The readings for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year B are here.
When Jesus came back from the land of the dead, the disciples thought that they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:36-48). Nothing – not even their years of direct experience of Jesus – had prepared them for the ultimate miracle, which was his resurrection, which was his life, his unquenchable, unburiable, unequalled life; the force of God somehow embodied by one made in God’s image; the glory of God somehow sufficiently muted that they could look upon him, and live.
After growing up knowing that Christ is alive, it is hard for us to fathom quite how mind-blowing, how truly inconceivable his appearance was to those disciples, who had fled the cross in fear, and denied any knowledge of Jesus to save their own sad selves from arrest alongside him.
Whatever Jesus had told them, however he had promised, they were not expecting resurrection.
Having grown up knowing that Christ is alive, we are just as numb to the astonishing reality that such a claim represents; we are just as disbelieving of the power of resurrection to surprise us; we are as dismissive of the Risen Christ standing among us as those first disciples. Like them, we know better. We know death when we see it, in the bombs of war, in our own families, in our own lives; and we are not sure that we expect God really to reverse its bite.
I have been haunted all week by that junior league hockey team bus crash that happened in Saskatchewan last weekend. The loss of life, and especially of such young life; the loss of health and happiness and the split-second upending of everything that a person, a family, a community thought that they had hold of – it is almost unimaginable.
There was more to the story. One of the young men who died was misidentified as another of his teammates who survived. I cannot read this story today without thinking of those parents, that family, who had resigned themselves to the devastation of death, only to be shocked by a new announcement of life. For the other family, of course, the news was cruel beyond belief.
The difficulty of recognizing even the most beloved in those moments that define life and death, build bridges between them, add to our sensitivity, our squeamishness in facing the realities of resurrection.
Peter, for one, was convinced. When he addressed his fellow Israelites at the temple a few weeks later; when he told them that as hard as they had tried to doubt and to deny, even to bury and to kill Jesus, that he was alive, that he had forgiven them, that he was for real, the real deal of God, dishing up mercy and dealing out grace, even in the face of death and denial, terror and torture, enmity and sin, he spoke out of his own experience (Acts 3:12-19). While Jesus had been to hell and back, Peter had been in his own abyss of grief, regret, shame, self-recrimination, doubt, and despair. Everything that he had invested his whole life in, left home for, risked ridicule over, had come crashing down, and his own courage had failed him, leaving his questioning his own heart, mind, and soul.
Then Jesus had returned, and offered him peace. Unbelievably, unexpectedly, undeservedly, unreservedly; looking like something dragged in from the gates of hell, with gaping wounds and wild eyes, Jesus, the one from the cross, had offered Peter the kiss of peace.
This was the enormity, the extremity that Peter was trying to describe, to convey to the crowds at the temple a few weeks later.
“You are in awe because of one little healing miracle,” Peter told them, “one life restored. You have no idea, you haven’t an inkling of what this Jesus is capable of. You do not even know how close he is to upending your entire way of life. You cannot imagine how he will love you, if only you will face his bruised body, risk a glimpse of the glory that you tried to leave buried in the grave.”
Jesus was at pains to demonstrate to his disciples that he was truly alive, and that he was truly himself. He knew that they could barely trust their own senses, and his own appearance was marred by the violence he had endured; his hands still bore the ragged marks of iron nails and his side the wound made post-mortem by the soldier’s spear. In this state, he invited the disciples to make sure that it was he, to test his humanity, and his identity.
It was not only Thomas who sought to quell doubts and fear by a direct and intimate encounter with Jesus. None of his disciples was immune to the terror that comes from wondering if God has, in fact, forsaken us; and none was immune to the terror of realizing that resurrection is not a reset, but a redemption; that resurrection may not be shiny, or tidy, or clean, but that it is real; that through Christ’s love, life is transformed, with all of its wounds, and scars, and memories, into something that is livable after all.
Inconceivable things happen every day: things of great wonder, like falling in love, like the birth of a new life, like a remission from suffering and disease; and things of great sorrow and bewildering pain, such as war, the death of a beloved one, or a dreaded diagnosis, like the realization of our own shame, guilt, denial, or a simple and profound loneliness.
What Jesus invites us to recognize, in his resurrection, in his love, in the peace and the power that he offers to Peter is that he is present throughout it all. He is present in those who advocate for peace and promote healing. He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, and he is with us on the mountaintop. He returns again and again to reassure us that resurrection is present even in the most twisted and swollen and stricken circumstances; that everything, everything, everything is able to be redeemed by the love of God who created us, and who wants nothing more than to embrace us as God’s beloved children.
“Little children,” writes John, “let no one deceive you” (1 John 3:7). If you think you are stuck in sin and trapped in lawlessness, Jesus has already set you free to do what is righteous in his name. If you think that you have seen it all, and know how much grace God has for you, you have seen nothing compared to what God still has left to reveal at our own resurrection. If you think that the world is so bewildering that nothing makes sense, Jesus has come patiently, so patiently to point out his hands, his feet, his broken body, his own spear-pierced heart, to tell us that he is with us, that he has redeemed all of it, that he is alive so that we might know what real life is. As hard as it is sometimes to see, Jesus’ resurrection appearance amongst his disciples, even among us today, is summed up in the lines of a hymn,
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render, O help us to see
’tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee![i]
[i] Immortal, invisible, God only wise, words by Walter C. Smith (1867)