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Easter B Gospel

John 20:1-18

John’s gospel ought to begin with a preface in which he thanks the composer(s) of the book of Genesis for their influence upon his work. What we often refer to as the prologue of the gospel sinks its roots deep into the soil of the creation narrative and no subtlety whatsoever is attempted by John in his employment of the allusion. Creation is not only a crucial theme for John’s account of the Good News, it is the cipher for making sense of what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To understand (and communicate) what is at stake in the gospel passage this Easter Sunday, we must pay attention to why John employs creation in such a fashion.

The creeds begin in what seems to us to be the most logical place to begin: the beginning. “We believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” If, as we are wont to believe, creation was a one-time event at the beginning of the long line of time, this placement of creation in the creeds would seem to serve to bolster that belief. This way of understanding creation, however, betrays our modern, linear way of marking time. The creeds’ opening with creation do not simply place it as the initial event. Creation comes first in the creeds because it also sets the stage for what follows: all of the activity of God narrated by the creeds is creative activity.

Israel’s testimony of Yahweh as creator was not concerned primarily with a First Cause or the flick of the switch that got this whole thing started. While the creation of all things certainly came first, Israel’s and the church’s faith in the God of Israel did not begin with God as creator. As Robert Jenson lays out in his systematic theology, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”[1] This is the primary testimony of God’s people and our understanding of creation and God as creator must find congruence with that testimony.

Israel’s testimony regarding creation was not some sort of proto-science. Israel’s faith in Yahweh as creator was not concerned with proofs about where everything came from and how it came to be. Creation was not a doctrine used to argue God’s existence. Creation is so much more than something we just argue with atheists about. The faith of Israel in God as creator came into its fullness in the midst of the desperation of exile.[2] While it was certainly a faith about what God had done in the past, faith in Yahweh as creator was even more so a faith about what God could still do in the future, a future that God can create for God’s called out people and all of creation. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “Israel’s testimony to Yahweh as creator concerns Yahweh’s ultimate power to work an utter novum, one that on any other terms is impossible.”[3] Faith in God as creator emerged from Israel’s faith in God as steadfast redeemer. The separation of the waters and the emergence of dry ground at the Red Sea is not an allusion to the creation narrative in Genesis: the separation of the waters and the appearance of dry ground in Genesis is an allusion to the God’s deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea! God’s redemptive acts are God’s creative acts and God’s creative acts are God’s redemptive acts.

It is no wonder, then, that John decided to narrate his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the context of creation. John continues to pile on the allusions to the creation narratives. John moves us through the narrative with transitions like “On the Third day…” or “On the next day…” John has Jesus heal a man born blind by taking mud and creating eyes for the man he never had. It is no coincidence that as the time for Jesus draws near, the action of the narrative is moved to a garden. After Jesus is arrested, the action moves to the courtyard of the high priest and then to Pilate’s palace. After he is condemned to death, Jesus is led out to the crucifixion site. We learn at the end of chapter 19 that, without even knowing it, we had entered into a garden again for the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. John is unmistakably situating these events squarely in the creation narrative. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection must be situated against the backdrop of creation for its meaning to be understood.

The events in our passage take place on the first day of the week. Mary arrives at the tomb while it is still dark. I can imagine her squinting, straining to peer through the darkness. Even if she were not able to see that something looked different from a distance, I imagine that she could feel it. As she drew nearer, she could see that the stone had been removed. Immediately, she dashes off to tell the disciples that the tomb has been raided and the body of Jesus has been taken. Indeed, this is the only logical explanation. Grave-robbing was a common occurrence— common enough for Caesar to issue a decree punishing grave-plundering by death. I would not have wanted to stick around by myself in the dark either. What if they were still in there?!

Mary reports what she is sure has transpired to the disciples. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved take off running to the tomb. Upon their arrival, they peer in and see that the tomb is empty except for the graveclothes Jesus had been wearing. They are neatly folded, the head-wrappings rolled up separately from the cloths used to wrap the body. This could not be the work of grave-robbers— what robbers worth their salt would leave a crime scene so tidy (save perhaps the “Courteous Crook” from that Mama’s Family episode[4]). Neither could this be a mistake— Jesus was as dead as Marley. Even when Jesus called Lazarus out from his tomb, he still bore his graveclothes. No— something more is going on here.

Mary returns and peering into the tomb sees two angels, one at the head and one at the foot of where Jesus’ dead body had lain. If this detail found only in John’s gospel is not a reference to the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, I do not know what it would take to make such a reference. A “live-nativity” rendering of the supposed seat of God’s presence in an unclean space[5] would have made the hair on the back of the necks of the readers of John’s gospel stand on end. But even this sight does not cause Mary waver from her logic. They ask her a question and she responds unphased, still trying to gumshoe her way to the dead body of her Lord. When she turns around, weeping, she sees Jesus standing there, but does not recognize him— an astounding fact considering she is looking for him so fervently. She actually mistakes him for a gardener (Coincidence? I think not.).

This passage hangs on the report that these events take place on “the first day of the week.” Jesus is not raised on the sabbath and Sunday is not a Christian replacement for the sabbath. The importance of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day” can only be grasped in relation to the Hebrew sabbath. The seventh day was a celebration of God’s creation of the world. Humans were invited by God to rest in the divine accomplishment of the completed creation. Despite the goodness of the created order, strife exists within it. It was not long before God’s people began looking forward to a day when God would make things new— when God would overwhelm the old order represented by the week and the sabbath. Messianic hopes looked towards an “Eighth Day” when the old and broken would be made new. Christ rose on the first day, “the beginning of the risen life over which death has no dominion.”[6]

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has brought the future to the present. Craig Keen puts it this way:

“What comes out of the tomb on Easter Sunday morning is not Jesus revived, but a new creation, out of nothing. He is Jesus, certainly, the son of Mary, the Nazarene peasant, the itinerant Jewish wonderworker and prophet. And yet he has come to be this by an act that irrupts into what could have never have yielded it. Resurrection is God’s creative deed. In it the apocalyptic sovereignty of God transgresses every cosmological, ontological and theological limit. The world is made anew when Jesus walks out of the tomb.”[7]

While the first day, the Lord’s Day, lies outside of the week representing the old order, it is present to and within the old order.[8] We who are called out by God to worship the Risen Christ are participants in that future each time we gather on the Lord’s Day. May we, made Christ’s body by the body and blood offered to us in the Eucharist, be a sanctifying presence of the New Creation in the midst of the old, reaching out a pierced hand in invitation for the world to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good.

[1] Jenson, Robert. Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 63.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1997).

[3] ibid.

[4] Mama’s Family. “The Key to the Crime.” Episode 403. October 10, 1987.

[5] Numbers 19

[6] Schmemann, Alexander. Introduction to Liturgical Theology (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press,1986), 78.

[7] Keen, Craig. “Holy, Holy, Holy: The World Need Not Have Been” in The Transgression of the Integrity of God: Essays and Addresses, eds. Thomas J. Bridges and Nathan R. Kerr (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012), 103-122. 117.

[8] Schmemann, 75-80.

Jacob Morris

About the Contributor

Associate Pastor, Inglewood Church of the Nazarene