In 2013 we moved to our current home, which was built in 1850 as a square farmhouse in what was then part of a rural village outside Nottingham. One of the changes we made quite soon after moving in was to restore the historic kitchen garden, which had been planted over for the previous 20 or 30 years with trees and shrubs. The soil in the area is heavy clay, and in one flower bed it feels as though you can actually dig up red lumps and start making a pot straight away! But I have had no trouble growing all manner of fruit and vegetables in the kitchen garden, since the area had cows and horses on it for a hundred years, and they have clearly made their contribution! In addition, there was an enormous well-rotted compost heap, and digging it out gave the whole area a three- or four-inch covering. It is very fertile ground.
It feels as though this Sunday’s lectionary reading, John 20.19-31, is similarly rich, fertile and multi-layered, the historical base overlaid with the author’s reflections on the theological importance of what happened. Any number of theological reflections will quickly grow up in this fertile ground—and hopefully bear fruit.
There seem to be two major changes of gear in this passage from what has gone before. The first relates to time: in the first part of the chapter, narrative time slows down so much that we are told who is running to the tomb fastest, and who enters in first, followed by the poignant account of Mary’s encounter with Jesus. Here you can almost count the passing seconds; it is all marked by the slowness and stillness of the early morning. By contrast, the second half of the chapter appears to be highly compressed, with a summary of Jesus’ giving of the Spirit and commissioning the disciples, and a week skipping past in a moment. It is, once again, worth noting that this corresponds very well with the way that we remember important experiences; the key moments are often slowed down in our memory, and details remain vivid, long after we have forgotten other details, perhaps even including what would otherwise be important details of chronology. (I can remember the colour of the car I was following on my bike as a teenager when it crashed head-on with one coming the other way; I can see the glass showering across the road and the noise, but I am blowed if I can tell you the month or even (reliably) the year.)
The second change of gear relates to the symbolic and theological meaning of this section. In the preceding passage, the typical symbolic double-meaning of much of the Fourth Gospel has fallen away. Where Nicodemus’ twilight of understanding matches the time of his visit to Jesus in John 3, and the bright noonday light of John 4 expresses the Samaritan woman’s recognition of Jesus, the actions of Simon Peter and the other disciple don’t appear to have any such significance. The disciple’s bending over to look in the tomb simply happens because that is what is required by the low entrance of any similar first-century rock-cut tomb, as we know well from archaeology. The separation of the sidarion that was wrapped around Jesus’ head from the othonia, the strips of linen wrapped around his body (John 20.6–7), is what you would only find if the body had passed through the material and left them in their place—assuming you understood how bodies were prepared for burial in the first century.
I hope you enjoy the video above; for full details see the article What can we learn from ‘doubting’ Thomas?