Text Study for Easter 2021 — John 20:1-10

2. The Race to the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-10)

“The whole New Testament is unanimous on this point: the Cross and burial of Christ reveal their significance only in the light of the event of Easter, without which there is no Christian faith” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, page 189).

As I have noted before, John’s Gospel takes up where the Synoptics leave off. This is certainly true of the Resurrection accounts. Mark has an unfinished ending. In John, “it is finished” (John 19:30). These are complementary accounts, not contradictory reports. That assertion, however, will take a few days to unpack.

John gives us the Resurrection in three acts plus an epilogue in chapter 20. Act 1 is the “Race to the Empty Tomb.” Act 2 is Mary Magdalene wandering in “The Garden of Lost and Found.” Act 3 (which we get on the second Sunday of Easter) is the “Spirited Sending.” The epilogue (which we also get on the second Sunday of Easter) is the “Triumph of Trust over Trauma.”

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“Christ is risen, and Mary is weeping,” writes Mary Hinkle Shore in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “John’s account of the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection has this tension at its heart.” There is no effort in this account to minimize the loss and grief produced by Jesus’ execution and hurried burial. That series of traumatic events is now compounded by the possibility that someone has stolen the body.

One situation that produces “complex grief” is when the body of the deceased is not found or cannot be recovered. There is something necessary about a confrontation with the corpse of one who was loved and living and is now grieved and gone. We live in a time when many people don’t want that encounter with the dead flesh. I cannot and will not judge that because we must each find our own way in our grieving. But I know from my own experience that this encounter was a necessary deterrent to my desperate need for denial.

Add to that the uncertainty when a body has somehow “disappeared,” and the pain must have been nearly beyond enduring. Of course, Mary is weeping – once she can find the capacity once again to breathe. My experience is that she was more likely wailing with the primal pain that arises from one’s guts in response to the horror of such a compounded loss. The writer of John’s gospel spends time on this scene in order to allow us all to descend with Mary into the depths of her despair. And there can be no doubt that Jesus was truly dead.

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb on the first day after the Sabbath, the first day of a new week. She comes while it is still dark (as opposed to Mark’s report that the women came when the sun had risen). The light which enlightens the world, we read earlier in John, was coming into the world. Mary is there as the Light of the world is appearing. She sees that the stone has been rolled away and concludes that the grave has been robbed. She does not conclude that there has been a resurrection.

“When she sees an open tomb, it does not bring about the memories of Lazarus’ resurrection, but rather a logical assumption: an opened tomb signals a tomb robbery!” writes Alicia Myers in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Unfortunately, such acts were well-known in antiquity,” she continues, “so much so that tomb robbery was listed as a heinous crime in rhetorical handbooks and was a trademark of pirates in ancient novels.”

She flees back to the disciples to share what she has seen and surmised. Peter and the “other disciple” race to the tomb after they hear Mary’s panicked report. Peter sees the empty tomb but “it is the beloved disciple who sees and believes (v. 8) that God did something with Jesus,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “even though neither knows how to clarify the meaning of the empty tomb with the help of Scripture (v. 9)” [page 280].

The other disciple gets there first and looks in. He sees the burial cloths that would have wrapped Jesus’ body. He knows the body is missing, but he doesn’t enter – perhaps in fear that the thieves were still there. Peter catches up and plunges into the tomb. He too sees the burial cloths. In addition, he sees the napkin that would have covered Jesus’ face. It is neatly folded up rather than being piled up with the other cloths. That is not the act of grave robbers in a hurry to take what they want.

The coast is clear, and the other disciple enters the tomb. He “saw and believed.” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this “believing” was acceptance of the possibility that God “had interrupted the dying-burial process with a resurrection.” Peter did not consider or accept this possibility. Myers is more limited in describing the other disciples’ credence. “In fact, given the sequence of events in 20:8–10,” she writes, “it seems probable that the Beloved Disciple ‘believed’ Mary’s report of Jesus’ body being stolen rather than believing in the resurrection.”

