April 2018

Who is your friend?

The period between Christ’s resurrection and ascension must have been - at the very least - an interesting one for his disciples. It is easy to assume that it was a time of undiluted joy and happiness for them. But would that have been the case? First of all, they had to believe that what had happened had actually happened. And that cannot have been easy. After all, they were having to accept something that had never happened before and which was , at best, somewhat counterintuitive. The saintly Thomas is fingered by smug later generations for being ‘doubting’, but if you read the accounts of that first day, all of the other disciples actually fell into the same category. And do we seriously believe that, if we had been one of them, we would have been in any way different?

So, as a start, they had to begin with believing the unbelievable. They would also, presumably, have just a few qualms about feeling guilty. Again Peter is sneered at for denying Christ, but all the other disciples - except perhaps John - abandoned him. How would they feel when they realised that the friend and master who, they had left to die was not dead at all?

But something infinitely more significant than that was going on. Whatever differences there may be in gospel accounts, there is a striking similarity in all - that on every occasion when those who had known Jesus in his earthly life met the risen Christ, they did not recognise him, even if they met the risen Christ several times. Tie that in with the story from John’s gospel, that, when Mary realised who the risen Christ was and tried to embrace him, Jesus told her not to touch him.

The reason for this is simple but unsettling: the earthly Jesus who had lived an earthly life was no more: instead, there was the risen Christ - not earthly but divine, and maintaining a normal human relationship with him was no longer possible: instead his followers had to forge a new relationship, based not on the Jesus they had known, but the risen Christ who was no longer physically in one place with one group of people at one time, but with all people in all places at all times. And the story of the period between Christ’s resurrection and ascension is the one of the disciples tentatively forming that new relationship.

And we have the same issues to face. Many of us will have got to know in our childhood the stories of the Jesus who lived on earth, and will have grown to understand the man Jesus. But, just like those first disciples, we need to move on from there and develop a totally different kind of relationship with the risen Christ - not an historical figure of some 2000 years ago, but a living presence always with us, showing us, if we choose to pay attention, the way, the truth and the life. And I am sure that many people find that leap of understanding difficult to cope with. ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, goes the hymn, and I have no doubt about the sincerity and faith of the author, but it, and a number of hymns like it, leave me feeling just a but uneasy. Do we think that the dead Jesus is our friend, or do we want a deepening relationship with the risen Christ? It is an unsettling question. The risen Christ gave his disciples some forty days to start thinking about it: I wonder how long we need.