The Unlikely Messenger (John 20:1–18)

Read John 20:1–18.

Any serious Johnny Cash fan knows the famous line from “Folsom Prison Blues” where Cash, singing as though he himself were locked up behind Folsom’s cold gray walls, claims to have shot a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” It’s hard to imagine a deed more evil. Thankfully, it’s entirely made up. Cash never killed anyone, and he never spent time in prison. The closest he ever came was an occasional night in jail. All the same, the line helped to cement his image as an outlaw of country music.

Years after first recording the tune, Cash had the opportunity to perform it live before the inmates of Folsom, an event captured for all time on his acclaimed 1968 album At Folsom Prison. Sadly, when he comes to that evil line, you can hear the audience of felons—many of whom were murderers, rapists, and thieves—erupt in shouts of jubilation.

Hearing that record over the years, I always assumed the hearts of those men had been so scarred by their sin that they relished in evil for evil’s sake. Or perhaps it was a defense mechanism. The world assumed the worst of them, so they played the part to keep others at a distance. Whatever the reason for the cheering, I still find that moment on the record unsettling.

For me, the standout track on the album has always been “Greystone Chapel,” a decidedly more hopeful song about finding freedom in Christ while in prison. That song wasn’t written by Cash but was instead penned by an inmate at Folsom named Glen Sherley.  While serving time for armed robbery, Sherley recorded a demo of the song and smuggled it out of Folsom in an attempt to get it into the hands of Johnny Cash. Cash loved what he heard and learned to play the song the night before his recording at the prison. He performed it on stage as the tape rolled—with Glen Sherley seated on the front row.

I bring this up because the applause in that can be heard after the line about killing a man in Reno during “Folsom Prison Blues” were actually given in appreciation of Glen Sherley. After Cash finished his performance of “Greystone Chapel,” he reached down from the stage and shook Sherley’s hand. That’s when the crowd of convicted felons hooted and hollered. But a creative editor at the record label decided to move that beautiful response so that it followed the murder line.*

What is it, deep inside, that tempts us to tweak things ever so slightly to find favor with our audience? We do it whenever we recount an anecdote and leave out embarrassing details. We do it whenever we smooth out certain aspects of our résumé. And we do it whenever we avoid saying what we really think about some theological or political concern. Worst of all, because we recognize this tendency to self-edit in ourselves, we expect it of others. We’ve learned to listen carefully, to read between the lines, and to be suspicious of any tale that sounds too good to be true.

This is, in fact, how many people approach the New Testament. They imagine that the resurrection of Jesus is just too good to be true—that the earliest disciples of Jesus made it up to win favor with their audience. But John 20 should dispel any such notion.

If there had been some diabolical plot in the ancient world to concoct the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there’s simply no way the masterminds behind such a deception would have made the first eyewitness to the resurrection a woman—and certainly not one who had been tormented by demons in her past.

In first-century Judea, a woman’s testimony did not weigh as heavily as a man’s. Women, it was believed, were more prone to delusions. They were easily fooled and unreliable. And yet, in the gospel of John, it is Mary Magdalene who is the first to meet the risen Jesus.

This is the same Mary Magdalene who was once possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2), an ordeal that would have left her an outcast in her community. But Jesus delivered her and made her whole. She owed Him everything, and her devotion to Him appears to have been unwavering. While the male disciples of Jesus all fled and hid when He was arrested, Mary followed her Savior to the hill where He died. She would not leave Him alone in His anguish. And so it is, on Sunday morning, that Mary approaches the garden tomb to anoint the body of her Lord.

To her surprise, she sees that the large stone meant to block the cave’s opening has been rolled away. Quickly, she runs to find Peter and another disciple. She reports what she’s found, and the two disciples take off running toward the tomb. It’s just as she told them: the stone has been rolled away. More unnerving than that, when the disciples look inside, they discover Jesus’ body is missing!

After Peter and the other disciple have left the garden, Mary lingers, grief-stricken. Looking inside the open tomb through tears, she sees two figures in dazzling white, seated where Jesus’ body once lay. They are angels from the heavenly realm. They ask, “Woman, why are you crying?” (v. 13).

She explains that someone has taken the body of her Lord away, but before she can say more, she turns around to see another stranger—the gardener, she presumes. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him” (v. 15).

But this is no gardener. He is the one who created the original garden. He is the one who created the plants and rocks and dirt and everything that ever was, is, or will be—including Mary herself. He is the Word made flesh, crucified, buried, and risen again.

“Mary,” He says. At the sound of her own name on the lips of her Savior, she knows the truth: Jesus is alive and well and standing before her. He is the one who pulled her up from the depths of demonic possession and delivered her to the height of future glory as a daughter of God. She is beyond overjoyed to see Him.

Mary can’t exult in the presence of her Master for too long. He has a job for her: “Go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (v. 17 NLT). Mary is commissioned as the world’s first Christian evangelist—the first person charged with telling others Jesus is alive.

People in the ancient world were not stupid. They knew there was no coming back from death. So while the good news is true, it’s also fantastical. It’s the sort of message that has the power to challenge everything a person believes about this present reality and the age to come. And so, it seems fitting that in the wisdom of God it was first entrusted to someone the authorities of the day had deemed untrustworthy.

Lest we prove ourselves to be as foolish as our ancient counterparts, we would do well to remember that many of the things we take for granted in this world are nonsense in God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus is still alive, and it still makes all the difference.


* Danny Robbins, “Frankenstein,” December 13, 2018, in Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album, podcast, 32:00, https://www.audible.com/pd/Ep-5-Frankenstein-Podcast/B08DFPJWWT?ref=a_pd_Folsom_c0_lAsin_0_4&pf_rd_p=1da7ab30-c785-4a0e-a160-4a7e7077b353&pf_rd_r=JZTYKBNH7M7YZV1Y1DMY.


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