top of page

Life, Love, and Abounding Grace -- John 20:1-18; 21:15-19 (Easter Sunday)

Each of the Gospels tells the story of Easter morning in its own particular way. Each gospel lifts up different witnesses, what they saw, what they said, what they didn’t say. In those days following Easter morning, their stories were told, again and again, over the years shaped in different communities – each with its own emphasis, its own insight – until those Easter morning stories came to be written down, in those communities – and then down through the generations handed down to us.


The Gospel of John lifts up three primary figures – Mary Magdalene; the disciple known as the Beloved Disciple; and Peter. These are the three witnesses whom the Gospel of John calls to the stand to share a word of what they experienced that first Easter morning.[1]


There’s the Beloved Disciple. Now, this disciple is central to the Gospel of John – but oddly – throughout the Gospel, we know them only as “the disciple Jesus loved,” or “the Beloved Disciple.” Scholars have puzzled over that down through the centuries. Tradition has it that it must be John, the disciple – this is, after all, called the Gospel of John. It just makes sense. But there’s another reading that suggests that the Beloved Disciple is actually Lazarus – Lazarus, whom Jesus weeks before had raised from the dead.[2] Over the years, this reading has become more and more compelling for me. Let’s think what the Beloved Disciple Lazarus might have to say of that morning.


You remember Lazarus.  He’s a close friend of Jesus – brother of Mary and Martha. He falls gravely ill, and by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has died.  Jesus weeps at the tomb, and then calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus walks out... alive.

And after that, you have Lazarus moving through the world – still in the story – one who has experienced death, but who now still lives. The Irish writer Colm Toíbín imagines Lazarus as a grayish figure moving through a liminal world between life and death – no one really knows what to do with him – even Lazarus.[3]

In the Gospel of John, Lazarus is a serious threat to the religious authorities – almost as much as Jesus – because as they are trying to discredit Jesus, there’s this guy walking around, who used to be dead, but whom everyone knows Jesus has raised back to life. So when the authorities come for Jesus, they come for Lazarus too. And on this Easter morning, he’s in hiding with the disciples.


Mary comes with news that the tomb is empty, and two disciples set off running – Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The Beloved Disciple runs fast and arrives first. But notice this: He stops at the mouth of the tomb. He doesn’t go in. Imagine that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus. He doesn’t go in because he knows what death is.[4] He has been in a tomb before, and he’s not about to walk back in without first very seriously thinking it through. The Beloved Disciple stands there stunned, taking it in, as Peter blows past and runs right on into the tomb. Good ‘ol Peter. And, then, after he’s taken a deep breath, the Beloved Disciple walks in, too. And he sees the linen strips that had bound Jesus’ body; he sees a burial shroud lying there, rolled up. He has had a burial shroud wrapped, with love, around his face, and he knows what it is – almost impossibly – to have those whom he loves unwrap and remove that shroud, to unbind him from death – to roll up the shroud, and leave the shorud – and death – behind in the tomb.[5]


The Beloved Disciple knows. Scripture says he sees and he believes – he knows – he trusts what he sees – Out of a tomb, life. He sees and trusts, even though it may yet be beyond comprehension – because he knows in his bones what it is to be dead and then alive again. What he sees in that tomb – is life – and he lives into that.


Before it is anything else, the Good News of Easter morning is a Word of life.

In the Gospel of John, the Word has become flesh and dwelt in the midst of us. In Jesus Christ, God has entered into the fullness of life, every joy, every sorrow; all the suffering, all the love, all the struggle – Jesus has entered into the fullness of life even unto death – lifted up on a cross – and proclaimed King – only to die and then rise on the third day, victorious over every power – even the power of death itself. In the bright dawn of this Resurrection day, death no longer has the last word. As the Apostle Paul will write, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not life, not death; not any power; not the present, not the future, not the past; there is nothing – nothing in all creation that can separate us from Christ. On this Easter morning, what opens up is an entirely New Creation. And everything that lies ahead is life.


And the Beloved disciple gets that. He knows what it is to experience death, and now he knows what it is to be fully alive.


