John 20:1-18: The final two chapters of John’s gospel provide us with his telling of the story of the resurrection of Jesus and Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with others. Before moving into commenting on the texts directly, I will share again some commentary on the resurrection.
Notes on the resurrection (once again): Many Christians will admit, even if only to themselves in the quiet of their own minds, that they struggle some with the story of the resurrection of Jesus. This situation is not helped terribly much by other Christians who assert boldly that unless you believe very specific things about the resurrection (that it was a literal bodily event that might have been captured on video were the technology available) you are not a faithful Christian. What is really essential about the resurrection of Jesus? I would like to offer some thoughts.
The People’s New Testament Commentary notes that “the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., God’s act in raising up Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.” I would agree – but what does that mean? The commentary goes on to say that resurrection is God’s action and that it is “to be distinguished from resuscitation, i.e., the restoration of a dead person to this-worldly life…. Jesus was raised to a new order of being beyond this life.” Resurrection in first century Judaism was a concept that was meant to say something about the ultimate justice of God. In the end, God’s justice would prevail – thus resurrection is an “eschatological” concept and it was sign of the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this is that in the resurrection the Christian community affirms that just as God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world was breaking into the world in Jesus teaching, healing and feeding, so it continues to break into the world through Jesus even though Jesus was crucified. “The resurrection faith of the earliest Christians was expressed and communicated in several forms: songs, creeds, sermons, and stories.” “The Gospel stories of the resurrection are thus not to be harmonized. They differ on such items as who went to the tomb and when, the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, and the location and chronology of Jesus’ appearances.” To my mind the very variety in these stories indicates that we may be dealing with something more than an easily identifiable historical event.
Here are some comments from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, from their book, The Last Week. So Easter is utterly central. But what was it?... When we think about Easter, we must consider several foundational questions. What kind of stories are the Easter stories? What kind of language are they told in, and how is that language being used? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered (whether correctly or incorrectly)? Or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or some combination of the two? (190) We are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them…. Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. (191, 193) Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meanings of Easter. Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way…. God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Jesus is Lord.” And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. (204, 205, 206)
Marcus Borg, in his own work Jesus builds on some of the themes already presented in his work with Crossan. While Matthew is the first writing we have in the New Testament (and Mark follows Matthew but was written earlier), Paul’s letters are earlier. Paul provides the earliest witness to the resurrection, and in his writings (as we shall see) he bundles together his own experience of the risen Christ with those of others who experienced him. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to others as also visions…. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the thought that the experiences of the risen Jesus were visions…. But not all visions are hallucinations…. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. (277-278) Borg goes on discuss other aspects of the resurrection. But I am aware that a historical question can still be asked: what happened? What I am confident of is this. The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after his death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure of the present. Almost certainly some of these experiences were visions; it would be surprising if there weren’t any…. I think there were nonvisionary experiences of the risen Jesus…. I think his followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them, recognized the same Spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and knew the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate – the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. And I think these kinds of experiences have continued among Christians ever since…. For me, the truth of the claim “God raised Jesus” is gounded in these kind of experiences…. And there is one more thing to say about the experiences that lie at the heart of Easter. They carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus…. There is a continuity between the post-Easter conviction that God has vindicated Jesus and the message of the pre-Easter Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” is the post-Easter equivalent of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. (287, 288, 289) What did Easter mean to the first followers of Jesus?... First, the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present, and not simply as a figure from the past…. Second, Easter meant that God had vindicated Jesus…. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant “Jesus lives,” and “Jesus is Lord.” (276)
Finally, before I add a few more words of my own, a few words from George Ricker (What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian). “Christians do not agree theologically, and they never have. The essence of Christianity is not in the literal truth of the story language of the faith. In all of this I am pleading that Christians not be divided over opinions about which obvious differences exist. Christians are united in the love of God revealed by Jesus, whom we call Christ, and not by our opinions.” (69-70) Ricker imagines what an experience of the risen Christ might have been like for the first disciples of Jesus. He pictures them together sharing a meal and in the midst of that sharing they experience Jesus as present. “By the inspiration of God, the intrusion of the Spirit, they suddenly realize that it was not all over. The Lord was with them…. Jesus is dead. Jesus has a new body. They tried to kill the Christ, the activity of God, they could not. The Christ is raised in a new body.” (72-73)
What am I trying to say with all these extended quotes? Am I trying to convince you that your view of the resurrection of Jesus is wrong if you disagree with Crossan or Borg or Ricker? No. With Ricker, I am asking that we give each other permission to ask questions about this important part of our Christian faith. I am asking that we allow that people of deep and genuine Christian faith can disagree about the exact nature of the experiences of the disciples as they proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. I do think that Borg and Crossan are right when they say that the meaning of the resurrection, whatever its precise nature is to be found in the statements “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.” How do we now live our lives in light of this?
