Over the last three Sundays we’ve had a kind of chronicle of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection: at Easter Mary Magdalene discovered that the tomb was open and empty; eight days later Thomas the Apostle had a personal meeting with the risen Lord, and today Jesus meets a group of seven disciples on the bank of the lake. Of course there are more events when Jesus appears to his disciples, like to those two going to the village of Emmaus. What is common to most of those depictions is the disbelief of Jesus’s followers. They have doubts (openly expressed verbally, or indirectly expressed by their body language), they have different explanations and theories; and they have different ways of dealing with this unprecedented event. Their difficulty is understandable, as death – besides taxation – is one of the two proverbially certain and unavoidable things in one’s life.
The recent death of Margaret Thatcher has sparked fiercely heated discussions about her impact on the UK. As one side idealises her, the other demonises her. Last week was filled with hagiographic eulogies and with bad taste ‘death-parties’. Funnily enough, before her death she’d been rather absent from public debate; her name had rarely been mentioned, and that only when opponents ran out of arguments. Her death has kindled flames, but they will die out soon after her funeral, and finally Margaret Thatcher will be part of our history, bothering only a bunch of extremists in opposing camps. Her death is the final page of her life.
Jesus’ death on the cross was a turning point too, but with a totally different meaning and impact. When he was teaching, he managed to gather a small group of insignificant and powerless followers. He was a bit of nuisance to the local political and religious establishments. They eventually ran out of patience and tolerance with that irritating street preacher, and found an excuse to finish with him once and for all. Jesus was put to death to stop him, and to deter his followers. Initially this seemed to work: the preacher was dead and buried, and his followers locked themselves up out of fear. The mood of defeat was so overwhelming that the appearances of the risen Christ were simply unbelievable. But when his disciples eventually grasped the reality of his resurrection, the flame of faith spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire. What initially looked like dealing with a local troublemaker in a forgotten corner of the world, in fact kindled the fire that is still brightly burning. For one-third of our planet’s population it’s a flame of hope so bright, that stifling it has become a lifetime challenge for many adversaries. After two thousand years we are not short of those who try to blow this flame out. They are not our enemies; we don’t have to fight against them!
In the first of today’s readings, Peter bravely opposes the powerful and influential people who demanded that ‘all this Christian nonsense’ be stopped. But Peter’s courage in the face of that very real threat was forged on the day of Christ’s resurrection and all those days that followed, among them the one described in today’s gospel. The greatest battle that Peter ever fought was against his own disbelief and doubts. When he finally won that battle, there was nothing and nobody that could stop him, not even his own crucifixion. For those who’ve made Jesus the centre of their lives, nothing is a stumbling block; everything is an opportunity to get the final prize: life eternal.