I was reading the end of John’s gospel the other morning and something struck me in a way it hadn’t before. Over and over again, Jesus appeared post-resurrection to people who knew him really well and they had no idea it was him. Mary gets it when he says her name, but before that looks at him and thinks he’s a gardener (20:14,15). Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel and two others only know it is him when he directs them to a big shoal of fish (21:7). I went and checked out the other gospels. In Matthew we find that on seeing Jesus, “some doubted” (28:17), in Luke 24 he walks 7 miles, chatting all the way, and his companions only twig who it is when he breaks bread at dinner.
I was starting to get a bit suspicious and then I came across this in Mark: ‘Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them…’ (16:12). I should say that it is highly unlikely this verse was in the original manuscript, but still- eek! A very disturbing theory was developing in my mind- could someone have pretended to be Jesus, and gone around saying some of his key phrases to fool people (plus doing a few tricks like walking through doors and knowing where fish are)? Or was he perhaps resurrected looking like someone else, and if so why? Why wouldn’t he just come back looking like himself? But if he looked like himself (you see the knots I am getting tangled in here), why didn’t people know it was him?
I rushed off to find my great bulging brain of a husband- would he be able to restore my faith in the actual resurrected Jesus?
We had a good discussion, and I have since garnered the thoughts of a few others too, and here is my conclusion: it was possible then, as it is possible now, to encounter Jesus and have no idea who he is. We need spiritual sight to recognise him.
His followers had watched him die. The last time they’d seen him his skin was flayed raw, gaping wounds distorted his torso, hands and feet, his face was steaming with blood from his thorny crown. Perhaps his reappearance all shiny and new was just too incongruous. But more likely it took faith to accept he was back, and their faith had taken a beating.
Henri Nouwen writes about this very conundrum: “The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that all of it has a hidden quality. First of all, his conception and birth, then his many years living in obedience to his parents, then his so-called public life in which he kept asking those he cured not to speak about their healing, then his death outside the walls of Jerusalem between two criminals, and finally also his resurrection…the most decisive event in the history of creation is a deeply hidden event.” (The Road to Peace)
Perhaps he was hiding in plain sight, so that only those who sought- who really wanted to find him- would have their eyes opened.