First Look: John 20:1-18

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.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John’s version of the resurrection contains a number of distinct elements, and I’ve often encouraged readers to get in the habit of studying the unique aspects of each gospel narrative rather than conflate them into one uber-gospel.  John’s account of the empty tomb is rather anticlimactic when compared to the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but contains two fascinating stories within the story.  In this scripture reading from John 20, which appears in the lectionary cycle on Easter Sunday, we see the most descriptive appearance of Mary Magdalene in the gospels, as well as a curious appearance of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved”.  This unnamed disciple is unique to John’s gospel, and Mary Magdalene nowhere else in the gospels takes center stage in the narrative as she does here, and as a result this text is notable for its extraordinary cast of characters.  Throw in two gleaming angels and the risen Christ, and there is more than enough here to fascinate us.

John offers us a resurrection story in two parts, one sandwiched around the other.  We begin with an appearance by Mary Magdalene in verse 1, then quickly transition to a strange disciple race to the tomb before returning to the conclusion of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord outside.  Setting aside Mary Magdalene for a moment, let’s take a closer look at the discovery of the empty tomb as John tells it.

It is to Simon Peter and “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved” that Mary announces that the stone has been rolled away.  This unnamed disciple (also called the “beloved disciple”) appears several times throughout the gospel of John (13:23-25; 19:26-27; 21:1-25, and probably 1:35-40 and 18:15-16).  There is considerable debate over the identity of this disciple, and my purpose here is not to wade into the interpretive gymnastics of that debate, especially since I consider it to have little bearing on the central resurrection event.  Whether he or she is named is immaterial.  What matters is this action sequence in which the unnamed disciple and Simon Peter race to the tomb to see the Mary’s news for themselves.  The beloved disciple has the distinction of reaching the tomb first.  However, it is Peter who is the first to enter.  In an almost comical back-and-forth between the two, it is the beloved disciple who sees and believes.  Yet, the text makes it clear that neither can really understand the empty tomb until they connect it with the scriptures, and both return home having verified that the tomb is empty, yet still unable to comprehend the full power and scope of what they’ve seen.  We can probably infer from other passages in John (3:18; 4:41-42; 16:30-31) that what the beloved disciple now believes is that Jesus is who he says he is.  However, John 20:9 suggests that even in this belief, the disciple lacked the proper context for understanding that what he/she had witnessed was no mere disappearance – it was resurrection.

It is interesting to note that the beloved disciple does see and believe something about who Jesus is, but Peter, standing in the same empty tomb, has no such moment of belief.  Why the difference?  Could it be that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” sees something different in the empty tomb as a result of Jesus’ love for him?  If that is his primary defining characteristic, then might we conclude that not only the empty tomb, but all things and all people, are perceived differently if viewed through the lens of Christ’s love?  This is certainly a notion worth reflecting on in light of this text!

Regardless of what we may be able to glean from the two disciples’ experience at the empty tomb, it’s clear that they both take a backseat to Mary Magdalene, who reappears in verse 11.  As is the case with the other gospels, Jesus first appears not to any of his male disciples, but to female followers.  The significance of the important role of women in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus cannot be overstated, particularly considering the fact that in first century Palestine women enjoyed little status and few personal rights.

Mary Magdalene (who is frequently described incorrectly as a former prostitute due to confusion with other women named “Mary” in the gospels), approaches the tomb of Jesus seemingly for no other reason than personal devotion to him.  She brings no spices or perfumes, as would have been customary if she had planned to anoint the dead body, but instead comes out of her love for her teacher and Lord.  When she looks into the tomb, she finds it anything but empty, seeing instead two angels sitting where Jesus once lay.  Their question to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” not only reminds us that Mary’s gender is significant, but also emphasizes Mary’s grief borne of her love for Jesus.  Her reply is a clear indication of her sorrow and distress.

