John 20:19-31, Jesus Was Already There

[April 12, 2015; the Second Sunday of Easter] I have merely an hour to reflect on this, not having slept at all last night, so I ask in advance for your pardon with respect to its shallowness.

In verse 17 of chapter 20 in John’s gospel the resurrected Jesus told Mary of Magdala early on Easter morning that he was momentarily about to ascend to the Father. She was to go to the siblings and tell them that he said: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

What are we to make of this ascension? Earlier in the gospel he had spoken of leaving them and going to the Father when referring to his death. Now he has died and resurrected, yet apparently he has still not gone to the Father. After he rises from his tomb—in John’s gospel he raises himself from the dead on account of the eternal life within him—he goes to Mary before he goes to the Father. That fact is interesting by itself. His humanity is divine because he is hypostatically one, yet it has not yet been divinized. Jesus is still localized and cannot manifest himself in multiple locations at once, and behind closed doors. His divinity is still concealed. Mary, in John’s gospel, witnesses this, and Jesus chose her to be that witness: she is to go and tell the others. Yet Mary is also something more intimate to Jesus. Her feminine heart, like his mother’s at the wedding (chapter 2), and like Mary’s of Bethany with the oil of nard (chapter 12), and like the anonymous woman’s by the well where Jacob met his sweetheart (chapter 4), represents the heart of God’s people to him. It takes place in a garden early in the morning, reminiscent of Eden (and he the Adam, and she Eve). There is something nuptial about this scene. The yearning and love that she has for Jesus, the way she clings to him, and the way he had hidden himself and waited for her to come and be there alone with him. Yes, she clings to him, for at a certain point he breaks off her grasp, saying: “Stop clinging to me.” Was it an embrace?

In Mary we identify with something inside ourselves, a part of us that is in love with Jesus and whom Jesus loves: it is our original face. The face of the lover—facing Jesus so close that we can catch each other’s breath—is the image of God in us, the one whom God created; and which shows us what God is most like.

I wish my mornings were this kind of a time: a time in the garden wet with dew anticipating the quiet arrival of my beloved. Mary missed his presence, assuming it was someone else, and we might do the same thing. We see him and suppose him to be the gardener, and miss that it is he. Yet he is the gardener of our hearts. The garden that this story resonates with is the garden within us which Jesus tends and cultivates, and we do not even know it.

“Why are you weeping?” In our hearts we are grieving, there has been so much loss. Like the woman in Solomon’s Song (chapters 3 and 5) our hearts are searching for him. We even appeal to our Gardener, “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.” We are afraid that we have lost him, and like Solomon’s bride we do not know that he has found us, we were the one who was lost, lost to ourselves, for he never lost us. We were always safe in his care. “It is he! He was already here!” “Rabbuni!” we exclaim as we embrace him. We do not want to let him go.

“Where did your lover go, O loveliest of women? Which way did your lover turn so that we can help you seek him?” “My love went down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock on the grass and gather lilies. I belong to my love, and my love to me. He pastures his flock among the lilies.” (Song of Solomon 6:1-3; see 5:2-16).

But Jesus has not yet ascended to the Father. He has not yet brought his “accomplished” human nature to the Godhead to become divinized, to share in the incomprehensible “properties,” qualities, or perfections of the divine nature that the Three, the Father, Son and Spirit, have in common as their own. It is when he presents himself to the Father that the Holy Spirit becomes the “conveyer” of Jesus, and Jesus’ humanity—who he is now but also who he was in his incarnation and all that he did—becomes eternal, always present in every present, both past and future, and everywhere. This is what his ascent to the Father does. It is not another accomplishment of the localized Jesus but rather something God accomplishes in response to the humanity that he lived, to the way he lived it and offered it up.

That unviewed event lies between verse 18 and verse 19. In verse 19 it is the evening and Jesus manifests himself in the room—he is physically present with the disciples!—even though he did not enter. After he ascended to the Father he no longer had to enter anywhere, for he is already everywhere.

What happens in that closed room follows from this. He manifests himself in the midst of gathered disciples. The “disciples” in John’s gospel are not identical with the Twelve; there is no reason to assume that it did not include at least some of the “many woman” who followed Jesus (see Luke 8:3). It was not, therefore, an exclusive male club of what was later to identify itself as the sacerdotal clergy. No, this was a community alright, but there is no reason to assume that it was anything but the kind of community with which John identifies in his writings (a community of women and men, young and old, and children).

It is a community gathered on the eighth day. Not the first, but the eighth day: not the very beginning but the new beginning. We bring all that is past into this new day—ourselves. And Jesus brings all that is past for him—the holes that the nails made in his hands and the hole in his side. This community does not start from scratch but commemorates. We recall. And when we recall, Jesus does not become present as if our minds conjured him up, but rather, we discover that he is already with us (personally and actually—but with what expression? I wonder, as he watches our foolish nonsense), and in that discovery we find peace, his peace, the peace of him.

When he sends us as the Father sent him, it is in the power of that peace, the peace of his accomplished work, repeating in a more general way the commission he gave to Mary in verse 17 and that she accomplished in verse 18. Now that sending is more general: “as the Father sent me.” Our participation in Jesus’ divinization is not for our own sake but, like his own incarnation and obedience, for the sake of the whole world, for the sake of the creation, for the sake of all whom the Father has given to the Son (the compass of which we can know no limit and ought not to draw any; the church becomes merely those who hear his voice and identify it as such).

When he breathes the Holy Spirit into them, it is not something that “happened” at that moment, but something that has become true for everyone who believes. What happened at that moment was a sign of the new reality that has come into being as a result of his ascension to the Father and the divinization of his humanity. The Father’s election, and drawing us providentially, and the Holy Spirit’s inner working prepares us for the new birth when our spirit wakens to Jesus’ divinized presence and we become a sanctuary for him. Our spirit is the root of our being. When Jesus breathes into us and thus enters our spirit, we are born again from our very foundation, our soul begins to be affected—to both die and become alive simultaneously (though we may only be able to pay attention to what hurts!).

Our gender expression too is affected by this, for it lies at the base of our soul, where the soul gets its vitality from the spirit (which is our life and the “observer” of our consciousness, conscious and unconscious). But that is another story for another time.

The words of Jesus that follow in verse 23 refer to our responsibility to carry out the commission in verse 21 and the responsibility of others to hear the Shepherd’s voice in our own. If they hear it, their sins are forgiven; if they cannot yet hear it, their sins are retained, until they do. The day may never the less come when they will hear the Shepherd’s voice but it will not be from us. The Shepherd may at last call them himself. In the meantime, their lives remained unfulfilled and isolated—by a self-imposed attempted insulation—from the divine.

What follows, the incident with Thomas, is important, for it highlights the role of the written testimony to Jesus, this gospel and the others: “These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his Name.” To believe refers not to mentally upholding certain labels and doctrines—words after all, the adherence to which is only tribal—but to adhering by faithfulness to a revelation (his “Name”) given to our spirits. I will leave you, then, my friends, with this.

“In your resurrection, O Christ, let heaven and earth rejoice. Alleluia.”

Leave a Reply