The Disciples Were Terrified on Easter. Trans People Can Relate | Sojourners

The Disciples Were Terrified on Easter. Trans People Can Relate

A fresco depicting Jesus appearing to the apostle Thomas, who touches his side.
 A fresco depicting Jesus appearing to the apostle Thomas, who touches his side. Photo: Emanuel Tanjala / Alamy

Easter is a time of celebration: big hats, jubilant hymns, and alleluias. We remind ourselves and each other that death is not the end of our story.

But amid the celebration, it’s easy to forget that the first followers of Jesus didn’t come to this season with such positive feelings. In Matthew and Mark’s version of the story, when Mary Magdalene and the other women are told that Jesus has risen, their first and strongest emotion is fear. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus appears on Easter evening, the disciples think Jesus is a ghost and are so terrified that Jesus has to prove he can eat a meal to calm them down.

It feels important to acknowledge that fear can exist alongside the miracle of Easter — that being afraid doesn’t make you less capable of being part of Jesus’ story.

I hold this reminder myself as I consider the current wave of legislation targeting transgender and gender-expansive people and their families. As you may know, recent laws passed in states like Texas, Alabama, Florida, and more are making it increasingly difficult for transgender people to get health care, talk about themselves in schools, participate in sports, and even live with their affirming parents. Even worse, it’s explicitly Christian organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom that write and peddle the templates for these bills. When trans activists say that this is an attempt to legislate trans and gender-expansive people out of existence, it’s not hyperbole.

So when I read about people like Katie, one of many affirming parents who are leaving Texas because of the threat of having their transgender child taken from them, I think of the way the women at the tomb fled in fear. And when I hear Maddie, a trans girl in North Carolina, say, “If I didn’t have my hormones or my [puberty] blocker, I’d be very unhappy, and I wouldn’t want to leave the house sometimes,” I think of the disciples with the door locked on Easter evening. Even as we celebrate increasing social support for transgender people, we fear the way that our identities and our very lives are being used as political pawns in bids for funding and reelection.

But amid fear and through locked doors, Jesus shows up. When the disciples gathered, mourning their friend and fearing the authorities, God came and stood among them in human form and said: “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). In the same way, when I find myself sitting in Zoom rooms with my trans siblings from across the country, mourning the loss of churches and families who reject us, fearing the next legal or even physical attack, I also keep one ear tuned to God’s comforting voice. We trust that God will meet us in this place because God has done so before.

Of all the gospel stories about the disciples on that first Easter, the most famous must be the story of Thomas. We love Thomas because he asks for the proof that we so often desire to see. He embodies our curiosity and maybe even our fervent need for God to give us something — anything — to hold on to in difficult times. Hearing other people’s direct experiences with Jesus isn’t enough for Thomas; he needs to experience the resurrected Christ himself.

My favorite thing about this story is the relationship that Thomas and Jesus have with each other. Is it understandable that Thomas wants to see Jesus’ resurrected body for himself? Of course! But there’s something about the way he expresses it — “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25) — that comes across to me as a little bit entitled and stubborn.

Maybe it’s the list of body parts — “his hands,” “his side” — or Thomas’ insistence not just on seeing but touching that bothers me. I’ve been part of similar conversations centered on my own body. As a trans person who’s medically transitioned, I’ve had people ask to see my surgery scars, photos of me from my childhood, or copies of my hormone level test results before they’d believe that I am who I say I am. Trans people are seen as objects of curiosity, as hypotheses in need of proofs (or even as fakes in need of authentication) rather than as human beings.

I bristle at Thomas’ demands, but Jesus himself doesn’t. One week later, the disciples are back in this locked room, still in fear, and Jesus shows up again, this time directing Thomas to touch his hands and side and urging him to stop doubting (John 20:26-27). Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he needs to learn, understand, and do better. But before a line can form down the street with other hopeful believers expecting the same treatment, Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These were powerful words to share with the early church, most of whom would be unable to meet Jesus themselves. But I also believe something more personal was happening: Jesus made a decision to do something for Thomas because of the relationship they had. At the same time, Jesus set a necessary boundary to ground that relationship (and others) in love.

Oftentimes people with marginalized identities will care so much about a friend or family member that they decide to undergo significant discomfort to educate or share with them. With so much misinformation about transgender folks floating around online and in the news, I find myself doing a lot of this work myself. But at the same time, a relationship becomes unbalanced and unhealthy if one person is constantly being put on the witness stand to testify on their own behalf; this hurts the individual and also the friend or family member, who begins to believe that this lopsided power dynamic is normal.

That’s why I’m thankful that Jesus manages to avoid both a cruel dismissal of Thomas’ desires and a boundary-crossing expectation that could harm everyone involved.

In every case, Emmanuel, God-with-us, understands our experiences this Easter. Jesus appears in the room with those of us who are hiding behind locked doors, with trans people and their family members who aren’t sure where to go or how to find safety and support. He reaches out caring arms to those of us who want to listen and believe, to allies who are educating themselves and speaking up to say, “I may not understand yet, but I want to love my neighbor in ways that actually feel like love.” He encourages those of us who are seeking abundant and authentic life, reminding us that we are already fully known and fully loved by the Creator of the universe as ourselves, no matter what the world says.

Because Jesus understands that not everything true and worth fighting for is something you can see. Blessed are those who have not seen but who believe that people are who they say they are; who believe that the authorities of this world will not have the last word; who believe that death is not the end, and who have the courage to live as if this is so.

Author’s note: If you would like to learn more about anti-transgender legislation happening in your state, please head to the ACLU’s legislation page and then contact your legislators to make your voice heard.