It is then that the risen Jesus appears behind her, but Mary fails to recognize him, “supposing him to be the gardener”.  This is similar to other failures of Jesus’ disciples to recognize him found throughout the gospels.  In Mary’s case here, it is Jesus calling her by name that opens her eyes to him.  “Mary”, he says, and she immediately responds.  How often in scripture does this pattern appear!  We are told time and time again that we truly see only once we are seen, truly know only because we are known, and truly love only because God first loved us.  Here it is Mary Magdalene who sees only after Jesus calls to her.  She knows him only after he speaks her name.  She loves him because it was Jesus who first loved her.  This scriptural pattern of divine initiative renders ridiculous any notion of ours that we somehow gain God’s blessing and favor through out own actions.  In the words of 1 John 4:19, we love because he first loved us. How well Mary illustrates that truth in her encounter with Jesus at the tomb!

At the same time that Jesus approaches her, however, he issues a command to let him go.  “Do not hold onto me,” he says, then warns her that his ascension is not yet complete.  This exchange points to a coming reality which is only in process at the time when Jesus appears to Mary.  This, the appearance of a bodily resurrected Jesus, is not the fullness of divine power and glory that is to come.  Eventually Jesus will no longer be with his disciples in bodily form, but will instead send the power of the Holy Spirit to be with them permanently and with great power.  That is the greater reality to which Jesus’ command points.  The reality of post-resurrection discipleship will not be one of following Jesus around as he ministers to people.  Instead, it will be a reality infused with the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit, and it will be the disciples themselves doing ministry.

The risen Jesus then gives Mary a command to “go to my brothers” and tell them the good news of his resurrection and ascension.  Isn’t it fascinating that whenever Jesus appears to his disciples, he gives them a command to do something?  Here, Jesus commands Mary to be the first witness, the first apostle sent out to tell the good news of the resurrection.  It can be said that the Christian church begins ultimately with her as she returns to the disciples with good news to tell.  If we see ourselves as an extension of the church’s inception in Mary Magdalene’s witness, then our task as Christians is to listen.  Jesus calls us all by name that we might see, and know, and love, and ultimately it is our responsibility to carry the good news into a world that longs to hear it.

Running through both parts of John’s resurrection story is a common thread of love.  It is the beloved disciples to believes Jesus to be risen from the grave, and is able to have such a belief due to the bond of love he shares with Jesus.  It is Mary Magdalene to whom the risen Jesus first appears, and it is not only his love for her but her love and devotion for him that puts her in position to be the first witness to the resurrection.  In both cases, the unnamed disciple and Mary Magdalene both are able to see things that others do not due to their love for Jesus, and I think the same can be said of us.  Love is what makes truly seeing and knowing other people possible, and it is through the lens of our love for Jesus and his love for us that we are to look upon the world and those who live in it.

Of course, looking out onto the world with the love of Christ can be a difficult thing, particularly when the worst of humanity is on display.  It seems so often that we’ve made such a mess of God’s creation, and it’s incredibly challenging to see and know others as God sees and knows them.  There is hope for us, however, and it’s a hope built upon the foundation of resurrection.  Consider the interesting detail that Mary Magdalene supposes the risen Jesus to be the gardener when she first sees him.  Why else would she think this, other than the fact that they are standing in a garden?  The location of Jesus’ tomb was likely a garden reserved for the burial of the dead, and if that’s the case then it becomes hard to ignore echoes of the creation narrative in John’s account of resurrection.  The darkness and chaos of the formless void now echoes in the chaos and darkness of Jesus’ crucifixion and the cold blackness of a stone-sealed tomb.  But then, by God’s own Word, God’s own creative power, flesh is given life.  As the darkness retreats, we see a man and a woman standing in a garden.  As the creation narrative proceeds, the life with which God has blessed his creatures is marred by sin and rendered powerless to death.  As John’s resurrection narrative proceeds, however, the fall into sin and death is reversed.  The flesh that was put to death now is raised to eternal life.  God’s creative power reverberates through life and death alike, shining light and love into a darkness which we ourselves are powerless to overcome.  We call that Easter.

J.R.R. Tolkien, while reflecting upon the resurrection story, describes the Easter event like this:

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe‘: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives… that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #89)

Every Easter I’m reminded of God’s great “eucatastrophe” in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and thankful that God’s great story – in which we are all participants – ends with the joining of joy and sorrow and the triumph of love over all things.

Happy Easter to you and your family.  Go, and tell the story!

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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary text written by Lee A. Koontz.  It is usually published on Mondays.

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