Easter makes everything new. John’s Gospel tells us that even time and space are now reconfigured. The “first day of the week” (the Eighth Day) is key throughout his resurrection chapter (John 20:1, 19, 26). New life bursts forth from the new tomb in the paradisal garden (cf. 19:41). When Jesus rises from the dead, his new life is our new life; his Eighth Day our Eighth Day; his garden our garden. Nothing stays the same, for time and space are conformed to the Word of the beginning (cf. 1:1). We are back in Paradise and have joined the very life of God.
John offers three vignettes in chapter 20, trying to convince us of this stupendous claim. He includes three models for this resurrection faith—himself, Mary Magdalene, and Thomas the Twin.
Perhaps we recoil at the Gospel claim, for we don’t see how we are in the beginning or in Paradise. It’s COVID time, not Easter time. John, Mary, and Thomas may each have seen and believed (20:8, 18, 29), but our empirical observations don’t seem to justify the faith that John’s Gospel suggests we adopt as our own.
John could have given us a systematic theological treatise on faith. Instead, he presents three stories. I suspect this is in part because John, Mary, and Thomas all react differently. With each resurrection appearance, faith seems harder to come by. Of John we simply read that “he saw and believed” (20:8). But Mary Magdalene’s conversion was a tearful affair. It took time before the light of Easter shone through her tears. And Thomas? Well, we know about “doubting Thomas.” Enough said.
John, Mary, and Thomas display increasing resistance. But God’s resurrection mercy shines each time with greater clarity. Yes, God’s grace is present to John the Evangelist as he enters the tomb, sees the linen cloths and face cloth, and believes. But think of Mary, convinced they have stolen the body out of the tomb (20:1, 13). Resurrection mercy reaches through her tears and unbelief until it touches her heart and she recognizes the risen Lord. And then God’s mercy reaches even Thomas’s unbelieving heart and softens it to accept the risen Lord. It really is Easter. Time and place truly have changed.
After all three stories have been told, John concludes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:30–31). This is not just about John, Mary, and Thomas believing. This is about us believing and joining the eternal life of God.
A believer is a follower. That, at least, is one definition. When Jesus calls his disciples, we know they believe because they follow him (1:37, 38, 40, 43). The Shepherd calls his sheep, and “the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (10:4). To believe is to follow.
This definition—and John’s use of it throughout the Gospel—is helpful as we turn to John as the first model of faith. Note how the text describes the events. Mary Magdalene runs to Peter and to John to tell them the stone is gone (20:2). Peter and John both run to the tomb (20:4). And then John outruns Peter (20:4). The pace in these opening verses of the chapter is breathtaking.
But it’s not just the speed; the order also matters. Peter follows John. Why? Wouldn’t we expect Peter’s primacy to shine through in the resurrection account? Perhaps, but the language is plain: John outruns Peter, stoops to look into the tomb, and then Peter comes, following him (20:6). The discipleship language is unmistakable: Peter is John’s follower (and, by intimation, we are to be John’s followers too). Why?
Maundy Thursday gives us a clue. In the Upper Room, John reclined at table at the bosom of Jesus (13:23). Jesus talked about his coming betrayal, and Peter motioned to John: “Ask him who he is talking about? Who will betray him?” So John, leaning back against Jesus’s breast, asked, “Lord, who is it?” (13:25). John was at the bosom of Jesus, just as the Word was eternally at the bosom of the Father (1:18). Saint Augustine puts it this way. “The disciples,” says Augustine,
were all reclining at table with the Lord; John is described in the Gospel as being in the habit of leaning back on the Lord’s breast. So what’s so surprising if he was drinking from his breast what he would say about his divinity? The Lord of the feast, after all, and the Lord of those feasting would hardly allow his disciple to fill his belly at that table, and not fill his mind at his breast. He for his part, having drunk his fill, gave a good belch, and that very belch is the Gospel. And so with the eyes of faith in the Gospel you have seen the fisherman feasting. Now listen to him belching: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was in the beginning with God.
“The belch is the Gospel,” explains Augustine. John has been drinking Jesus’s teaching at his breast. No doubt, Augustine has the Latin version of the Song of Songs in the back of his mind: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for his breasts are better than wine” (Song 1:1). Having drunk his fill from the Savior, John now belches his Gospel.
First the Father speaks. Out comes the eternal Word: God speaks himself eternally. Then the Son speaks. Out comes his teaching, and John drinks it in. Then, when John belches, out comes his Gospel. Peter follows John because John belches the milk of the Gospel. And we too follow John. We hear his belch whenever we read his Gospel.
It’s hardly surprising that John is the one to see and believe. He has been at Jesus’s bosom. He has drunk deeply from the Gospel milk of the Word. And so, when John sees the signs—the empty tomb, the linen cloths, the facecloth—he knows what time and place it is. It is the Eighth Day, and he, the one whom Jesus loved, is in Paradise.
It is easy to miss how time and space are reconfigured. Our circumstances may seem to belie it. To catch John’s belch—to take in the Word—we must run, together with Peter, following John. He is a fast runner (a true disciple), but John wants us to catch up with him, so we may hear the belch of the Gospel, which tells us that Christ is risen indeed.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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