For most of us right now, there’s one question and one question only. Appropriate to vocation, it’s a Big Question: When will things get back to normal?
When will we be able to gather in classrooms and places of worship again? When will restaurants open again for more than take-out? When can we lose the masks, the hand sanitizer, the sand-papery hands? When will we be able to hold open doors, to shake hands, hug our loved ones? When will things get back to normal? Pay attention to that Big Question, as we move through these final weeks of the semester. The Resurrection Zone offers some surprising responses.
My text for this reflection is from John’s gospel, chapter 21 (1-12), when Jesus appears to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus shows them how to gather fish and then says, “Come and have breakfast.” The text continues: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”
I want to focus on the question the disciples didn’t ask Jesus. “Who are you?” It’s actually a version of the question we’re asking: “When will things get back to normal again?” The disciples long to have their old Jesus back again.
Let’s worry about this a little bit. The disciples have left Jerusalem, the scene of the crucifixion and resurrection, for the Sea of Tiberias. They’ve gone back to their old haunts and their old lives. They’d been fishermen before; they’ll be fisherman again. It’s what they know. It’s their way of getting back to normal again. Peter shrugs off the madness of the preceding days: “I am going fishing.” The rest follow his lead. They all long for the old life.
Jesus calls out to them twice from the shore, but they don’t know who he is. In fact, it takes a couple of exchanges and a whopping haul of fish before they recognize him at all. The disciples want the old Jesus back again. They don’t recognize the risen Christ in their midst.
They’re not the only ones. Think of Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb. Jesus is standing there, and the text observes that she “turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14). She thinks Jesus is a gardener and accuses him of stealing the body of her beloved. Jesus asks her a couple of question, and she doesn’t even recognize Jesus’ voice. Mary Magdalene wants the old Jesus back again. She doesn’t recognize the risen Christ in her midst.
Finally, take the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They walk along discussing everything that happened over the last days, and an itinerant rabbi joins them. He’s not up on current events, but as they debrief him, the rabbi opens the scriptures to them, just like the old Jesus used to do—and they still don’t recognize him. Only when Jesus is seated at their table breaking bread with them do they recognize him. Like Mary, the disciples want the old Jesus back again so badly, they don’t recognize the risen Christ in their midst.
Now this should seem odd. These followers, who were around Jesus 24/7, eating with him, drinking with him, listening to his teachings, don’t recognize the earthly Jesus in the risen Christ. They don’t recognize resurrection in their midst.
Like the disciples, we too are called by resurrection. Like them, we too may not recognize it in our midst. Their stories offer three lessons for us as we wrestle with our current Big Question.
First, like us, the disciples long for things to get back to normal. They want the old Jesus back again; they want their old lives back again. Instead they get—resurrection. And resurrection is never resuscitation. Think about that for a moment. Like the disciples we yearn for things to get back to normal; we long for our old lives. But the old life is never coming back. Resurrection is life on new terms entirely. What emerges from a chrysalis is never the caterpillar that wove itself into it. What emerges from the chrysalis is a butterfly. Life on new terms entirely. It’s unimaginable—but be on the lookout.
Second, resurrection takes time. Indeed, it may be more a process than an event, just as it takes time for a butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis, it takes time for that new life to emerge. Remember that when Mary Magdalene finally does recognize Jesus, she reverts to old gestures of familiarity. She reaches out to touch him—and Jesus cautions her away. Resurrection takes time, and it requires new ways of being and behaving in the world. What those might be is emerging. But they will be different, and they’ll take time to get used to.
Will we still use masks? How about hand sanitizer? Will we pay new attention to how to be close to people at a distance? Will classrooms be arranged differently? After all, social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. Things will change. It’s not clear how they will; it’s only clear that they will. Time will tell.
Finally, all disciples, then and now, get that time. We get time to adjust to the risen Christ in our midst. We get time to adjust to life in the Resurrection Zone. After all, Jesus didn’t just ascend to his Father, he stuck around for a while, appearing to the disciples in order to give their eyes, their ears, their hearts a chance to adjust to the risen Christ.
We too have that time to adjust to whatever the new normal is like. Think of the shelter in place orders, your online classes, your virtual meetings, as a kind of tutorial. What do you want to take with you into the new life?
Two words from Wendell Berry’s long poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” point in the right direction:
Martha E. Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University. A longer version of this reflection was offered for their online daily chapel service this week.