The Run to the Tomb

Up until a few years ago, I would sometimes joke that I wouldn’t run unless something pretty terrible were chasing me. Then, in 2013, I realized I was overweight and that death was after me. Between diet and exercise, I dropped 30 pounds in three months. All it took was the right motivation.

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. John 20:1-10 NRSV

In the Gospel of John, Peter and the Beloved Disciple are portrayed as having a reason to run. In their case they weren’t running away (as on the night Jesus was betrayed), but rather running toward something. Mary Magdalene (alone, without other women accompanying) had discovered the empty tomb and run back to tell the disciples. Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, with the other disciple outpacing Peter (so much running in this version of the story!). When they got to the tomb, the other disciple stayed outside briefly while Peter went right in.

What’s interesting about this story is their lack of understanding. It indicates they didn’t believe the body was gone until they saw it for themselves, ‘as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ And so we return to the same question I’ve been mulling all week: How could the disciples not understand that Jesus would be raised from the dead, if he’d talked about it all along?

It seems to me that what we find in the Gospels are trace elements of what really happened. The disciples understood Jesus to be the Messiah, and when he died at the hands of the Romans (something that would most certainly NOT happen to the Messiah), they fell into escalation of commitment. This is when people, faced with the contradiction of deeply-held beliefs, double down in the face of evidence to the contrary and rationalize how it still makes sense.

Two examples of many in recent times are available to us. This is what happened to the Millerites in the United States, back in the 1800s. People quit jobs, sold property and put on white outfits to await Jesus on the hillsides in the United States on a certain date. When he didn’t materialize (literally), this occasion became known as ’The Great Disappointment.’ While many returned to their former beliefs or simply walked away, many others held fast to their conviction that Jesus was indeed coming soon. The bulk of this group became what we know today as the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

A second, much smaller event took place in the 1950s, also in the United States. A group of ‘Seekers’ believed that aliens were coming to get them on a certain date, at which point the rest of the world would be destroyed. Up to that date their group was non-proselytizing and very private. When the predicted salvation didn’t come to pass, the group intensified its devotion and decided it was time to start spreading the word.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple are said to have run to the tomb, not understanding the very thing Jesus had told them would happen. Even seeing the empty tomb they apparently didn’t make the connection. This, I think, is residue of events as they might have transpired. whether there was ever an empty tomb (body removed by someone) or not (body never buried as depicted or else remained in the tomb and the story grew regardless), after the death of Jesus the disciples were left struggling to make sense of Jesus’ apparent failure. They doubled down, reinterpreted events, had grief-stricken visions and ransacked the Scriptures for verses that out of context could support their new vision of what had happened.

They ran.

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