One of the great mysteries in the New Testament is the identity of the beloved disciple in John’s Gospel. His first appearance in the Gospel occurs in chapter 13 at the Last Supper. In Jesus’ day, Jews reclined while eating their special meals. During the Last Supper, the beloved disciple was lying directly in front of Jesus and thus, according to custom, was in the special and intimate place of honor and recognition. The beloved disciple is found next in John’s Gospel as the man at the foot of the cross to whom Jesus assigned the care and responsibility for Mary, his mother. As we have seen in our passage today, this mysterious figure was the disciple who went with Peter to the empty tomb that first Easter morning. And in the appendix to John’s Gospel found in the last chapter, he is the first to recognize the Risen Lord by the Sea of Tiberias. But the question remains: Who was he? Here are a few suggestions:
- Many have suggested he was John the brother of James and therefore one of the three closest disciples of Jesus. Obviously, the beloved disciple cannot be Peter or James. So, the reasoning goes, he must be John, the disciple responsible for the Gospel which bears his name. However, the titles of the Gospels came long after they were written. Those titles were not an original part of the Gospels and perhaps should not be trusted to answer questions regarding authorship and identity.
- Others see the beloved disciple as Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha and the man Jesus raised from the dead. Lazarus is the one man in the Gospel who is mentioned by name whom Jesus is said to have loved. That fact is emphasized five times in John! And, of course, if the beloved disciple was Lazarus, then we would understand why he was the first to believe in the resurrection of Jesus since he himself had experienced the power of God over death.
- Other scholars suggest the beloved disciple was a close follower of Jesus who lived in Jerusalem but was not one of the Twelve. Over the years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, he passed on to his community of faith his own experiences of Jesus and thus was initially responsible for what we have today in the Gospel of John.
- However, most scholars are quite honest in saying that we don’t know who the beloved disciple was. His identity is lost in the mists of yesteryear. But all scholars agree on one point: the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John is a symbol of the true and worthy follower of Jesus. He is a model we are meant to emulate. He is the person of love and faith who exemplifies what it means to belong to Jesus.
As we look at this follower of Christ who is meant to be our example, we notice over and over that he is described as the disciple whom Jesus loved. And of course, we wonder what this means. Does it mean Jesus loved him more than all the other disciples? Do these words betray a prejudice and partiality on the part of Jesus in favor of this single person at the expense of others? Such a possibility would make no sense in the New Testament. Jesus as the revealer of God’s purpose and character is presented as indiscriminate in his love. He is unbiased and plays no favorites.
The key to interpreting the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is to be found in what John means by love. In John’s Gospel, love in its fullest and final expression is meant to be mutual. The writer makes this clear when he writes about Jesus’ love for God and God’s love for Jesus. Their love is so deep and comprehensive that they become one in mission and purpose. Jesus even prays to Abba that God will “make them one as you and I are one.” This mutuality and indivisibility of love is also seen at the end of John’s Gospel when Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” When Peter answers, “Yes, you know I love you,” Jesus responds, “Then feed my sheep.” If Peter’s love for Jesus is genuine and reflective of the love God has for the whole world (John 3:16), then Peter must love and tend those whom Jesus loves. One of the great lessons about love in the New Testament is that it cannot be parceled out, restricted, or hoarded. God’s indiscriminate love is universal and any limitation we place on our love is a denial of God’s nature and grace. The beloved disciple is one who is loved by Jesus, who accepts this love, and who loves in return. He is one who understand the mutuality of love and trust as well as the natural sharing of joy and peace. He loves because he is loved, and he responds in kind to that which comes to him from God.
With this background, we are ready to understand our passage for today. It was early before the crack of dawn, and in the darkness came Mary Magdalene, one of the faithful women who followed Jesus and who stayed with him to the bitter end. Upon arriving at the tomb, she found the stone blocking the entrance rolled away and assumed the enemies of Jesus had come and stolen his body. She rushed to Peter and the beloved disciple to report the missing body of her Lord. The two disciples immediately ran to the tomb. Simon Peter was the first to go in and find the burial cloths of Jesus laying on the stone shelf carved out of the wall of the tomb upon which Jesus’ body had been placed.
Apparently, what Peter saw led him to no further conclusion than that which had already been made by Mary: the body of Jesus had been stolen. But when the beloved disciple came in and saw what Peter had seen, we are told that he believed—he believed that death was not the last word for Jesus and that this Jewish teacher had conquered death and had been transformed into a new existence.
