Holy Week Reflections 4: John 20

The last one in the series, following on from reflections on John 13, John 18 and John 19.  Thanks once again to the Baptist Times were these first appeared.

We Have Seen the Lord: Reflections on John 20

From the meal, into the garden, through the high priest’s courtyard, then Pilate’s headquarters and onto the cross … the scenes played out in the drama of Holy Week are, as we have seen, places of revelation. John tells the story of the last days of Jesus’ life in a way that helps us to see ‘the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1: 14). We have noted how the cross itself stands as the great fulfilment of Jesus’ mission. The death of Jesus is, in so many ways, the climax of the story, but it is also, of course, the beginning of a new chapter in the story of God’s work in the world.

So, some have wondered whether John even needs a resurrection account.  If Jesus is glorified, exalted and returns to God on the cross, why do we need anything else?  For the other gospel writers the answer is that without the resurrection, we could not be sure about the truth about Jesus and his mission.  The resurrection is the way that we know that Jesus is God’s Son, and that his mission has been successful.  For John, however, the resurrection is necessary, not so much because it tells us the truth about Jesus, but because in the encounter between the risen Jesus and his followers, we see something of the truth about ourselves.

I am suggesting that in John 20, early on the first Easter morning, you and I are invited to look and see, not inside the tomb at what happens to Jesus (the characters in the story do that for us), but outside at what happens to his followers. The combined stories of Mary Magdalene (20.1-2, 11-18) and the two disciples (20.3-10) tell us what happens next … not to Jesus, but to us.

The first ten verses of the chapter focus on the two disciples who were closest to Jesus in his earthly ministry.  They offer a twisting, turning account of the journey from unbelief to faith. The story begins in darkness (a symbol of unbelief in this Gospel). Mary has run from the tomb still convinced that Jesus is dead. Peter and the beloved disciple, however, run to the tomb. For Mary, the empty tomb plunges her deeper into despair, for the two disciples it sparks the seeds of faith. They arrive, and the narrative speaks of their gradual perception of what has taken place.  At first, the beloved disciple is on the outside looking in and see only linen grave-clothes (verse 5).  Then Peter arrives and goes in, seeing more evidence of some mysterious or miraculous happening (verses 6-7). Finally the beloved disciple joins Peter inside and is able to “see and believe” (verse 8).  We are not sure what to make of this belief, however, because in the next breath John tells us that both disciples lacked a true understanding of Scripture and a true grasp of the fact that they were now witnesses to the resurrection.

Mary returns to the story in verse 11.  The disciples have enough faith to go into the tomb but Mary stays where she is, outside in her darkness. Even a return to and glance into the burial place does not change her mind.  She assumes that the body has been taken.  The scene is reminiscent of parts of the Song of Songs (see especially Song of Songs 3.1-4).  In the darkness a woman searches for her lover.  She encounters others and asks them if they have seen him.  Then, suddenly, he is there, and she holds him. John the Baptist has spoken explicitly of Jesus being the bridegroom (John 3.29.30), and Jesus himself seems to play that role with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. As he promised he would, Jesus speaks Mary’s name, so that she can know his voice (see John 10.3-4).  So here, Mary is able to ‘find him whom my soul loves’ although she seems to think that things can go on as before, that the Jesus she meets is the Jesus she knew before he died.  But Jesus has completed his mission, and is on his way back to God.  It is this, astonishing encounter with the risen Jesus that enables Mary to make the same journey into faith: she can now testify that she has “seen the Lord”.

So, in front of the tomb these gospel characters are able to move from their initial unbelief towards the kind of faith that John’s Gospel seeks from all of its readers. But that faith is only limited and continues to be shot through with misunderstanding and partial insight. The disciples have yet to understand that the scripture testifies that Jesus “must rise from the dead” (20.10) and Mary wrongly assumes that Jesus is present with her in the same way as he was in his ministry (20.17). By that evening, they are gathered behind a locked door, afraid (20.19). Clearly, for them to see Jesus and touch him only takes them so far.

This is what I mean when I say that, in the end, John tells these stories for our sake.  His gospel is written so that we ‘may come to believe, and though believing have life in his name’ (John 20.30-31).  We know that however far we have come on the journey towards full understanding of resurrection faith; however stunning and life-changing that first encounter with the risen Jesus who calls us by name, our faith is only ever partial and is often precarious. We feel at a disadvantage, because we cannot stand in front of, or go into an empty tomb and see that Jesus is not there.

Thomas has not shared any of those Easter experiences.  He didn’t see the empty tomb or the grave-clothes and he did not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling him by name.  Above all he was conspicuous by his absence at the moment when Jesus appeared and commissioned his disciples with the gift of the Spirit (20.19-23).  He is given the testimony of others, echoing Mary’s words: ‘we have seen the Lord’.  Yet this is not enough for him, he wants faith based on sight, touch, proof, and certainty.  He is given those things, but John makes it clear that this is an exception.  For all those who come after Thomas, including us, the journey of faith is nourished and sustained by other things.

First, the story.  Easter faith is based on testimony, not certainty.  John’s gospel itself does not attempt to prove anything about Jesus, it simply offers an account of his life, death and resurrection and invites us to consider the possibility that this life reveals who God is.  Easter is a time for bearing witness, for telling the story which has become our story.  In the end, Christian witness for all of us boils down to a version of the simple phrase ‘we have seen the Lord’.

Secondly, the Scriptures.  The disciples would come to realise that the scriptures that they initially failed to understand would eventually make sense to them.  The words of Jesus, including the words attributed to him in John’s gospel, would become the way of encountering the eternal Word who is ascending to his Father and his God.  Easter is a time for searching the Scriptures, for in its pages we encounter the living Word, Jesus Christ.

Finally, the Spirit.  Later that evening Jesus appears to them in order to give them the Spirit, the other comforter who will be with them forever (see 14.17).  In words that echo the story of the first creation, John describes a different version of Pentecost.  The Spirit is given to equip the disciples as they continue Jesus’ work in the world and as they form communities of faith and friendship that place the story and teaching of Jesus at the centre of their common life.

We cannot go back there, to the events of that first Easter. But here we have the story, the Scripture and the Spirit. In them Jesus lives, and through them we can come to share the faith that brings life to all.