Easter Day: 16 April John 20:1-18
This Easter Sunday we can choose to run with John or with Matthew 28:1-10. Easter is a moment of celebration in which faith bursts the normal bounds of report and memory. It is not difficult to sense the common message in the stories which the gospel writers bring to us. Nor can we oversee the great variety in the way they tell the story. It is so true that reporting will not do. Imagination, story telling, fantasy must all play a role each time the scene is re-run. Hence the extraordinarily rich diversity in the accounts. We can only speculate about the processes which went into celebrating the defeat of Christ’s defeat. In John’s terms, the one whom the world lifted to a cross God has lifted to his presence.
As we feel our way into John’s narrative we can try to imagine why his story has its particular emphases. Jesus remains central, but apart from that only certain people make an appearance on stage and they do distinctive things. Instead of ‘the women’ who in the other gospels discover the empty tomb and, in Matthew, meet the risen Jesus, we have only Mary Magdalene, - an earlier tradition or a Johannine touch, no one really knows, though people have strong reasons for wanting it to be one way or other. Even if it is John’s ‘touch’, it in no way detracts from the insight that faith must abandon the world’s gender prejudice. John certainly does. If it is history, the commitment is the same, unless we must tie arguments to notions that first is best. Equally important in the narrative in this regard is the intimate meeting in the garden. In a single sentence Mary receives the secret Jesus expounded to the others over five chapters in the upper room (John 13-17) and that makes sense of the resurrection event. The Son is returning to the Father.
Mary may have been seen as a symbol of the women then; she is certainly a symbol for us. Other characters also carry symbolic valency. It is hard not to see Peter being portrayed in his widely acknowledged role as leader of the community of disciples. John’s story may be offering its own version of a tradition which also makes him the first witness, which appears to be known independently to Paul (1 Cor 15:3-5), Mark (14:7) and Luke (24:34). John indicates Peter was first to enter the tomb. John has done his own quaint justice to the tradition, but only after his favourite character, the ‘beloved disciple’ wins the race to get there. It is a fascinating side play in which Peter is respected, but effectively outmanoeuvred by the beloved disciple and by Mary. But even here the focus is less on being first there and more on true faith. The message is clear: in the church in which Peter’s leadership is not disputed, true faith and insight comes through the beloved disciple and through Mary. They must be heard. The writer is doubtless affirming the great riches of his own tradition. It is a kind of assertive yet inclusive ecumenism which insists on what matters and speaks to the Church today.
John’s narrative is full of drama: the race to the tomb and the irony of mistaken identity. They are stories which celebrate the faith and enshrine the emphases of one particular community. They are strongly political but also vibrant and beautiful, particularly the meeting of Mary and Jesus. It is story telling at its best. It becomes true for us and our hearers when we can find ourselves part of the encounter.
John does remarkable things to the traditional stories surrounding Easter. His emphasis certainly falls on the reality of the resurrection as much as it does in Luke, as we shall see next week, but the focus is not a resurrected Jesus who materialises to his disciples. It is the fact that resurrection means God has vindicated Jesus and that as the Son he has returned to the Father, initiating the new stage in God’s history with humanity: the sending of the Spirit which will equip the disciples. John paints a scene in 20:19-22 which combines this into one event. Thus what elsewhere appears as Pentecost and the great commission takes place in John on Easter Day. Likewise in his words to Mary Jesus announces his immediate ascension (20:17); Easter Day is also Ascension Day.
Mary is not to hold onto Jesus, which would amount to an understanding of resurrection which missed its point and place Mary with the fingering Thomas. John no more wants to deny actual resurrection than he wants to deny miracles of the ministry, but he appears to pursue his concern of directing people’s attention to something much more significant. Ultimately what matters is believing that in Jesus we see the Son who has come from the Father and has returned to the Father. In him we meet God and God’s gifts of light and life and truth. That love people spurned, but God exalted as his own. The Spirit now brings the gift of light and life and truth through the community of faith. To share that life is to participate in the relationship of love which the Son and Father share. That is Jesus’ prayer for his own according to John 17. For hearers of the gospel read at a single setting, Jesus’ words to Mary would have recalled the themes of the last discourses and the writer doubtless intended so. Without this insight our Easter celebrations can flounder about clutching onto the body of Jesus and getting bogged down into proving materiality.
Gospel Alternative: Easter Day: 16 April Matthew 28:1-10
Epistle: Easter Day: 16 April Colossians 3:1-4
Easter Day 16 April Acts 10:34-43
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