The women who went to attend to Jesus’ body – to prepare him for burial – were recorded in all four of the Bible’s Gospels as having first witnessed an empty tomb (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20), with Mary Magdalene being the central female among them who was mentioned by name each time. In two of the Gospels – Matthew and John – the resurrected Jesus himself appeared to at least Mary Magdalene if not all of the women. Initially, however, it wasn’t obvious to them that it was Jesus – they didn’t recognize him. Was it because they couldn’t imagine it? Was it because he didn’t look all beat up like he did when he came off the cross? Or was it that his appearance was so different that they simply could not recognize him?
Later on, in each Gospel, Jesus miraculously appears to the disciples who were behind closed and locked doors, which initially freaked them out. Which is why Jesus told them not to be afraid. In Luke’s Gospel, two disciples were making their way to a village called Emmaus when a stranger met them, walking with them. It was Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him until he broke bread with them. In John’s Gospel (John 21), Jesus shows up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee while the disciples are out for a lousy morning of fishing (I know – oxymoron – but they didn’t catch anything, and they were hungry and maybe broke). Jesus had already caught some fish, and instructed them from the shore to try casting their nets one more time. They scored a huge haul, which was the tip-off that the guy on shore was likely Jesus. When they came ashore, however, he didn’t look like Jesus. Yet they knew it was him.
Stephen, the first disciple to be martyred for following Jesus, saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at the right hand of God in heaven just before he died (Acts 7). Much later on, the Apostle Paul (Acts 9) would get stopped in his tracks by the resurrected Jesus on his way to arrest his followers. He appeared as a bright, blinding light. The Apostle John, exiled on the island of Patmos, experienced a vision where he saw Jesus looking absolutely other-worldly (Revelation 1:9-20).
I find all of this incredibly interesting. The disciples and other followers of Jesus witnessed a resurrected Jesus that didn’t look like Jesus. Yet they recognized it was Jesus. How do we make sense of this?
I think a clue may be found in one particular appearance narrative (John 20:24-29) which made one of the disciples infamous. It even gave him a nickname that stuck. Doubting Thomas. Here is the account:
One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.
Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”
In Jesus’ response to Thomas’ awakening, Jesus might appear to be ripping Thomas here, but I don’t think that’s the tone. I think what Jesus is driving home here, in light of all the people who recognized Jesus even though he didn’t look anything like Jesus, is that we need different eyes to see Jesus after Easter. Limiting ourselves to the physical limits everything. We need spiritual eyes.
Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God. It’s in you. It’s around you. It’s everywhere. To see it, you have to see with a different lens. Cynthia Bourgeault offers this insight:
So what do we take it to be? Biblical scholars have debated this question for almost as long as there have been biblical scholars. Many Christians, particularly those of a more evangelical persuasion, assume that the Kingdom of Heaven means the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved.” But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus himself specifically contradicts it when he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It’s not later, but lighter—some more subtle quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it…
In Jesus’ day there was a division in thinking about reality. The Sadducees, who controlled Judaism from Jerusalem, believed that there wasn’t anything beyond the grave. This life is it. Better enjoy it. In contrast to this “city-folk” view was that held by the Pharisees, who held influence outside of Jerusalem in the synagogues. Probably because they lived and breathed with folks struggling under Roman oppression, they believed that there must be something beyond the grave where God would exact justice (since it wasn’t happening in this life). One view didn’t have any vision of anything beyond the physical. The other view believed in the spiritual, but primarily in the age to come. Jesus’ teaching, ministry, and resurrection, however, changed the paradigm. God is present here and now and then and there in the future (beyond the grave).
If God is not just about afterlife, but God’s presence is here now, then how do we experience it? Cynthia Bourgeault notes:
Author Jim Marion’s wonderfully insightful and contemporary suggestion is that the Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.
What Bourgeault and Marion are suggesting is that we acquire a new lens with which we view everything. No longer separating physical and spiritual, we are invited to view everything through spiritually shaped eyes. With this vision, we see God reflected in everything, everywhere. Given this nondual insight, we are less likely to see others as inherently evil, and we are more likely to be graceful toward others, and more caring toward creation. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just give us something to look forward to after death; Easter gives us something to look for – and live led by – now.
A disciple of the Apostle Paul would encourage readers decades after the first Easter (Ephesians 1:15-23 New Revised Standard Version):
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
God is here, now, to be seen, to strengthen, to encourage, to guide, to comfort, to empower, to give insight. The Ephesians writer gives us further motive to look and see and find and follow this God who has broken into history in such a profound manner at Easter (Ephesians 3:16-21):
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
All of this together helps me understand why we, unlike Thomas, are blessed who believe without seeing: we do not have the luxury (or curse) of seeing physically, so we only have the option of looking with spiritually formed eyes, which, as it turns out, is the only way to see God in the first place.
My hope for you is that you will stop waiting for that someday to experience God, and that you will being to see God now, who is everywhere, speaking into your life today and everyday forevermore.