“With hindsight”… it’s easy to believe in the resurrection. We have been raised on centuries of Christian tradition and all “know” that Jesus was raised from the dead. Whilst questioned by our materialistic world, the Easter story is so much part of our Western cultural tradition that there is little that surprises us. But that certainly wasn’t the case for Jesus’ early followers.
Life with Jesus had been unpredictable at the best of times. But after his resurrection, it went haywire. I mean, how on earth do you “get on with normal life” when the one you have followed for a couple of years, the one you had watched as he hung on a cross and died, then appears alive a few days later – not to mention walking through walls and nicking your supper!
Jesus came back to life, but not to the life he had left. It wasn’t “as you were”, back to the good old days of travelling the Judean and Galilean countryside with a happy group of disciples. Yes, he certainly appeared to the apostles “from time to time” in the forty days following his death and “proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive” (Acts 1:3). But he was not about to follow anyone else’s agenda, much to his friends’ frustration, no doubt.
Take John’s account, for example. That first Sunday he appears to the disciples – all except Thomas, that is. The short visit is over all too quickly and then Thomas (not to mention the rest of the disciples) has to wait another week before getting his turn. Imagine that, Jesus is back from the dead pops in for the afternoon, then makes himself scarce for a week. It was worth the wait, particularly for Thomas, but still, I mean – a whole week! Some time later Jesus turns up again when Peter had given up on this particular version of hide-and-seek in Jerusalem and gone back to fishing in Galilee. John records the deep conversation that ensues, and that is that.
Luke adds some detail of what happened between Jesus speaking to the women at the graveside and appearing to the disciples in the upper room. A couple of his followers (and I reckon they were just that, a couple, husband and wife – but that’s for another article) are on their way to Emmaus, a few hours’ walk from Jerusalem, when Jesus joins them in disguise – well, they didn’t recognize him, at least. They have a good long natter on the journey before Jesus accepts their invitation to stay on for supper. After a spot of Bible exposition he breaks bread and suddenly “their eyes were opened” and they recognize him – at which points of course he goes and disappears into thin air… Argh!!! Naturally, they then rush back to Jerusalem to meet with the others and are just recounting their own merry tale when Jesus does his now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t trick in reverse and appears amongst the lot of them. Luke also writes of how Jesus at some later date leads his followers to Bethany, home of Lazarus & Co., only to leave them gawping as he heads for heaven.
After narrating Jesus’ appearance to the women, Matthew bypasses Jerusalem completely and has the disciples head back to Galilee – presumably where Peter was doing his fishing the morning that Jesus cooked them breakfast on the beach. Maybe it was here that Jesus appeared to the five hundred at one time that Paul talks about (1 Corinthians 15:6), who knows.
All in all, there was more than enough for them to know that he was alive – but life could never be the same again. You see, he had trained them and set an example for them; now it was time to leave them to it, not to put himself back at the centre of their lives. So he popped up unexpectedly, talked with them about the Kingdom of God and made his commission to them absolutely clear. He promised them that God’s Spirit would be their new guide – God within them, not God in him. A new era had begun, and they were to lead the way.
We are the heirs of this same promise. No, life with Jesus is not predictable. He doesn’t fit into our neat plans today any more than he would back then. We may prefer a less messy world with a neatly regulated Jesus showing up regular as clockwork at our prearranged festivities. But that’s not the way it’s meant to be. We follow a subversive God who calls us to learn to live according to our values and convictions as we follow the Holy Spirit to the best of our (often meagre!) ability. Welcome to life after Easter :-)