By Laura Stephens-Reed
The honesty and vulnerability of John 20:19-31 are the reasons why this passage is, hands down, my favorite in the Bible.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a disciple on that first Easter evening? In John, two of the Twelve have seen the empty tomb and believed, but it still hasn’t clicked for them how the events of the past few days were the inevitable fulfillment of scripture. Only Mary Magdalene has laid eyes on and had time to chat up the risen Christ.
While she shares her encounter with the disciples and gives them Jesus’ message that he is returning from whence he came, a second-hand account – by a woman, no less! – is little consolation.
Jesus’ followers are physically and emotionally exhausted, and not just from the celebration of the Passover and the following downward spiral of betrayal and death. It will take time to recover from their many months of couch surfing and evangelizing anyone who would listen. They are just embarking on the stages of grief over the loss of a charismatic leader – that one person who saw the best in them, invited them away from their work-a-day lives, spouted holy wisdom with authenticity and ease, and healed the hapless and the hopeless.
The disciples are deeply disappointed in themselves for their denial and desertion of a man who was always there for them. They are unsure about what to do next. Pick back up the fishing nets and accounting logs? Hide out with the friends who have shared the same intense experiences? Wait for that inevitable knock on the door, with authorities demanding answers – if not more – on the other side? And so, they lock, bolt, and chain the door of their meeting room while they figure it all out, and push some heavy furniture up against it for good measure.
It is in this swirling stew of woundedness that Jesus appears in their midst. Not “Pantene Jesus.” You may be familiar with the picture that is on the wall somewhere in most churches, in which Jesus has shiny, well-styled hair and has just had a facial. No, this is our crucified Lord, who bears the marks of torture in his hands and feet and side, and probably on his scalp and back.
In fact, that is how his disciples recognize him. The disciples jump up with overjoyed cries of “Jesus!” and give him bear hugs only after Jesus shows them his scars. When the initial wave of incredulous, delirious happiness passes, Jesus offers a precious present: peace, accompanied by a Holy Spirit that can give a courage booster when needed. And then, when the disciples are fully equipped, Jesus commissions them to use their new tools in the service of gospel-sharing and relationship-building. Because, honestly, what better way is there to get hurting people back on track than to give them a task that turns their focus outward?
Jesus comes to us in many ways – most of them much less obvious than a bloody hand shoved in our faces. He appears in a well-timed word of encouragement, a doctor who prays for her patients, a personal invitation to participate, an inspired idea, an offer of help, an unexpected break, sage advice, a good opportunity, a new medication.
Interestingly – but not coincidentally – all of these things turn us toward one another.
Jesus’ first post-resurrection visit renews the bond and the corporate resolve of the disciples. When each is trying to figure out his next step, Jesus makes sure they understand their communal job continues, and he gives them what they need to carry it out. To whom, as the season of Easter continues, is Jesus trying to direct your attention, and what tools is he offering you to move in that direction?
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.