(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
Early Sunday, Mary, Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” found the tomb empty. Had the authorities taken Jesus’ body? Had grave robbers been there? The two disciples saw an unexpected sight. Scholar Craig Keener noted, “The face cloth separate from the linen is “folded up”…which could be an indication of neatness, or that it was still rolled the way it had been when it was wrapped around Jesus’ head—that his body had risen straight out of the wrappings and cloth.” “The other disciple…saw and believed”—even without fully understanding.
In John’s gospel, as we’ve learned, the details almost always matter. So he described Mary seeing angels in the tomb in a way that evoked the “mercy seat,” the Ark of the Covenant’s cover (cf. Exodus 25:17-20 for a description of the cover). John wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was the true center where God’s mercy always meets human sadness and need.
Mary thought Jesus was “the gardener.” In symbol, he was—Adam failed, but Jesus would tend earth’s “garden” well (cf. Genesis 2:15, Romans 5:15-21). Mary didn’t recognize Jesus (scholar William Barclay suggested she may have been blinded by her tears), but it seems his voice, the way he said her name, was unmistakable. Then Jesus sent Mary to be the very first eyewitness to the risen Christ.
Everything the disciples thought they understood about Jesus’ mission seemed lost. Their leader and would be Messiah was dead. Now Jesus’ body was missing. The disciples were in hiding, afraid the Jewish authorities would come after them next. But no one had stolen Jesus’ body, and he was still their Messiah, in ways that surpassed their wildest dreams. “Jesus…stood among them” and gave them his peace, his purpose (“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you”), and his power (“Receive the Holy Spirit”).
For unknown reasons, Thomas missed Jesus first appearance to the disciples. He refused to take their word for the remarkable claim that Jesus was alive. But Jesus was patient with Thomas’ fears and questions. He came again when Thomas was present, and said “Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.” As with Mary in the garden, the presence of his clearly-alive Lord overcame all Thomas’ doubt. He worshipped, calling Jesus “my Lord and my God.”
Because this gospel was written as the generation of the apostles was dying out, Thomas’ experience took on special significance. If people weren’t willing to trust the testimony of those who’d seen Jesus, the faith would soon die out. Jesus said, “Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” We don’t see Jesus as the apostles did. An eyewitness wrote this gospel, however, so that we may believe as they did, and have eternal life.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Dear God, thank you for John, for the gifts you bestowed upon him and for your inspiration that enabled him to write this gospel. Gift us and inspire us to do your work, no matter how humble, on this earth. May our work glorify you, Heavenly Father, and by glorifying you, bring others to your side. May we, like Mary, share the good news of a risen Lord. In your name we pray, Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
When you think of Easter, what do you think of besides the religious aspects? Is it Spring, bright new clothes, children, the Easter Bunny? Do these pleasant thoughts in any way deter your focus on Christ’s resurrection, or do they seem to enhance that focus?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
• Read John 20:1-10. Even after Christ’s death, Mary Magdalene was so was so anxious to return to Jesus that she went back to the tomb before dawn. Have you ever felt that kind of hunger to be near the Lord? The disciples Peter and John, had no idea what had happened to Christ’s body. Many people reject God and the Bible based on the question of how God can allow cruelty and hardship in the world. Have you ever experienced or witnessed something terrible in life and asked yourself “where could Jesus be that such a thing could happen?” What have you decided about that?
• Read John 20:11-13. John’s arrangement of the two angels was meant to represent the “mercy seat”, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. What was John trying to tell us with this representation? The angels asked Mary why she was crying. What did this question imply? Mary said “they” have taken my Lord away. Can any nameless “they” ever take Christ away from you? Can “they” destroy your faith? Why not?
• Read John 20:14-18. At first, Mary didn’t realize it was Jesus who was speaking to her. John Calvin, and many other Christians, read this as a metaphor: that Mary’s blindness, despite seeing Jesus, represents the blindness of non-Christians who have already been informed about Jesus. Do you always recognize God when he is speaking to you? When you realize it is God’s nudge, what kind of “sound” do you hear? How can we go about attuning ourselves to this inner voice from God? Do you have an opinion as to why Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”? Mary made sure she told other followers about her astonishing contact with a resurrected Christ. Are you hesitant to tell other Christians about your personal encounters with God?
