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Recognising the Risen Jesus

John 20–21

We are all familiar with the Emmaeus story from Luke’s Gospel, in which the disciples recognised Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). For Luke’s community, the Eucharist was the special moment when Jesus would be recognised as being present among them.

For the second and third generation Christians in the 80s and 90s, both Luke and John dealt with the question how Christians could recognise the Risen Jesus as being with them. What is often not recognised is the several ways in which the author or authors of John’s Gospel addressed this question.

In the early part of chapter 20, the interest is not so much in seeing the risen Jesus as in proving that the body was missing from the empty tomb, and that it had not been stolen. Once Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved” leave the tomb (without seeing Jesus), Mary Magdalene is left alone. When Jesus comes, she does not recognise him until he calls her by name (v.16: “Mary!”). In 10:3, Jesus had taught that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Mary (and all disciples) will recognise Jesus because he knows them by name, and they experience this call to be led by him to freedom. This moment of recognition may speak especially to those who had been unwilling to leave the synagogue and make the break with Judaism that this Gospel demands.

The second moment of recognition comes when the disciples see, not Jesus, but his wounds (20:20b). They recognise Jesus in his humanity as the Crucified One. Thomas also recognises Jesus only by seeing his wounds (20:25, 27–28). See the previous Scripture Article for more on this scene.

The final moment of recognition comes with the fishing scene in chapter 21. Again, they do not recognise Jesus at first. We have tended to explain this by imagining darkness, fog, distance, and so on. But the evangelist is not interested in such things (there is no mention of the reason for the failure to recognise Jesus despite their having been with him twice since he had risen). Rather, he wants to give yet another teaching on how we can recognise the risen Jesus.

Here, the moment of recognition comes, not at the eucharist-like meal around the fire, but in the catching of the fish! In all the Gospels, the catching of fish always has to do with mission (cf. Mark 1:16–18; Matt 4:18–20; 13:47–50; Luke 5:1–12; John 21:1–11). Catching fish is always related to bringing people into the kingdom of God, of evangelising. It is also noteworthy that the disciples never catch a single fish in the Gospels without Jesus’ help!

In John 21:7, the disciple whom Jesus loved only recognises Jesus once he instructs them where to fish (“it is the Lord!”). It is only when he sees how many fish they have caught that the disciple suddenly recognises that it has been the power of Jesus at work (“they could not even haul in the net because there were so many fish”). He does not recognise Jesus because it gets light, the fog clears, or they move any closer (the evangelist emphasises that they are still one hundred yards away; v.8). Rather, he recognises Jesus because they caught the fish. The proof is in the success.

For the Johannine community, therefore, the teaching has been that Jesus will be recognised in

  1. The intimate relationship between Jesus and the disciple (20:16: “Mary!”),
  2. The recognition of Jesus as the incarnated Son of God who suffered and died out of love for his friends (20:25: “We have seen the Lord”; cf. 20:20), and
  3. The success of the mission to spread the Gospel (21:7).

For this Gospel, recognition does not come at the breaking of the bread. Rather, the eucharistic language (cf. 6:49–58) speaks of needing to ‘eat his flesh’ in order to live; it is necessary for life (see also the image of vine in 15:5–6, a symbol of the eucharistic wine in this Gospel; it is also speaks of obtaining life by staying on the vine).

We can learn much from these teachings on recognising the risen Jesus. For the Johannine community, Jesus was apparently absent. At the Gospel’s first ending, Jesus’ last words are to proclaim a blessing, not upon the disciples in the story, but to all future readers of this Gospel: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29) — the great Johannine Beatitude. Every Christian will have to deal with the apparent absence of Jesus, and come to recognise his presence.

This evangelist teaches us to recognise the presence of the Risen Jesus in our lives by listening for his intimate and personal call, by knowing him as the God who suffers with us in order to reveal himself, and by experiencing his power at work in our lives as we work to spread the Gospel. We know his presence in these ways, and we too can say, “We have seen the Lord!”