Lessons from John, 20:1-18 Easter

John 20:1-18 – Magdalene on Easter Morning

The Adult  Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast October 21, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. The past couple of weeks were really busy for me. Not only did we have the Clark Thompson lectures here at the church, but I had a meeting with the American Waldensian Society Board of Directors up in Valdese. If you’ve never visited Valdese, you should make the effort. There is a lovely museum, a trail of faith, and a winery. This is the first time I’ve had a board meeting in a winery, and I highly recommend it. I also had a wedding last weekend. It was at Tanglewood, which was nice because my brother signed me up for a charity golf tournament out there. So I went straight from the 18th green to the rehearsal. Madeleine told me a golf joke before I left that morning. Why did the golfer wear two pairs of socks? Because he made a hole in one. Today we are turning our attention to the Easter story in John. There is probably no part of the Christian message that has been more debated than the story of Easter. We’ll look at some of that debate over the next couple of weeks, but first let’s hear the good news of resurrection from ch. 20 of John’s Gospel.

Multiple stories            As far as we can determine the resurrection of Jesus was central to the message of Christianity from the earliest days of the church. There have been modern preachers and theologians who have tried to present a Christian proclamation that does not include the statement that the Lord is risen, but this is a modern phenomenon. The oldest parts of the NT, the letters of Paul, proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead. The only ancient literature that denies the resurrection are Jewish polemics that claimed that Jesus’ body had been stolen or Gnostic gospels that denied Jesus had died. We know of no one in the ancient world that claimed to be a disciple of a dead Jewish prophet. The claim that the Lord is Risen was central to the claim that Jesus is Lord.

It is no surprise that the New Testament is based on the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but it is surprising that there are so many contradictory accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament. Many of my students have been disturbed that each of the gospels tells a different story of Easter. All of the gospels agree that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning on Sunday, the first day of the week, but the synoptic gospels say another Mary, the mother of James, went with Magdalene. Though Magdalene was alone in John, she says that “we don’t know where they have put him.” This may indicate that John knew that there were other women there, but he focused on Mary.

The four gospels agree that the stone in front of the tomb had been rolled away, but Matthew claims that the women saw this happen. The gospels disagree over whether one or two angels were there. Mark says it was a young man in white, but he probably understood him to be an angel. The angels say different things in the different gospels, but they agree that the women were told to give a message to the disciples. It is only in John that Peter and another disciple go to investigate the tomb. And it is only in John that Jesus and Magdalene have a conversation.

People respond to these differences in various ways. Biblical literalists go to great extremes to reconcile accounts. Skeptics use the differences as evidence that the whole story is fiction. In between are the majority of Christians who are too bothered by the differences. One thing seems clear to me: the apostles, evangelists, bishops, and scholars who put together the New Testament were not bothered by the fact that each Gospel tells a different story. If they were, they would have worked harder to harmonize the accounts. In fact, a man named Tatian tried to do so in the 2nd century, and the church rejected his book. The resurrection is so important that it is worthy of multiple perspectives. Most biblical scholars accept that the resurrection accounts in the Bible are based on oral tradition and were shaped by the evangelists to communicate certain messages. One could argue that it is precisely because the resurrection of Jesus was so important that there is so much confusion over the historical facts.

Rather than trying to figure out precisely what happened on Easter, we are going to examine John’s version carefully and to understand the messages John communicated. There are some unusual aspects of John’s account, and many scholars are convinced that the version we have today is a combination of two or three different stories that were part of the oral tradition. There is the story of Magdalene and other women who found the tomb empty; a story of Peter coming to investigate; and a story of Magdalene meeting Jesus at the tomb. The evangelist stitched these together but left some seams. In the final stage of writing, the Beloved Disciple was added to the story, perhaps to represent the church itself.