• Read John 20:19-23. Apparently, Jesus entered the room without opening locked doors, that is, he simply appeared. Don’t you find this interesting? Why did Jesus do this? Even though these were his own disciples, Jesus saw the need to prove it was him by showing them his wounds. Wouldn’t he have to do the same for us if he simply appeared in our living rooms? Why did Jesus have to twice say, “Peace be with you”? Do you believe you have received the Holy Spirit? Do you necessarily have the same powers as those given to the (then eleven) disciples? If not, does that make you any less a disciple? Have we all been charged with the same responsibility to spread the Gospel?
• Read John 20:24-28. Do you like the story of “Doubting Thomas”? Why? Do any of us fail to see ourselves in mindset of this disciple? Thomas was very specific about what it would take to make him believe that Christ had risen. When Christ comes again, will we need to place our hands in Christ’s wounds in order to believe? Why? Jesus said to Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.” Does Jesus say the same to us, often time and time again? What relieves your recurring doubts?
• Read John 20:29-31. Verse 29 says, “Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” What does this simple, promising verse mean to you? Verse 30 says, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” Do you feel the need to know about these additional signs in order to believe? Have you come to know God better as a result of reading John’s gospel? How has it helped you to feel confident in the role you are called to play in God’s plan for humanity?
From last week: Did you focus on this season of Lent? During Lent, many Christians prepare for Easter through fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ, his life, suffering, and sacrifice, his death, burial and resurrection. Did you do this? Share with the group how these practices affected your week.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Hamilton’s sermon, March 31, 2013:
Let’s begin with the touching story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb. Her life had been forever changed by her encounter with Jesus. But now the faith that she had discovered the last three years had been dashed by what she had witnessed the last three days. She had watched Jesus arrested, seen him tortured, and stood by as he was crucified.
She came to the cemetery at dawn Sunday morning. She couldn’t stay away. Twice John tells us that she weeps as she stands there, and she represents each of us who has lost someone we love dearly. We’ve all known her sadness—the grief that suddenly comes over you like a wave, and the tears that won’t stop. In the last two weeks we’ve had 16 deaths at Resurrection: parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers, spouses, a four year old little girl, and just this weekend we celebrated the life of a remarkable woman whose husband and two teenage children will miss her terribly. It is at these moments of death, in the midst of our grief, that we are most interested in knowing, Is there something more? Is there such a thing as eternal life? If so, what is it like?
Different religions and philosophies offer very different answers to the question of death. Christianity’s answer is Easter—it is resurrection. Mary comes to the tomb weeping. The disciples hide behind locked doors, afraid that they might be arrested and put to death too. These are two of our main responses to death—sorrow and fear. But Jesus’ resurrection—Easter—transforms our sorrow into joy, transforms our fears into peace and courage. This is what happens to Mary and to the disciples on that first Easter!
Jesus had been teaching this throughout the Gospel of John. In John 5:28-29 he says, “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” In John 11:25-26 he promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” In John 14:1-3, just before he is arrested he says to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Fathers house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” But as powerful as these words were, it was in his resurrection that these words gained authority. His resurrection demonstrated his power over death….
The resurrection and the promise of eternal life confirm that evil, sickness, even death will not have the final word. They confirm that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” Christ’s promise “because I live you will live also,” fundamentally changes how I face the death of people I love, how much risk I’m willing to take in life, how I approach growing old, and how I look at my own death. The older we get, the more of our loved ones are on the other side, the more we’re meant to look forward to that great reunion.
That’s what Eliza Hewitt was writing about when in 1898 she penned the words to her famous gospel song: “When we all get to heaven, What a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, We’ll sing and shout the victory!”
I’ve been asked if I would still be a Christian if not for the promise of heaven. The answer is a resounding Yes! I don’t follow Jesus Christ because of the promise of heaven. I follow Jesus Christ because I believe he is the way, the truth and the life. Like the disciples, I believe he offers the words of life. I find myself most fully alive when I am closest to him, when I am doing his work.
And that leads me to a final point. Let’s return to John 19:41: “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” As we’ve studied the Gospel of John the last six weeks we’ve learned that there is always more than meets the eyes in his telling of Christ’s story. This detail in verse 41 seems important to John—that there was a garden where Jesus was crucified. He mentions the garden again, saying, “In the garden there was a tomb.” Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t say there was a garden here.
