving! There were no traces of haste or disorder. The deserted tomb bore the marks of perfect calm, as one Bible commentator has noted. The royal calmness of Jesus throughout his Passion is also indicated here in his resurrection. No hurried pace. No disorder. Just everything in place and challenging them to understand something that made no sense except in light of Jesus’ words and his own trustworthy and steadfast character.

John Wesley offered this comment: Peter saw the linen clothes lie – and the napkin folded up – The angels who ministered to him when he rose, perhaps folded up the napkin. Recall that some who had come to the tomb reported seeing angels.

Recall the words from John: “The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. (John is referring to himself here. He arrived at the tomb first). He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.   Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.   Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed…….. in seeing the empty tomb, the burial shroud, and the folded napkin, John “believed”…… Believed what? Believed the reports of the women? Believed that Jesus had been miraculously resurrected and not stolen by thieves? Believed all that Jesus had prophesied about his death and resurrection? …. All because of a napkin that would likely have been missing or simply thrown in a corner if thieves had done this?

These men and women came to the tomb….they encountered angelic beings who told them Jesus was not there. They were confused. They were afraid. They saw the tomb was empty. They saw burial clothes and a folded napkin. It was immediately clear to them that something totally outside of their experience had happened. They had no frame of reference for understanding what they were hearing and seeing, except Jesus’ own words to them about dying and after three days, coming back to life and what they had seen him do when he was with them.

What a surprise! Imagine seeing something that is so unexpected and makes no sense in one’s past experience and yet, that very circumstance leads to belief!   They had heard Jesus say that these things would occur. And now, they saw the proof of the truth of Jesus’ words with their own eyes! A credible source that they trusted had spoken. Now they had visible evidence that supported what they had heard and that made little sense in any other context.

Over the next 40 days Jesus appeared to the disciples numerous times. In fact, we are told in Scripture that he appeared to over 300 people!

After numerous interactions with the disciples, before Jesus departed from their earthly sight for the last time Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

We have heard Jesus’ words…..his promise to be present with us always through his Holy Spirit. We have read his call to obedience in living out his commandments and sharing the gospel with others. Will we claim the blessing of believing in him even though we have not seen him? Just like the burial shroud and folded napkin John saw in the tomb, there is plenty of evidence for us to observe…..Jesus’ revelation of his creative power evidenced in the beauty, order, and intricacy of the natural world, his protection over his faithful ones, his provision for our needs, his healing, his comfort, his supernatural strength in times of trial, his peace that passes understanding in the midst of confusion, danger, and more.   Will we see and believe what is right before us? Can we make sense of it? Or will we require that Jesus stand before us and allow us to place our hands on his wounds, as the Apostle Thomas did, Thomas, who did not run to the tomb that Sunday morning on the word of the women? What measure of proof will we require in order to believe what we have been told? The title of this sermon is “seeing is believing”, but like many other things, Jesus turns our human logic upside down and completely around….He has said in John 11:40 “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” Believing first, seeing second.

Believing is the key. Believe, even though you have not seen. Hebrews 11:11 tells us that faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. Being able to see the risen Christ at work in our lives comes about as a result of believing. And because we believe, we will have the spiritual eyes to see God at work in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in the world. May your belief, your faith, be reckoned unto you as righteousness!   And may you see the glory of the Lord!

Let us pray:

When our faith stands at the grave, grieving for a stone that’s rolled away, forgive us.

When our faith is short of understanding though the truth is there to see, forgive us.

When our faith, beset by doubt, sees no further than an empty tomb today, forgive us. Bring to mind the cry of Mary, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ and grant us faith to believe!