Seeing Jesus – a sermon

You can listen to the sermon here, or read it below.

I’ve always loved a good optical illusion.  The classics are my favorite.

longer line

Is the top line or bottom line longer?

chalice

Do you see a vase or two faces?

the dress

Is this dress white and gold or black and blue?

The Dress that Broke the Internet brought the human eye into sharp focus for about a week earlier this year.  The whole world became obsessed with how the eye works, and we all realized, yet again, that you can’t always believe what you see.  Of course, this is nothing new.  In fact, the Gospel lessons over the last two weeks have been a reminder that for the disciples, even seeing wasn’t believing.

Last week it was John’s account of that first Easter Day.  Ten of the eleven remaining disciples were huddled together in the upper room, locked away from the outside world for fear of the Jews.  Out of thin air, Jesus appeared in their midst. He offered them his peace.  He tried to give them the Holy Spirit.  The disciples were quick to tell Thomas about their encounter with Jesus, but as Keith reminded us in his sermon last week, the fact that the disciples saw Jesus certainly didn’t mean that they believed what he told them.  A week later there they were, still frozen in fear, closed up in that upper room.  This week we have what seems like the same story.  This time we get Luke’s version of the first Easter.  Our story begins at evening, but it has been a very full day.

It began at sunrise when the women found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.  Two men appeared and said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  The women ran to tell the others what they had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears, that Jesus had rose from the dead, but the men did not believe them.  Luke tells us they thought it “an idle tale,” a polite way of saying they thought the women were full of bull… Bologna.  Something in the story of the women gnawed at Peter, however, and eventually he got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself.  He found the stone rolled away, and all he saw inside were his friend’s burial clothes lying by themselves.  Even after seeing the empty tomb, Peter was still confused, and he went home wondering about what he had seen.

Meanwhile, others found it all too much to handle.  Two of the disciples, Cleopas and a companion, set off for their hometown of Emmaus feeling totally lost and confused at what had transpired over the last seventy-two hours.  As they approached the end of their seven mile journey, a stranger joined them and asked them about their sad conversation.  As it was late, they invited the stranger to dinner.  He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them and immediately their eyes were opened and they recognized the stranger as none other than Jesus, their Lord, their Rabbi, and their friend, risen from the grave.  Jesus disappeared, and the two disciples took off running, seven miles back to Jerusalem, to tell the others what they had seen.

The room was buzzing with excitement over everything that had happened that day when Jesus appeared right in front of them.  With all they had seen and heard that day, you’d think they’d be overjoyed at his appearance, but their reaction isn’t one of joy and gladness, but of terror and fright.  With all they had heard and all they had seen, they still couldn’t believe their eyes; they thought they were seeing a ghost.  I love Jesus’ reaction at this point.  It’s late, and I’m sure he’s pretty tired, what with having been dead when the day started, and so he says to them, “What is there to be scared of?!?  Why do you doubt that it is me?!?  Look at me!  I’ve got holes in my hands and my feet for crying out loud!  Who else would it be?  Go ahead, touch me if you have to, but when you’re done, give me a piece of fish; I’m starving to death over here.”  So they touch him, and they give him some fish, and they are filled with joy, and doubt, and wonder, unable to fully believe what was happening right in front of them.

Yet, even in their disbelief, Jesus has work for them to do.  They are to go and to proclaim what they have seen, for they are witnesses.  Even as their eyes fail them, even as their brains doubt, even as their hearts question what is really happening, they are witnesses to the resurrected Christ called to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God: release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favor to the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, and that through repentance comes the forgiveness of sins for the whole world.

You might think that I’m making too much of the disciples inability to really see what was happening, but I think it is because of their bad eyesight that we too have the opportunity to be witnesses of the risen Christ.  The fact that they couldn’t even see what was right in front of their faces means that we, who don’t have the chance to see for ourselves, can be witnesses as well.  We may not be able to see Jesus standing in our midst.  We may not be able to touch his hands and feet or put our hands in his side.  We may not be able to share a piece of broiled fish with him, but we can still be witnesses to the risen Christ through the ongoing work of God in the world around us.

John’s Gospel has the disciples still stuck in that upper room a week later.  Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, has them there for fifty days.  There they are, still huddled in Jerusalem waiting, unsure of what to do next.  Jesus commissions them as witnesses called to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and 50 days later, it has yet to come to fruition.  Even having seen and heard and touched Jesus, come Pentecost Day, the disciples are still filled with a mix of joy and fear and doubt when the Holy Spirit comes with power and might, bursting forth from that safe room and running wild in the world.  From there the Good News spread like wildfire to the ends of earth.

We are inheritors of the story.  We know what the disciples saw, but just reading these old stories in a book doesn’t make us witnesses.  Our eyes are opened to see God’s hand at work in the world around us because we are inheritors of the very same Spirit of God that propelled the disciples out into the world.  The Spirit opens our eyes so that we too can be witnesses to the ongoing work of re-creation and restoration that takes place through the Church, the Body of Christ, to this day.  We are able to proclaim not only what the disciples saw, but with God’s help we can proclaim what we see as well; God’s redeeming love at work all around us.

Seeing isn’t always believing, whether it is the length of a line, the color of a dress, or the risen savior eating a piece of fish right in front of you.  Still, we are all called to be witnesses, to open our eyes and really see what God is doing in the world around us.  Through the breaking of the bread here on Sunday, through your prayers, through the reading of Scripture, and through works of compassion and mercy, every one of us has the potential, with God’s help, to be witnesses to the risen Christ as God continues to reveal his plan of salvation for the whole world.  And so we pray [and we sing] “Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus.”  Amen.

