Easter ABC – John 20:1-18

Last revised: May 3, 2020
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RCL: John 20:1-18

John 20:1-18


1. James Alison, an amazing  sermon on this text from 2005, “Staggered Vision.”

2. James Alison, a video homily for Easter A; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. John 20 is the Creation story in the New Testament.

3. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 83:

Culture always develops as a tomb. The tomb is nothing but the first human monument to be raised over the surrogate victim, the first most elemental and fundamental matrix of meaning. There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture.

Christian culture, or the “Kingdom of God,” however, begins at the empty tomb.

3. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape lecture series, tape 8 (my notes / transcript), on John 11; and tape 12 (my notes / transcript), on John 20-21. These two tapes stress the significance of the empty tomb in not letting Jesus’ disciples regenerate conventional culture at the site of the shrine.

Two weeks prior in Year A (Lent 5A), Bailie’s suggestion regarding the story of the raising of Lazarus is that: John is using this story as a dry run for the passion story. The Johannine Jesus is saying, ‘No, we will go to that tomb, and we will meet death there, and I will show you how to meet it. So, when you have to meet it, at the cross, at my death, you will know how to meet it, in the light of the resurrection, which you haven’t even experienced yet. So that when you have to meet my death you can meet it in light of the resurrection.’ And so Bailie asks in his treatment of John 20: What is being revealed in the NT empty tomb stories? If there is no tomb, then there is no place to go to re-generate conventional culture. If we live in the light of the resurrection, then we must live without the tomb at the center of our cultural lives. Can we do so? Can we live without having to periodically invoke the primitive sacred, an invocation that so often happens at the site of the tomb, literally or symbolically? These tape versions of the discussion are more elaborate and include examples, but they are effectively summarized in the book version:

4. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 228-233, “The Empty Tomb” and “The Resurrection.” (Related is his take on John 11; see Lent 5A.)

5. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Girard’s most important statement concerning the Resurrection comes in the Conclusion of I See Satan. After laying out his anthropology, there is one problem: if the humanity’s enslavement to violent mimetic contagion is as full and complete as he argues, then how have we come to the point of even seeing our enslavement? It isn’t like one can take the red pill as in the movie The Matrix, a pill that suddenly allows us to see the truth. Rather, it takes an intervention from a power superior to that of violent contagion. Girard puts it thus:

During the Passion, the little group of Jesus’ last faithful followers was already more than half-possessed by the violent contagion against Jesus. Where did they suddenly find the strength to oppose the crowd and the Jerusalem authorities? How do we explain this turnabout so contrary to all we have learned of the irresistible power of mimetic escalation?Until now I have always been able to find plausible responses to the questions posed in this book within a purely commonsensical and “anthropological” context. This time, however, it is impossible. To break the power of mimetic unanimity, we must postulate a power superior to violent contagion. If we have learned one thing in this study, it is that none exists on the earth. It is precisely because violent contagion was all-powerful in human societies, prior to the day of the Resurrection, that archaic religion divinized it. Archaic societies are not as stupid as we tend to think. They had good reasons to mistake violent unanimity for divine power.

The Resurrection is not only a miracle, a prodigious transgression of natural laws. It is the spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion. By contrast to the latter it is a power not at all hallucinatory or deceptive. Far from deceiving the disciples, it enables them to recognize what they had not recognized before and to reproach themselves for their pathetic flight in the preceding days. They acknowledge the guilt of their participation in the violent contagion that murdered their master.

I would add two comments. First, I’m not so sure that I would call the Resurrection “a prodigious transgression of natural laws.” It certainly would seem so by our current understanding of natural laws — which causes problems for modern folks accustomed to thinking in terms of a scientific interpretation of nature. John Polkinghorne is a scientist/theologian who is trying to open scientific thinking to eschatological possibilities pointed to in the Resurrection (e.g., The God of Hope and the End of the World).

Second, Girard’s view of the Resurrection here links up with his overall view on Myth vs. Gospel. Myth is the reigning cultural perspective based in the viewpoint of the perpetrators of sanctioned collective violence. It’s power over a society is challenged from time to time by the victim’s perspective, but cannot break the reign of Myth’s power over a culture. But the Good News in Jesus Christ is different in that the Resurrection signals the permanent establishment of the victim’s perspective in this world. Most victim’s are silenced when they are killed. Jesus of Nazareth was not silenced. The Resurrection returns the voice of the victim as forgiveness. In the language of John’s Gospel, Jesus was lifted up to reveal the glory of the Father and returns to the Father so that the Paraclete, the Victim’s voice of Truth may forever be unleashed in the world. The stranglehold of Myth — the world which could not know him — is broken.

6. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 662-682 on John 20-21. Also worthwhile is his general introduction to the Gospel stories, ch. 13, “General Issues in the Easter Stories.” Not yet arguing at this point in his argument that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable, he does argue against those who see the resurrection stories as constructions of the early church. He elaborates four major surprises in the Gospel stories that speak against their having been made up:

  • The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Stories: in especially Matthew’s and John’s Gospel, the Hebrew scriptures are referenced all the time, both implicitly and explicitly, but not so in Easter stories. There are mentions of the resurrection “fulfilling scripture,” but we are never told where. No scripture is actually ever cited, nor are there any echoes from Hebrew texts — not Daniel 12:1-3, nor even any of the non-canonical books like Maccabees.
  • The Strange Absence of Personal Hope in the Stories: Here is one of Wright’s most important contributions — one for which he wrote a follow-up book for a wider audience called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Especially in his works for a wider audience, he sometimes uses the phrase “life after life after death” — in other words, that the hope of resurrection is for the life of all creation which will come after the life given each person upon death. In the latter book he talks directly to Easter preachers in a way that he declines here, when he says:

Were this a different sort of book, I would be eager at this point to rub the point into the consciousness of those who organize Easter services, not least those who preach and choose hymns; but that must wait for another occasion. Simply in terms of our attempt to assess, as historians, what these stories think they are about, and where they belong in the early Christian scheme of things, it is extremely strange, and extremely interesting, that at no stage do they mention the future hope of the Christian.This is, of course, counter-intuitive to most western Christians, Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal. A thousand hymns and a million sermons, not to mention poems, icons, liturgies and aids to meditation, have so concentrated on “life after death” as the central problem, the issue which drives everything else, and have so distorted the Easter stories to feed this concentration, that it has long been assumed that the real point of the Easter story is both to show that there is indeed a “life after death” and that those who belong to Jesus will eventually share it. As we have seen in reviewing the future hope of the Christian writers of the first two centuries, this is itself far too vague: the hope was, again and again, for bodily resurrection after “life after death.” But the significant thing to notice here is this: neither “going to heaven when you die,” “life after death,” “eternal life,” nor even “the resurrection of all Christ’s people,” is so much as mentioned in the four canonical resurrection stories. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wanted to tell stories whose import was “Jesus is risen, therefore you will be too,” they have done a remarkably bad job of it.

Instead, we find a sense of open-ended commission within the present world: “Jesus is risen, therefore you have work ahead of you.” This is very clear in Matthew, Luke and John; even in Mark the women have an immediate task (though whether they do it or not we must discuss later), and the angel’s message through them to the disciples, especially Peter, implies that they are going to be given things to do as well. This mission coheres closely with the missionary imperative displayed in Paul and Acts.

It does not, however, include any mention of the future resurrection, or of being “with Jesus” in a post-mortem existence. (pp. 602-603)

  • The Strange Portrait of Jesus in the Stories: This goes along, to some extent, with the first. If the evangelists were constructing a picture of the resurrected Jesus using known sources, it would have made sense to use a picture like the one in Daniel 12:1-3 where the risen figure is shining — a picture like one sees in the Transfiguration stories. What’s surprising is that we don’t get anything like this. Jesus appears a normal human being. There are strange features like his apparently not being recognizable as his pre-resurrection self and popping in and out of scenes. But, again, this strangeness is one not really precedented anywhere else: a human person with a body that has somehow nevertheless been transformed into what Wright calls ‘transphysicality.’ There aren’t any texts quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures because this has never happened before. In fact, another aspect of the strangeness of this event to the first witnesses is that the Jewish hope for resurrection was a hope for a general resurrection on the ‘last day.’ Even for those Jews who believed in resurrection — which was common in the First Century — the idea of only one person being resurrected in advance of the end would have been completely strange.
  • The Strange Presence of the Women in the Stories: This is a point that is made quite often these days, but it can’t be overemphasized. If the evangelists are constructing resurrection stories for apologetic reasons in their settings, they absolutely would not have chosen women as the first witnesses. The only historically compelling reason that Wright can think of is that they were basing their stories of accounts of what happened.

7. N. T. Wright, in several sources (for example, Twelve Months of Sundays, Year A, and a lecture on CD Christian Hope in a Postmodern World), calls Mary Magdalene’s mistaking Jesus for the gardener ‘the right kind of mistake,’ because John’s story is, after all, about the dawning of the New Creation. In 2005 I used this as the beginning for an Easter sermon on our vocation of caring for Creation, entitled “Way to Go, Mary!” In all of Wright’s dealings with John 20 he emphasizes it as the proper ending to John’s prologue in 1:1-18; the wider context of John’s Gospel is the hope for the whole creation. John understands Good Friday as the sixth day of creation, when human beings were made. Pilate says, akin to God on that sixth day, “Behold the man!” And Jesus signals the end of the six days of the first creation, crying out from the cross, “It is finished.” The sabbath day follows; God rested. But then, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” the eighth day has dawned, the first day of a New Creation.

I would add the themes from John 5 and 9 of Jesus representing the “work” of God’s creation by healing on the sabbath. He is previewing the new first day by healing on the old seventh. The resurrection heralds that New Day. And he commissions us to carry on that work. On Thursday night, Jesus had told his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). He basically tells Mary Magdalene (John 20:17) — and us — to stop clinging to him and to get to work.