Genesis 2 and 3 seem to be behind John’s telling of the Easter story. Remember, John’s gospel begins with the words, “In the beginning,” the same words the Book of Genesis begins with. John tells us the crucifixion and resurrection took place in a garden. Genesis 2 and 3 take place in a garden. In John’s resurrection story, when Mary first sees the resurrected Christ he appears as a gardener. In John 2 and 3 God plants a garden. In Genesis Adam and Eve turn from God, eat of the forbidden fruit, and paradise is lost. They’re expelled from the garden, the earth is placed under a curse, and death comes into the world. I read this story as archetypal—it is our story. Each of us hears the serpent whisper. Each of us has turned from God’s path, has done what we know is wrong, and death and pain result.
We relive this story in each generation: deception and desire, violence and vengeance, poverty and the hoarding of plenty. How do we break free? I think John was saying that in Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection Christ has come to reverse what happened in Eden. He has come to repair the garden, to restore paradise. Crucified and resurrected in a garden, appearing as a gardener, his work has begun.
That night when Jesus met up with his disciples, he said to them: “As the father has sent me, so I am sending you.” What he’s begun, we’re meant to complete….Our work is to follow him in restoring the garden. Each day we are on a mission. Each morning we say, “Here I am Lord, send me!” Each conversation we have, every decision we make, every action we take, is an opportunity for us to work to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven….
Easter proclaims: Christ is risen from the grave! Death has been swallowed up in victory. Evil and hate and sickness and sin will never have the final word. The worst thing is never the last thing! The curse is broken. Paradise is being restored! There is always hope! But through it Jesus also calls us to “Get to work!”
For twenty-three years I’ve ended my Easter sermon the same way. People ask, “Do you really believe this stuff? Do you really believe that the tomb was empty, that Jesus rose from the dead? That there’s a place beyond the grave that he has prepared for us? That there is always hope? My answer is always the same. I not only believe it, but I’m counting on it. And I hope you will too.
Why did Jesus say to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to (or touch) me”?
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:
Touch me not … – This passage has given rise to a variety of interpretations. Jesus required Thomas to touch him John 20:27, and it has been difficult to ascertain why he forbade this now to Mary. The reason why he directed Thomas to do this was that he doubted whether he had been restored to life. Mary did not doubt that. The reason why he forbade her to touch him now is to be sought in the circumstances of the case. Mary, filled with joy and gratitude, was about to prostrate herself at his feet, disposed to remain with him, and offer him there her homage as her risen Lord. This is probably included in the word touch in this place; and the language of Jesus may mean this: “Do not approach me now for this purpose. Do not delay here. Other opportunities will yet be afforded to see me. I have not yet ascended – that is, I am not about to ascend immediately, but shall remain yet on earth to afford opportunity to my disciples to enjoy my presence.” From Matthew 28:9, it appears that the women, when they met Jesus, held him by the feet and worshipped him. This species of adoration it was probably the intention of Mary to offer, and this, at that time, Jesus forbade, and directed her to go at once and give his disciples notice that he had risen.
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible:
Jesus saith unto her, touch me not … Not that his body was an aerial one, or a mere “phantom”, which could not be touched; the prohibition itself shows the contrary; and besides, Christ’s body was afterwards presented to Thomas, to be touched by him, and to be handled by all the disciples; and his feet were held by the women, which is what Mary would have now done: upon the discovery of him, she threw herself at his feet, and was going to embrace and kiss them, to testify her affection and joy, when she is forbid; not as unworthy of the favor, because she sought him among the dead, for which the angels reproved her and the rest; but either because he was not to be conversed with, as before his death, his body being raised immortal and glorious; or rather, because he had an errand to send her on to his disciples, which required haste; nor need she stay now to show her respect to him, since she would have opportunity enough to do that, before his ascension; which though it was to be quickly, yet not directly and immediately; and this seems to be the sense of our Lord’s reason.
More at the Source: http://bible.cc/john/20-17.htm
This week, continue reading the gospel of John, slowly reading the final chapter, 21. As you read, ask yourself what message the apostle is trying to deliver with his choice of words and his selection of stories. Pray for a deeper insight into these verses. Next week, share with the group whatever you might have discovered.