By Bryan Owen
Reflections on John 19:31-21:25
As our Epiphany journey through the Gospel according to St. John with the Good Book Club comes to an end, it’s fitting to return to the beginning. In the Prologue to the Gospel, we read words that echo the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John tells us that all of creation came into being through the Word, that the Word became a flesh-and-blood human being, and that everyone who believes in him receives power to be reborn as a child of God. At the very beginning of John’s Gospel, we hear the promise of new life and new creation given to a world filled with death and darkness.
The promise of the Prologue comes to fulfillment in this week’s readings. For through the resurrection of Jesus, the new creation has begun. Light has overcome darkness. Life has triumphed over death. And human lives are changed.
We see this happening in the encounters Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter have with the risen Jesus.
Called by Name, Empowered to Proclaim
It starts early on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion. Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb only to discover that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance. After telling Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved what happened, Mary is left alone, weeping. Imagine how she must have felt. Not only has her beloved teacher been murdered, but now it looks like his body has been stolen. It’s a scene of devastating loss and grief.
And then the risen Jesus appears. But Mary does not recognize him. Rather than immediately disclose himself, Jesus engages Mary in dialogue — an approach he often used to invite others into a deeper connection with him. Twice he asks her why she is weeping. And twice Mary, no doubt speaking through sobs, laments that someone must have taken away the body of her beloved Lord.
Events take a dramatic turn when Jesus calls Mary by name and she immediately responds in recognition of him. This calls to mind what Jesus said earlier in the Gospel: “[The good shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (10:3, 5).
Mary was part of Jesus’ fold. By encountering her good shepherd now raised from the dead, and hearing him speak her name, her loss and grief are transformed into joy. And she is empowered to become the first eyewitness to the resurrection, returning to the other disciples to proclaim: “I have seen the Lord” (20:18).
The new creation launched by the resurrection of Jesus redeems loss and transforms the brokenhearted into bold witnesses to the good news that life has triumphed over death.
Surprised by Belief
Later that Sunday evening, Jesus appears to the disciples, dispelling their fears with his presence, breathing into them the promised Holy Spirit, and commissioning them to share God’s reconciling love with the world. But Thomas is not present. And because he does not see Jesus for himself, he refuses to believe that he has been raised from the dead.
Thomas had good reasons for unbelief. After all, he knew for a fact that Jesus died on a cross. He knew for a fact that Jesus’ dead body was laid in a tomb. He knew for a fact that dead people stay dead. So in spite of the other disciples’ saying they had seen the Lord, Thomas insists that he will not believe unless he can not only see Jesus for himself, but actually touch him and feel the wounds of his crucifixion.
An entire week passes between the first time Thomas hears that Jesus is alive and the moment when he encounters the risen Jesus for himself. It’s a good bet that during that week, the disciples gathered daily. And that’s important because it underscores the fact that in spite of his unbelief — in spite of his doubts and questions — Thomas stayed connected to the disciples. He chose to remain in fellowship with them. And because he remained in their fellowship, he is present for a surprising encounter with the risen Jesus who invites him to see and touch the wounds of crucifixion. The experience so transforms his life that Thomas becomes the first disciple to publicly acknowledge the divinity of Jesus as he cries out in astonishment, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).
The new creation launched by the resurrection of Jesus transforms fear, doubt, and unbelief into public witness that Jesus is the Son of God, the one sent by the Father to give the gift of eternal life to all who believe.
From Cowardice to Courageous Witness
Some time later another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus takes place, this time by the Sea of Tiberius.
Even though he has seen the risen Jesus on more than one occasion, Peter decides to return to the way of life he had known before he met Jesus. And so he goes fishing with six of the other disciples.
This may seem odd. After all, these men were eyewitnesses to the truth that Jesus had been raised from the dead after suffering a horrible execution on the cross. So why return to the trade of fisherman after experiencing the most earth-shattering event in history? Why not tell the world the incredible news of what had happened?
In Peter’s case, the answer is probably simple. He returned to the Sea of Tiberius because he was ashamed. In spite of his vocal support for Jesus, in spite of boldly claiming that he would never desert Jesus and would rather die than deny him, Peter gave in to fear and cowardice. At Jesus’ darkest hour, Peter betrayed and abandoned the one person he loved more than anyone or anything else.
So even though Peter had seen Jesus alive again, he couldn’t bear to face him. The shame and guilt were too much. He no longer felt worthy of Jesus. So, he goes back to fishing.
But Jesus isn’t going to let Peter off the hook that easily. And so he appears on the seashore with an invitation: “Come and have breakfast” (21:12). After sharing a meal, Jesus reinstates Peter into fellowship with him, asking him three questions for each of Peter’s three denials: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And after Peter’s response, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus gives him a mission: “Feed my sheep” (21:15-17).
Peter could have gone down in history as one of the biggest cowards and traitors of all time. But the love and grace of the risen Jesus transformed Peter into one of the greatest leaders of the early church whose willingness to risk life and limb to proclaim the Gospel converted thousands of people to the cause of Christ.
The new creation launched by the resurrection of Jesus transforms the sins of cowardice and betrayal into courageous witness to the way, the truth, and the life.
Sent into the World
Jesus offers each of us a share in the new life of his resurrection. Instead of pointing a finger of condemnation, he extends a nail-scarred hand of friendship. He comes to us in our darkest times of loss and grief, bringing comfort and peace. He meets us halfway in the midst of our questions, doubts, and unbelief, offering an opportunity to know and to love him. He brings hope and healing. He grants forgiveness and restores to fellowship and fullness of life. And he sends us out into the world to share what we have received.
John closes his Gospel with these words: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25). That’s no doubt true. But it’s also true that we are called to continue the story. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you” (20:21).
May our reading of John’s Gospel inspire us to write more chapters of the good news of Jesus by sharing the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection with the world God loves so much.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.