On Easter, Jesus’ friends and disciples experienced something extraordinary. We weren’t there. We don’t know how Jesus presented himself, but it was very different than the way in which the disciples saw him before he died. His body was different. He didn’t look the same. They didn’t usually recognize him right away.
The writers of the Gospels knew that they had to tell the stories of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. They needed to let Jesus’ followers, (then and now), know that his spirit, and his actual presence, was still with them. It was the beginning of a new way of experiencing Jesus. We know his spirit is with us in our lives, in a way that is different than when he walked the earth. The Gospel writers needed to assure his followers then, and in the future, that he really is still here.
If someone were to tell us, out of the blue, that someone who died was alive again, we probably wouldn’t believe it. Thomas had spent three years following Jesus and living intensely with his closest friends, and he still didn’t believe it when ten of them told him that Jesus came back. If the Gospels just told us, ‘He rose again,’ ‘He came back to life,’ or ‘Jesus is alive,’ no one would believe it.
That’s one of the reasons that we have stories. We want to know; ‘How did he come back again? Who saw him? When? Where? How was it? What are the details?’ During these fifty days of Easter, we hear about the different appearances of Jesus, what he said and did, until finally he ascended to be joined fully with God. Then we don’t hear any more stories of him visiting the disciples.
The Easter season is the opposite of bad news. When we get bad news, it takes us awhile to absorb it. We need to come to grips with thinking differently about ourselves. I love that I have hearing aids. I can hear well during the times when I’m busy, and at night, when everything is quiet, I love to take them out. I like the feeling of not being responsible for anything. When I first saw the audiologist, she said, “Yes, you definitely need hearing aids.” I asked how the process worked. When would I get them?
She answered, “Take some time to think about it. Then when you decide that you’re ready to get them, give me a call and we’ll schedule a time to discuss your options.” I must have looked surprised, because she added, “A lot of people don’t want to think of themselves as needing hearing aids. It might take a while to get used to the idea.”
That is true of anything that changes how you think of yourself. Sometimes, it can be a small thing, and other times, it is huge. I might need bi or trifocals, or a joint replacement. Larger issues might be a diagnosis of mental illness, or a serious disease, or becoming a parent or grandparent. All of a sudden, part of your identity shifts. It might take a while to get used to it.
For the friends of Jesus, an enormous part of their identity had changed twice, in a very short time. After the Resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, the disciples said, “We had hoped he was the Messiah, and was going to save Israel….our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified.” (Lk. 24: 21,20) Then, two days later, he came back from the dead. It took some getting used to. No wonder Thomas didn’t accept it! It was a lot to absorb in a very short time. What did it mean? What did it mean about Jesus, or God, or Judaism? What did it mean about them? What did it mean about death? It changed everything.
Jesus was ok with that. He didn’t yell at Thomas, or put him down, but he accepted Thomas’ questions as part of the normalcy of life, part of humanity. It was ok. He wanted to take time to show Thomas that he was really still here.
We have several stories about Jesus appearing to his friends, and all of them are different. He appeared to Mary Magdalene right away, in the garden. Then the next day, in the evening, he appeared to the disciples gathered in the upper room. Since Thomas wasn’t there, he came back again eight days later. Meanwhile, a little after Easter, some of the disciples were walking down the road to Emmaus, and he joined them on the walk. They only recognized him at dinner, when he prayed before eating. Later, when some of the men were fishing, after catching nothing all night, he appeared to them on the beach and cooked breakfast for them.
Each of these stories plug in more details of what Jesus is like now. They answer questions his friends then might have had; that we might have. They filled in some of the gaps. Can you touch him? Is his body the same? Is it the same Jesus we know and love? Does he still say the same kind of things? Will he still teach us? How will we know what to do? How will we connect with God? Is he still with us?
Little by little, we see more and more. He didn’t want Mary to hold onto him, because she couldn’t hold onto the way things used to be. She had to give it up to embrace the way things are now, instead. Yes, he still teaches. Yes, he still leads. He eats, he prays, he loves, just like he used to, but his body is very different. He is the same Jesus, his Spirit is the same, even though his body is different now.
For the next several weeks, he continued to visit his friends. At the time John wrote this, most of the adults who knew Jesus while he walked the earth were dead. If a child was six when Jesus died, he or she would be in their early 70’s when John wrote this Gospel. Most of the Christian community alive then had never seen Jesus.
John wanted to assure everyone (including us) that we weren’t second rate. The disciples in this story saw him, and because of their sight, they believed. John was writing for people like us, who didn’t see him, but heard the stories. Jesus reassured them, and us, that hearing about him is just as good as seeing him. Our ears are as trustworthy as their eyes. As he said to Thomas, “You believed because you saw me, but blessed are those who have not seen, but yet have come to believe.” Amen.