Commentary on John 20:1-18
The resurrection appearances in the Fourth Gospel include four distinct stories that focus on individual characters: Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter.
[Looking for commentary on Mark 16:1-8? See this commentary for Easter Sunday by Lance Pape.]
By specifying a single person around whom the episode revolves, John once again emphasizes the importance of the individual encounter with Jesus as central to believing who he is and the necessity of reciprocity when it comes to relationship.
The first appearance of the resurrected Jesus is to Mary Magdalene, yet the first acknowledgment of the resurrection is not that Jesus has been raised but that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb. Mary comes to the tomb when it is still dark. The reference to the time of day again reinforces one of the major theological themes of the Gospel, light and darkness. That it is dark at the tomb indicates that full recognition and belief is yet to come and like other encounters with Jesus in the Gospel, there will be a progression of sight throughout this first resurrection story. Mary’s conclusion to what she finds is peculiar. The text does not say that she ever actually looked into the tomb but only that she saw that the stone had been rolled away. She goes to Peter and the beloved disciple with the first announcement about the resurrection that is not the claim of having seen the empty tomb but the moving of the stone. Mary’s inaccurate assumption, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2) succeeds in delaying the real truth that lies behind the stone having been rolled away. We should ask why Mary assumes a missing body. Why not say to the disciples, the stone has been rolled away? Her report, however, succeeds in getting Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved to the tomb. Preaching on this portion of the first resurrection appearance might explore our assumptions about resurrection and new life. How does what we see, or what we are willing to see, determine what we believe? What does the stone represent?
Like other passages in the Gospel such as the foot washing and the anointing of Jesus, this first discovery in the garden is narrated in real time, creating a sense of wonder and suspense. Verses 3-8 could easily be condensed into a brief summary of what they discovered. Instead, the experience is described to delay the discovery but also to give witness to the very real and embodied sense of what this experience would be like. They saw and believed but yet would not know the truth about what they have seen, in part because they do not give testimony to what they have witnessed. To believe in who Jesus is also requires acting on that belief, particularly in the form of being a witness. Peter and the beloved disciple return to their homes after the event at the tomb without saying a thing about what they saw. This Gospel, however, is not content with leaving the individual encounter with Jesus at the level of that alone. To be a true believer, a disciple, a follower, of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is to then give witness to what you have experienced in encountering Jesus, not only for the sake of making it true for yourself, but also for the sake of those who would hear and have their own encounter with Jesus.
As a result, the story returns to Mary for we have yet to hear how she will respond. We find her back at the tomb, presumably having returned there after reporting to the disciples what she had seen. She is weeping. While not the same verb as that used for Jesus in John 11:35 about Lazarus, there is certainly a connection to the death of Lazarus. Now here again, there is weeping over the loss of a friend. That Mary cries, weeping in her grief, also draws attention to the deep and intense manifestations of humanity that permeate this Gospel. For the incarnation to be taken seriously, being human must be taken seriously. When a friend dies, we cry. Mary’s weeping is mentioned no less than four times in four verses. The repetition has the function of emphasizing this important expression of what it means to be human and also validates her response. Of course Mary should cry. The scene would suffer a strange and awkward void if her emotions were not given voice. Preaching this scene in the story would acknowledge the levels of grief that would accompany this experience.
That Mary decides at this moment to look in the tomb and not before is interesting. What does she hope or expect to see? The angels call attention to her weeping, asking her why she is doing so. Her answer for the angels is the same as her announcement to Peter and the beloved disciple, but with one striking difference, the switch from a first person plural confession to a first person singular testimony, “and I do not know where they have laid him (John 20:13). “I do not know!” She is alone at the tomb, like the woman at the well, and being alone with Jesus will result in a public confession.
The resurrected Jesus appears for the first time, to Mary, asking her the same question that the angels asked of her but now with an additional inquiry, “Whom are you looking for?” This is the third time this question has appeared in the Gospel, every time asked by Jesus. They are his first words to the first disciples, with the only difference being “what” instead of “whom” (John 1:38). To ask this question of Mary here takes the reader back to the calling of the disciples and implies that Mary, too, is considered a disciple. Jesus poses the same question to the Roman soldiers and the Jewish police who come to arrest Jesus at the garden (John 18:4, 7). We are then reminded of the setting of this first resurrection appearance in a garden (John 19:42-43). Mary assumes that Jesus is the gardener because this is taking place in a garden. This setting is unique to John. The arrest, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus take place in a garden and is an image worth exploring when it comes to preaching this passage. All of which the garden has symbolized up until this point should be brought to bear in this encounter, particularly its intimation of life.
