Sermon Archives

Sunday, April 30, 2017
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Recognizing Jesus

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s quite remarkable how few of the disciples and followers of Jesus recognize him, by sight at least.  Just two weeks ago we heard how Mary Magdalene, among the closest and dearest friends to Jesus, didn’t recognize him when he stood beside her, mistaking him, instead, for a gardener.  So too, last week.  Standing among the disciples, Jesus first speaks, then shows them his hands and his feet, before they recognize him in their midst.  Then, of course, there is Thomas, staunchly refusing to believe his friends until he, himself, has placed his touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and placed his own hand in Jesus side.  And now we have Cleopas and his friend, sullenly making their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, when they are joined by a stranger who, for what must have been miles interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures, beginning with Moses!  And yet, despite a burning in their heart, they still don’t recognize Jesus.

It would have been one thing had a singular disciple, James or Bartholomew perhaps, not recognized Jesus; but all – that’s another story altogether!  It’s as if to say that the disciples didn’t trust their eyes!  It’s as if those first disciples and oldest friends of Jesus knew something that we struggle with still today –our eyes deceive us!  Or, as the old adage goes, “looks can be deceiving.”

Coincidentally, just this past week I read and heard two studies on the ineffectiveness, at least the dangers, of the interview process – one in the New York Times[1] on the college visit, the other on NPR on job interviews  You see, it seems interviewers often project or imaging answers based on they see.  As Erica Reischer noted in her Times article, there is a “tendency to focus on what is in front of us without considering what is less visible.”

Consequently, when we look across a room, we are apt to be drawn to people who have some visible similarity to us or attraction for us, often the more the better – gender, age, style, status.  And, yet, we all know that none of that stuff is who anyone is.  The who lies deep within and is not only “less visible” is often nearly “invisible”!

The same is equally true in our faith – be it, recognizing Jesus in our lives or finding God within and among us, at home or here.  Our eyes can and will deceive us.  If it was all about appearances we are apt to make sweeping generalizations that are far from true.  Some might say, as the Pharisees did long ago, that God was to be found only among the holy, in the holy places and at those holy tables where righteousness clearly flourished.  Or that the faithful community of God is the largest, wealthiest, with the most beautiful things.  Others will take an alternate approach and say that God is not in those places of beauty and wealth and holiness, but only in places of poverty and brokenness and raw humanity.

Yet neither would be true.  As these earliest accounts of Jesus resurrection remind us, it is not merely the visible appearance of Jesus that is to be trusted, but rather the character of the relationships that he established for which we must earnestly look.

As Mary Magdalene laments to a strange and unknown gardener on the third day – “where have you taken my Lord?” – in spite of his visible presence beside her, Mary does not recognize the Risen Christ in her very midst.  Only when he calls her name, “Mary!” does she recognize him.  Only when she realizes that he knows her, perhaps even more, that this is the one who has loved her, does she realize who he is. 

And that is one of the less visible qualities of God’s presence that I suspect we all yearn to experience – that we are known and beloved. 

Much the same may be said for those fearful disciples locked in the upper room – standing among them, visible to the eye, is Jesus – but it isn’t until they see his hands and feet and hear him speak, “Peace be with you” that they recognize him.  It wasn’t the body of the resurrected Jesus that mattered to these first disciples, it was the character of his life that proclaimed his real presence – a life that brought peace to those locked up in fear and isolation. 

And that is one of the less visible qualities of God’s presence that I suspect we all yearn to experience – when we are caught up in the isolation of our fear and anxiety, we may know peace which surpasses understanding. 

Thomas, with his intense focus on the wounds of Christ, reminds us of another truth – Christ is found, where sacrificial love reigns and where forgiveness conquers sin.  Those hands and feet impaled by the iron nails of the cross, and that wounded side pierced by a soldier’s spear, are more than the wounded hands and feet and side of Jesus, they are the marks of his sacrificial love and his abounding forgiveness for the world.  For Thomas, these are the signs of Jesus – not the look of his face, or the color of his hair, or even the sound of his voice – only here, where sacrificial love and abounding mercy are found.

And that, too, is one of the less visible qualities of God’s presence that I suspect we all yearn to experience – when we fall into sin and betray God or hurt one another, we yearn to know that forgiveness and love about all the more.

And this is what God’s table represents.  As we gather today, we gather with Cleopas and all the disciples who sat with Jesus on that fateful night – to remember not only his words, but his final action among them:  to feed them even as they were about to betray and flee him. 

And that, too, is one of the less visible qualities of God’s presence that I suspect we all yearn to experience – when we flee from God, we yearn to know God receives us still.

When we look for God in the ordinary places of our lives, we are reminded to look not merely to the flashy or extraordinary places, but to those where we are known and encounter love, where peace prevails, and where forgiveness reigns.

There in those places, we are sure to see God not only with our hearts, but with our eyes as well.

[1] Erica Reischer “Skipping the College Tour”, New York Times, April 26, 2017