And of course, the question we are meant to ask is this: What was it which allowed the beloved disciple to believe? And the answer, put quite simply, is this: He believed, had faith, and trusted because he loved. Now, I don’t mean that his love blinded him to reality and led him to a mistaken conclusion. What I mean is that it was his love which allowed him to believe what was apparent and was before him. And here John touches on one of the deepest mysteries and truths in authentic religion. Only the eyes of love can see and understand the ways of God. But most people throughout history have been tempted to reverse the process. We moderns and post-moderns are especially guilty of this. First, we believe; we muster enough faith on the basis of what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our minds understand; and then and only then we may be ready to love and commit ourselves. That’s the sensible and prudent way. That’s the safe path. That way our bridges remain behind us, always ready for a convenient retreat should the journey of faith prove more than we can bear or the way of love becomes too costly.
But what if John is right? What if we can understand and believe and trust and have faith (and therefore be faithful) in any ultimate way only to the extent that we love? What if the eyes and ears and mind of faith come to us only as we accept and respond to God’s love—only as we commit ourselves to Jesus and immerse ourselves in his ways, not because we have come to believe in them through careful calculation and analysis. And not because we have judged this to be the most prudent course for us to follow, but because we have been loved and because we love in turn. And through that experience and that mutual commitment we have come to a deep understanding, a profound belief, an ultimate faith, and a transforming trust that he is the way, the truth, and the life which no tomb can contain, no death can end, and no power can destroy. What if we were to come to know that Jesus was raised from the dead not just on the basis of an empty tomb or secondhand testimonies, but on the basis of a deep love from and for him?
And of course, that IS the only way we do know, isn’t it? The tomb of Jesus is lost to us in history. Even if that tomb could be identified today, it wouldn’t prove or disprove the resurrection of Jesus. And all the eyewitnesses are dead—Peter, the other disciples, Mary Magdalene, James the brother of Jesus, Paul. They are all gone. We have their testimony (which I personally believe is reliable and true), but it does not prove they were right.
John’s Gospel was probably written after most (if not all) of the eyewitnesses were gone and after the empty tomb could be verified. His Gospel was written for people like us who live too far removed in time and distance to know by direct observation and careful calculation. It was written for those of us who can know he is alive only on the basis of a love from and for him—only on the basis of our coming to know and experience him—only on the basis of our risk in trusting him and his way—only on the basis of our commitment to him.
Like the beloved disciple, we can believe because we have been loved and because we respond with love and know in that love relationship something which is ultimate, undying, and eternal.
How can we know Jesus? How can we experience the Risen Lord? We have the Bible, the testimonies of the first disciples, the witness of the church over the centuries. But in the final analysis, we will know and experience him only as we accept and respond to his love. It is love for Jesus and immersing ourselves in his way and committing ourselves to his paths which will give us the insight necessary to detect his presence.
The great 20th century saint Albert Schweitzer spoke of this experiential knowledge at the end of his monumental work with the English title The Quest for the Historical Jesus with these often-quoted words:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
After the publication of this book, Schweitzer gave up a promising career in theology, medicine, science, and music to journey to Africa and establish a hospital for the poor on that continent. When asked why he would commit himself to such a shocking and incomprehensible decision, his response took his colleagues’ breath away: “Because Jesus wants me to.” He decided to follow the wisdom and challenge of those final words of his book on Jesus.
How can we know Jesus? How can we experience the Risen Christ? Only as we love him; only as we go with him; only as we commit our lives to him. Only then will real and lasting knowledge come—only then shall we, like the beloved disciple, truly believe, have faith, trust, and be faithful.
Go forth in the splendor of Easter.
Rejoice in the goodness of God.
Center yourself in the will of God.
Be embraced by the love of God.
And in all things, remember, Christ has risen!
[I trust that no one reading this sermon will assume that I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Let me say without any equivocation, that I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected by God and entered into the transformed existence of resurrected life. I do not believe the resurrection is just a metaphor or that the disciples came to believe in their hearts that Jesus survived death or that those early followers shared a mass hallucination. I believe that the body of Jesus was resurrected by God in history and that the Risen Christ appeared to those early disciples. Personally, I could not be a Christian if I didn’t believe in the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection. I might could believe in some notion of God, but I’m not sure I could even embrace that truncated belief. The resurrection of Jesus is absolutely critical to my faith.
However, I have known too many people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus but whose lives show no evidence of love, compassion, mercy, and the unconditional and indiscriminate love of the God Jesus came to reveal. Without a deeper understanding of the meaning of Jesus, his life, his death, and his resurrection, authentic discipleship is impossible. It does no good to believe intellectually in the resurrection of Jesus without a committed following of the Risen Christ. In that committed following, we will discover more of the meaning of that resurrection and of the whole Christ event. But such knowledge comes only experientially, and such experience comes only through trust, risk, and commitment. Only then shall we, “as an ineffable mystery,” learn who He is.]
John 20:1-10 (NRSV)
20 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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.