Coming to know the Risen One

The high priest slept well that Friday night. The streets and squares of Jerusalem were quiet again after the daily disruptions this Jesus had brought to the city and the temple. Now he was dead and buried. Friday was what the high priest would have called a peaceful night and he slept well again on Saturday. The Romans had taken care of Jesus, and hopefully his followers had gotten the message and were on their way back to Galilee. The unrest this man had created in the city – it could have become a major crisis, especially during the holidays. Any kind of disturbance bothered Rome – but now things were under control. The high priest was proud of himself – he had nipped the problem in the bud. He was done with Jesus, done with civil unrest and excited crowds; Jerusalem was quiet again. The holy temple would once again be a place for orderly worship, with wise leaders in place to protect and preserve the sacred tradition. The high priest slept well – until Sunday.

On the first day of the week the first reports of rumors began to trickle in, disturbing rumors. A handful of men and women, followers, no doubt, of this Jesus, were making claims that they had seen Jesus, that he was alive because God had raised him from the dead. Very soon, he heard reports that Peter and John were in the temple just about every day, teaching and healing, and attracting large crowds. People came not just from the city but even from the surrounding towns, bringing the sick and those tormented by demons, and the buzz was the followers of Jesus were healing them. “Hello, insomnia,” the high-priest sighed, “Rome will not be pleased.”

In the book of Acts, Luke paints a portrait of the church as a movement of fearless witnesses whose presence and work bring wholeness and hope to the city; but what is exciting news to some, is disruptive and disturbing to others. No wonder, the high priest was nervous; institutions and the people they empower want stability more than anything, which means that any change must occur only on their terms and under their control. The followers of Jesus didn’t meet those requirements; like their master, they acted with a different kind of authority. Soon the chief priests, elders, and scribes – the entire temple leadership – assembled to discuss the matter: “What will we do with them?” They called in Peter and John, ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, and released them. Peter and John in turn met with the other disciples and talked about what had happened at the council meeting. They prayed, “Lord, look at their threats, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” They prayed for courage to speak and act in the name of Jesus, and their prayers were answered. Their boldness gave the high priest a headache, and after yet another sleepless night he took action. This Jesus thing had to stop, whatever the cost. And so he had the apostles arrested and shut up in prison. He slept a little better that night. But while he was dreaming of taking back control of the temple and the city, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and the apostles walked out. Before the sun was up, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection was again being proclaimed in the temple and in the streets of Jerusalem.

Again the high priest had the apostles brought in and stand before the council for questioning. “We gave you strict orders, didn’t we, not to teach in this name. Why have you defied the express directive of this council to desist this preaching?” Peter and the apostles answered with disarming simplicity, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

It was human authority that killed Jesus to silence him. It was human authority that resisted his authority to teach and forgive. It was human authority that accused him and found him guilty, convicted and executed him. It was human authority that did all it could to put an end to Jesus. But God raised him up. God exalted him that he might continue to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things. You want to forbid us to witness? You might as well forbid us to breathe, or tell the wind to cease to blow! This is who we are, now that Jesus is risen from the dead, and this is what we do. His life is our life.

Who would have thought that one day Peter would speak like that? Who would have thought that frightened disciples would have the courage to take a stand like that? Who would have thought that they would look human authority in the eye and defy it with such bold grace? Who would have thought they could be so free?

In the Gospel according to John we see a very different snapshot of the early church. We are looking at a terrified little band, huddled in a dark room with a chair braced against the door. The air is thick with fear, and nobody says anything. Yes, there was the word the women had brought back from the tomb, but what are words against the grip of fear? What are words against the reasonable expectation that they, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth would be next in line to be convicted and executed by the city’s religious and civil authorities? The first day of the new creation has dawned with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but the disciples are still sitting in Friday darkness with little hope and little courage. The gospel makes it very clear: this is a community that will have only one thing going for it – the risen Christ himself.

And then Jesus enters the scene with words of peace, and their fear falls away and joy take its place. This is how the resurrection stops being a word and begins to become the reality in which we dare to live. It’s a glimpse of the living Christ or a whisper. It doesn’t necessarily happen all at once, but sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, much like love happens. Much like the first disciples encountered the crucified Jesus alive among them and were transformed by his presence and his gifts.

The difference between Peter who denied three times that he knew Jesus and Peter who declared, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” the difference is Peter’s encounter with the living Christ and his peace, his forgiveness, and his mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” the living Christ says to us as he said to the first disciples. And he breathed on them as he breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The difference between a frightened group of men and women hiding behind locked doors and the same men and women fearlessly proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the difference is the Holy Spirit. The difference is our relationship with the Living One, a relationship so intimate that we breathe in what he breathes out.

He made our life his own – the promises we make and break, the ways in which we betray, deny and abandon each other – he made our life his own, so that his life would be ours. His life of obedience and faithfulness is for us and for all, and we begin to live in it. His compassion is for us and for all, and we continue to live in it, resisting the pull of fear. His life is for us and for all of creation, and we share it with all.

This is what we do now that Jesus is risen from the dead and this is who we are. We are his and we live the life he gives. We discover who we are meant to be in our relationship with him. Thomas was not with them that night when Jesus came, John tells us. Thomas missed the whole thing; he was a latecomer like all of us. I don’t know if the Apostle Thomas is the patron saint of all who weren’t there, but I suggest we think of him that way. He takes our place in the story, and perhaps he is named the Twin, because he is our twin; his experience is so much like ours: he wasn’t there, but he wasn’t satisfied with second-hand reports. He needed to see for himself, he needed to get close enough to touch. He didn’t take anyone’s word for what God had done, but waited for God to act and for the Risen One to make himself known to him. And Thomas, the one who didn’t want to settle for repeating the words of others but held out for an experience of the Risen One on his own terms, this Thomas made a confession of faith unlike any other in the gospels when he encountered the living Christ: my Lord and my God.

We are reading the words of witnesses and they themselves tell us to be patient with our questions and our hunger for certainty. Much of the time, our faith will be a mix of belief and disbelief, a back and forth between clarity of vision and stumbling in the dark, moments of speaking with great confidence and moments of knowing deep in our bones things for which we have no words. The witnesses encourage us to be patient with our questions and our hunger for certainty; they encourage us to come and see. They invite us to let ourselves be drawn into the life we can only know by entering it.

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