Each of the four gospels has an account of the resurrection. In any given year, we can choose to read and reflect on the story for that particular gospel – Matthew, Mark or Luke – or as we did today, we can always choose the version found in the Gospel of John. This account is chosen so often that it has become the best known of the four. Although it isn’t likely that the gospel was actually written by the disciple John, it is highly probable that it was written by someone who knew John well, a member of the community that surrounded John in the years following the resurrection. John is the only one of the twelve disciples who died of old age. That person could be described as a student of John, someone with whom John shared his eyewitness account of being with Jesus during the years of his ministry. That distinguishes this gospel from the others, because the information most likely was provided by a person who was actually with Jesus during the events that are described.
This story is also the most personal of the four accounts. We feel as though we are with Mary as she approaches the tomb. The themes of light and darkness continue. Mary comes before dawn, when it is still dark. She does not expect to have any sort of encounter with Jesus, only the opportunity to mourn at the tomb that contains his body. He is dead, we were told she was there at the cross when he died. When she saw that the stone had been rolled away she didn’t shout, “Christ is risen!” She didn’t assume he had risen from the dead, she was upset and ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple, “the one whom Jesus loved.” We last saw this unnamed disciple at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother. He is the only male disciple who stayed with Jesus through the crucifixion. As they rush to the tomb, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” outruns Peter and gets there first. Perhaps there is a little competition going on, especially if John was that disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
In the next verses, the author includes many details about the grave cloths and their positions. According to New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, St. John Chrysostom said the reason was clear: “If anyone had removed the body, he would not have stripped it first; nor would he have taken the trouble to remove and roll up the soudarion and put it in a place by itself.” The soudarion was a cloth used to cover the face of the deceased. Simon Peter saw all these details, but said nothing. When the other disciple entered the tomb, “he saw and believed.” Is this another sign of competition between the two men, who believed first? Both disciples then returned to Jerusalem, with no indication that they ran to tell anybody what they had seen.
That makes the second part of the story even more remarkable. Some details are also found in the other gospels: the stone rolled away, the angels, Mary Magdalene’s presence. She is the only woman at the empty tomb named in all four gospels. When Mary looked into the tomb the grave cloths had been replaced by angels. They didn’t seem to either frighten or faze her; she asks them in a matter-of-fact manner if they know where the body of Jesus is. Then she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but assumed he was the gardener. Mary asked him the same question she asked the angels, not expecting to hear news of a resurrection from either. We might wonder if there is some important clue to her thinking he was the gardener other than the obvious fact that she was in a garden. John is the only one who locates the tomb in a garden. Commentator Barbara Lundblad reminds us that in chapter 12 Jesus had taught a gardening lesson: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It seems that the gardener, who died on the cross, has returned.
One of the most poignant parts of the story is when Jesus speaks to Mary, saying only her name – “Mary.” In the tenth chapter of John Jesus said: “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name … they know his voice.” Hearing her name, Mary cried out, “‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” By calling Jesus “rabbi” Mary claims her place as an authentic student of Jesus. Then Jesus said to her “Do not hold on to me.” Perhaps she hoped to return to life as it was before the crucifixion, but that could not be. We may try to hold onto Jesus with our own particular creeds, confessions, and doctrines. But while they help us to identify Jesus and explain his mission, he cannot be limited to one denomination, he cannot be our own private savior, he came for all people.
“Go to my brothers and tell them what I have said to you,” Jesus said. His personal words to Mary were not meant to be private. Jesus’ words are also for us: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” That is a remarkable affirmation – as believers Jesus grants us the same relationship with God that he has. We have come full circle from the promise at the very beginning of the Gospel of John, that all who receive the Word are given power to become children of God. Mary is a model of discipleship, she listened and obeyed, she went and told the others, “I have seen the Lord.” She was the first person to preach the resurrection in the Bible, and she earned the designation of the apostle to the apostles.
Lundblad observes that John is simply telling the story of three disciples on the day of resurrection. One sees the grave clothes neatly folded and believes. One sees the same thing and there is no indication that he believes anything. One is surprised into believing by hearing the sound of her name. In each of these faithful people we may find ourselves at one time or another. John could have written a less complicated story. “Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings lying there and believed Jesus had risen from the dead.” Instead, John leaves room for each of us — for one who sees and believes, another who sees and leaves uncertain, and one who needs to hear their own name. Amen.