To locate the death and burial of Jesus and the first resurrection appearance in a garden brings this Gospel full circle from its start. “In the beginning” situates this story of Jesus first outside the temporal constraints of the incarnation and at the same time alludes to the theological premises of the creation story in Genesis. Themes of creation, new creation, surround the presentation of abundant life in the Gospel of John. To preach the meaning of the resurrection against the background of the creation story extends our sense of what the resurrection can mean beyond simply eternal life or some heavenly reality beyond our death. Resurrection is nothing short of re-creation. That the burial and resurrection of Jesus take place in a garden underscores the Fourth Gospel’s unrelenting commitment to holding the divine and the human together. Death is the reality of life, but resurrection points to the reality of abundant life.
It is not until Jesus calls Mary by name that her recognition comes. Two passages in the Gospel must be brought to bear if choosing to preach on this moment in this resurrection story. The first is the Shepherd Discourse (John 9:40-10:18), Jesus’ interpretation of the healing of the blind man. The blind man’s first reaction to Jesus is hearing and not sight so that the blind man is, in the end, truly a sheep, a disciple. The sheep know and recognize the voice of the shepherd and he calls them by name. Now here, in the garden, Jesus calls Mary by name and that is the moment of recognition. Mary is the first person to whom Jesus appears and she is the first person to realize that it is him, the good shepherd, her shepherd.
The second episode that hovers in the background of this moment of recognition between Jesus and Mary is the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus exits the tomb when he is called by name, “Lazarus, come out.” Responding to his name being called, Lazarus is brought to new and resurrected life with Jesus. The same is most certainly true for Mary. Her life will be made new, once again, in the presence and power of the resurrected Christ. Preaching would explore the specificity of the resurrection for Mary. What does it mean for her that is perhaps different from Lazarus? All too often our preaching on the resurrection stops short of particularity in favor of general and safe claims. In Mary’s resurrection moment, how might she begin to understand what it means for her? One clue to her express experience of the resurrection is Mary’s response to Jesus. She calls him “Rabbouni” meaning teacher, the very same title given to Jesus by the first disciples (John 1:39). That she recognizes Jesus as teacher is simultaneously an acknowledgment about who Jesus is and a confirmation of her own identity. She is a follower, a disciple, with Jesus as her teacher.
John 20:17 has always been a puzzling verse for interpreters and preachers of John. Why was Mary holding on to him? Is this a literal or figurative holding? Given the previous tendencies of this Gospel toward misunderstanding and ambiguity, it is likely both. Yet, why provide this detail in the first place? What is Jesus meaning by asking this question? What is Mary holding onto, besides, perhaps, him? The incarnation? What are we? What are we being asked to let go of? A theological answer to these questions would focus on the certainty that that which becomes flesh must eventually go away. One of the striking aspects of this Gospel, typically overlooked because of the assumption of its “high Christology” is certain truth that the revelation of God in Jesus must end. This unique expression of God, this one and only period of history in which God entered our world as a human being, cannot be forever. When Jesus says “do not hold on to me” he is stating that truth and that he knows what that truth feels like. It is important to note that his words of comfort that follow his command do not lie in the promise of the resurrection but the future of the ascension. It is the ascension that is presented as that in which we can have hope. Yes, the resurrection means release from the grave, but it is the ascension that assures the promise of abiding relationship with the Father.
This abiding relationship with the Father, promised in John 1:18 for all believers, is then affirmed by Jesus in his commission to Mary. Jesus does not tell Mary to share the fact that he has been raised from the dead, but rather, that he is ascending, “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This is the promise. Jesus confirms that all of which he has shared about his relationship with the Father will be for every believer in his ascension. The incarnation will come full circle in Jesus’ return to the Father.
Mary’s announcement to the disciples of what she experienced in the garden has great significance for this Gospel and for preaching. She does not offer the disciples a third person, impersonal, doctrinal statement about Jesus’ resurrection, much like our liturgical responses at Easter, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Rather, it is a first person claim, a testimony, a witness to what she has experienced. She gives voice again to that which is so critical for this Gospel, one’s own experience and encounter with Jesus so as to recognize who Jesus is. Mary’s proclamation is not only a witness to her encounter with the resurrected Jesus, but also an interpretation of it. She realizes that for Jesus to be raised from the dead is also an assertion about her own resurrection, her own future. The first person statement is simultaneously an announcement about what she saw and a statement of belief in her promise of future life with Jesus and with God.