John 20:1-10
Easter 2024
Matt Goodale

It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again. This is the season we all look forward to so much, when hope is born…it’s March Madness basketball season! 

That’s probably not where you thought your pastor was going with that today, did you?

March Madness basketball is one of the most exciting sports tournaments because nobody has any idea what is going to happen! According to ESPN, 25 million people filled out a bracket to predict the winners of each game throughout the tournament, and by the end of day 2, there were zero perfect brackets left.

This is what makes March Madness so fun. There are so many upsets, so many come from behind wins, so many good underdog stories…it’s what every sports fan loves! And even if you’re not a March Madness or sports fan, it’s hard to deny that we all love a good underdog story.

And so it’s fitting perhaps that March Madness always takes place around Easter…the day we celebrate the ultimate underdog story, the ultimate come-from-behind win, the ultimate unexpected turn.

Today, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And we’re all good church-goers, we’ve heard this story many times before, and because we’ve heard it so many times, the surprise ending of the story doesn’t really hit us as a surprise anymore. We expect it.

But this was not so for Jesus’ disciples.

And I want you to try to put yourself in their sandals for a few moments. Imagine that you’ve been following this rabbi for three years. He’s taught you so much about life and he’s given you a real sense of purpose.

And this rabbi you just knew was going to change everything. He’s changed your life, you knew he was going to do that for everyone. You could sense that he was special, maybe even sent by God. He talks a lot about salvation and a coming kingdom of God that would turn everything upside down, lifting up the poor, the sick, and the outcasts. This sounded nice.

And then he goes and gets himself killed. He didn’t even resist it. You watch from a distance as your rabbi, your leader, your hope, is strung up on a cross, humiliated and then breathes his last breath. Maybe even then you still wait for something to happen. Maybe you’re waiting for Jesus to have a real superhero moment when he’s lifted off the cross, regains his full powers and then eviscerates every Roman in sight.

But nothing happens. Jesus dies and you watch as his body is put in a tomb. And as the stone is rolled in front, cutting off your last glimpse of Jesus, you know this is the end. It’s over. These three years with Jesus were nice, but now you need to go back and rethink everything you ever thought and hoped about him. As the stone is rolled across the tomb, you feel the last burning ember of hope in your soul is extinguished.

You know what this feels like, don’t you? You know what it feels like to hold onto a burning ember of hope and what it’s like to nurture it with everything you’ve got until it finally goes out. You know what it’s like the feel the crushing finality of something gone wrong…something that happened that was never supposed to.

You had such a clear picture of what your life was supposed to look like, and then it happens. Your marriage crumbles, your health fails, addiction creeps in, anxiety takes over, grief drowns you. When catastrophe strikes, we all do our best to hold onto hope at first, but as time passes it gets harder and harder to keep the ember burning, until eventually it goes out.

You may not feel this in your personal life right now, but it’s hard not to feel it when looking at the world around us. When we witness the war in the Middle-East, a bridge in Baltimore collapsing, the ecological crisis, the state of politics in our nation. It’s hard to hold onto hope that all of this is heading anywhere but towards catastrophe.

Jesus promises us life to full, but when we look around we just see a whole lot of death. And more than that, many of us feel as if we are living a slow death. We try to keep the ember of hope burning, but it’s exhausting work.

I think we know what it’s like to be one of these disciples, and to feel the crushing finality of what just happened to them.

And as our text reads, it’s been three days since Jesus was killed. Three long, dark, despairing days.

And early in the morning, while it was still dark, two of the disciples, Peter and John (the one referred to in the story as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”)—funny because this was presumably written by John. They’re suddenly sought out by Mary who claims that the stone on Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away and his body is gone.

And what do Peter and John do? They do the same thing Mary did…they run! And I think this is hilarious…three times, John (“the one whom Jesus loved”) is described as running faster than Peter:

Verse 4: Both were running, but “the other disciple” outran Peter…he’s sneaky, this isn’t outright bragging

Verse 6: Then Peter came along behind him

Verse 8: The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first before Peter, went inside

I don’t know if Peter beat John in a race previously or if they had some bet going, but John is very adamant about making sure everyone knows he beat Peter to the tomb.

But that’s a little beside the point…the point is, they ran!

You can sense in their running a desperation, an eagerness, a small glimmer of hope that maybe a different ending is possible. They’re eager for another possibility…another option other than it all ending in death and catastrophe. Their feet carry them in hope, maybe the same way your feet carried you to church today, eager to receive some good news.

And what Peter and John find at the tomb is just that: good news.

A wise man named Gandalf once said, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”

Just think about that for a minute. What does that mean?

“Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”

In other words, despair is only for those who think they know how the story will end. In other other words, hope is the belief that another ending is always possible.

