This week’s post-Easter reflection on John 20.19-31 is offered by Revd Viv Larkin. Viv is a retired Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia (an amalgamation of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches), who is currently living in Mallorca, where she and her husband are ministers of the word in the Anglican chaplaincy on the island, under the Ecumenical Canons of the Church of England.
The experience of the resurrected Christ may not be as instantly transformative as we’ve often thought, but those who seek Christ’s self-revelation will grow into his mission.
Conventional wisdom says that the Resurrection and Pentecost experiences were so profound and overwhelming that they transformed a group of frightened and disillusioned disciples instantly into a fired-up bunch of fearless witnesses. The experience was so undeniable that their lives were instantly turned upside down. There is no doubt that their lives were turned upside down, but was it really as sudden as we have usually assumed, or does it just seem that way because we are reading an edited summary of the highlights?
There are some things in the gospel accounts that give cause for some doubts about this. And the doubts themselves may prove quite helpful and inspiring because they make the first experiences of the resurrected Christ sound a lot more like our experiences of the resurrected Christ.
On the evening of the day of resurrection, the disciples are locked away behind closed doors when suddenly Jesus appears among them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says and then shows them his nail scarred hands.
Then he breathes on them and says, ‘Receive Holy Spirit.’ This is John’s account of Pentecost. It’s quite different from Luke’s because John doesn’t separate the experiences of Resurrection and Pentecost. In John when you encounter the risen Christ you receive his Holy Spirit. Jesus breathes Holy Spirit into them and commissions them as the continuers of his mission.
But what happens next? Jesus disappears for a week, and when he next appears, where are they? Locked in the same room again! The community that received the Holy Spirit and was commissioned to take on the world is still locked in the same room. And they’ve only grown by one – Thomas has turned up! And what’s more, their experience of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit hasn’t even changed them enough to convince Thomas, so the mission of being witnesses to the world is looking to be in shaky hands.
Thomas meets the resurrected Jesus: from La Vie de Jesus Mafa – a depiction of the life of Christ from the perspective of Christians in Cameroon.
If you are still unclear in your own mind about whether or not you have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, join the club. You’re in good company, for it seems that for most followers of Jesus, and even for these foundational few, the experience of Christ didn’t suddenly wipe out all the doubts and fears of their pasts and turn them into unstoppable world changers.
Even though quite a few of us could name the time and place when we were converted, others of us can’t, and none of us found that everything about our life was utterly transformed on the spot. It was the turning point, from which faith and hope and love began to take root and grow. Like the first disciples, we may well have still been huddled behind the locked doors of our fear and doubt a week later. But within a few years those few had carried the news to the ends of the known earth, and we are not the same people we were either.
As we continue to seek the risen Christ — in prayer, and in hearing the word and sharing around the table, and in serving the broken and needy among whom he was and is so often found — our faith and confidence continues to be nourished by the earth-shattering and yet strange and indefinable encounters with this one who lives and yet who remains both ever-present and ever-elusive.
As Thomas experienced, Jesus comes to us in our fears and responds to our doubts and touches us where we need to be touched so that we might have the faith and courage to take the next step. And just as happened for Thomas, the conversion of our lives leads us into the mission of transforming the world, for we too, with all the uncertainty and ambiguity of our experience of the risen Christ, are the ones to whom he gives his Holy Spirit and leads us into healing, reconciliation and mission.
In the name of Christ. Amen.