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Proclamation and Witness

In Tuesday’s post, I argued that we should give serious consideration to Jesus’ less-quoted commission to preach both repentance and forgiveness to the world at large.  The Greek verb for proclaiming or preaching is kerusso from which we get the much more familiar noun kerygma.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins in earnest with a proclamation in the Synagogue at Nazareth.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)

His ministry ends with a commissioning for those who would follow him, “to proclaim to all nations repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.”  Jesus does not stop there, however.  He goes on to add one more identifying marker to his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.”  The Apostles, literally those who are sent are to proclaim what they have seen and heard and even touched.  They are witnesses, or in Greek martyrs, of the risen Lord.

The possibility of being a witness to the risen Lord has a short shelf-life.  It only takes a generation before those who actually walked with Jesus are no longer walking the earth.  As time went by, it became clear that what had been told, first-hand, needed to be written down so that the generations that followed might too be able to hear the proclamation of the Good News.  Yet we who walk the path of discipleship some 2,000 years later aren’t stuck holding only an old story book.  We too have the opportunity to be witnesses, not to Jesus appearing in front of us and asking for a piece of fish, but to the ongoing work of God in the world around us.

Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples are still huddled in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ Commission to proclaim has yet to come to fruition when the Holy Spirit comes with power and might, bursting forth from that safe room and running wild in the world.  Just as we are inheritors of the kerygma, we are also inheritors of the Spirit that allows us to have our eyes opened to see God’s hand a work in the world around us.  We too are witnesses to the ongoing work of re-creation and restoration that takes place through the Church, the Body of Christ, seeking God’s will in the world.  We are able to proclaim no only what the disciples saw, but what we see as well; God’s redeeming love at work all around us.

The less quoted Commission

I am thrilled that in the tens of millions of dollars it took to build the Chapel for the Ages (I hope they aren’t still calling it that) at my alma mater, Virginia Theological Seminary, they made sure to give a few nods to the old Immanuel Chapel, especially this one.

Photo by The Rev. Loren Lasch (VTS ’08)

Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel is the unofficial motto of VTS, which has always seen itself as a seminary called to equip missionaries.  For many years, the men who graduated from VTS (when they were only men) took that call quite seriously and spent their first few years of ministry in far off lands.  More often these days, the women and men who graduate find themselves in the missionary territory that is post-Christendom America.  Whether it is in a downtown metropolitan area or a yoked ministry of three or more tiny rural congregations, ordained life these days is much less comfy than it was 60 years ago, but it certainly is a rich vocation.

Of course, Matthew’s version seems fairly safe, sugar-coated even, when compared with Luke’s account of Jesus commissioning his disciples.  Luke’s Great Commission isn’t the stuff of former mainline seminary chapels.  Jesus instructed his disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  There seems to be a reluctance on both sides of the theological spectrum to live into the fullness of Luke’s Great Commission.  The right focuses its attention on the repentance piece, while the left is much more comfortable with forgiveness.

There cannot be grace without conviction, and conviction isn’t redeemed without grace.  In our hesitancy to live into this less oft quoted Commission, we’ve cut off half the Gospel message, and half a gospel is no good news at all.  As we approach the final resurrection encounter in Eastertide Year B, it would behoove us to remember that Good Friday and Easter Day are one in the same event.  Neither makes sense without the other, and both are necessary for God’s salvific work to be accomplished.  As we leave our congregations on Sunday, called to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” we would do well to remember that that service includes both the call to repentance and the proclamation of forgiveness, no matter how uncomfortable one or the other of those might make us feel.

Joy and Disbelief

The Easter story is a story of perplexing dichotomies.  On Easter Day we heard the story of the resurrection from Mark’s Gospel which ends in a very ominous tone, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  On Easter 2 we found ourselves in John’s Gospel with the well worn story of Thomas and his disbelief, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  By Easter 3, you’d think everyone would be on board with the fact that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, but here in Luke’s Gospel we find the disciples with their hands on the wounds of Jesus filled with a mixture of joy and disbelief.  The aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is delightfully perplexing.

There is a tendency in the Church to idealize the apostolic age.  In liturgics, we look to it as if there was some sort of monolithic Apostles’ Book of Common Prayer to which we all should subscribe, but alas, it doesn’t exist.  In theology, we look to the Apostles, especially Paul, as the preeminent theologians, those whose theologies should never be questioned.  Even in faith, we tend to ignore the failings of Peter and the persecution by Paul and, to some extent, even the doubting of Thomas and assume that from the very beginning everyone was on board with this whole resurrection business, which is why, I think, the Lectionary spends three weeks reminding us that Jesus rising from the grave was not what the disciples thought was going to happen.

When doubts creep in, and they do for all of us, it is helpful to remember that even the Apostles struggled with faith.  When the world seems dark and gray, when the idea that Jesus triumphed over evil seems impossible to believe, when doubt seems a whole lot easier than faith, it is good to know that we are in good company.  Once we find solidarity with the Apostles, then it seems a bit easier to move back toward faith, to read the great stories of their Acts, to hear of their perseverance, to listen to their witness, and to know that even in the chaos and the darkness, the light of Christ remains.

The life of faith is perhaps best summed up in Luke’s Gospel as a life joy and disbelief.  The Good News is that God is in present in both.