“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” The chapter begins with these familiar words.
At key moments in the narrative, the Gospel of John makes a point of telling us when the action is occurring – early in the day, noon, or the night; in light or in darkness. Light and darkness are also key metaphors in the gospel for spiritual vision or lack thereof. At this moment in this gospel telling, the light of a new day is about to shine.
The other important thing to point out here, that is mentioned in nearly every Easter sermon, is that women are main characters here. In this gospel, one woman is named.
To proceed with the story… Mary Magdalene sees that, surprisingly, the tomb is open - the stone has been rolled away from the entrance. It doesn’t say she is alarmed but we can guess that she is, from what she does – she immediately runs back to Simon Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (TDWJL) and tells them that someone has taken Jesus’ body away. She exclaims, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The use of “we” implies that Mary M. had gone to the tomb with other people.
Peter and TDWJL run to the tomb. TDWJL gets there first and peeks in, noticing that the burial cloths are there. Simon Peter catches up, and fully enters the tomb. He sees that the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was folded up, separate from the other cloths. TDWJL then goes into the tomb. “He saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” I think in this sentence, “they” refers to the rest of Jesus’ followers, not including The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.
We can infer that what TDWJL believes in that moment is that Jesus is raised from death to life. Could it be that TDWJL is doing a little humble-brag? Only the most advanced disciples believe in the resurrection right away. In fact, it’s a relief to learn that it took time for most of the disciples to come to believe in the resurrection.
The two disciples head back home, leaving Mary still at the tomb, crying. She looks into the tomb and sees two angels, who ask her why she is crying. She repeats what she told the disciples - they have taken him (Jesus’s body) away, and I don’t know where they have put him. She turns around, and sees a person standing there. It’s Jesus, but Mary does not recognize him yet. Jesus asks, Why are you crying? Whom are you looking for? Mary thinks he is the gardener, and asks him where he has put the body.
Then Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” She recognizes him and exclaims, “Teacher!” The text implies that Mary approaches Jesus, because next Jesus warns her “not to hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Jesus instructs Mary to go and tell “my brothers” (the disciples):
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (verse 17)
Mary goes to the disciples and tells them that she has seen The Lord, and tells them what he said to her.
I just realized that throughout this gospel, when the word “disciples” is used, my assumption has been that it refers to men. Isn’t Mary Magdalene a disciple, a follower of Jesus? It seems she is, or should be considered so, because Jesus entrusts to Mary the crucial message that he is alive, raised from the dead. But I think this gospel is written with the assumption that the disciples are men.
When Jesus uses the phrase “my Father and your Father” he is reinforcing the unity he spoke of in his prayer in Chapter 17. “All mine are yours, and yours are mine” (verse 17:10). In verse 15:15 Jesus had moved from calling the disciples his servants to calling them his friends. In this phrase in 20:17 Jesus is portraying himself as their brother. In a sense, this brings us full circle back to chapter 1:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (1:12-13)
The story leaps to the evening of the same day. The disciples are meeting together, locking the doors of the house where they are, because they fear the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus. Into that gathering Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.” (Verse 19)
Jesus shows them his hands and his side – presumably the marks of his wounds from being nailed to the cross, and from where the soldiers pierced his side after he died. Nowhere in the text of this gospel did it describe the process of nailing a person to a cross. It is assumed that we know that is part of crucifixion.
The wounds are proof that it is Jesus himself. The disciples are overjoyed to see Jesus. Jesus says again “Peace be with you,” and continues “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The first part of this sentence must be further proof of Jesus’ identity, because he has said this very thing about a thousand times in this gospel. But I think this is the first time in this gospel that Jesus sends the disciples. The text, as usual, is enigmatic; it does not say exactly where he is sending them or for what purpose. But we know from Chapter 7 that we should not make the same mistake the Pharisees made (verses 7:32-36). Jesus is not talking about sending them to the grocery store. This gospel’s theme is that Jesus was sent from the Father to bring light and life. Now Jesus is sending the disciples out to bring the same to all. Jesus is sending them to carry out the new commandment to love one another. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
Then Jesus breathes on the disciples and says:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (verse 22-23)
This is quite a gift Jesus is giving. Jesus had already spoken to the disciples about the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:15-17, 14:25, 15:26, 16:7-13). But this verse is the only time the word “forgive” appears in the entire Gospel of John (in the NRSV). Will the disciples be careful not to misuse their new power to forgive or retain sins?
One of the disciples was not in that locked room when Jesus appeared – Thomas. The other disciples tell Thomas they have seen the resurrected Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. Thomas declares that he must physically see and touch where the crucifixion nails went into Jesus’ hands and feet, and where the soldiers stuck a spear in his side. Hence the nickname that he has been stuck with throughout the centuries: Doubting Thomas. Seems unfair, as in Chapter 11 Thomas was the first one to volunteer to walk into danger with Jesus.
A week passes, and again the disciples are gathered together, with Thomas among them this time. Jesus appears and says “Peace be with you.” He invites Thomas to see and touch his hands and his side. “Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas does believe. Jesus speaks of future believers:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (verse 29)
The gospel author notes that Jesus did other “signs” but they are not recorded here. The purpose of what is written in this gospel is:
so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (verses 30-21)
Those two verses sound like the end of the gospel, but there is one more chapter.