John 20: 1-18 Sunday 7th July 2019 9:45 and 11:30am
By porthkerryandrhoose, Jul 11 2019 10:32AM
I’m sure that, at some stage or other, we’ve all experienced a gradual realisation, a dawning of understanding something that has previously eluded us. If you’ve ever studied Psychology or Education Theory, you’ll know that this is Gestalt theory, developed in the 1930s. Gestalt is a German word that we can roughly translate as ‘pattern’ or ‘form’. The main thought behind Gestalt theory is that learning takes place as students are able to comprehend an idea in its entirety, rather than broken up into parts. The laws of Gestalt theory are based on how the human mind structures information. Individual’s experiences can impact on the way they learn. One law is the factor of closure, which is whenever the brain sees only part of a picture, it attempts to create a full picture. This also applies to thoughts, feelings and sounds. You can probably see how this leads to gaps in understanding and therefore errors of understanding. Another law is the factor of proximity, which is experienced when letters, words or other information make no sense in isolation, but when mapped together by the brain into sentences, stories and so on, make sense. The final law is the factor of similarity, which is when the brain links together similar ideas and contrasts them with other, differing ideas. This is how we develop critical thinking skills.
This passage from ch20 of John’s gospel reads a little like a Gestalt theory case study. Jesus’ disciples are not only grieving but also struggling to understand the events of recent days: Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution. Now they have another set of circumstances to make sense of – Jesus’ tomb is empty. As we work our way through ch20, we’ll explore the disciples’ Gestalt journey from incomprehension to faith in the risen Jesus. In today’s passage, we’ll see how Simon Peter, John and Mary Magdalene grew in understanding and faith on seeing the empty tomb and encountering the risen Jesus.
In the first scene that John records in this passage, Mary Magdalene has been to the empty tomb and found that the stone has been removed. It would seem that Mary’s first thought is that someone has removed Jesus’ body. She runs to Simon Peter and John and voices her concern to them in v2: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.’ Mary has seen a partial picture – the stone removed from the tomb – filled in the gaps and concluded that Jesus’ body has been taken. We see the Gestalt factor of closure here. She doesn’t have a person in mind, only an anonymous ‘they’. Perhaps she imagines that Pilate changed his mind over allowing Jesus a decent burial, or that the Jewish religious leaders have disposed of his body and removed all traces of Jesus. On hearing Mary’s concerns, Peter and John make their way to the tomb to see for themselves.
When they arrive at the tomb, Peter and John go a step further than Mary; they go to the entrance, and eventually into the tomb. John records what they saw in vv6-7: ‘He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was lying in its place, separate from the linen.’ This is another partial picture. John doesn’t record Peter’s response but does record his own (remember John refers to himself as ‘the disciple Jesus loved’, rather than by name). In v8, he records: ‘Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.’ Precisely what he believed isn’t stated because John goes on in v9 to explain ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.’ In seeing and believing, we see the Gestalt factor of similarity at work in John. He is linking this current experience to other Godly experiences. He has seen enough to know that God has been at work in the tomb and believe in that – even if he doesn’t know exactly how. He sees the grave clothes in place. Now if Jesus’ body had been stolen, it would have been taken in the grave clothes, still wrapped up. Equally, if Jesus had struggled to remove the grave clothes, they would have been tattered and torn, not lying in their place. Later in ch20 we’ll see how Jesus appeared to his disciples though the room was locked. If walls and doors pose no problems to the risen Jesus, then certainly grave clothes are no problem to him. The calm orderliness of the tomb scene is enough for John to recognise God at work. Crucially, we know because of v9 that John doesn’t yet have full understanding; he believes God has been at work in the empty tomb, but does not yet believe in the resurrection.
Our passage today ends with Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb. Remember from the earlier scene with Mary, she believed that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Through these encounters, we’ll see the Gestalt factor of proximity at work in Mary’s experience as she pieces together the various ‘parts’ she is presented with to create a ‘whole’. Mary has spoken with angels, though she is grieving so deeply that she doesn’t even seem to recognise that they are angels – there is no mention of any of the usual fear described in Scripture of humans meeting with angels. Nevertheless, for John to record it, Mary must have realised later. The angels get little chance for conversation with Mary because in v14 Jesus himself appears. We’re told ‘she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.’ In fact, Mary doesn’t realise who she’s in the company of until he speaks her name. In v16 we’re told: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). This is the final piece of the puzzle for Mary. Now the picture is whole. No one has stolen Jesus’ body because he’s alive.
The risen Jesus has a message for Mary and the disciples. He says in v17: ‘Go to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ This is a significant message for the disciples as it indicates the time when they will have full understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection, as Jesus promised them. We heard this promise in ch15: 26 – ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me.’ Then, they will understand that Jesus’ resurrection unifies them with the Father and with himself because the Holy Spirit present in them will complete that union. Jesus is the link between them and the Father. They can call God ‘Father’ because Jesus does. Jesus now calls them brothers, as in v17, not disciples or friends, a new relationship established through his death and resurrection. We can see the transformation in the disciples’ understanding in the Pentecost account in Acts 2, as Peter, with the wisdom of the Spirit, demonstrated to the crowds how Scripture had been fulfilled by Jesus.
So what can we take from this resurrection passage this morning? Firstly, I think we can be reassured if we feel we don’t understand everything that we read in Scripture, or that we learn from others. After all, the disciples had the benefit of Jesus himself teaching them, of seeing his miracles and of witnessing his death and resurrection, yet they didn’t fully understand what Jesus had done, or how he was the fulfilment of the prophecies in Scripture until they received the Holy Spirit, who gave them understanding. And there may be things that we continue not to understand. However, Paul wrote about this in his first letter to the Corinthians ch13 v12: ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’ There are some things we will only know and understand when we can come face-to-face with God, in that time yet to come, when we will be with him forever.
Secondly, we need to remember to have patience when sharing our faith. We cannot expect understanding to come quickly to others. We can’t presume that their faith will grow at the same rate as ours. We have to allow people new in faith to discover the breadths of our Christian faith for themselves – in their own way and at their own pace. Remember how overwhelming Jesus’ teaching and the events of his death and resurrection were for the disciples. Each of them came to faith at a different time and in their own way. Let us take time to answer the questions our friends new to faith have, with patience and with clarity. Let us share our understanding of the Scriptures with them, and guide them to others when we reach the limit of our understanding. Above all, let us pray for the Holy Spirit to be always at work in them, and in us, as we seek to grow in our faith.