Magdalene            The story of Easter begins with Mary Magdalene, not with angels. We don’t know much about her, but the gospels agree that she was the first witness of the resurrection. Her name indicates that she was from the town of Magdala, which was about seven miles from Capernaum in Galilee. This means that she probably had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, just like Peter and Andrew and John. Her name indicates that she was not married since she is named independent of a husband or children. Luke says that Jesus healed her of seven demons, which may explain why she was unmarried. We don’t know what her illnesses were, but apparently they were severe. That is probably why she was a follower of Jesus. Later tradition confused Mary with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel. Because of this, the medieval monks thought she was a prostitute who had been saved by Jesus; therefore pictures of Magdalene in Western art show her as a voluptuous temptress redeemed by Jesus, but there is no evidence in Scripture that she was anything of the sort. The biblical portrait of Magdalene is that she was a disciple of Jesus who remained devoted to him when the men fled.

John does not tell us why Magdalene went to the tomb before dawn on Easter. Most likely Magdalene went to the tomb in order to mourn. Remember there was a crowd of mourners at the tomb of Lazarus even though he had been buried for four days. A rabbi in the 2nd century claimed that mourning is at its height on the third day (Brown, II:982). There is no reason to doubt that Magdalene and other female disciples had gone to the tomb of their teacher to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness before dawn.

The gospels agree that no one expected a resurrection, not even Jesus’ closest companions. Magdalene was surprised to find that the stone had been rolled away, and when she realized that Jesus’ body was gone, she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple with the shocking news that the grave had been disturbed. Magdalene may have thought that the authorities removed the body in order to erase his memory from the earth and to prevent his tomb from becoming a sacred shrine. Perhaps someone wanted to use the body in magical potions since Jesus had performed miracles. Maybe Magdalene did not have a clue as to why someone would steal a body, but it was the only explanation she could find.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple            Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb to investigate, which would be the normal human response. This feels historically accurate. The other disciple is not named, but is identified as the one Jesus loved. It is curious that the text says that the Beloved Disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. Through the centuries people have pondered the meaning of this. Is John drawing a contrast between Peter and the other disciple? Some have argued that John was arguing against the supremacy of Peter, and by implication, against the supremacy of the pope in Rome. Others have thought that this is evidence that there was a conflict in the early church between Peter and John. Some have even argued that Peter represented Jewish Christianity which was being out raced by Gentile Christianity at the time the gospel was written.

I doubt any of this is accurate. There doesn’t seem to be any sense that one disciple was superior to the other. The Beloved Disciple steps aside for Peter, for instance. What was important for John’s Gospel is that the Beloved Disciple was a witness to the empty tomb. One interesting bit of historical accuracy in John is that the entrances to tombs in Palestine were only about a yard high. The disciples had to bend down to look in. When Peter crawled into the tomb all he saw were the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. The body was gone, but it was unlikely that grave robbers would have left the clothes behind.

Many commentators through the centuries have seen a great significance in this detail about the burial shroud lying there. Some have used this as evidence that Jesus’ resurrected body passed through the cloths or that it disappeared like Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. John is probably drawing a contrast between the resurrection of Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus emerged from the tomb still bound by his shroud. He was still marked by death, but Jesus had defeated death and was freed from mortality.

Belief and Doubt            John says that Peter did not yet realize the significance of what he had seen. It is extraordinary that the gospels record that the chief of the disciples did not initially believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. None of the gospels supports the assertion of skeptics that the disciples were so eager for a resurrection that they invented the story when they found the tomb empty. All of the gospels report confusion and doubt on the part of the disciples, even Mary Magdalene. In John, only the Beloved Disciple believed, but here is one of those seams I mentioned earlier. Verse 8 says that the other disciple saw the cloths and believed, but verse 9 says that they did not understand that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Commentators have tried to draw a distinction between believing and understanding here, but modern scholars tend to agree that verse 8 was added to the gospel later, perhaps to highlight the importance of the Beloved Disciple.

