In John 20, the narrative has progressed from the Crucifixion of our Lord to His Resurrection. The victory is won, yet Christ's followers are still fearful, not realizing what has transpired.
This chapter of John starts at the empty tomb, and the first person at the tomb is Mary Magdalene. John does not identify this Mary as the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom we saw in John 11, but there are parallels between the two Marys. Even if he is not identifying them as being literally the same person, John is drawing our attention to both the similarities and the differences between the two resurrections.
In both resurrections, Mary is weeping. In John 11, Jesus asks Mary, "[w]here have you laid him?" In John 20, Mary demands of Jesus, "[s]upposing him to be the gardener," "tell me where you have laid him." Jesus commands, "take away the stone," covering the tomb of Lazarus. The stone covering the tomb of Jesus has already been taken away. Lazarus comes out of the tomb still wrapped in cloth, and Jesus commands the people to unbind him. Jesus is not only free of the bandages of death. He has rolled them up and laid them to the side.
In John 11, both Martha and Mary tell Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (John 11:21 and 11:32) The difference between the sisters is that Mary stops there. Martha continues, "and even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." Martha has her eyes on heavenly things. Mary in her grief still has her eyes on that which is earthly.
This trait shines light on the most mysterious verse in this chapter. "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." (John 20:17) It is only natural that Mary, who has been weeping at the tomb of Jesus, would want to cast her arms around her Lord. She recognizes Jesus as her Lord, and she truly does love Him. Yet, Jesus seems to be drawing away from her and His stated reason for doing so in not completely satisfying to most readers. There seems to be something here that is just beyond our ability to comprehend.
One interpretation of Jesus' statement is that He is worried about Mary somehow contaminating Him and therefore preventing Him from ascending to the Father and fulfilling His plan of salvation. This poses a theological difficulty, though, if we hold to the omnipotence of God. Could not an all-powerful God somehow protect Jesus' purity even as he comes in physical contact with Mary?
It would also seem to be inconsistent with what Jesus says later when he invites Thomas to place his fingers in his side. Would Jesus invite Thomas to engage in an action that would derail salvation history? That seems unlikely, to say the least.
St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on this verse, argues that the problem is that Mary does not have an elevated perspective. She is trying to hold onto an earthly Jesus, but Jesus is offering more. She needs to let go of Jesus as just a lovely man in order to receive Christ as the Savior.
This is a timely message for our cynical age. We are surrounded by commercial messages that tell us happiness is to be found in material abundance. We are told that science has all the answers and that faith has been an anachronism. It is fashionable to say that Jesus was a good man and a wise teacher, but that organized religion has exploited his person and corrupted his message. John takes this skepticism head on by asserting a bold and earnest message that transcends the material and the mundane.
This chapter also gives us a glimpse of the evangelist himself. The two people Mary calls to come to the tomb once she discovers that it is empty are Peter and John, who is referred to as "the other disciple."
This indicates humility on John's part, that he is not elevating his own importance in the Gospel. Yet, he is willing to reference himself, albeit obliquely, in order to assure the reader of the veracity of what he is saying. In the last chapter, John wrote, "He that saw it bare record and his record is true." In this chapter, when John enters the tomb and sees the linen, clothes, John himself believes.
The text does not say that Peter believed. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved -- and whom we can see deeply loves Jesus -- sees and believes. The love and faith that John has is innocent, like that of a child. Peter, who wanted to save Jesus from the cross, is too enmeshed in the world.
Again, our cynical age resists this kind of sincerity. Religion, in many quarters, is assumed to be subjective and personal rather than objective and universal. John wants us to know that the Gospel is not just a nice story that teaches pleasing lessons. It is the truth. One piece of evidence that John gives for this is easy to miss for modern readers unfamiliar with ancient Jewish burial practices.
Dipping back into Chrysostom's exhaustive commentary -- which was written in the same language as the Gospels and at a time much closer albeit still centuries separated from them -- we see that the removal of the bandages would not have been as easy as we might suppose. Rather, the myrrh with which Jesus was buried "glues linen to the body not less firmly than lead".
This belies the idea that Jesus' body was stolen by grave robbers or by the Apostles. Anyone seeking to move the body would not have taken the time to remove the bandages. Even if the bandages were removed by somebody taking the body, it seems reasonable that the linen cloth would have been torn or awkwardly stuck to itself like tangled tape. In other words, the clothes in which Jesus was buried being rather neatly off to the side indicates a miracle. This is not surprising in light of the miraculous Shroud of Turin.
The chapter continues with Jesus appearing to disciples locked in a room. The transfer of authority from Jesus to his disciples that we saw in John 17, the High Priestly Prayer, continues here. "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." (20:21) If you go back through the Gospel of John, you will find that the Father is frequently referred to simply as, "the one who sent me." Jesus is drawing a direct comparison between His mission given to Him by the Father and the mission of His disciples. This blessing, then, is not to be taken lightly.
Saying this, he breathes on them and commands them to receive the Holy Spirit. Even though the disciples likely did not immediately understand the implications here, Jesus knows what He is commanding them to do. He knows what they will need to fulfill this commission. We need the Holy Spirit if we are to obey Christ and continue his ministry on Earth.
Jesus has one more blessing. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This is not a reiteration of the principle we see in the Lord's Prayer -- "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus is handing his disciples the authority to forgive sins.
Again, Jesus is drawing a direct comparison between Himself and His disciples. Just as all judgment was given to Jesus by the Father (John 5:22), now Jesus is allowing his disciples to share in that judgment.
Thomas, as we all know, did not believe. Like Mary and Peter, he was simply not prepared to accept the resurrection as fact. We should reflect on this, and realize that we are likely more similar to Peter, Mary and Thomas than we are to John.
Thomas does not merely want to touch the side of Jesus. He wants to thrust his fingers into his side. Jesus, in His mercy, allows him to. This is the character of Jesus. The ministry of Christ is characterized by love and humility. He comes down to our level, and is willing to suffer indignity for our sake, for our needs. If Thomas needs to poke his fingers into the side of our Lord, Jesus invites him to do so.
The chapter ends with John telling us,
"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." (John 20:30-31)
This is sincerity. When we hear that all religions are merely about money and power, remember this. John is a true believer. Not only that, but he wants us to believe. These are not the words of a man who is cynical and worldly. He is powered by the Holy Spirit and motivated by deep and abiding love and faith in the Lord. If we find that we are more like Thomas than John, we can take solace in his fervency, because this man who knew Jesus Christ wants you to share that sincere, burning love.