In 2006 I began this holy season on Ash Wednesday with a ‘Green Ash Wednesday.’ This Easter theme of caring for Creation affords me the opportunity to embrace the season with the theme of our stewardship of the earth. There is also a 2008 version of this sermon.

8. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, pp. 187-88, also uses the gardener figure to portray the new world of peace, illustrated by a beautiful quote from G.K. Chesterton:

War, as a legitimate means of shaping the world, died with Christ on Good Friday. Jesus refuted the war option when he told Peter to put up his sword. Killing in order to liberate Jesus and his followers from the violent injustice of Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate would have been a just war — but Jesus refused to engage in a just war. He chose instead to bear witness to the truth, forgive, and die. Jesus took the death of a world framed by war into his body and he and it both died together. Jesus was buried and with him was buried the old world devoted to sin and death. On the third day Jesus was raised and a new world was born. Of course the old world of death still lingers around us, but in the midst of it, the world to come is being born. The first person to meet Jesus on that first Easter Sunday was Mary Magdalene. She thought he was the gardener. She wasn’t wrong. Jesus is a gardener — the true gardener, the gardener Adam was meant to be.

Jesus is the firstborn of the new humanity — a humanity of gardeners turning garbage dumps into gardens, swords into plowshares, war waging into peacemaking. The resurrection of Jesus is not just a happy ending to the gospel story; it is the dawn of a new creation. No one captures this idea better than G. K. Chesterton in the close of part one of his classic work, The Everlasting Man.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn. (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993], 213.)

9. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, pp. 3-4, 99-102, 331, 349, 363.

10. David Froemming, Salvation Story, pp. 96-100. He writes of the latter portion:

Mary takes Jesus to be the gardener and insinuates that he has carried him away and that if so, he should tell her where he is so that she can take back his body. Paul Ricœur once wrote, “Primitive Christianity never perceived any fundamental difference between the eyewitness testimonies of the life of Jesus and the encounter with the risen Lord.” In her grief Mary has broken away from the male disciples’ world of mimesis — the one that manages a footrace to the tomb, but is too numb to feel any loss. In her grief Mary is able to experience the life of the risen Jesus in the stranger — one she supposes to be “the gardener.” Upon hearing the voice from this “gardener” say “Mary!”, she responds with Jesus’ title of teacher — “Rabbouni!”

What we have is a lesson on how human grief and loss can open to life beyond mimetic rivalry. Here Jesus is discovered as present in another person who is not the exact object of her desire and loss, yet who can constitute the very presence of “her Lord.” Thus in the very next verse, 17, Jesus addresses Mary’s desire to “hold onto” him for to do so is an act of her control and grasping (which is at the root of mimetic desire). The risen Lord is not the object of our control and desire. Control and desire is the root of our mimetic rivalry and a return to religion and violence. The risen Lord marks the end of mimetic desire, rivalry, and violence.

Then we receive the language of Jesus saying that he has not yet “ascended to God.” This is theological language addressing Jesus’ ongoing identity to be revealed as one with God — the main theme of John’s gospel. But if we read it like the disciples who went home, who do not yet understand the scriptures, we will read it in physical terms and think Jesus needs to leave the earth and go off to a disconnected “heaven.” But angels are present. The heavens are opened. The integral vision of all things becoming one in the risen Lord is unfolding along with the wrappings in the tomb. (99-100)

11. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 31, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).

12. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & PeaceTom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Has Jesus Called Your Name?

Reflections and Questions

1. An intriguing connection I’ve run across is a comparison of this story to that of Lazarus in John 11. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb by name, still bound up, telling others to unbind him. Jesus in John 20 comes out of the tomb unbound, with the grave clothes neatly folded up behind him, and calls Mary by name out of the tomb of her grief.

2. In 1999 I preached a sermon with a heavy Gil Bailie influence entitled “Unbound from Death.” Not only did I use themes from his treatments of John 11 and 20, but I also borrowed heavily from a sermon Bailie gave on Lent 1A in 1999. He was at a Catholic parish to speak on the Book of Revelation and wove some thoughts about Revelation in with that Sunday’s texts. My Easter 1999 sermon is based primarily on the text of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” Rev. 11:15.

3. My 1996 sermon, “Are You Ready to Embrace Life?“, is a bit more straightforward use of the John 20 and Acts 10 texts from a decidedly Girardian perspective. The 2002 version adds a more prominent role for the Colossians 3 text (Year A), as well, by interpreting ascension in terms of learning to set our minds on things above, explained in this way: “This doesn’t mean we aren’t to think about things of this life or this earth. It means that we need to begin to think about life and this world from a heavenly perspective, from God’s perspective. In Jesus, we are able to begin to think of our lives from God’s way of thinking.” The basic difference that this sermon endeavors to flesh out is that our way of thinking is always shadowed by death, exemplified in our idolatry of gods who wield death. The Living God that we meet in Jesus Christ teaches us to put away our idolatries and finally meet the God who is wholly and completely about life (which is the thesis of James Alison‘s book Raising Abel, as it takes its start from Col. 3:1-2).

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