For years, a famous painting by Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch hung in the Louvre in Paris and was titled “Checkmate”.

As you can see, the painting depicts a young man playing the devil at a game of chess. If the devil wins, he gets the man’s soul. The devil, on the left, looks arrogantly confident. The young man on the right looks forlorn, tears streaming down his cheeks. He knows based on his position that he has already lost. They both know it…hence the name “Checkmate”.

As the story goes, one day a chess grandmaster came through the Louvre and saw this painting. He was moved by the young man’s despair. And as he studied the painting, he noticed something surprising.

He asked for a chess board to set up the position and he studied it some more. Then he asked for the curator of the museum and told them that the painting was incorrectly named. Because though both the devil and the young man, and thousands of people who had come through the Louvre thought they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the young man had lost, they were all wrong. The young man, with one move, could turn his losing position into a winning one.

I love this story, because it’s a perfect illustration of what Jesus’ resurrection accomplishes.

Jesus’ resurrection does not suddenly change everything for the better, it does not suddenly cure all sickness, raise the dead or end war. We wouldn’t be sitting here today if that was the case. But what it does do, is show us that we cannot know the end beyond all doubt.

Because of the resurrection a new ending is possible.

Because of the resurrection, you can’t look at the ecological crisis and say “It’s hopeless.”

Because of the resurrection, we can’t notice the housing and food crisis in our city and say “There’s nothing that can be done about it.”

Because of the resurrection, you can’t say that this addiction is unable to be overcome.

Because of the resurrection, you can’t say that this marriage is unsalvageable.

Because of the resurrection, you can’t say that grief is all that lies ahead of you.

Because of the resurrection, you can’t look at your own life and think, “Well, I know this is going to end up somewhere I don’t want it to.”

Because of the resurrection, our small burning ember of hope has some gasoline tossed on it and it can grow into a raging fire.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, there is still hope for a different ending.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, came up with a word for this. He called it “eucatastrophe.”

Now, catastrophe literally means a sudden turn—usually for the worse. In Greek, Kata means “sudden”, “strophe” means turn.

And “eu” means good. So what does eucatastrophe mean then?

Tolkien described eucatastrophe as a sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. Eucatastrophe is a sudden, unexpected turn that transforms despair into hope, that sets a story on track for a new joyous ending.

In his story, the ring being destroyed when all hope looks lost is a eucatastrophe. In Star Wars, eucatastrophe is the Death Star getting blown up. In March Madness, a 16 seed beating a 1 seed against all odds is a eucatastrophe…well except for the fans of the number 1 seed.

Tolkien argued that the greatest eucatastrophe of all time was Jesus’ resurrection. A sudden unexpected turn in history that rewrote the ending to all of our stories.

So how does the Easter story end, then?

Well, Peter and John find the empty tomb and our text says “they believed.”

Now, I want to pause here for moment. It’s interesting to notice that Peter and John have not seen Jesus resurrected yet. All they’ve seen is an empty tomb (our text even says they still didn’t really understand). They don’t really have much proof of anything. For all they know someone stole the body. And yet, we’re told that they choose to have hope.

Hope is different than proof. I’m not one of those pastors who is going to try to convince you to believe something that seems a bit unbelievable or claim that we have proof! Because we don’t. The Easter story doesn’t give us proof of anything…it gives us hope. If we had proof we wouldn’t call it “hope”. We’d call it logic, or reality, or “duh”.

And that’s why hope can be so powerful. Because hope is choosing to believe that another ending is possible when reality and logic and everything else seems to be pointing towards catastrophe.

There is something about hope that is naturally illogical and a bit unreasonable…and that’s what makes it so powerful.

Because notice how the Easter story ends. It says they believed and they went back home.

The story ends back in Galilee, where the women and the disciples lived. Back in the ordinary places where you and I spend most of our time. Back where we work, and live, and make our homes. The Easter story gets finished when ordinary people do the most extraordinary things with their lives, because they don’t see the end beyond all doubt…because they choose hope, even though it may seem a bit unreasonable.

The Easter story gets finished when the hungry are fed and the homeless are given shelter, when the sinner is forgiven and broken relationships are mended. The Easter story gets finished when the lonely are made part of a family, when the sick and the prisoner are visited, and those in grief are comforted. It gets finished when parents find time to raise their children, when business people do what is right regardless of the cost, when retirees still choose to live their live with purpose. The Easter story gets finished every time someone chooses to have hope that the end cannot be seen beyond all doubt…that another ending is possible.

In some ways, as the disciples return home, nothing has really changed for them, and yet everything has changed. We’ll return home after the Easter service and in many ways nothing has really changed—we’ll go back to our regular daily lives—and yet, because of hope, the Easter miracle changes everything. The Easter miracle helps us to rewrite a new ending.

Amen and may it be so.