Our gospel contains the second and third appearances of the risen Jesus. These three appearances take place in Jerusalem. There is a fourth and final appearance of Jesus later in a section referred to as the “Epilogue” of John. This appearance is at the “Sea of Tiberias” in Galilee (John 21).
In the Johannine narrative our gospel occurs on what has been a full day: “On the evening of that first day of the week.” It was only that morning that Mary Magdalene had visited the tomb and confessed, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him” (20:2) – ironically echoing one the decisive misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry: from where did Jesus come and where is he going (e.g. 7:33-36, 8:21-23). Mary became the first disciple of the good news of the empty tomb conveying the word to Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved.” Slowly the implications of the empty tomb and the burial linens come to the disciples and they begin to understand – each in differing ways and to varying degrees. The disciple whom Jesus loved “saw and believed” (20:8), however “they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (v.9).
At this point, it is perhaps that their faith is as complete as faith in the empty tomb can be, but as many commentators have noted, to assign to the disciples a full belief in the Resurrection is to rush the story. Resurrection faith begins when Mary encounters Jesus in the garden and he is revealed as the Risen Christ and Good shepherd – he knows his sheep by name and they respond to his voice (10:3-4, 12,16, 24; cf Is 43:1). In telling Mary “stop holding onto me” (v.17) Jesus lets Mary (and the reader) know that the unfolding of the events of the hour are continuing.
Meanwhile the disciples, still reeling from the events of the last three days, gather in the upper room. In Matthew 28:8, Mary Magdalene’s reaction to the encounter with Jesus was “fearful but overjoyed.” Perhaps this too is the experience of the disciples. All John tells us is that they were gathered together, hiding as it were, for fear of the Jews (v.19)