Seeing Jesus

Acts 9:1-6; Rev. 5:11-14; John 21:1-14

These passages have in common seeing Jesus after his resurrection, seeing him as he reveals himself in different ways and forms. To Paul, Jesus appeared as a blinding light and a voice from heaven. To John in Revelations as a Lamb that had been killed but was alive again. To the disciples, as an ordinary person who they didn’t at first recognize, but who told them how to catch an overflowing net of fish. There are other similar post-resurrection accounts. 

The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is especially inspiring. A stranger joins them as they travel. They told him about Jesus’ crucifixion, lamenting that they had thought he was the promised Messiah. The stranger admonishes them for not understanding the Scriptures and he explained to them how they were fulfilled in Jesus. Then he stopped to eat with them, and in the breaking of the bread they suddenly recognized him as Jesus. Immediately Jesus disappeared. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us and opened the Scriptures to us,” they said.

We too can learn to see Jesus in many ways and places. The prayer for today in the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer, reflecting on the Emmaus story is, “God, open the eyes of our faith that we may see Jesus in all his redeeming work.” That’s a prayer that God that promises to answer. But we need to open our minds so as not to miss Jesus when he appears to us.

We see Jesus in God’s acts of love, blessing and guidance in our daily lives. In the grace and wisdom of our brothers and sisters. In our own and others’ actions of caring. In the Scriptures when the Holy Spirit makes a passage come alive for us. In prayer. By looking and listening we can grow in our ability to see Jesus in our everyday experiences.

Jesus also comes to us in unexpected and unfamiliar ways. The Hasidic Jewish tradition has some wonderful stories about the Messiah appearing in disguise. A poor beggar limped into town covered with dirt and grime and dressed in rags. The children threw stones at him, the adults were repulsed by him and kept their distance. and the local rabbi drove him out of town. Then immediately afterwards realizing that the beggar was the Messiah, he ran to find him, but it was too late. The Messiah had gone up to heaven in a flame of fire. 

In another story a rabbi finds a leper covered completely with sores sitting in a miserable hovel. He starts spending day after day sitting with him. Each day all day with this leprous man covered with horrific sores and rotting hands and feet. After a while, other people ask him, why are you staying all the time with that miserable leper? The rabbi replied, “Don’t you know, that’s the Messiah. As Isaiah tells us, ‘He had no stately form or majesty and was despised and rejected by mankind.’”

St. Francis of Assisi famously encountered a leper and kissed his rotting hand. Then went and lived for a while in a leper colony bathing and tending daily to the lepers’ needs. As Mother Theresa did in our own time with the dying poor of Calcutta. Francis and Theresa did this not out of a sense of superior obligation and paternalism, but because in these suffering ones they saw Jesus. That is, they saw the image of God in their fellow human beings and were moved to humble themselves to serve them.

This idea of seeing Jesus in those who are considered the least by the standards of this world is expressed by Jesus himself in his Matthew 25 parable of the judgment of the nations. You remember, the Messiah has been established as King and divides the peoples into two groups — sheep and goats. The sheep are the ones who showed compassion to the hungry, thirsty, in prison, and displaced. The King told them that by doing that they were caring for him – for Jesus himself.

In the 1990s I visited one of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity homes in Nairobi, Kenya. Most of the people there were dying of AIDS. Many women developed AIDS, not because of they were sexually promiscuous, but because of their husbands were. This was before any effective, affordable AIDS medicine. One patient was a 11-year old girl dying of AIDs who had been sold by her parents and repeatedly sexually abused. One of the Sisters held her as she rocked back and forth and moaned. I was also moved by a Sister who like all the staff there, spent her days and nights caring for dying. She herself was HIV-positive but was full of joy and glowing with the light of Christ. I saw Jesus in her, just as she saw Jesus in the suffering souls she was caring for. 

Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure not to see Jesus in the faces of others. I think of one of my mentors as a young believer in the 1970s – a retired Pentecostal pastor named Jim, who served as a missionary and church planter in Jamaica in the 1950s. He realized that God was anointing women to serve as pastors in some of the churches he started. But this was contrary to the teachings of his denomination at that time and contrary to what he had previously believed. But Jim knew what he had seen. 