And then, there’s Mary – Mary Magdalene. Each of the four gospels tells the story of Easter morning in its own way – but in every one of them, Mary is there, first to arrive at the empty tomb. In some of the other gospels, there are other women with her, in John, it’s just her. But take note – in all of the gospels – Mary and the women are the last at the cross, and the first at the tomb.[6]


In the Gospel of John, Mary arrives at the empty tomb, just as dawn breaks. At first she thinks Jesus’ body has been moved, or worse, stolen. She runs to tell the others. The Beloved Disciple and Peter run to the tomb, see what they see, and then head home. But Mary lingers in the garden at the tomb. Weeping. I know that weeping. Do you? She just can’t bring herself to leave one she has loved and lost.

Mary looks into the tomb. And now there are angels – messengers. “Why are you weeping?” “They’ve taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve taken him.” And as Mary turns from the tomb, back into this garden, she see’s someone she thinks is the gardener. (She sees Jesus, we know that, but she doesn’t – not yet.) He asks her why she’s weeping, and she says, “If you’ve moved the body, just tell me, and I’ll tend to things.” And he says, “Mary.” And oh, she knows, she sees. “Rabboni. Teacher.”

Notice the intimacy of this moment. They call each other by name.[7] Naming in their culture was powerful – it is in ours too – to be known by name – and to be seen. “Mary.” Now, Jesus tells her not to hold on to him – maybe that’s because she goes to embrace him – but maybe it’s because she has embraced him, and won’t let him go. “Rabboni.”

Notice what is coming to life in this Garden.[8] Mary weeping at the tomb for one she loves, just as Jesus wept at a tomb for Lazarus, as people said, “See how he loved him.” Mary and Jesus naming each other, seeing each other. An embrace of one she thought she had lost – now alive. This is life-giving good news to share.  A world of death transformed into a garden of life – and knowing, and seeing, and tenderness. What everyone thought was an ending is an entirely new beginning.

The Good News of Easter morning is a Word of love. The world of power-over that drove us relentlessly into Good Friday has vanished – and what opens up in this Garden is a new creation. Jesus has taken on the powers – he has turned the tables in the Temple; he’s fed the hungry and healed the ailing; lifted up those for too long held low; broken the structures of hierarchy as he washed disciples feet; been judged by empire and the mob; taken on the violence of this world, even unto death – and he has emerged in Resurrection with a word of love and life.

Remember with Mary all those things that Jesus said. For God so loved the world that God sent me to love you – that you might see, and seeing, come to trust, and to live. Just as God has loved me, so I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends. Abide in my love, and I will abide in you. A New Commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love each other.

What we see here, on this Easter morning, is a garden that held a tomb coming to life with love – and Mary in the very center of that – empowered, commissioned, and called to be the One – the first one to carry this Good News – this love – into the world. As Jarena Lee would point out, Mary – this woman Apostle – the first Apostle[9] – is the first to preach the Risen Christ, the first to preach the Good News of Resurrection.[10]

These witnesses, with their story to tell. The Beloved Disciple and Mary. Let’s not forget Peter.

Now remember, the last time we saw Peter – Jesus had been arrested, and Peter had denied Jesus three times. “Aren’t you one of those who follows Jesus?” No. No. No. It was a heart-breaking moment, and Peter just faded from view.

But on Easter morning, when Mary comes with the bewildering news, Peter runs. Peter runs to the tomb. To see. Without hesitation, he runs into the tomb – and he finds it empty, with the burial cloths. And he scratches his head, and heads home.

Now, in this community, we’ve been travelling with Peter for the whole season of Lent. His journey with Jesus has been our journey. And we can’t just leave him there, scratching his head. There’s one more story to tell. We’re in John chapter 20, and it does feel like the Gospel is winding up here – chapter 20 with its Resurrection appearances has a proper ending. But it’s like they came back later, and added another chapter – chapter 21 of the Gospel of John – and it has this story:

It's some time now after Easter morning, and Peter is back to fishing with some of the other disciples, and Jesus walks up to the shoreline and calls out to them. They don’t recognize him at first – this Risen Christ. Jesus tells them to cast their nets – and they bring in a catch too big for their nets, and the Beloved Disciple sees, and says: “It’s the Lord!” And Peter jumps out of the boat and swims and runs toward Jesus. Good ol’ Peter. And on the shore, Jesus has made them breakfast, and they sit down, and eat, and talk, and laugh.

