Easter Day and the Sunday following both have Gospels taken out of John 20. That monumental chapter also records two appearances of our risen Lord Jesus which we need to reflect on. These are (1) the appearance to Mary Magdalene, and (2) the appearance to the skeptical Thomas the following Sunday. (Today's Gospel records an appearance to the whole group of the disciples on the evening of Easter Day itself, sandwiched between the two appearances to individuals a week apart.)
Jesus commanded Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless but believing.” In these words our dear Lord submitted Himself to scientific investigation. He was not a disembodied spirit floating around, but a tangible body. Because His body was now glorified, it was no longer bound or limited by things like doors and locks. But it was still a flesh-and-blood body, which even a non-believer could see and touch.
So we might be puzzled by the command which Jesus gave to Mary Magdalene, the very first human to see the Risen Saviour. He had said to her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” There have indeed been those who compared these two texts (exactly ten verses apart) and concluded that poor John could not get his story straight. At first, they falsely conclude, Jesus is intangible and a week later He is tangible. Surefire proof that the Resurrection was only a tale.
We can quickly resolve the apparent discrepancy by examining both stories in the original Greek. The command “touch me not” is more accurately translated “Do not continue touching me,” or even better, “Do not cling to me.” For Mary as truly as for Thomas, Jesus is tangible.
Mary has already touched Jesus, without invitation, and who can blame her for that? The point of Jesus' command, “do not cling to me,” is that from that moment on, He has been made glorious. The former patterns of friendship and companionship between the Lord and His disciples will never be the same. He will not resume the same old life of the carpenter shop; He will no longer trudge around Galilee.
This is no loss to Mary, the other disciples, or to us. He had already promised, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also.” Jesus' resurrection will be our resurrection also. As He was tangible and solid, we will be tangible and solid as well. That is the promise of Eastertide. His command to us, as to Thomas, is “Be not faithless but believing.”
For most Sundays of the year, the first reading comes from the Epistles of St Paul, with occasional interruptions from Hebrews, Revelation, or the Old Testament. But beginning today (this first Sunday after Easter) for the next nine Sundays (right on through Trinity III) we have a series of lessons from the Epistles of Peter, John, and James. These are found in the third section of the New Testament called the General or “catholic” Epistles. We call these epistles “catholic” because they are not addressed to specific churches or individuals but to the Church at large.
These Epistles are quite appropriate for Eastertide because these three apostles were eye-witnesses of our Saviour's pre-crucifixion life and of the resurrection itself. Today we read from I John. John was one of the Twelve original apostles, in fact the “beloved disciple” who wrote the fourth gospel which we read during the Sundays after Easter. After hearing the women's tale that the tomb was disturbed, he ran there breathlessly and was the first to believe that Jesus had kept His promise to be raised from the dead. He was also the last of the apostles to die. He was granted the vision of Christ in His heavenly glory which we have in the final book of the New Testament.
Peter, whom Christ designated as leader of the apostles, is famous from his threefold denial of the Lord during His trial before the high priest. He was given the threefold commission to “feed my sheep,” and on Pentecost he acted as the Church's greatest preacher and herald of the resurrection. Peter continued to behave somewhat erratically. Paul tells us (Gal. 2:11) that when Peter came to Antioch, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” But Peter soldiered on faithfully, eventually becoming a martyr, after he had written two splendid but neglected epistles in the back of the New Testament.
The James from whom we will read on Easter IV and V was neither of the two Jameses listed among the Twelve, but a third person of that name. He had the distinction of being the step-brother of Jesus and therefore a member of the holy family. Like the other brothers of Jesus, he was not a believer or a disciple until the resurrection itself. Paul tells us (I Cor. 15:7) that James was granted a special resurrection appearance. He became the first bishop of the Jerusalem church.
We have here three quite different witnesses to Jesus' resurrection. (How silly are those who claim that Christianity was the invention of Paul!) Two of them were willing to die for the truth that Jesus was raised, and John, after his long life and ministry, died in a penal colony on the island of Patmos.