Encountering the Risen Christ
We are in the Easter season, otherwise known as the Great Fifty Days, the greatest and most festive season of the Christian year. It’s in this season that we remember the accounts of Jesus’ appearance during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension and then the ten days of waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
It’s a time of hopes fulfilled, fears relieved, and doubts resolved; it’s the morning at the end of a long dark night. The raising of Christ from the dead is God’s “yes” to the world. The Apostle Paul said: “as many promises as God has made, they are all ‘yes’ in Christ.” In the resurrection, God decisively and once for all shows himself to be for and not against life. “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” the Psalmist exclaims. This is the joy that comes to the resurrected Jesus, and from him to us who believe in him.
In the gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day the resurrected Jesus greets his disciples. “Peace be with you.” This is the standard Jewish greeting, shalom aleichem, as I learned to use it during my tour in Israel earlier this year. But it communicates something far richer than an ordinary hello. In our language, the word “peace” most often means the absence of a conflict. But in the language of the Jewish people, it means not only this, but also justice, prosperity, wholeness and salvation. In sum, it comprehends a state of well-being and harmony in which the relationship between God and mankind is rightly ordered. Shalom. From the mouth of Jesus, we hear the true significance of the word. In fact, Jesus is the very embodiment of shalom. Recall what we noted on Good Friday. On the cross, the reconciliation of the world to God is achieved. The peace of God with God’s enemies has been made. In and with the presence of Jesus to his disciples on that evening are these realities too. Those realities are comprehended in his words to his disciples: Shalom aleichem. “Peace be with you.”
Then Jesus shows them his hands and his side. Of course, he is pointing to the scars left by the nails that fastened his hands to the cross and by the sword that the Roman soldier thrust into him after his death. Jesus does this for them so that they may be sure that it is really he, Jesus, who’s in their midst. When he appears again the following week, Jesus invites Thomas not only to see but also to touch his scars. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Jesus does all this for them, including Thomas, so that they may be confident that crucifixion really is not God’s last word, but resurrection, not death, but life. This is what they were to go out to tell the whole world.
But it is not the same for us as it was for the disciples. We do not have the privilege of having Christ appear to us. For this reason, you may say to me: “if Christ appeared to me as he did to his disciples, I would be transformed. I would rise above the circumstances that drag me down. I would overcome in the power of the resurrected Christ.” To be sure, it is clear that he is not present to us as he was to is own disciples on that day.
But earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them as orphans, but would give them the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit he would be with them. After Jesus’ ascension, this would apply no less to the disciples as it applies to us. The Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 47, puts this forcefully: “in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit, Jesus is not absent from us for a moment.”
The Spirit would also take from what is Jesus and give it freely to them. The Spirit would teach them all things and remind them of everything that Jesus told them while he with them. That is what enables them to go out and preach and declare the forgiveness of sins in his name.
Let us pause for a moment to process what our lessons have to say to us today. In the Easter season, the witness of the apostles is to something new. The world has changed as a result of the resurrection of Jesus. Human lives can change through repentance and the forgiveness of sins as a result of this event. In the upcoming weeks, we will see how this was so for the first disciples and for the people to whom they ministered. But how is it so for us today?
To explore this question, I invite you to reframe the scene as it is portrayed in our gospel lesson. Let me suggest that the lesson relates to what we do on a typical Sunday morning. I refer here to worship. To guide us in this exploration, I want to address first the time of worship, and then what we do during this time.
John mentions the first day of the week at the beginning of both scenes, the one with the disciples and then the other with the disciples and Thomas. That is, he tells us that Jesus appears to his disciples at their Sunday meetings. Why on Sunday? It’s the day of resurrection. From the earliest times, Christians assembled on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. John stresses this no doubt to encourage commitment to meeting weekly. It is part of what is involved in “abiding in” or “making one’s home with,” the Risen Christ.
We meet together on Sunday to worship. While “meeting together” may assume another sense when we are online, it’s nevertheless on Sunday. To worship we should come with the expectation that we will encounter the risen Christ. This is not to suggest that we cannot encounter him on any other day of the week. But it is clear that the risen Christ wants to be present among his gathered people on Sunday.
This brings us to what we do during this time. The New Testament scholar C. K. Barret suggests that our lesson may be liturgical in origin. The disciples gather on Sunday. The passing of the peace is shared. The word of forgiveness is pronounced. Christ himself is present as he speaks to them. He is confessed as Lord and God. And they are sent out into the world.
Sound familiar? It is similar to what we do. We meet the Risen Christ in the Scriptures read and proclaimed. We then confess him as the One he is in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. In this event Christ gives joy to our hearts, he calms our fears, he relieves our doubts, just as he did on the first Resurrection evening recounted in our lesson. Feeble arms and weak knees are strengthened. What is lame is no longer out of joint but healed. And so we are sent out, to be his witnesses in the world, knowing that he is with us, not absent from us for a moment.
Consider how badly we need this worship today! Christ sends us out into a world that is reeling in fear. The corona virus has upended life as we have known it. People have lost much of their retirement savings, their jobs, and even their loved ones. The whole world seems to lie under the shadow of death. But Christ sends us out into this world to be his witnesses. How would we not succumb to this same fear apart from an encounter with the Risen Christ in worship? In worship he gives joy to our hearts, calms our fears, and relieves our doubts. This is what we have to give to the world.
If we think our world is too scary a place today, then we ought to consider the world into which Jesus sent the first disciples. It was a world of political corruption, civil unrest, foreign occupation, domestic terrorism, and economic scarcity. This is the world that Jesus has overcome then and overcomes now. That of course does not exempt us from suffering. But God is sovereign even over the suffering the world can inflict. First Peter tells us that God uses suffering to test and refine our faith, so that it may result in the praise and honor and glory when Jesus Christ is revealed. So then in worship we come to see the world and its sufferings as God wants us to see it, in the light of Christ, and our vision is changed.
In this regard, we need to beware. We do not live in a world that supports our faith. We cannot count on the world to reinforce our vision. What we come to see in our worship becomes obscured if we do not return to look again and again. Let us not neglect meeting together, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.
Let us remember then the significance of this day, Sunday, the day on which God raised Jesus from the dead. Let us remember that we can know and experience this resurrection of Jesus, not only during the Great Fifty Days, when it constitutes the theme of our meditation and thanksgiving, but on each Sunday that we meet together for worship. Let us look forward to Sunday, and meet together for worship as often as we are able. We encounter the risen Christ in our worship. And we go out in the power of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ and be witnesses to what this Christ can and does do in the lives of men and women. Amen.