4 April 2010

John 20:1-18

"The other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed ... Jesus said to her, 'Mary!'... Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'." (v.8, 16, 18)


Like many resurrection stories this is one of unfolding understanding, as if God is turning up a spiritual dimmer switch so that illumination grows. It's Mary Magdalene who is the first witness on the scene but doesn't understand what's happened. John, "the disciple ... whom Jesus loved" sees the burial wrappings but "did not go in". It's left to Peter - the third person to see the burial clothes - to actually enter it. We are not told what Peter's reaction or interpretation of events is. But as a result of Peter entering the tomb John follows him in, and 'believes'. Stage by stage the followers of Jesus are getting closer to the faith fact of his resurrection.

The nature of this 'belief' is intriguing. Whether the carefully left head cloth has some deep symbolism or there's a flash of revelation at that point, we don't know and are not told. There's no suggestion that the men see the angels that Mary will see when she next looks in. Certainly the rather tame outcome of returning home doesn't suggest that they have quite 'got it' yet. But this bewilderment has a ring of authenticity about it and is how faith often develops. Why, given all that's happened to them, should the disciples be expected to understand, fully and immediately?

The place of Mary Magdalene in the resurrection of Jesus places women at the heart of the Christian story. She alone among the disciples is weeping. She alone remains at the tomb. She alone sees the angels. She explains what she thinks has happened, and it is to her the risen Jesus first appears.

Here, as in other resurrection stories, the risen Jesus is not immediately recognised. Mary's mistaking him for the gardener is one of the powerful images of New Testament Christianity. Jesus' statement of her name "Mary" is electric. She is recognised, known and valued. Mary is the first disciple of the resurrected Jesus.

To Ponder

How important is it to 'believe' in the resurrection? What are the parameters of 'belief' which are appropriate for Christian disciples?

How significant is it that Mary Magdalene is the 'first disciple of the resurrected Jesus'?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Martyn Atkins

Martyn Atkins is a Methodist minister and currently serves as general secretary/secretary of the Conference. He was president of Conference in 2007-8.