“It is finished!” These were Jesus’ last words on the cross before he died. But what is finished? This is the question that John leaves with us as we conclude the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is finished – as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lovingly care for Jesus’ body, anointing it with spices and wrapping it in a linen shroud. It is finished - as they then place Jesus’ body in the tomb and the stone is rolled into place. It is finished! It is over! The end! Now what?
And it is not only those of us who are reading this story who are struggling with this question. Obviously the disciples, the Judean authorities and even the Romans are pretty convinced that it is all over, it is finished, done! Well, we took care of that “Jesus” problem! But, not so fast…
“And the Word became made flesh and dwelt among us…” – and tented among us, and moved into the neighborhood! God became en-fleshed, incarnate in Jesus; God became fully and completely human in Jesus and lived a human life with real human relationships, reaching out and caring for others, healing, loving, getting angry, being tired, experiencing sadness and loneliness, even despondency, feeling compassion and grief. It is all there in John – every single one of these human experiences and emotions are displayed in John’s telling the story of God’s en-fleshing. In fact, in order to take the Incarnation seriously, we must take seriously the complete humanity of Jesus. Jesus was not half human or sort-of human or pretending to be human. John wants us to understand that Jesus was fully and completely human, and in this way God enters into the human experience. And only by taking this Incarnation seriously does the gift that God gives us makes any difference. So, then what is finished? It is this human, incarnation experience that has come to a close. The Incarnation is finished! The en-fleshing of God has come to a conclusion! But this is not the end of the story.
Chapter 20 begins with Mary Magdalene coming early in the morning while it is still dark to the tomb. According to John she comes alone and we don’t know why she is coming – perhaps simply to grieve. But she is in the dark – just like Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the dark earlier in the Gospel. Perhaps she believes now that darkness has taken over, and that the light of Christ will never again shine forth. But she is wrong, for when she arrives she is able at least to see that the stone is rolled away from the tomb and that the tomb is now sitting open. She reacts to this by running to tell the disciples, and then Peter and the Beloved Disciple themselves run to the tomb to investigate. The men race each other and it is Peter, who arrives first, boldly entering into the tomb where he is followed shortly afterwards by the Beloved Disciple. They both find the tomb empty and John tells us – that the Beloved Disciple believes. But what exactly does he believe? And who is the Beloved Disciple? The tradition is to equate the Beloved Disciple with the author of the Gospel, John the son of Zebedee, or at least with the community that can be traced back to him and which produced this Gospel and the three letters of John. And that may be, but the Beloved Disciple is more than just this character. We also need to recognize that the Beloved Disciple is representative of believers and followers of Jesus of all times and all places. He is you and me. You are the beloved disciple and so am I. We are the disciples whom Jesus loves. And what is it that is believed by the Beloved Disciple? The Gospel is quick to clarify that the disciples did not completely understand about the resurrection, yet. So then what exactly does the Beloved Disciple believe? Simply, that the story is not over. That crucifixion is not the end or the last word. And there is still more to come. That the powers of death and hate and violence and oppression and poverty will NOT win in the end. That the love and grace of God, shown forth in the Incarnation of God in Jesus will have the last word! And with that the disciples leave and return to their homes.
But Mary is not ready to leave. She is overcome in weeping. And there standing besides her is a man, whom she does not recognize. “Where have you taken him? Show me and I will take the body and return it to the tomb,” she cries. And then the stranger speaks – “Mary.” And she recognizes that this is Jesus. She had probably not even noticed that the light of the day had begun to overcome the darkness of the night, but when she hears Jesus’ speak, she sees.
In chapter 10, Jesus had told his disciples that God’s children that are the Sheep of God’s flock would always know and recognize the voice of the Shepherd. And that he, the Shepherd, will always call them by name. Mary hears the voice of the Shepherd calling her by name – just like the man born blind first heard the voice of Jesus before he regained his sight in chapter 9 – and just like Lazarus who Jesus called by name to come out of the tomb in chapter 11.
Mary’s response? “Rabboni” - Teacher! Not savior, not Jesus, not friend – but teacher. Who uses that title, teacher? Only disciples. So in case there is any question – Mary Magdalene is a disciple of Jesus. And then she reaches for him, but he tells her that he must now ascend to the Father. And this is the last step in John – the ascension. And in the ascension we find the gift of Hope. The resurrection proclaims the victory over human self-centeredness and cruelty, the defeat of death and the victory of light over darkness. Because of the resurrection we know and can proclaim that no matter what loss, or grief or despair or oppression we experience they will not have the last word. For the Ascension finalizes this by assuring us not only of Jesus’ abiding relationship with the Father, but of our continuing abiding relationship with God through Jesus as well. It is Jesus’ Ascension to the Father that makes that possible!
And so, the incarnation is finished! But the story of God’s involvement and overwhelming love for the world, and for all of God’s children and for you and me is not over, it is continuing and continues to this very moment. God continues to shower us with grace upon grace; God continues to be present with us, especially in our darkest moments in order to remind and assure us that in the end the light will overcome the darkness; that love is stronger than hate; and that life will defeat death. And as we abide in this love, we know that we, the branches, are constantly nurtured by the Vine of God’s love. And this then helps us to maintain our relationship with God and helps us to abide. And not only that, but it gives us the ability to love others and be in abiding relationships with others as well.This is what prompts us to be able to confess, with Mary Magdalene, that we too have seen the Lord! The light of God’s love and grace has overcome the darkness. The Incarnation is finished – but the story is not over!