He ordained the new pastors and wrote his headquarters describing what God was doing. He told them, “Who was I to stand in God’s way,” as the Apostle Peter told the Council in Jerusalem after seeing the uncircumcised Gentile Cornelius filled with the Holy Spirit. Jim was able to see Jesus – Jesus the pastor and teacher — in these pioneering women, as they were also able to recognize God’s presence and gift in themselves. Sometimes we have to push through barriers to recognize Jesus and respond with faithfulness.

We can also see Jesus in movements for justice. It’s relatively easy to look back now and see God in the Black Church-led Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. But at the time many white Christians didn’t recognize God’s work there. Many white pastors condemned the civil rights demonstrations. Many professing Christians participated in the violence against the demonstrators. May God give us eyes to see his new work in our own time and place.

I want to end with one more place to see Jesus. In the mid 1980s I spent two weeks in Nicaragua. At the time a terrible civil war going on. A new government was in power having overthrown the brutal dictator Somoza, who was a U.S. ally. The U.S. was funding and training an army of rebels to fight against the new government. The conflict was particularly intense in the northern part of the country near the Honduran border. There were a lot of human rights violations and many civilians killed in that area. 

An organization called Witness for Peace organized groups of church people from throughout the U.S. to go there two weeks at a time year-round to meet with people in the war zone there, hear their stories and observe what was happening. Then come back to the U.S. to try to get our government to end its support for the fighting.

So I went with a group in August of 1984. The trip was not without some risks. We had training in what to do if an armed group tried to abduct any of us. We signed a document saying we understood the potential danger. 

Now it happened that prior to leaving on this trip I was reading a book by Joseph Conrad called The Heart of Darkness. It was about the brutal rule of the Congo by Belgium in the 19th century. The plot of the novel was a trip by the narrator deep into Congo where a renegade Belgian had set up own murderous mini-kingdom. He had been driven mad by the savage violence and oppression he had witnessed and himself had perpetrated on the Congolese people as a Belgian representative. The heart of darkness in the book title was both the evil of Belgium colonial rule and the depravity of which human beings are capable.

I felt like my trip to the Nicaraguan war zone was a kind of trip into the heart of darkness. Our group landed in the capitol of Managua and proceeded to the war zone in the North. We talked with many people and heard horrendous stories of the suffering caused by the war – of loved ones killed and lives destroyed. It was a terrible time for the people of Nicaragua. 

We were entering the final two days with a visit to one last town that had often been the subject of frequent rebel raids and killings. I wondered what I’d find there. Might there be an attack on the town while our group was there?

We arrived that evening and woke up the next morning to the sound of gunfire, then begin our usual day of hearing people’s heart-rending experiences of struggle and loss. We were invited to have lunch in a church and were hosted by the local priest. The priest was from the U.S. and had first come to Nicaragua during the time of Somoza. He had lived in this same area, pastoring and teaching in the community and accompanying the people in their suffering and struggles. But he was viewed as a threat by the Somoza government and so was arrested, tortured and thrown out of the country. Now, with a new government he was back in the community – in the middle of violent conflict. 

We were eating lunch, when the priest casually began to play with his fork and spoon, tapping out a whimsical rhythm on his plate and cup. It was kind of goofy, and I thought, “This is pretty silly. What’s this crazy priest doing playing with his food.” When suddenly my eyes were opened. I saw what God had wanted me to see. I saw what we can all find in times of fear and despair. I looked at that priest tapping out a tune with his eating utensils in a murderous war zone—-and I saw Jesus.

It was Jesus there in the heart of darkness doing what Jesus always does in the midst of great suffering. Walking with us, sharing our pain, and bringing light and grace, comfort and hope. That was what God had wanted me to see. Something that the people of that community had already seen and known much better than I. It’s been a lesson I’ve found to be true in all the years since. Jesus is with us in hardest of times and the darkness of nights.

May God indeed open the eyes of our faith, that we may see Jesus in all his redeeming work.

Marty Shupack, New Hope Fellowship Church, April 10, 2016