Second Sunday of Easter (C)
Sunday, April 11, 2010
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are among the most familiar stories in Scripture to many church goers. After all, even for those who attend only on Christmas and Easter, these are the narratives they hear more than any others! While the accounts vary somewhat from one gospel to another, they are alike in developmental sequence: fear and sorrow over the death of Jesus are transformed into joy by an encounter with the risen Christ. A confession of faith on the part of the witness is evidence of the transformation. Often there is a commission given by the Savior. Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the One she supposed was the gardener, the road to Emmaus narrative, the story of the women at the tomb, Jesus’ appearance by the Sea of Galilee, and the story about doubting Thomas all follow this pattern. It is not surprising if the familiarity blinds us to significant details.
For example, while the gospel reading for today conforms to the transformation sequence of other post resurrection appearances, the order in which John gives the details is peculiar. The disciples were in the upper room. They were afraid. Jesus appeared in their midst and said, “Peace.” John doesn’t record any reaction on the part of the disciples at this point. It is only after they see our Lord’s hands and feet that “they were glad when they saw the Lord.” Reading further in the chapter, the same strange detail is found in the next theophany. Thomas was unbelieving (and therefore, we may assume, still sorrowing over the Master’s death) when Jesus appeared and said, “Peace.” After Jesus showed His wounds, Thomas’ doubt turned to faith and, presumably, joy. What can be the connection between the wounds of crucifixion and human gladness?
The disciples weren’t sadists. Nothing in Scripture suggests they were delighted to see the Messiah betrayed, condemned and tortured. We might expect that seeing the tokens of Jesus’ passion would fill them with shame. His hands and side would remind them of the horror of what happened. It would fill them with the memory of their denials, abandonment and impotence. None of these would evoke joy and faith. Did the gospel writers accidentally get the details of the story out of sequence?
I don’t think so. You see, the wounds were not all they perceived. As they looked at the marks of crucifixion, they heard the Redeemer’s voice speak words of reconciliation, “Peace be to you.” His presence told them He was alive, not dead, and that He had come because He loved them still. Biographers of Martin Luther tell of the Reformer kneeling before a crucifix in his chapel on one occasion. Tears of rapture rolled down Luther’s face as he looked upon the suffering Christ and cried out, “For me! For me!” The wounds were for him a dramatic demonstration of how much Jesus loved him. Like a ring in a wedding ceremony, the wounds are a sign of the self giving love that seeks expression in an undying, covenant relationship.
In a similar way, my pastor used to talk about his trip to the Holy Land and what happened when he visited the site believed to be Calvary. Overwhelmed by a sense of Holy Presence, he looked up and prayed, “Lord, if You did this for me, You shouldn’t have. I’m not worth it.” God answered him, “You’re worth it to Me, Norman.” The pastor said it was the most powerful experience of God’s love he had ever known, and it changed his ministry permanently.
The One who knows us better than we know ourselves, who is aware of every betrayal and denial and failure in our lives, nevertheless comes to us in our need and offers peace and reconciliation. As Isaac Watts wrote:
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
We are blessed if, unlike Thomas, we who have not seen the actual wounds of our Lord nevertheless receive the love of Christ that relentlessly seeks us out and would reconcile us to Him. To awaken to that love is to recognize what Christ’s suffering and resurrection won for us and to rejoice. Once we know that joy, our Lord equips us by the Holy Spirit and sends us to share the good news of reconciliation with others. It is indeed a strange kind of happiness by the world’s standards, but it is ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.