John 20:19-31

What do you say after the resurrection?

The gospel writers each spend a large chunk of their work on the days leading up to the death of Jesus, to the crucifixion itself, and to the events of Easter Sunday, the miracle when death ran backwards and Jesus was alive and with them again.

By contrast, Matthew devotes just 5 verses to Jesus’ appearances after that first day; Mark has half a chapter; Luke has the story of the Emmaus road, and then Jesus appearing to all the disciples and eating fish to prove he wasn’t a ghost; John gives us most, with the story of Thomas, breakfast on the beach, and the restoration of Peter.

It’s as if the writers are struggling; struggling to put into words just what has happened, struggling to make sense of the descriptions passed on to them by those who were there. You get some sense of this struggle in the way the appearances of Jesus are described: the writers stress the very physical nature of the resurrected one – he eats, cooks, shows his wounds – but at the same time he seems to come and go at will, to be unrecognisable at one moment and clearly himself at another.

There’s a sense here that something has changed in the resurrection; Jesus is back with them, still Jesus, but somehow different. Somehow more than he was before. More like an inhabitant of the heavenly realms walking the earth.

One of my favourite images in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia comes in the final chapters of the last book, in which we find ourselves in Lewis’ description of heaven, a place which was so rich and full of life that both our world and Narnia seemed like just an echo of the true reality from which those other realities drew their shape, like the shadows in the wall of Plato’s cave.

I feel, reading the gospel accounts of the risen Jesus, like we are reading words written by those who have not seen that deeper reality, but have recognised their experience of reality – our experience of reality – for what it is: the shadow, the echo, the prelude.

In the risen Jesus they have seen a glimpse of what creation is supposed to be, and they are trying to describe it: but they are trying to write about something they only have seen and understood a fraction of to others, who have not even seen that. They are trying to describe music to the deaf when they have only heard one brief melody.

No wonder it is John, the poet amongst the gospel writers, who gives us the most.

But there is one thing that all four of the gospel writers include in their description, a theme that runs through all four tellings of the story. And that is Jesus commissioning his disciples. This concept, this idea, that the risen Jesus gave his disciples a task to do, commissioned them to a work, lies at the heart of all that came after.

As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.

Track back to Good Friday, and Easter Saturday. To the sense of despair and despondency that must surely have filled all of Jesus’ friends and followers. The sense that it wasn’t meant to end like this. That Jesus had not done what he set out to do.

For the whole of his ministry, Jesus had been speaking of the Reign of God. His parables pictured it, his miracles enacted it, his teaching described it. He had spoken of this reign so constantly, so eloquently, to a people who were longing for freedom from the oppression of Rome. On Palm Sunday the people had cried out for it, for the king who would set them free. But it didn’t happen.

The sense of incompleteness, the sense that Jesus had not done all that he had come to do, had its basis in the truth – the job was not yet done. But that wasn’t because something had gone wrong, it wasn’t as if the death of Jesus had somehow thrown a spanner into the works of the kingdom. On the contrary, embracing death and coming out the other side was all part of the plan – for the reconciliation of all things, the bringing back together of God and humanity and all creation in the person of Jesus involved his embracing every part of humanity – even death.

No, it wasn’t that something had gone wrong – it was just that the plan, the kingdom, was so much bigger than the first friends of Jesus had ever imagined. Bigger than could be achieved by one man in one time and one place – for these were plans for the whole of creation, the whole of time. Not just in that place back then, the kingdom of God was to be in all places, and for all of time. The oppression to be overthrown wasn’t that of the Roman army; the oppression to be overthrown was that of a broken world, of the injustice of all human systems and the selfishness of every human heart. And the cure was not the overthrow of an empire, as Jesus greeted his friends, each time in our gospel today, “Peace be with you”.

Now bringing peace, of course, was one of the boasts of the Empire. And the Pax Romana was, in its way, a remarkable achievement – two centuries of relative peace and order encompassing a third of the population of the world

But, as the Hebrew people knew all too well, it was peace through force, through the imposition of order and the violent suppression of anything that challenged that order. It was peace through superior firepower; and a peace that comes by the sword will always eventually fall to the sword.

The book The Horse Whisperer – and the movie of the same name – portrays a contrast in the training of horses between the wild west approach of ‘breaking’ a horse – breaking its will an imposing your own upon it – and training by ‘whispering’; gradually developing a relationship between horse and rider. We see similar contrasts in the change in our attitude to children over the years, perhaps most obviously in the shifting attitudes to discipline in schools, from control by the imposition of punishment to, or at least, towards, the fostering of a culture of mutual respect and cooperation.

True peace, lasting peace, can never come from force, from one person or group imposing their will, their understanding of how things should be, upon another. Lasting peace, we might especially reflect as we watch the horror that is Gaza at the moment, does not come from seeking to destroy the other. It is not, in George Orwell’s memorable description, “a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

The peace of God is the peace of restored relationships, of mutuality. It is the peace of understanding and enjoying differences, those things that make us each of us a unique part of God’s multifaceted creation, not the peace of imposed conformity.

That was – that is – the nature of the reign of God of which Jesus had been sent to lay the foundation, the cornerstone, and about which he told his friends: “As the Father sent me, so I send you”.

That is what we have been charged with: To proclaim the Shalom of God, as he did – in word and deed, in acts of love and justice, and words of faith and challenge. To make real that greater reality of which we have just caught a glimpse.

Our gospel reading today – indeed, John’s gospel – ends with the author’s purpose: “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”.

He wrote that we might have life – life, as Jesus said, in all its fullness. Life lived in the Shalom of God, in the restoration and reconciliation of all things that God is working.

Life lived in the service of that work.