I’m not sure about this issue, but I find myself halfway between these positions. The other disciples does more than believe Mary’s report but less than accept Jesus’ resurrection. I base this in part on the way in which John’s Gospel uses “believe” throughout the gospel. If the disciple Jesus loved was in fact Lazarus, as Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, then, “This is not surprising…since Jesus intervened to have God interrupt the dying-burial process in [Lazarus’] case” (page 280). I find it credible to think that Lazarus may have been the original source of the Gospel of John and the mysterious “beloved disciple.” I think it is also credible that he believed more was going on than grave robbery, although he couldn’t know what the “more” was yet.

Why is “believing” in John’s sense necessary for accepting the possibility of Resurrection? “This event is,” writes Von Balthasar, “without analogy. It pierces our whole world of living and dying in a unique way,” he continues, “so that, through this breakthrough, it may open a path for us into the everlasting life of God” (page 194). Regardless of the nature of the other disciple’s “belief” at this point, it was not any sort of “faith” in Jesus’ resurrection. That was still to come, and the first such response is reserved for Mary Magdelene.

It’s not true that Jews knew nothing about resurrection. We can see from the Gospel accounts that Jesus’ followers expected some sort of general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. What they didn’t expect – what they couldn’t expect – was that this resurrection would come to meet them in the middle of history. What they couldn’t expect was that Jesus, the Crucified Messiah, was bringing the power of that new life into the middle of the old life in order to break apart the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Von Balthasar quotes New Testament scholar Rolf Rengstorff in this regard, and it’s worth rehearsing here. “Jesus’ Resurrection took his disciples completely by surprise,” Rengstorff wrote. “They also lead us to understand that Jesus’ Resurrection lay entirely outside what could justly have been expected of the disciples. There was no place for a Resurrection of Jesus,” Rengstorff noted, “in the representations which they had at their disposal” (quoted on page 200).

Jesus’ resurrection is not “like” anything else. It is not another example of anything else. It cannot be compared to anything else. In order to trust in the Resurrection as God’s new life among us, we must accept and embrace an entirely new view of Reality. The Beloved Disciple is able to accept and embrace what he sees but cannot process it. For Peter it will all take a bit more time and effort, but he gets it in the end.

The fact that the tomb is empty is not, by itself, sufficient proof of the Resurrection. By itself, in the texts the empty tomb is a source of terror and trauma, of confusion and consternation. We see that in the way John’s gospel tells the story. Mary sees it and is not comforted but rather further traumatized. Peter sees it and is left unchanged. The Beloved Disciples sees it and accepts that something has happened to change the expected course of events, but the full revelation must await Jesus’ appearing (and explaining).

Once again, the writer of John’s Gospel reminds us that an encounter with the Risen Christ must precede an understanding of the Resurrection. It is only through reflection upon and after that encounter that the witness of scripture can be understood as pointing to Easter. The other disciple saw and believed that something other than grave robbery had happened, but he didn’t yet know what that “something other” was. “For they had not yet understood the Scripture,” we read in verse 9, “that it was necessary for him to be raised from the dead.”

Repeatedly in John we are reminded that the disciples think about what they experienced. They reflect and meditate on what they have seen. They remember the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They search the Scriptures to understand what it all means. When they have the whole picture, things become clear. In John 20:9, they don’t yet have the whole picture. So, the disciples have not yet been changed.

This is the meaning of verse 10. The NRSV tells us that the disciples “returned to their homes.” That seems odd, since they are from Galilee. It could be that they returned to the places where they were guests in Bethany during the Passover. But the Greek of the verse doesn’t specify their “homes.”

Instead, it says in literal translation, “Exited then again toward themselves the disciples.” They left the empty tomb largely in the condition in which they had entered. They were still “toward themselves.” It would take an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus to move them to a new place, a new day, and a new mission.

So it is with us.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Myers, Alicia. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-john-201-18-8.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1970.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

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