Back to John 20:1-18. All of the gospels report that women, who were not considered reliable witnesses at the time, were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Only in John does Mary Magdalene go to the tomb alone, and only in John is she the first person to see Jesus after his death. Mary goes to the tomb and discovers that the stone has been rolled away. None of the gospels or other early Christian writings tell of the resurrection itself – only of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus. Mary assumes that the body has been moved and says so to Peter and the rather mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved.” These two run to the tomb to investigate, the “beloved disciple” reaching the tomb first. This is probably an indication that the Johnannine Jesus community traced its beginnings to this “beloved disciple.” Early on in the Jesus movement there were “competing streams” and this little note in John’s gospel was perhaps his way of claiming that the beloved disciple stream was a little better than the Peter branch of the movement. There is now a great deal of literature available about the diversity in the early church. At a later time, some of the streams of early Christianity were considered to be “outside” the faith. Notice, too, that it is the beloved disciple who first comes to “believe” (verse 8).
The two disciples go back home, but Mary stays at the tomb, weeping. And it is as if the tears cleared her eyes, for soon she sees two angels, then Jesus himself. He asks a question, “Who are you looking for?” It is the same question asked at the beginning of Jesus ministry. This will be a new beginning. However, she does not “see” Jesus, she does not recognize him, until she hears him call her name. What a beautiful image. In the midst of tears and confusion, Jesus is present, and Jesus calls Mary’s name. Sometimes it is that way for us. Jesus is present to us in dark and difficult moments, and we hear him calling our name – not audibly but in our hearts. Hearing the voice of Jesus, she responds, “teacher.”
Verse 17 can be translated “Do not cling to me.” Jesus will not continue to be experienced in this way for long, and the disciples must not cling to such experiences. No doubt this was written as much for John’s Jesus community, people who had never known the earthly Jesus. They are not to be seen at a disadvantage as people of faith. John will make this point again. Mary shares the good news of the resurrection with the other disciples.
John 20:19-23: Jesus has appeared to Mary, now he will appear to others. Verse 19 would have been a familiar circumstance to John’s Jesus community. They are fearful and meeting behind closed doors. Nevertheless, Jesus arrives and offers a word of peace. Peace over fear is central to resurrection faith. That John makes a point of having Jesus show his hands and feet isn’t a macabre show and tell, it is his way of saying that the presence of Jesus they are now experiencing is the same Jesus who was crucified. Crucifixion carried with it shame, and here God overcomes that shame. If peace over fear is central to resurrection faith, so is being sent in mission to the world. But we are not sent alone. We go as followers of Jesus filled with the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God. Forgiveness of sins is the community’s Spirit-empowered mission to continue Jesus’ work of making God known in the world and through that work to bring the world to judgment and decision through its response to Jesus (New Interpreters Study Bible). Justice, compassion, forgiveness, love – these are all a part of the work of the Spirit in our lives and through us the world.
John 20:24-29: For whatever reason, Thomas, one of the disciples was missing from the previous gathering. They tell Thomas the story, but he is unwilling to believe their testimony. He needs to see for himself, and to see that the risen one is also the one who was crucified. Only John’s gospel mentions nails at all, and they, and the scars they leave, are important to John. A week after Thomas greets the disciples testimony with questions, all the disciples are together in a closed room. Jesus appears again and offers peace. He then offer Thomas a look at his hands and side, inviting him to believe. Jesus’ words are all it takes – like Mary earlier who hears Jesus calling her name, Thomas responds to Jesus voice with belief. Jesus words in this context would have been music to the ears of John’s Jesus community – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This story is not about Thomas’s doubt and skepticism, but about the abundant grace of Jesus who meets Thomas’s demands point for point in order to move him to faith (New Interpreters Study Bible).
John 20:30-31: These are the original concluding words to John’s gospel. Chapter 21 is a later addition, pulling together Johannine themes into two stories – an epilogue of sorts. These verses, one telling us that Jesus did so much more than can be reported in the current work and one telling us the purpose of the gospel, could fit each of the gospels. The gospels are not disinterested history or biography, they are works with a purpose – “these are written so that you may come to believe that that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” We are invited to trust that God was up to something very special in Jesus, trust that the same God wants to touch our lives and give us life – in all its fullness. The phrase “come to believe” may also be translated “continue to believe” so that the author’s primary purpose may have been to encourage his Jesus community to keep and to deepen their faith.
A Couple of Additional Thoughts: John Sanford, in Mystical Christianity shares some powerful thoughts about cross and resurrection that I want to pass on. The pain and torture of the crucifixion express the difficulty and painfulness of the process of psychological and spiritual transformation…. It would be a mistake, however, to identify the crucifixion and resurrection with a purely psychological process…. On the cross the powers of darkness did all they could to destroy the light of God, but the light rose again indestructible. This I take to be a central message of John’s Gospel, and a fundamental meaning to Christianity, which makes it a most hopeful faith, not because all will be well in this world, but because nothing can separate us from the love and light of God. Evil, which did all it could to destroy the light of Christ on the cross, could not destroy that Light, for the power of the Light rose again. (328-329)