T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “In the end is my beginning.” It’s the unofficial tagline of circular narratives. In a circular narrative, the story begins and ends in the same place. Alice in Wonderland is perhaps one of the most famous circular stories; it begins and ends with Alice lying on the riverbank, her adventures down the rabbit hole sandwiched in-between. Alice may awake in the same place, but that doesn’t mean that her character remains unchanged from the beginning to the end of the story. Her experiences of a whole new world leave her a different person from the Alice that we see in the beginning of the story.
In some ways, the story of Jesus’ ministry as told in the gospel of John forms a circular narrative. Today’s passage contains the first recorded interaction with the resurrected Jesus. And while we don’t find ourselves literally in the same place as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the first dialogue of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the first dialogue after Jesus’ resurrection have remarkable similarities.
Jesus’ first words in the gospel of John are spoken when Jesus walks by John the Baptist, who happens to be standing there with two of his disciples. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” At that moment, John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus. Jesus turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” They reply, “Rabbi (which means Teacher), where are you staying?” Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” These are the first disciples of Jesus.
Fast forward three or so years, Jesus has been crucified and his followers are distraught. They have wrapped their whole identity around him being the Messiah. If they are no longer disciples of the Messiah, who are they? Mary comes to the tomb early in the morning to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, empty except (we are told) for the linen wrappings folded and neatly laid where Jesus’ body had been. Of course, Mary goes to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who run to the tomb to see for themselves before then returning home.
And then it happens. Mary stands weeping outside the tomb when a man that Mary assumes is the gardener asks her, “Whom are you looking for?” Mary replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus calls her name: “Mary!” In a flash she recognizes him, saying “Rabbouni!” The passage ends with Mary’s confession that “I have seen the Lord!”
The scene in the garden between Mary and Jesus is in many ways a replay of the scene between Jesus and his first two disciples that took place in the very beginning of his ministry. In both scenes, Jesus asks a question, “What or whom are you looking for?” Then, for both the first disciples and Mary Magdalene, comes the naming of who Jesus is – Rabbi, Rabbouni, Teacher. But there is one very key difference between the two scenes. While Jesus issues the invitation “Come and see” in the beginning of the gospel, at the end Mary proclaims “I have seen.” It seems the perfect conclusion to the gospel story: Come and see has been transformed into I have seen.
If we look closely, though, we find that this scene in the garden isn’t really an end to the story at all. Instead, it is a beginning. Mary comes to the tomb in the beginning of the week. And, although John doesn’t tell us why Mary came to the tomb, we do know that Mary leaves with a new job, a new identity. Jesus tells her to “Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them….” She is sent to proclaim the risen Christ to the other followers of Jesus; in her encounter with Christ, she becomes the apostle to the apostles. This is the beginning of her new vocation.
It will be the same for the other disciples. That evening, Jesus will appear to the disciples who are hiding behind locked doors. Jesus will give them the gift of the Holy Spirit and say: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Later in the gospel of John, we will hear Jesus’ instructions to Peter: “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me.” In fact, it’s been said that all post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are commissioning narratives—they may come at the end of the gospel, but they all mark beginnings for those who have seen the risen Lord. Maybe the impulse to share the gospel is just an inevitable outcome of an encounter with the risen Christ; scripture seems to imply that nothing else can transform us this way – no mere logic or doctrines can.
After all, it’s not a belief in the general resurrection or even predictions Jesus made before his crucifixion that cause Mary to believe that Jesus is raised from the dead. It’s not even seeing the empty tomb that does it. When Mary sees the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, she believes someone has taken Jesus’ body. What makes a believer out of Mary is the experience of the risen Lord; it is the experience of relationship captured in that exchange of names: Mary! and Rabbouni! (As the gospel of John says, sheep recognize a shepherd because the shepherd calls the sheep by their name.) For most of the disciples, it will be Christ standing before them, addressing them, that brings home the truth of the resurrection. For Thomas it will be the experience of actually touching the crucifixion wounds that still mark the body of the risen Lord.
It’s interesting that – unlike what we find in the gospel of Luke and the follow-up volume of Acts, where the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples ten days after Jesus ascends into heaven – in the gospel of John, the risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples when he first appears to them. The Church is formed in the encounter with the risen Lord. When Jesus disappears the disciples find themselves in the same place, but like Alice in wonderland they are by no means the same people.
At the end of the day, it is not carefully argued logic or any set of doctrine, but our encounter with the risen Christ that transforms us, too, that marks a new beginning and forms us as the Church. It is our experience of the risen Christ that leads us not to merely talk about the empty tomb and the resurrection, but to say to the world, “Come and see!”
Today we encounter the risen Christ once again in the bread and the wine, in the faces of one another, in the gift of new beginnings. But we won’t stay in this moment. Easter is not a linear story but a circular one. The I have seen always leads back to the beginning, to the Come and see. And so this encounter today is also a commissioning. We are sent to bear witness to the living Christ who dwells just as surely outside these walls as inside them. We are sent to bear witness to resurrection and new life whenever and wherever we find it.
A baby’s first cry: Come and see. After years of estrangement, two siblings reconcile: Come and see. The first signs of spring appear on a red bud tree: Come and see. A child walks out of a bone marrow unit cancer-free: Come and see. A man with an incurable heart disease spends a glorious day surrounded by the laughter of family: Come and see. A prisoner is paroled to start a new life: Come and see. On the site where a home was destroyed by a tornado, the frame of a new home takes form: Come and see. A woman with depression gathers the courage to start another day: Come and see. Polio, which currently only exists among the poorest and most marginalized peoples in the world, is finally eradicated one day: Come and see. The first rays of sun breaks through a dark sky: Come and see. A God who brings life out of death and makes all things new: Come and see. Come and see.
 I am indebted to Sermon Brainwave podcast SB599 of Working Preacher for the idea that there are similarities between the calling of the first disciples in the gospel of John and the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1004.