“The Disciples,” by Eugene Burnand


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“The Disciples,”  

by Eugene Burnand.

  

On display in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. 

 

Text Reference: Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards 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. John 20:3-5  

 

 

 

Fear and Light 

 

Sermon preached by the Reverend Dorsey W. M. McConnell 

Rector, Church of the Redeemer 

Easter Sunday 

April 24, 2011 

 

Text:  John 20:1-18 



 

Take a few moments, if you will, to look at the painting reproduced on the cover of your leaflet 

this morning.  It is by Eugene Burnand, a Swiss naturalist who painted it in 1898.  It is called 

simply The Disciples.  It represents John, the beloved disciple, and Simon Peter running to the 

tomb of Jesus after hearing the terrible news from Mary Magdalene. You can almost hear her 

voice in the background, can you not, a few minutes earlier, as she burst into their house and 

announced, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid 

him.”  And now the two friends are urgently on their way to see for themselves. On the right you 

can see Peter, the elder, beginning to assess the consequences, counting them off on the fingers 

of his left hand, while the younger John, on the left, is simply overwhelmed, hands clasped in the 

grief of the long day and night which they have just passed, his face becoming suffused with 

something else, and that something else is settling in to Peter’s face as well, something deep and 

powerful that is caught by the painter still only half-unveiled in the furrows of their brows and 

the taut edges of their lips: that something else is fear.  Their minds have raced forward, and they 

are afraid of what further indignity their friend, having suffered so much, must now endure, 

afraid that they will once again prove helpless to do anything for him, above all afraid that this 

sense of loss and powerlessness is already becoming the ordinary backdrop of their lives.      

 


Even if this situation is foreign to you, I am willing to bet there is not a person in this room who 

cannot understand this fear from their own personal experience.  If I could get back all the hours 

in my life I have spent being afraid, I have sometimes wondered what I would do with them.  

Perhaps not much, if we’re only talking about the sudden, breathless, hair-raising moment of 

panic followed by several seconds of running away.  But if I factor in the time spent in related 

experiences of anxiety, apprehension, trepidation, nervousness, and nameless dread, I think I’d 

have banked enough to learn at least two languages and one musical instrument.   

 

Given how much band-width it takes up, we should not be surprised to find fear playing a 



prominent role in the Bible; it is nearly the first consequence of the fall:  in the second chapter of 

Genesis, Adam and Eve hide themselves because they are afraid.  Fear drives us to do terrible 

things, compounding other sins, as with King David who first rapes Bathsheba then murders her 

husband from fear of being found out.  Fear is a constant theme of the psalmist who portrays its 

symptoms vividly:  my mouth is dried out like a potsherd and my tongue sticks to the roof of my 

mouth; my heart within my breast is melting wax, and it is a huge theme in the Passion 

narratives, the stories of the arrest and Crucifixion of Jesus, and in all four of the Resurrection 

accounts. The Scriptures show that fear has profound consequences not only for the body but for 

the soul as well, especially in the way it casts a shadow over us, wrecks our choices, and 

truncates our expectations concerning what is possible in life.   

 

Now John has a particular constellation of imagery he uses to get at the roots of this fear, the 



imagery of darkness and night, of blindness and sleep.  We’re afraid, he asserts, because we can’t 

imagine a world in which the best case scenario will finally triumph over the worst case scenario.  

We can’t believe that an empty tomb can be a sign of anything other than a grave robbery.  In 

short we can’t believe in the power of God, because we literally can’t see it.  We moderns think 

that this condition is actually just seeing things clearly, taking stock of reality, living by the cold 

light of day, as we call it.  But John would say the opposite is true. By nature we actually live in 

the night, and that night is full of fears caused by the things we can’t see, can’t understand and 

can’t control.  And John uses the imagery of night and day, darkness and dawn, in this Easter 

account, to get at just that problem.  I’m going to ask you to work a little, here, and walk with me 

through this story, in the terms of that John is using, so you can see what he’s after.  It will be a 

little bracing mental exercise, and we can reward ourselves later at lunch.  So here goes.   

 

When Mary first sees the empty tomb, she is still in the dark, and jumps to a fearful and hopeless 



conclusion.  She passes it on to Peter and John, who run and arrive in the same fear, but then 

things get a bit brighter; on the physical level, the sunrise has progressed and there is enough 

light for them to see the graveclothes laid neatly in a particular way; and this hint of dawn is 

matched by the state of their souls:  they take stock, albeit in a sort of arid and masculine way, of 

their surroundings and conclude that this evidence is not consistent with a body that has been 

stolen, and for John the beloved disciple at least, a further light goes on, that something 

wonderful, something momentous and good has happened.  But then the men leave, John 

suggests, with their minds only half-enlightened-- half-awake, yes, but still half asleep, with 

something crucial still missing. 

