Seeing Jesus

Photo Credit: Gwenaël Piaser via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gwenaël Piaser via Compfight cc

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter based on John 20:19-31

Every year on this Second Sunday of Easter we read this account from John’s Gospel.  The disciples have chosen not to believe Mary and the other women when they tell what happened early that morning at the tomb.  Instead of rejoicing and proclaiming alleluias, the disciples have holed up and double bolted the door fearing for their lives.

And then somehow, Jesus appeared.  While he’s been resurrected in bodily form, he’s been changed as well.  “He came and stood among them,” in spite of the locks, St. John the Evangelist writes.  Jesus then said, “Peace be with you,” and showed them his hands and his side, and it’s at that point—after seeing his scars—they knew it was really him and they rejoiced.  He wishes for them peace again, and then sends them out just as God had sent him into the world, breathing on them so that they could receive God’s Spirit.

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  The others try to tell him later that they saw Jesus, but he responds the same as they had to the women.  Nope.  Not gonna believe it.  Not unless he sees with his own eyes.  It’s the very thing, of course, that the other disciples needed to believe themselves.  They saw Jesus’ hands and his side first, and then they rejoiced.

It’s always the same for me: I feel sorry for Thomas.  He was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time—had they sent him off to get take out?—and because of this he’s been shackled with the moniker “doubting Thomas” ever since.  Peter and James and Philip and Thaddeus and all the rest doubted too; they refused to believe Mary’s story, but they were spared the name-calling.  Thomas is the doubter.  The skeptic.  The one who has to see and touch the scars of Jesus before he can truly believe.

Not one to leave a story unfinished, John the Evangelist sets the scene once more with the disciples behind a closed door the following Sunday evening and Thomas is with them this time—they must have called for delivery.  Although the doors are shut, Jesus once again appears before them.  “Peace be with you,” he declares.  Then looking at Thomas he says, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas, upon seeing all this, exclaims emphatically, “My Lord and my God!”  As one commentator noted this is “one of the strongest declarations of faith recorded in all of the New Testament.”[1]  “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Our Gospeler then writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  He knows that we, the people of his audience, won’t ever see Jesus face to face, that we won’t have the same option as the disciples to see Jesus’ hands and his side, we’ll not have physical proof but only second hand accounts and that when we believe by those means, we are blessed.

Sculptor Timothy Schmolz recently completed a work that has become fodder for much conversation.  It’s of a park bench with the figure of a man under a thin blanket who has fallen asleep lying on it.  The sculpture resides outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC, an affluent community 20 miles north of Charlotte.  The church accepted the piece—a gift from a parishioner in honor of a loved one—because the homeless man is Jesus, identifiable only by the nail mark scars on his feet.

According to one news report, “Schmalz said he was inspired to craft the statue after seeing a homeless man on the ground before Christmas in 2011. ‘My instinctive thought was, that is Jesus Christ. I saw Jesus,’ he said.”[2]  People have been up in arms about the statue, as you could well imagine.  One person, upon first seeing it from the road, called the police to report the vagrant person.  Others didn’t like that the artwork depicted Jesus as being so needy, since he is so powerful. But I can’t get the sculptor’s words out of my head: “I saw Jesus,” he said.  I saw Jesus.

Depictions of Jesus abound with a leaning toward the light-skinned and sometime blue-eyed European hippie look.  In his book, The Faces of Jesus, minister and author Frederick Buechenr poses the question of what Jesus might have looked like.  He writes, “To say [Jesus] had a face is to say that like the rest of us he had many faces as the writers of the Old Testament knew who used the Hebrew word almost exclusively in its plural form.  To their way of thinking, the face of a man is not a front for him to live his life behind but a frontier, the outermost, ever-changing edge of his life itself in all its richness and multiplicity, and hence they spoke not of the face of the man or of God but of his faces.  The faces of Jesus then—all the ways he had of being and of being seen.  The writers of the New Testament give no description of any of them because it was his life alive inside them that was the news they hawked rather than the color of his eyes. … Nobody tells us what he looked like, yet of course the New Testament itself is what he looked like, and we read his face there in the faces of all the ones he touched or failed to touch.”[3]

Our baptismal covenant asks us if we will respect the dignity of every human being and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Will we find the face of Jesus in others?  Will we meet him in those needing our care and in those extending care to us?  Will we see Jesus?

On some days I’m just like the disciples needing physical tangible proof in front of me that Jesus has been raised, especially after having a disappointing experience that raises my doubts.  On other days I realize I have proof enough in front of me already.  As people of the resurrection, as Easter people, we show the very face of Jesus because Jesus lives in us.  His face is in our face.  His face is in the face of our neighbor, and spouse and child and co-worker.  His signs of new life continue on in us and in others.  Those works that John says he didn’t have time to write down, they still endure to this day.  I see it in the care you give to one another, the way you share a laugh or a prayer.  I glimpse it as you come to this church dressed in work clothes so that this place may look as beautiful externally as it is within the face of our community.  These signs of Jesus continue as you become Jesus yourselves. “You glimpse the mark of his face in the faces of everyone who ever looked toward him or away from his, which means finally of course that you glimpse the mark of him also in your own face,”[4] as Buechner put it.

So while Jesus says we are blessed if we don’t see and believe, I think we’re also blessed if we see and believe.  Because the presence of Jesus is all around us.  We’ll see him in the face of Elizabeth as she goes down to the font this morning, and we’ll see him in those who are sitting next to us.  We’ll see him in the server at the Spa or in the children’s librarian.  We’ll see him in the homeless woman we pass tomorrow on our way to work, and we’ll see him in the friend we grab a cup of coffee with.  He’s here all around us if we just open our eyes and see, really see.  There are signs of his work still happening to this day, and they are so numerous that no books could hold them all.  We just have to see, and believe in the risen Christ because he is here in our midst and at this table and he longs for us to receive his gifts of peace and life.

 

[1] Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2. Davicd Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Westminster John Knox, 2010. Pg. 396.

[2] Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/17/homeless-jesus-sculpture-davidson_n_5167418.html Accessed 4/23/14

[3] Frederick Buechner, The Faces of Jesus.  Paraclete, 2006. viii-ix.

[4] Ibid.