The Saint John’s Bible, John Frontispiece: The Word Made Flesh. Donald Jackson, 2002
Friday, May 22nd
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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.
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in possibility.” During this time when we’re all grappling with our new reality, we dwell in possibility, listening intently to daily news broadcasts about possible breakthroughs for a fast-tracked virus vaccine. More than 100 research teams around the world are taking aim at the virus from multiple angles with innovative technologies. We breathlessly await hopeful results from these dedicated scientists, and with each report of a possible breakthrough, the desperate longings in our hearts become audible, “Could it be true?”
The question brings to mind words penned by theologian Karl Barth years ago, “People come to church on Easter and wonder, ‘Is it true?'” The seventh, and last, sign of John’s Gospel is this author’s attempt to answer that question. As we contemplate the meaning of this sign, we understand that the resurrection cannot be proven historically. It is a matter of faith. Fred Craddock reminds us that “we don’t have verifiable evidence about what happened inside the sealed tomb, the specific datum about what took place. What we have is what occurred in the lives of those who encountered the resurrected Christ and how their lives took on new life.” For me, the crowning consideration has always been how the disciples were transformed from a frightened group, huddled in fear of the Jewish authorities, into fearless ambassadors striding off into the world to share the message of Christ. Many of them were to face persecution, finding crosses of their own, dying in the arena… Their conviction never wavered. Something transformative had happened!
In looking at John’s account, we find that he framed it around two main stories of individual experiences with the risen Christ — Mary Magdalene’s and Thomas’ — with the other disciples interwoven throughout.
As for Mary, it is quite unique to find that a woman of that day and time is given a primary role in such an important saga. According to John she is the first to discover that the tomb’s stone has been rolled away, the first to tell the disciples, the only person privileged to converse with the angels, and the first to encounter the risen Jesus. Knowing the status of women in the first century, the fact that the author (or later transcribers) did not change her role to that of a man is for many scholars an aspect of increased credibility.
For many of us, Thomas is the person to whom we can relate, in spite of the fact that he’s been saddled with the “doubting” moniker for centuries. He is understandably baffled by the idea of resurrection and prefers to ascertain the truth for himself. There’s no record in the scripture that he actually touched Jesus’ hand or side. However, once he made his decision, he was totally committed. Jesus’ following words to Thomas and to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have believed,” have some history in the Jewish community. One of the rabbis in a midrash (a commentary on the Hebrew scripture) stated “The proselyte is dearer to God than all of those Israelites who were at Sinai. For if those people had not witnessed thunder, flames, lightning, the quaking mountain and the trumpet blasts, they would not have accepted the rule of God. Yet the proselyte who has seen none of these things comes and gives himself to God and accepts the rule of God. Is there anyone who is dearer than this man?” We do not know exactly what happened to Thomas in the following years, but there is an apocryphal book, The Acts of Thomas, which contends that the disciples divided up the world, giving Thomas the assignment of taking the message to India. Today there are actually thousands of churches in India which bear his name, and Christians there believe that Thomas visited there in A.D. 52 to baptize their ancestors.
The importance of personal experience to belief was emphasized in a piece by the master teacher and preacher, Tom Long. He tells of driving across town one day and pushing the scan button hoping for a traffic report, when the radio paused on a Christian radio show. Long couldn’t resist listening. The host was taking calls, and a woman named Barbara called in. And Barbara was saying she had problems. A lot of problems: work, stress in her marriage, conflict with her teenage children, experiencing depression. As she unfolded her problems, the host interrupted her. “Barbara, let me ask you something. Are you a believer? If you’re not, you’ll never solve these problems. Are you a believer?” “Uhh. I don’t know.” “Now Barbara if you were, you would know it. You either are or you’re not. Now Barbara, are you?” “I’d like to be… I think. I guess I’m just more of an agnostic at this point.” Well, Long says you could almost see the host come to the edge of his seat to seize that moment, “Now Barbara, there’s a book I’ve written that I’d like to send you. And in this book I have indisputable, irrefutable proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and he is who he says he is. Now if I send you this, will you become a believer?” After a few rounds of badgering, “If I send you this, will you become a believer?” Barbara said, “Yeah, I guess so. If you send it to me. Yeah.” Long continues, “Now it may sound strange coming from a Christian pulpit, where we proclaim the risen Christ, but I’m sort of sorry to hear Barbara gave up so quickly. I hope she’ll become a believer. And I believe that the Christian faith changes lives. But does that happen from proof? Does it happen from a case file? All we can really ‘prove’ is that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a Friday, that his body was not in the tomb on Sunday, and that nobody – nobody – was expecting a resurrection. Everybody’s immediate conclusion was that somebody, for whatever reason, had moved the body elsewhere. When they are told what happened, they respond as we would. They don’t believe it. They think he’s still dead. They stay cowering. They refuse to believe without seeing it and experiencing it. They wonder, ‘Could it have been a grave-robber? Some sort of staged stunt? Could it have been Rome’s final sucker punch? One more act of cruel revenge?’ But no one seemed to wonder, ‘Could he have actually come back like he said he would?’ Those are the facts. In no case, do any of the gospel writers tell us what happened behind that stone. It’s as if it happens outside of our sight and our knowing, left amidst the mystery of God. So it’s not proof that causes any of them to believe. It’s not a fact that changes their lives. It’s an encounter.”
Perhaps the meaning of this seventh sign is further helped by a beautiful, well-known account of an encounter a medical student once had with Dr. Benjamin Alexander, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. This student brazenly approached him, saying, “I have opened every organ of the body, I have dissected a human cadaver completely, and I have not found any sign of a soul there at all. So how do religious people say that human beings have a soul and that God exists?” Dr. Alexander smiled and said, “Let me ask you something, young man. When you opened up the brain, did you find an idea there?” The young man, being caught a little off guard, said, “No, no. I can’t say I did.” Dr. Alexander smiled and said, “I see. That’s very interesting, isn’t it?” Then he said, “Well let me ask you this, young man. When you opened up the human heart, did you find love there?” “Well, of course not. How could I?” Alexander continued, “Well that’s interesting. And about the eye, when you opened up the human eye did you find vision in there somewhere?” The medical student shook his head. The good doctor then looked at him and said, “I know you believe in ideas, for there’s no way to deny them. And I know you believe in love and in vision too, because there’s no way to deny them either. So what we must conclude, I guess, is that some things are real that cannot be touched nor proven.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Do you ever wonder how you might have responded if you had been among Jesus’ followers in those days? If you were a character in today’s scripture, which part would you play?
The brilliant Blaise Pascal said it so well, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” What are the things that you know by heart?
Jesus sent his disciples, and us, on mission. Wendell Berry has an eloquent descriptive phrase: “practicing resurrection.” If faith is better understood in the doing rather than the preaching, what is it that you feel called to do?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Wordsworth’s “A Psalm of Life”
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.