John 20:19-31 (plus some . . . )

April 24, 2022
Joanna Harader

I love Easter! I love the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. I love the reminder that love conquers hate, life conquers death—that the violence of this world does not have the final word. I love Easter morning worship with the flowers, the rousing hymns, the whole congregation proclaiming: “Christ is risen indeed!”

I had a really great Easter this year—Muncher’s donuts at the sunrise service, wonderful people and wonderful music, lunch (that I didn’t have to make) at my brother’s house. . . . Then I woke up on Monday morning and realized that the coming week was basically going to be like the past week: worship to plan, sermon to write, meetings to attend. It was all pretty . . . anticlimactic.

If I feel this way just reading the Easter story, how must the disciples have felt living it? That first Easter was an eventful day for the disciples. On Zoom we watched the Lumo video of the scripture with Mary running around a room waking up all the sleeping guys to tell them “I have seen the Lord!” That’s quite a way to wake up!

And then, that evening, they are all (well, except for Thomas) hanging out behind closed doors, hiding from the religious authorities who had killed Jesus . . . maybe . . . they’re not sure . . . but even if Jesus is alive the crucifixion was no joke and they want to keep a low profile.

As they are gathered, hiding, “Jesus came and stood among them.” That’s a rather odd way to put it and we are left wondering whether Jesus picked the lock or climbed through a window or just kind of materialized in the room. But somehow there Jesus is, nail marks in his palms, gash in his side, but very much alive, which is not what they expected to see three days after they watched him die.

Jesus says “Peace be with you,” because they were probably feeling pretty not peaceful at that point. And then, Jesus breathes. Most translations say he breathed on them, but scholars I trust say that it should really be translated that he breathed into them. Jesus breathed into the disciples the way that God breathed into the first human’s nostrils the breath of life. The way the sacred breath was breathed into the bones in Ezekiel’s vision. Jesus breathes and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

So the dead/not dead Jesus shows up like a ghost with battle scars, says he’s sending them, breathes the Holy Spirit into them—this amazing Spirit he has been promising them—and then, I guess, he leaves. It doesn’t really say where Jesus goes. The scene just ends abruptly, and the next thing we read is, “After eight days.” Eight days.

Have you ever had an experience where something happened that you thought was something big? Something life-changing? Something that seemed to promise a dramatic change, a big event, and then . . . nothing really happened? Your life didn’t instantly transform.
• You pursue an exciting job opportunity that fizzles—or you get the job and it’s . . . a job.
• You find the perfect house, but the offer falls through—or you get the house but there are still dirty dishes to wash every night.
• You meet someone you think could be really special in your life, and then they just kind of fade away—or they stick around and you love them but they are annoying sometimes.
• You have a really meaningful experience that convinces you that you will make a change you need to make: exercise, eat better, deal with money stuff, work on a relationship—only you just don’t quite do it.

Jesus had showed up to the disciples eight days ago. Said he was sending them. Breathed the Holy Spirit into them. But it doesn’t seem like much has actually happened.

“After eight days” the disciples are “again in the house” behind closed doors. Have they been cowering in fear the whole time? Have they been going about their lives and are just having a little reunion? When Jesus was there before he said: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” But it doesn’t seem like they have gone anywhere.
Jesus shows up again, shows Thomas his wounds, and disappears again.

That’s pretty much where our reading for today stops, but since this is our last week in the Gospel of John, I want to walk you through the next—and last chapter—of the Gospel.

“Afterward,” “After these things,” “Later.” We don’t know how much time passes. But some time passes, and a group of the disciples are hanging out and Peter says, (it’s always Peter): “I’m going fishing.”

Now I don’t know what happens in this interim period, between Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas, and Peter deciding to go fishing. But to me, Peter’s abrupt announcement reads like someone who is bored, who is tired of waiting around, like maybe they’ve all just been waiting for Jesus to materialize again and Peter can’t take it anymore.

So some of the guys go fishing. They fish all night but don’t catch any fish. Which seems odd for a group that includes professional fishermen. But anyway, Jesus shows up . . . you know this story . . . Jesus shows up and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Which my friend Amy Sue, who grew up fishing, says is just completely ridiculous advice. But they do it. And they catch so many fish the boat starts to sink. And Peter (it’s always Peter) jumps in the lake and runs to Jesus on the shore.

Jesus cooks them all some breakfast and then asks Peter . . . you know this story . . . Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. And of course, Peter says he does. Then there are some bizarre words about “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And finally we read: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Which is lovely and poetic and all . . . but what the heck happens?

In John, there is no dramatic conclusion. No Ascension. The story just kind of . . . ends.

Not only does John’s Gospel not include the story of the Ascension, it also does not relate the “Great Commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)

Many scholars say that John’s great commission is here in chapter 20: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (v. 21) But I wonder if the great commission of John isn’t closer to the end, in chapter 21, as part of Jesus’ conversation with Peter (it’s always Peter): “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” When Peter says he loves Jesus, Jesus tells him to take care of those around him.

Tending sheep doesn’t seem quite as exciting as going into all the world. But in John, that is the commission we get from the resurrected Jesus. Take care of God’s people—which, of course, is all people.

The Resurrection, the breathing in of the Spirit—these events are, in a very real and deep sense, life-changing for the disciples. And yet, it’s difficult to tell in these final chapters of the Gospel, exactly how it changes their lives.

Maybe Easter works the same for us. Maybe it doesn’t change our lives in the ways or at the speed or to the extent that we hope or expect. The changes may take a while, the transformations may be subtle. And whatever change God works in us through the Holy Spirit, we will remain the people we are. Wherever the Divine sends us, it is us that God sends.

We are changed by the power of the Spirit, and we are, as Peter and Thomas show us in these final chapters, always still our own unique selves. We are sent by God, but sometimes we are not sent far—maybe just to the person next to us.

Easter changes everything. And so much stays the same. Jesus’ followers were sent, and they stayed close to home—at least for a while. The disciples received the Holy Spirit, and they went fishing one night because Peter was restless. Jesus was resurrected, and he still had the nail marks in his hands, the wound on his side.