They thought they were seeing a ghost. They did not recognize the truth of his presence with them. They were terrified by this thing that was happening that they had no context for and nothing in their life could prepare them for. Jesus’ words and stories throughout his life, though they were intended to prepare the disciples, did not prepare them, the scriptures that had been explained could not prepare them. They couldn’t really believe what they had been told because they hadn’t seen anything like it before. And as a result, they simply did not, could not recognize him.
And that’s very real, isn’t it? We don’t see the things we don’t expect to see. It is hard for us to recognize the things that are outside of our experiences. We have a hard time assimilating those things that are “other” than what we believe, know, and expect. Mary at the tomb didn’t recognize Jesus at first, and in the story for today, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. These are not to be wondered at. I think we would all think and feel and see the same if someone we loved and knew had died suddenly appeared among us. Because they had no context for believing in a resurrection, they simply did not, could not recognize him at first.
So then the question becomes, how do we recognize the Holy One in our midst? If Jesus were resurrected or were to return among us today, how would we recognize him? How would we know him?
Mary recognized Jesus when he called her name: that moment of intimacy, of knowing and recognizing and loving someone. The disciples knew Christ through the familiar and loving behaviors and actions of the man they knew – eating with them, talking with them, sharing scripture with them. They recognized him, in other words, by his love for them: by the love in his voice when he spoke Mary’s name, by the love he expressed by acting with his disciples as he always did – honestly, but with comfort, eating with them, sharing with them, serving them, being with them.
I’m reminded of a poem I shared once before:
The man whispered, "God, speak to me" and a meadowlark sang.
But, the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, "God, speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But, the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, "God let me see you." And a star shined brightly.
But the man did not see.
And, the man shouted, "God show me a miracle." And, a life was born.
But, the man did not notice.
So, the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God, and let me know you are here."
Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man. But, the man brushed the butterfly away .
and walked on.
In the movie The Polar Express, the main character, the boy is struggling to believe in Santa Claus. At one point he has a conversation with a “ghost” about believing. Despite seeing, despite hearing, despite his experiences, he still isn’t sure and thinks it might all be a dream. The ghost does not convince him otherwise. He says to the boy, “But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path. You don’t want to be conned, or Duped, to have the wool pulled over your eyes, hoodwinked. You don’t want to be taken for a ride, railroaded. Seeing is believing. Am I right?” And then he asks the boy if he believes in ghosts. The boy shakes his head “no” to which the ghost simply responds, “interesting.” And walks on, disappearing into the snow.. disintegrating into the snow.
We tell ourselves that seeing is believing, but we are so often guilty of seeing what we know rather than knowing what we see. The truth is that while we tell ourselves seeing is believing, it is more often the case that believing is seeing. And in no case is this more true than in the case of whether or not we see God.
We need to be careful, therefore, to not be so stuck in our images of what things are, in our expectations of what should be that we can’t actually see or hear what is around us. We need to work hard to keep our minds open enough that we don’t miss seeing when God is right in front of us.
One of my very favorite lines in the very first episode of Joan of Arcadia occurs when Joan sees God and talks to God for the first time. She wonders if there is something special about her that allows her to see God when others don’t. She asks God, “Why are you appearing to me?” To which God responds, “I am not appearing to you. You are perceiving me.” The truth of that hits me often. God is all around. God is all around. But do we perceive God? Do we perceive God?
I shared with all of you in a newsletter article about a time when Jasmyn was really struggling. My very intuitive “almost twelve year old” was struggling with a sense that her world was about to be irrevocably changed. She was grieving her childhood and the naiveté of that childhood. She was grieving the easy vision of life, the vision that everything could be fixed with a wave of a wand, and that we could all live happily ever after without scars or trauma. She talked about her fears that a tornado would hit, that there would be a disaster, that all of her life would change in a second and everything that she counted on would be different. And that tornado was about to hit for her, changing everything. There was nothing she could do to control it, to change it, to prevent it. This fear caused her to wonder about the very point of life. But in the midst of all that pain and struggle, all that angst and fear and wondering, all of a sudden the most beautiful butterfly landed on the ground in front of us. “Oh look!” she exclaimed with sudden and deep joy. And I found myself saying, “God sent you a butterfly, Jasmyn. There is your answer from God. There is joy, there is beauty, even in the hard times. And God is bringing that to you now.” Jasmyn turned and looked at me and suddenly she was sobbing in my arms, just sobbing and holding on, as if her life depended on it. So we stood there on the sidewalk, Jasmyn crying, watching this beautiful butterfly and just being together. God knows our pain – God suffered on the cross. The disciples felt that pain too when Jesus died, when they felt their hopes crumbled, their lives irrevocably changed. But God appeared for them and God appears for us and does bring the butterflies. If we keep our eyes open, we will see them. It is often in the hardest times that God is most near to us, touching us, offering us beauty and a deeper glimpse.
But we have to be open to seeing it. We have to keep our eyes open.
It goes even deeper than that. Jesus was recognized by his love. By his calling Mary’s name, by his eating and being present with the disciples.
We too, as Christians, are called to help others to see God, through our love. “They will know we are Christians by our love”. Different groups of people were recognized by different behaviors and even by different appearances. This is still the case. We recognize the Amish by their appearance, Muslim women by the hijab they wear, priests by the collar. We used to recognize Jews by the clothes they wore, the lack of cutting of side burns for men, etc. That’s still the case with Orthodox Judaism. Others as well. We as Christians are to be recognized by our love just as Jesus was recognized by his love.
We see God through our love. We show God through our love. My prayer then is that all of us may be given the eyes of love with which to see, and the hands of love with which to act. Amen.