Now, remember, the last time Peter was with Jesus, he denied him three times. “Aren’t you one of those who follow, Jesus?”

No, I am not.

No, not me.


So it can’t be an easy moment. Seeing Jesus again. Here’s what happens,after Easter morning on that beach. Jesus turns to Peter & says: “Peter, do you love me?” Lord, you know I love you. “Then feed my sheep.”

Once. And then a second time: “Peter, do you love me?” Lord, you know I love you.“Then feed my sheep.”

And then a third time: “Peter, do you love me?” Lord, you know I love you. “Then feed my sheep.”

And Jesus says, “I tell you, you’re going to places you never imagined. Hard places. Worthy places. Come follow me!”

Do you see? Do you see what just happened there?

Peter has denied Jesus three times. And Jesus gives him three opportunities to set things right.

Jesus gives Peter a reset. A brand new beginning. A new start to life.

What just happened there is forgiveness.

The Good News of Easter morning is a Word of abounding grace.

When it mattered most, when asked if he was one who followed Jesus, Peter had said No, and as they took Jesus away, he warmed his hands by the fire.

In Resurrection, the Risen Christ opens up to  Peter the opportunity to say Yes. Three more chances to claim who he is. To say who he is in relation to Jesus. And to say yes... to life and to love. Can you imagine?

Meda Stamper puts it like this: In Peter’s story “there is hope for the least bold among us, hope for the part in each of us that has failed repeatedly, chosen easy warmth, and heard the cock crow. Even we... even we... can love boldly.”

It’s like they sing near end of Hamilton:

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is a grace too powerful to name.

We push away what we don’t understand.

We push away the unimaginable.[11]


What we are seeing here as Peter faces the friend he has denied – what we are seeing here is the unimaginable.

What we are seeing here is forgiveness.

A world filled to overflowing with God’s abounding grace.

Can you imagine?

O, just look at all this Resurrection! We’ve got Lazarus encountering the Risen Christ, yet again in an experience of life stronger even than death. We’ve got Mary in this Garden filled with love and new creation, embracing the Risen Christ and then sent to tell – this woman Apostle – sent to tell the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And we’ve got Peter, forgiven and made whole, fishing and eating with the Risen Christ. Peter, do you love me? Yes, Lord you know I do. Then feed my sheep. Peter, rising up to feed Christ’s sheep – to do what Jesus does – to love folks into life.


The Good News of Easter morning is a Word of life, and love, and abounding grace.

On that first day, it was a Word for the Beloved Disciple, and for Mary, and for Peter.

And on this Easter morning, it is a Word for us. It is a Word for you. Remember how it all began: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God – and the Word became flesh, and dwelt in us, full of grace and truth.

This Word made flesh. Every time we live it out – it is a fresh new Word. It is a new beginning – it is a brand new day – it is a new creation. What opens up to us on Easter morning – this Easter morning – is nothing less than a new world, coming to life in us, filled to the brim and overflowing with life, love, and God’s abounding grace.

© 2024 Scott Clark

[1] This reading of the Gospel of John’s witness to the resurrection is indebted to the insight and teaching of Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005). For more on these texts and the Gospel of John generally, see Mary L. Coloe, PBVN,  John 11-21 (Wisdom Commentary, vol. 44B; Mary Ann Beavis and Barbara E. Reid, OP, eds.) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2021); Gail O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Amy Plantinga Pau, Commentary in Connections, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2018); Meda Stamper, Commentary on Working Preacher, at

[2] See Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005), pp.409-414.

[3] See Colm Toíbín, The Testament of Mary  (New York, NY: Scribner, 2012).

[4] See Waetjen, pp.411-14.

[5] See id.; Coloe, p.340-41; see also O’Day, p.193 (comparing Lazarus at his tomb and at Jesus’).

[6] Learned by heart from Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.

[7] See O’Day, p.193; Cohoe, p.343.

[8] See Waetjen, pp.414-20

[9] See O’Day, p.194; Coloe, p.348; Waetjen, pp.418-419.

[10] See Plantinga Pau, Kindle ed. loc. 6092.

[11] Lin Manuel Miranda, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Hamilton.

Photo credit: James Wood, used with permission via Unsplash


bottom of page