Monday, March 26, 2018

Mary's Witness

John 20:1-18, the alternative gospel lesson appointed for the Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord in the Year of Mark, is a unique account of the Resurrection.  Many details from the Synoptic gospels are left out, and much of what is here is not included in the Synoptics.  It seems obvious that John, true to form, is composing his own version of the events surrounding the Resurrection, his intent being not merely to report something, but to make a theological argument.  The dominating character in this account is Mary Magdalene. Are we able to see ourselves in her?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of answering some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers around the function of the Word.  For a deeper look at this unique genre, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This Word is functioning as both Law and Gospel, but almost the entire story is functioning as Law as one by one, each of the characters is revealed as one who cannot believe that Jesus has risen.  All they see is that the body is missing.  This text functions as Luther would remind us in his explanation to the Third Article:  "I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.  but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel..."  So the Law here is the overwhelming evidence that we cannot believe.  The Gospel is the call of Jesus, "Mary!" whereby her eyes are opened and she finally sees him as resurrected Lord.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is most important to identify with those whom the Word addresses.  In this text, the Word as Jesus addresses only one person - Mary, and so it behooves us to identify with her.  This is appropriate also because all the detail in the text centers on her thoughts, words, and actions.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is only a very brief call to obedience here; it is the word to Mary to be a witness, and that she is.  She returns to the disciples and announces, "I have seen the Lord!" This call comes to us as well.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  It is not hard at all to see a number of couplets coming out of this text.  There are probably infinite possibilities.  A few suggestions:  fear/joy; darkness/light; doubt/faith; despair/hope; death/life.

5.  Exegetical work:  Doing a narrative exegesis of the text, one can't help but notice almost all the detail in the story is around Mary's experience. Peter and the other disciple are present but don't say anything.  We learn about them from their actions and reports about what they believe.  Jesus makes a brief appearance, but besides speaking to Mary, does nothing.  Mary, on the other hand, is shown through her words, her actions, reports about what she understands or fails to understand, and words said to her.  It seems likely that Mary is a character representing many others - those of us who struggle to believe that Jesus is truly alive, when all we see is the empty tomb.  Craig Koester, in his discussion of the symbolism in John, suggests that the opening verse where we are told that it was "still dark" when Mary Magdalene approached the tomb might suggest her "incomprehension."  In other places in the Fourth Gospel, light symbolizes the powers that oppose God, or ignorance and unbelief, or even physical and/or spiritual death.  Here, Koester suggests that incomprehension is the problem, and the comment in verse 9 that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture, supports this.  (For more on this see Koester's excellent resource, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p. 142f).  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary also notes the lack of understanding by Mary and the disciples.  Brown suggests that this is a Johannine pattern (e.g. Emmaus Road travelers) and that this has theological dimensions.  (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 1009)  As I have indicated above, I would agree:  Mary symbolizes all of us who "cannot by our own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ or come to him."  Perhaps we could even call Mary an archetype of doubt and despair moving toward faith and hope.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Kuhl in his analysis of this text for the Easter vigil, does an excellent job of lifting up both the despair and hope in this text.  He provides glimpses into the deepening darkness into which Mary descends, and then the hope she finds.  Go to to see the entire analysis.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Every one of the pioneers would counsel us as we prepare to celebrate Easter.  Henry Mitchell would remind us that we must be the first ones to experience the ecstasy of this text.  David Buttrick would caution us to limit the number of moves we make in this sermon.  Fred Craddock would say, "Bring the experience of the text to the listener, not just the content."  Others could chime in as well.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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