Jesus wished them peace in their terror

This Sunday the lectionary invites us to ponder verses 12-31 from chapter 20 of the gospel of John. The English Standard version splits the passage into three parts and supplies the headings: (1) Jesus Appears to the Disciples; (2) Jesus and Thomas; and (3) The Purpose of this Book.

We learn that after Jesus was crucified, the disciples were afraid of the Jews. So afraid that they locked themselves up in a room.

John doesn’t say why, but we can imagine why: they were associates of Jesus. Jesus, who’d just been condemned to die because “the Jews” had insisted with Pontius Pilate that Jesus was an insurrectionist; a claimant to the throne; a claimant to power over the people. A threat to the government.

The Jewish and Roman leaders had given to Jesus the same status the British and Malayan rulers gave to Chin Peng, the Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party, in 1948. They were insurrectionists. Insurrectionists deserve death. The associates of insurrectionists deserve death.

In the passage, John tells us Jesus appeared among the disciples without going through the locked door.

He said to them “peace be with you.” This was a general greeting; one they used every day. But it’s also a special greeting: he wishes them peace in their fear, their terror.

He did more. He showed them his hands and his side.

John doesn’t tell us what we itch to know. How did he show them his side? What was he wearing? Did he lift up his tunic? Were women and children present?

And his hands and side; were they still bloody?

We know what was on his hands and side can’t’ve been scars, can’t’ve been healed wounds, closed wounds. Because he invited Thomas to put his hand into his side.[1] If he had a scarred body, what will our bodies be like when we meet him one day? What will we look like?

It’s all very unsatisfactory for 21st century readers like us. But John didn’t write to satisfy our curiosity.

John tells us Jesus said to Thomas to check out the evidence – by sticking his hand into his side. And to draw a conclusion.

And what’s the conclusion? The conclusion is, Thomas moves from unbelief in the resurrection reports, to belief. To belief that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead. Been resurrected.

John’s point is that Jesus knew Thomas had said he needed more proof before he believed the reports of his resurrection from the dead. Jesus understood. And Jesus made special provision for him.

John’s telling us that Jesus had perfect knowledge. And that he, therefore, made special provision for Thomas, whom he loved. John’s telling us that Jesus loves each one of us, has perfect knowledge about each one of us, and makes special provision for each one of us.

I now return briefly to our questions about Jesus’ body.

What was Jesus’ body like after the resurrection? What’s his body like today?

There’s a bit more “evidence” about Jesus’ body.

In verse 14, John tells us that Mary Magdalene, whom we know was a long-term follower of Jesus, didn’t recognize him when he appeared to her outside the tomb. The tomb she knew he’d been laid in.

She didn’t even recognize his voice. Because after he spoke, she thought he might’ve been the gardener.[2] It was only when he called her by her name that she knew it was Jesus.

In the same conversation, Jesus said to Mary that she must not cling to him, “for [he’d] not yet ascended to the father.”[3] He told her that he was going to “ascend” to his Father, and then, go to his disciples.

So, he met Mary before he returned to his Father, and he met the disciples after he returned to his Father. This perhaps explains why he first told Mary not to touch him, but later invited Thomas to touch him. What changed? We’re not told. We can only speculate. I’ll leave that to you.

The fact remains. We still don’t know what Jesus’ body looks like, what he sounds like, now. In the opinion of the writers of the New Testament, all we need to know is that we’ll know him when he shows himself to us. And he may show himself to us in the form of a stranger – as he did to two of the twelve on the Emmaus Road, which you can read about in Luke 24:13.

Another puzzle is that John tells us Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”[4]

Yet these are the same disciples whom he’d sent out earlier to heal and to cast out evil spirits,[5] presumably sometimes by forgiving sins.[6]

It seems they do those works before his resurrection without the Holy Spirt, but after his resurrection, only with the Holy Spirit. And what about Pentecost? Did the disciples receive the Spirit before others did?

That’s another set of questions for which we don’t have answers.

As I said before in my column The Fish, the Water and the Resurrection, the purpose of the writings is not accuracy and total agreement between witnesses. The purpose is to convey important information through storytelling.

Professor Robert Lightfoot, who lived from 1883-1953, and taught theology in Oxford university, summed up John’s gospel and today’s passage perfectly. He wrote:

The sending of the Son into the world by the Father has been repeatedly emphasized in this gospel; and now that, with the completion of the Son’s work, the hour of the dispensation of the Spirit has come[7].

He in turn[8] sends His disciples[9].

As He has represented the Father in the world, so they are to represent their Lord, whose peace[10] and joy[11] are now therefore theirs.

And just as God breathed into Adam the breath of life and he became a living being,[12] so the Lord now breathes on the disciples, and they receive the ‘new creation’.

and finally, as the recipients of the Spirit, they are endowed with His prerogative to grant or to withhold the forgiveness of sins[13].

I’ll summarize that for you: Jesus was sent. He came. He represented God. He completed his work. He returned. He renews and equips us. He sends us. We must represent Him. We must complete his work. We must speak about sin, forgiveness, healing, repentance, and new birth.

That’s what we’re supposed to do: be Jesus’ ambassadors.

Many people – seemingly whole races or ethnic groups of people – won’t welcome us and our message. They’d rather shame and kill those like Jesus who speak about sin, forgiveness, healing, repentance, and new birth. People who disturb their beliefs, their loves, their goals.

As ambassadors, we’ll face terrors daily. And daily, we’ll hear Jesus saying, “Peace be with you.”

Peace be with you.

[1] Verse 27.

[2] Verse 15.

[3] Verse 17.

[4] Verse 22-23.

[5] Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9,

[6] As Jesus often did. See for example, Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:18-26; 7:48.

[7] contrast 7:39.

[8] John 20:21.

[9] cf. John 17:18.

[10] John 20:19,21; cf. 14:27, 16:33.

[11] John 20:20; cf. 15:11, 16:20-24, 17:13.

[12] Gen. 2:7.

[13] cf. Matthew. 9:6.

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