Lenten Reflections

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John 20:1-18

April 5, 2021
John 20:1-18

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 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.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 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.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for 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.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.


The central claim of Easter is that Jesus of Nazareth was mocked, tortured and executed on a Roman cross at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and then buried in a tomb sealed by armed guards. Early the following Sunday morning, Jesus was raised from the dead. He was not merely resuscitated after what we might call a “near-death experience,” nor was he simply “living-on” in the memory of his followers. But he was raised from the dead with a new physical body and entered into a completely new mode of existence.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the hinge upon which Christianity turns. The gospel writers understand that this may be hard for us to believe, so they furnish us with a number of important details in order to assure us of the truth of the resurrection. It is striking that all the gospel writers underscore the fact that women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb given that women were not considered credible witnesses in the first century and thus were not permitted to give testimony in court. The fact that all the gospels affirm this culturally unflattering detail lends credibility to their claims.

Mary Magdalene makes her way to the tomb of Jesus early on that first Easter morning not expecting to find a risen Jesus, but a very dead Jesus in need of a proper burial. When she arrives and discovers that someone has rolled away the stone, she assumes the worst. Not only was Jesus brutally killed, but now she suspects someone has desecrated his body. She runs back to tell Peter and the other disciple who we can assume is John. The two inspect the tomb and immediately believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead despite the fact that neither of them anticipated anything like the resurrection. What was it they saw that suddenly transformed their thinking? 

Jesus’ body had been wrapped in linen cloths with spices placed in between the folds when he was laid in the tomb. His head would have been wrapped separately leaving the face and neck bare. When Peter and John peer into the tomb, they do not see these linen cloths unfurled and strewn about, but literally lying in place. Moreover, they see a noticeable gap between the graveclothes wrapped around the body and those that had been placed around Jesus’ head. What they see is that the clothes that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head were still twirled up like a turban. They realize that it was not as if Jesus’ body had been unwrapped, but that it had passed through the graveclothes like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. With that, they believed! They didn’t need to see anything else. The graveclothes spoke for themselves.

After the two disciples leave, Mary is left standing outside the tomb. She is not filled with expectant joy but overwhelming sorrow. She is not trying to will herself to believe that Jesus is still alive. That is why she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first - because she is not looking for him. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener. When she sees a figure standing before her she is still convinced that someone has taken Jesus’ body and she is willing to do anything to get it back. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she finally believes. Based on the testimony of those first eyewitnesses, Jesus is calling you to believe that he is alive as well.