Misindentification            The men returned home, but Magdalene stayed by the empty tomb. I think this is one of the most beautiful scenes in Scripture and it has the air of authenticity. A devoted follower of Jesus stays by the tomb grieving and fearing that his body has been desecrated. Her tears remind all who mourn that tears shed in love are sacred to God. She looked in the tomb again, but this time there are two angels where previously there had only been discarded grave clothes. Even the sight of angels dressed in shining clothes cannot distract her from her desire to be near the body of her teacher and Lord. She repeats her words that someone has taken the body away and she doesn’t know where they’ve laid him. Magdelene turned around and saw Jesus, but she mistakes him for the gardener. This is one of those details that seems genuine. We would expect the gospel writer to say that she immediately recognized Jesus, but no. The idea that Jesus could be standing there instead of lying in a grave was too extraordinary to believe. It must be the gardener. Skeptics, of course, say that indeed it was the gardener who simply looked like Jesus. But skeptics also say that the pictures from the moon were faked by NASA.

There are a number of questions Mary’s confusion raises for us. Some have been concerned about what Jesus might have been wearing at the time since he had left his clothes behind in the tomb. Mel Gibson’s movie show Jesus resurrected naked, and there is a long tradition of that in Christianity. He was the new Adam in the garden. But John doesn’t tell the story quite that way. It is unlikely that Mary would have thought that a naked man was the gardener unless there is something about 1st century horticulture we don’t know.

A more relevant question that arises from this misidentification is why Mary did not recognize Jesus. There are many hints in the New Testament that the resurrected Jesus was transformed. Paul tells us that in the resurrection we will have spiritual bodies rather than physical bodies and that we will transformed. That is how John and Luke both portray Jesus. He is different somehow. This is why he could walk through the streets of Jerusalem without people noticing that a dead man was walking.

Rabbouni!            Like the angels, Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping. It is a simple question that a gardener might ask a mourner. Who are you weeping for? For the third time she says that someone has carried the body away. This time she pleads for the body. She wants to bring Jesus back to the tomb where she can touch him one last time. Mary’s desires here are so universal, so understandable. Think of how families long to have the bodies of their loved ones returned from Iraq or Vietnam. Think of how we gather among the graves of our loved ones each Easter. We want a marker, a physical reminder of someone we loved. All Mary is looking for is a body to hold on to. We can picture her turning away from this stranger, sobbing at the entrance to the cold tomb, desolate in grief.

Then she hears a single word. “Mary.” He calls her by name and she recognizes his voice. Once again, the parable of the Good Shepherd is acted out in the Gospel of John. It was not the physical body of Jesus that she recognized, it was the sound of his voice. The Word made flesh was the Word resurrected. And she called him by one of his many names: Rabbouni! She does not call him King or Messiah, but Rabbouni. This is an Aramaic word that a student uses for a beloved teacher. It is an intimate form of the word Rabbi. In the resurrection this remains the title of Jesus – Rabbi, Teacher. John translates the word just so his Greek readers get the point. Jesus remains the teacher even after his resurrection.

Do not touch!                        We do not know if she fell at his feet or embraced him, but Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. The Greek is translated in various ways. In Latin it became Noli tangere – “Do not touch me” and was the subject of many paintings and sermons. People have claimed that Mary was forbidden to touch Jesus because she was a sinful woman, which defies the whole meaning of the gospel. Others said that she could not touch Jesus because the resurrection was still in process; he had not yet assumed full corporeal form. Raymond Brown’s rendering of the phrase as “Do not cling to me” is helpful. Mary had been looking for the dead body of Jesus to hold on to. Now she had the living Lord, but she still wanted to hold on to him. She wanted to possess him and keep him, but she could not. Just as Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper, he had to return to the Father, but in returning, he could be with the church forever.

Ascending            This brings us to one of the most theologically difficult things in this passage. Jesus says that Mary cannot hold him since he has not yet ascended to his Father, but there is no ascension story in John’s Gospel. Matthew and Luke tell of a physical ascension in which Jesus’ body rises on the clouds, but there is nothing like that in John. This is one of those times when I think we should not push too hard for consistency in the biblical account. John is facing a problem that confronts many writers. How do you describe in chronological, linear fashion things that are not bound by time and space? The key point is this verse is that Jesus says: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This echoes Ruth who said that Naomi’s people would be her people and Naomi’s God her God. Jesus came from the Father so that we might be united to the Father. We are sons and daughters of God because of Christ. And Mary Magdalene was the one sent by the Lord to proclaim the good news. That means she was the first apostle. Tune in next week to hear about Jesus’ appearance to the men.

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