The resurrection stories in the New Testament are not big, boisterous stories, shouting the news of the resurrection from the rooftops. Instead, they are tentative stories, involving a lot of uncertainty, questioning, fear, and vulnerability. In that way, they’re well-suited for our times. For we too are living in a season of uncertainty and fear, with more questions than answers, and feeling raw in our vulnerability.
Today’s Gospel reading marks the start of the shift for the disciples. The events of Easter morning don’t change their lives, but the events of Easter evening certainly do. It’s evening of that first Easter Sunday. The disciples are huddled in the Upper Room and they are afraid. The disciples get a lot of flack for this, but it’s really the most appropriate response they could have. It’s still just the fifth day since their master was betrayed by one of their closest friends, the fourth day since the last time he spoke to them and since they witnessed his grief in the garden before his arrest, and the third day since he was executed in a collusion of religious and political authorities and a mob of the people (who were no doubt looking for them too). And it’s still the first day since Mary Magdalene’s shocking reports of what she had seen and heard. And so, yes, they are afraid and confused — and rightfully so.
Here’s what happens next:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20.19-22)
This is the moment when everything changes for the disciples. This is the moment when they transform from frightened followers of a crucified messiah into the Apostles of the Risen Lord, who would spread the message of Jesus throughout the globe, challenge the authorities, face off against mobs, and change the world.
How does this happen?
First, they experience the presence of Jesus. Jesus shows up in their midst. They are no longer at the mercy of speculation about what happened to Jesus’ body and to rumours that he had risen from the dead; they know he is risen because he is standing there with them.
Second, they receive Jesus’ peace. While ‘peace’ — shalom — was the common greeting in Jesus’ day, the fact that John goes out of his way not just to report these words but to repeat them suggests that the disciples took this as more than a simple greeting. They receive peace, but this is more than simple peace of heart and mind. It is his peace they receive. This is important for two reasons. First his peace is shalom: wholeness, restoration, fullness — not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. Jesus’ peace is nothing less than the presence of the Kingdom of God. And secondly, when Jesus offers the disciples his peace, here we see the beginnings of the New Testament’s understanding that the lives of Jesus’ followers become wrapped up in his: that his way becomes our way, his death becomes our death, his life becomes our life. And it all begins with his peace.
Third, they are given a mission. Continuing the language of their lives being caught up in his, Jesus tells them that he is sending them out into the world just as the Father had sent him. As David Froemming notes, “The narrative identity and character of Jesus that was already embodied in the disciples … has now been set free to be the presence of the risen Christ for the world” (Salvation Story). In our violent world that still sees justice largely in terms of retribution, it’s important to note here that revenge is nowhere to be found in this calling. They are to vindicate Jesus not by avenging his death, but by embodying his life in and for the world.
Finally, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out this work. God does not give them a job without also giving them the tools to do it.
So, what happened to the disciples that Sunday evening to transform them into bold messengers of God’s Good News? Jesus showed up, and when Jesus shows up, he brings peace and calls and empowers them to be ministers of peace for the world.
Two thousand years later, this remains the pattern for Christian life and vocation. If we bear the name ‘Christians’, this means that Jesus has shown up in our lives. And when Jesus shows up, he brings peace and makes us agents of his peace. As Christians, when we find ourselves in need to speak or act, we would do well to ask ourselves ‘What does God’s peace look like here and now?’ And then we should speak that and be that peace — speak and be God’s wholeness, restoration, justice.
Our world is hurting and full of fear, confusion, and anger. What would it look like for Jesus to show up — in and through us — in this world? What does God’s peace look like amid our pandemic fatigue? What does God’s peace look like in our polarized political environments? What does God’s peace look like as we are confronted with the past? What does God’s peace look like in our families, our friendships, countries and world?