I'll be preaching from John 20:1-18 this week. As I've read over this passage this week, I've been surprised by the number of possible connections with other stories in the Gospel of John. Allusions to other parts of John's Gospel seem to run throughout this resurrection narrative. But perhaps the most compelling of these comes from the very first chapter of John.
In John 1:35-42, we hear of Jesus' first disciples beginning to follow him. These two disciples heard John the baptist's testimony that Jesus was the Lamb of God and they began to follow Jesus as a result. However, upon beginning to follow him, Jesus asks them a question: "What are you seeking?". To which they reply "Rabbi, where are you staying?".
Often in the Gospel of John, conversations take place on two different levels simultaneously. Usually, there is one very literal level for the characters within the story itself. The other is often a more metaphorical/theological level in which the character's words carry a sort of double meaning which is instructive for John's audience concerning Jesus' identity and what it means to be his disciple. The classic example of this is John 3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born from above but Nicodemus hears Jesus saying that he must be born again. (The Greek word anothen can mean either "again" or "from above".) On one level within the story Nicodemus is confused because he can not understand how a person can literally be born again from his mother's womb a second time. On another level, Jesus word's are instructive for John's audience. Those hearing John's gospel understand what Nicodemus does not; that Jesus is speaking about a completely new source of life within this life.
The conversation in John 1:35-42 works similarly. On one level, the disciples are simply asking Jesus where he is staying. Jesus tells them to come and see and they stay with him for the night. On another level, the disciples are making a much more serious request. They are asking to abide with Jesus. Later in John 15, Jesus will use this same term, abide (meno in Greek), to describe the character of his true disciples. In John 15:5, Jesus says "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." To abide with Jesus is to be his disciple. Therefore, when the disciples answer Jesus' question "What are you seeking?" with "Rabbi, where are you staying?" they are doing more than just answering a question with what seems to be an odd and unrelated question. In fact, they have given precisely the right answer to Jesus' question. John is giving us a model of what it means to truly be a disciple of Jesus. It doesn't mean seeking something from Jesus. It means we seek to abide with him, to follow him wherever he leads. These two disciples follow Jesus to where he abides and then they go and invite others to abide with him as well.
In John 20, Mary Magdalene, a woman about whom the gospels tell us very little, is making her way to the tomb of Jesus. Presumably she goes to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. We should recognize the act of love that this is on Mary's part. John tells us that she went early while it was still dark. She is eager to care for the body of this one that she called teacher and Lord. She had loved Jesus, she had followed Jesus, she had abided with Jesus. But now Jesus' body abides in a tomb and she will go there to abide with him, to care for him one last time.
However, when she arrives she finds that the stone covering the entrance of the tomb has been moved away. She doesn't even look into the tomb to see what has happened. She doesn't need to. After all, there is only one logical explanation here. Someone has stolen Jesus' body. It wasn't enough that he died the most shameful death of crucifixion, those who hated him did not even want him to have the dignity of a proper burial. Mary enlists the help of Peter and the beloved disciple. They find the tomb empty as well. However, they notice the linen cloths in which Jesus was buried have been left behind; an odd thing for grave robbers to leave behind.
The disciples head back to their homes but Mary is still at the tomb weeping. As she is weeping, she looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus' body had been. Even then, Mary still has no thoughts that something extraordinary has happened here. When the angels ask her why she is weeping she repeats "They have taken away my Lord, and I do no know where they have laid him. Then Jesus himself appears and asks Mary the same questions he asked those first disciples in John 1; "Whom are you seeking?" But even face to face with Jesus, Mary can not see what has happened here. Her vision is too clouded by the harsh reality of crucifixion she witnessed just days earlier. Her world is one filled with death and disappointment. In one sense Mary would love nothing more than to answer Jesus' question as those first disciples did. Mary desperately wants to abide with Jesus. "Where is Jesus?" is the very question she has been asking through this entire passage. Even now, supposing he is the gardener, she asks Jesus himself "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away." Mary is desperately seeking to abide with Jesus in the only way she knows how but she is exasperated and grief-stricken by her search because she seeks to abide with Jesus as though he were dead when, in fact, he is alive. It is only when the Word of God made flesh speaks her name, "Mary", that she recognizes the voice of her shepherd and responds with the same response as those first disciples "Rabboni!". And just as those first disciples recruited more disciples, Mary goes and announces Jesus' resurrection to his disciples.
Mary is a picture of so many of us, of so much of the Church. I think if most of us were asked in church "Whom do you seek?" we would answer "Jesus." And I don't think it would be a disingenuous or pretentious answer. Like Mary, most of us really do love Jesus. We know that Jesus changed us somehow and that we owe everything to him. In fact, we long to abide with Jesus, so much so that we get up early on the first day of the week and come looking for him.
But I also think that, like Mary, despite all of our love for Jesus, we sometimes go about seeking him as if he were dead. We come to church, we pay our tithe, we study our Bibles and say our prayers and we do all of these things because we genuinely love Jesus. But we also do them not expecting anything to change, not expecting anyone, including ourselves to be transformed. In fact, we'd probably rather things not change because at least things are comfortable the way they are now. At least, this way we know what to expect. And its not that we are bad or unloving people. Its just that, like Mary, we've been hurt. We've experience more intense pain than we could ever have imagined. We've seen our hopes and dreams crucified, our beliefs about what God could do in this world nailed to a cross. But we remain faithful. Even in the midst of all that, we still love Jesus, we still want to abide with him. We've just come to doubt that he can actually change anything. And so all of our genuine acts of love for Jesus become nothing more than spices prepared for his buried and decaying body and our church begins to feel more like an empty tomb than a place of resurrection.
But, like Mary, even as we seek Jesus among the dead, the risen Lord continues to call to us. Even when the empty tomb and grave cloths are not enough to cause us to look elsewhere, even when angels can not change our perception of what is possible with God, even when our pain and confusion so cloud our vision that we can not even see Jesus right in front of us, the risen Lord still speaks. He still calls our name. And that is enough to allow us to abide with him in all his resurrected glory.