Why is Jesus appearing to people after the resurrection?
The two appearances by Jesus in this reading from John happen on two consecutive Sundays evenings: the day Jesus was resurrected and a week later on the following Sunday. We have the 2nd and the 3rd post-resurrection appearances of Jesus here.
So why is he appearing? What is he trying to accomplish?
He can’t just be convincing disciples that he is raised from the dead. If that was what he was trying to do, he’d be appearing all over the place to all kinds of people. But he’s not. He’s appearing to a select bunch. The disciples. Those he had chosen as his followers. Not just the twelve apostles, but all of his disciples—all who had been following him, learning from him, believing him. He’s not appearing as a divine “I told you so” or thumbing his nose at those who doubt or aren’t sure. He’s got a message for his disciples. And that message isn’t about convincing people he’s alive. He could do that much better than we could. All he has to do is keep appearing to people. So that, apparently, isn’t the reason he appears to his disciples.
Rather, this is all about the continuation of God’s mission in Christ. Here in John, the resurrection of Jesus is less about proving something and more about sending the disciples to continue his work.
You are sent, he says; with the power of the Holy Spirit, he says; to forgive sins, he says. If you do it, it’s done. If you don’t, it isn’t. That’s why he’s appearing to them. To empower them with the Holy Spirit; to send them out to forgive.
“Forgive” is a word we use all the time. But I’m not convinced we get it.
Forgive=has its root meaning in the idea of “moving past.” That doesn’t mean forgetting, ignoring, or pretending, but moving beyond. In this context it means moving past the offense of the other to see the image of God within them. The offense, the brokenness, the hurt doesn’t stop us from seeing God’s love, God’s light, God’s life in them. With forgiveness, we look past the offense to recognize the image of God in the other.
Retain=root meaning in “power or strength.” So here, it means that the offense, the hurt does, in fact, have the power to block the image of God. Our vision is blocked by the offense and our own hurt; and the image of God present in the other isn’t recognized.
Forgiving–the offense and brokenness is less of a barrier. You can see beyond it. Like a Dutch door. It’s there, but you can recognize what’s beyond.
Retaining–the offense and brokenness is more like a solid door that is locked. Can’t see what’s on the other side.
So Jesus comes to his disciples to fill them with the Holy Spirit and send them to look past people’s offenses and see these broken people in the world as the very people God loves. Jesus fills the disciples with the Holy Spirit – the breath of God, the essence of God – to make sure they are able to do this forgiveness thing. Because it’s at the heart of who God is, therefore it’s at the heart of his disciples. In forgiving, they reveal God.
Isn’t this what Jesus came for in the first place: to show us God’s heart? What God is like? And now he’s commissioning all his disciples to continue that same mission. To show the world what God is like. To reveal the heart of God. Which means to be about forgiveness.
And that is what happens when we recognize the image of God in broken people. When we can look past our own hurt and see God’s giftedness, God’s love, God’s handiwork as the center of who they are.
That’s who Jesus is for us, isn’t he? One who looks past our brokenness and sees us as people in the image of God’s love—who are cared about, gifted, and loved by God. Without condition, without measure. That’s how Jesus looks at us. Because that’s who we are.
Therefore, who better than Jesus’ own disciples to look beyond the brokenness, the hurt, the sin of the world and see the light of God’s love there? We, the broken people that God loves; we, the sinful people that God still is gracious to; we, the prideful people God continues to shower mercy upon; we are the ones called now to do the same in the world.
It is in this activity of forgiving in the world that the church reveals Jesus. That’s it. Not in proving the resurrection; not in discovering empirical evidence that God exists; not in debating whether Jesus looked more Norwegian or Australian. According to the gospel-writer John, forgiveness is really the purpose we are empowered by the Spirit and sent by Jesus to do. That’s our focus. That’s the Spirit at work in us. That’s why Jesus kept appearing to his disciples: to send them to continue his work of forgiveness—even today.
The Holy Spirit is guiding us and empowering us along this line anyway. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to deal with the world the way God deals with us. So we follow the leading of the Spirit—we don’t need to argue with people, we just start forgiving them. We don’t need to debate with them, we just start recognizing God’s love in them. We don’t need to think we’re superior to them, we just start seeing what we can learn about God from them. They, too, are created in God’s image, loved by God, and gifted by God. We are called and empowered to recognize that.
The resurrected Jesus comes to us. Not so those who believe can thumb their noses at those who don’t, but so that we can see God’s light and life in others. Baptized into Christ, our very deepest identity now is rooted in forgiveness—moving past brokenness to the image of God recognized in those we meet. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.