 

What is missing is supplied by Mary. When the men desert her she is still stuck in her worst 



fears; she is asleep to anything greater.  Not even the angels in the tomb can get her to wake up 

to any other possibility.  Even when she first sees Jesus, her eyes are darkened by her tears.  In a 

lovely quirky detail unique to John, she mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener, and in that 

moment a little half-light breaks through.  He can tell me where the body is, she thinks.  The 

immediate cause of her fear may be relieved, if she can get him to co-operate.  But then Love 

speaks.  He speaks her name, Mary, but he does so in Aramaic, Mariam, the name of intimacy, 

of family.  And she suddenly sees, she responds in kind Rabouni , my dear teacher; instinctively 

she reaches out to cling to Him, and He says, no:  this is the last piece of darkness; to see 

completely, to be fully awake, you must not hold on to my body; you must trust that all the life I 

now have will be yours as well, if you will only let me go.  And she does.  And as she does, she 

discovers what true belief is, not as intellectual assent to a dry set of propositions, but as the 

complete commitment of heart and mind, body and soul, to God’s life, God’s future for her.  

Perhaps for the first time in her life, Mary is no longer afraid.  When she brings the word to the 

disciples, I have seen the Lord, they must have noticed the change, not only in her, but in 

themselves, as the word of grace shook them awake and the last of the shadows fell away before 

their eyes.  They must have experienced, as Saint Paul would later put it, that neither death, nor 

life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, 

nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ 

our Lord. 

 

What would it mean if we could come to the same place of trust?   



 

I mentioned before, my own predilections toward the dark.  And yet I have found that a word 

from the right person can banish them, the witness of a Mary to me; it is more than comfort or 

counsel or encouragement.  It is like something borne on the Spirit, like light itself, driven into 

the dark blood and blind alleys of my innermost organs, filling them with hope.  On Good 

Friday, while I was at the grocery store shopping for Easter dinner, I called a friend of mine who 

had been sick.  Doug is rector of a thriving church in the south. He was ordained from the same 

parish I was, and we have been friends for over thirty years.  Doug has been ill a lot in his life, 

has been brought back from death’s door at least once, and through it all has sustained a strong 

marriage, raised two wonderful children, and carried on a vigorous and fruitful pastoral ministry.  

What he’s facing now would scare anyone in their right mind.  And as I listened to him tell me 

the details, I stopped in the middle of the canned goods, and put my basket down.  I began to feel 

my spirit go a little dark within me.  Something was missing in what he was saying, but I 

couldn’t put my finger on it.  And that’s unusual.  Doug and I generally finish each other’s 

sentences.  He has always been a blessing to me, even when he has gotten me into trouble, has 

always been there when I needed him, always faithful, always hopeful, always prayerful.  And 

for the first time, it occurred to me that I might lose him.  And that’s what I was thinking of, 

selfishly, when I heard the silence on the other end of the phone.  So, I said to fill the void, is 



there anything else you can do?  Well, he said with a chuckle, There is one other angle I’m 

working.  What’s that? I asked.  Oh, he said, how God can get glory out of all this. I know he 

can.  I just don’t want to make any extra work for him. 

 

And that is when I knew what was missing. It was fear.  I knew that Doug was completely 



unafraid, and the moment I saw it, the same light flooded my eyes.  I knew he would be all right, 

beyond whatever happens to his organs or nerve endings, that his body was made for glory, the 

glory of the risen Christ, the glory that God willing we will share.  And then I thought of 


Burnand’s painting again. Suppose the disciples he portrays are running not toward the grave, 

but from it into the world that God loves and for which Christ died.  Suppose what we are seeing 

is not the fear coming into their faces, but rather the fear draining away, being flooded out by an 

emerging joy.  Suppose the hands of the beloved disciple are clasped not in anxiety, but in 

ecstasy and praise, and that his brow is furrowed with astonished gratitude. Suppose that Peter 

next to him, counting with his fingers, is simply trying to remember which people he must tell 

first, now that the darkness is gone, and fear lies dead, now that Love has conquered, now that 

we can see.   



 

  


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