The Politics of Proclamation—John 20:1-18 (Jan Rippentrop)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

The politics of proclamation emerge from and carry forward God’s liberative force. Mary Magdalene’s witness to the risen Christ manifests and proclaims the disruption and the liberation of God’s new reality.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene’s life witnesses to the reality of the incarnate and risen Christ when she voices the first Easter proclamation. Mary follows a well-worn path toward proclamation that lands her in the middle of the demanding, yet blessed, politics of preaching. First we trace her path toward proclamation, then we consider how her testimony participates in the politics of proclamation.

Path Toward Proclamation

Mary’s path toward proclamation is characterized by showing up, seeking answers, encountering God, and announcing a new reality. Showing up that seismic Sunday morning when the tectonic plates were shifting worldviews from “Jesus is dead” to “Jesus is alive,” was not the first time Mary had shown up. She had shown up at the foot of the cross in order to mourn and witness Jesus’ death and to bear up his mother’s now-altered life. Mary showed up to the places of Jesus’ dying and rising.

Upon showing up to the shockingly open tomb, Mary began seeking answers. She wanted to know two things: who had taken Jesus’ body? And where had they laid him?[1] Her quest to find answers drives the scene changes of the rest of this pericope. She gets others involved, running to find Peter and the other disciple. When their investigation of the tomb yields no answer for her, she widens her circle. The angels hear of her search before she puts the question directly to the “gardener.”

Now the reader knows that of which Mary is not yet aware; she is encountering the risen Christ. His one word, “Mary,” answers both of her questions in a single, revelatory moment. Encounter with Christ reorients Mary. She had been heading to the grave. Now she is turned toward community. She had gone to the tomb to respect the dead. Now she is going to announce the living.

Encounter with Jesus leaves her in motion. She announces his identity on the spot, declaring “Rabboni!” Next, a gap in the text suggests that she moves to praise or embrace the living Christ; Jesus redirects her to go to the disciples. Arriving to the other disciples, she announces a new reality when she gives her Easter pronouncement, “I have seen the Lord.” This new reality is one transformed by God’s action among us.

Politics of Proclamation

The above describes a movement toward authentic proclamation. Consider, now, what Mary’s testimony reveals about the politics of proclamation. The politics of proclamation include issues of access and power, but more importantly perhaps, emerge from and carry forward God’s disruptive and liberative action. Therefore, this discussion will attend to issues of access and power within the description of the disruption and liberation inherent within proclamation that invokes Christ’s presence.

Disruptive

The politics of proclamation emerge from and carry on God’s disruptive force. First, in scripture, God consistently brings the least likely the most near to revelatory inception points. At the incarnation, it is the lowly shepherds. In this pericope, at the resurrection, it is Mary Magdalene who first comes face to face with the risen Christ. This revelation is her impetus to speak. Still, the idea that Mary is the privileged proclaimer disrupts norms. Like the shepherds, Mary has lower social status and less access to public proclamation than many others in the first century. However, John unabashedly makes her the particular person endowed with this testimony to new life. God evokes proclamation from the ‘accidental saints’—as Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it—those who surprise the world by bodying forth God’s word.

Secondly, the politics of proclamation carry forward God’s disruptive message that destabilizes expectations. Here, the message that Jesus is not dead was a destabilizing (as well as generative) force. It opposed common sense. Mary would have expected that dead people stay dead. Or to put a finer point on it, people dead for three days certainly stay dead. Mary’s analysis that someone must have taken the body seems like the one reasonable conclusion. However, what has actually happened is neither reasonable nor predictable. Jesus’ resurrection brought life’s predictable normality into question. Mary’s proclamation destabilized some rational expectations and created new expectations.

Liberative

The politics of proclamation emerge from and carry forward God’s liberative force. First, Mary proclaims the new liberation God is effecting. In raising Jesus from the dead, new life exists for all. Mary proclaims God’s new action, but it is not only Mary who proclaims the new thing God is doing. So do you in the many ways you proclaim the living Christ. Jürgen Moltmann writes, “The proclamation of Christ thus places men in the midst of an event of revelation which embraces the nearness of the coming Lord.”[2] When you proclaim Christ, you bring others into an event of revelation that carries forward the newness that God’s action creates.

Secondly, God’s liberative force affects the politics of proclamation by causing proclamation to occur in the mode of anticipation. This makes “control” of proclamation characteristically difficult because proclamation is contextualized less in “what is” than in “what is to come.” In this pericope, even the way the scene is set yields anticipation. Jesus knows who Mary is, the reader know who Jesus is, and the reader knows that Mary does not yet comprehend that “the gardener” is Jesus. Thus, the literary shape of the text itself creates anticipation of the moment of recognition. Recognition of Jesus liberates Mary to proclaim a new reality. Likewise, one’s own recognition of Jesus liberates one from old ways and orients one toward God’s new life. A cyclical pattern of anticipation and recognition contextualizes the preaching life.

God’s disruptive and liberative action defines the politics of preaching such that one who hears the gospel news, “I have seen the Lord,” is freed not only from death, but is freed for new life. Being freed for new life is never an individual gift; it is always communal. One is freed for the other. In other words, the politics of preaching does exert great power and control. It is the power and control of a gospel-shaped demand on our lives. We conclude with Moltmann’s vision of a gospel-shaped life:

Only when a meaningful horizon of expectation can be given articulate expression does man acquire the possibility and the freedom to expend himself, to objectify himself and to expose himself to the pain of the negative, without bewailing the accompanying risk and surrender of his free subjectivity. Only when the realization of life is, so to speak, caught up and held by a horizon of expectation, is realization (Verwirklichung) no longer—as for romanticist subjectivity the forfeiting (Verwirkung) of possibilities and surrender of freedom, but the gaining of life.[3]

In whatever ways one’s life or words give articulate expression to the expectations of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and coming, one participates in the politics of proclamation.


[1] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answers that Mary finds for her questions also answer the driving question of John’s gospel, “Who is this Jesus?”
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope : On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 139.
[3] Ibid. 327.

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