Has Anybody Seen Jesus? (4/27/03)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Easter sermons are an amazing thing. Preachers sweat over every little detail. We know that there are a fair number of people who only show up at church once a year, on Easter morning, so we figure this is our one big shot at bringing them to the faith. There is a joke on my office calendar in which one of these once-a-year church-goers is leaving the church on Easter morning and says, “Gee, Reverend, I’d come to church more often, but every time I show up all you talk about is the resurrection.”
On Easter morning people come up to me and say, “Well, this is the big one!” And I say something like, “You bet,” or “hallelujah,” and then try to deliver one of those awe-inspiring once-in-a-lifetime sermons. And then you have a morning like this—the Sunday after Easter. The crowd is always disappointing when compared to Easter. We realize that we failed to convince all those once-a-year folks that the Christian message should be embraced with every breath, and not just annually, after digesting the candy eggs the Easter Bunny left around the house.
I’m always expecting somebody to come up to me on the Sunday morning after Easter and say something like, “Well, this is the little one!”
So here we are, at that time of year most dreaded by preachers of the gospel. The Easter season is a sort of Christian symphony. The weeks leading up to Easter start slowly and softly, and as Easter nears the pace becomes more rapid, the music slowly crescendos, and then there is the ultimate moment in which all the elements of the symphony come together in this glorious harmony—Easter morning… and now the music starts do diminish.
For preachers, the weeks following Easter are sort of like the day after Christmas for young children. There is this inevitable letdown. From the mighty peak of Easter we begin our slow descent toward summer and Memorial Day weekend, when summer vacations, lake cottages, and rounds of golf often take precedence over Sunday morning worship.
But I refuse to fall into melancholy. Because this day, just as much as Easter morning, is a day the Lord has made. And we should rejoice and be glad in it. And the Bible provides us with lots of challenging material to deal with in the weeks following Easter. I mean, for Christians, the story doesn’t end at the cross. It begins there. And the four gospel writers tell some amazing tales of what follows the discovery of the empty tomb.
John, as is his habit, provides the most challenging words. He paints a post-Easter Jesus who both is and is not physical. Listen to John’s story:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said that, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
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But Thomas (who was called the twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
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.”
Well, that should give us some things to talk about! The story begins on Easter—the evening of the day Jesus’ followers discovered the empty tomb. And notice what the disciples are doing: They are hiding. This should come as no surprise. Remember, the night Jesus was arrested the authorities tried to round up everybody, but the disciples ran off. They laid low for a few days. They probably figured the Romans had wooden crosses set aside with each of their names on them.
So this story begins with the disciples hiding in a locked room. And the story says, “Jesus came and stood among them.” What’s that all about? They didn’t unlock the door, and there he is, standing among them. Our first impulse is to think this is some sort of vision, some sort of ephemeral image concocted from the agonized minds of the disciples—a mass hallucination, of sorts. But then Jesus shows them his wounds. There he is, real as can be, bleeding hands and bleeding side, and a very physical Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you.”
I don’t know about you, but if I’m hiding in a locked room, fearing for my life, and some guy I saw murdered a few days before is suddenly standing in front of me and wishing me peace… That’s a little more than my simple little mind can take. You would probably find me in the following days locked away in some special place for people being trained in underwater basket weaving when they’re allowed out of their straitjackets.
Now, not all the disciples are there. Judas, you will remember, has killed himself, and for whatever reason, the story tells us that Thomas is not present. And this is the disciple who will forever be known as “Doubting Thomas,” because when he shows up later and Jesus is no longer there, he finds the story of the other disciples to be absurd. In fact, he assumes the disciples were deluded, or dreaming, and he doubts their story so much, he says he would have to stick his finger in the wounds where the nails pierced Jesus’ skin before he would believe Jesus was still alive.
Jump forward one week. We’re still in that same Bible passage. John’s story tells us the disciples are once again gathered in that same house, and this time Thomas is present. The story very specifically tells us that the doors are shut. And then Jesus is once again standing among them. There is no knock at the door, and the author of the Gospel of John doesn’t leave us any wiggle room here. Jesus does not come through the door. He does not slip in through the back window. He does not slide down the chimney a la Santa Claus. But there he is, right in the middle of his disciples, as solid and real as the wood of this pulpit.
And he tells Thomas to go ahead and stick his finger in his wounded hands, and put his hand in his pierced side. The story doesn’t actually tell us if Thomas does this. But one thing is clear. Thomas has no doubts that a very real and very physical Jesus is standing right there in front of him. And an awestruck Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.” I have a feeling he might have said something more graphic. We’ve often heard expressions of surprise using the word “Holy” followed by some common noun, such as “Holy Mackerel,” or “Holy Smokes,” or “Holy Cow.” I have a feeling Thomas may have said, “Holy something,” and John, using good taste, modified his words for use in the Bible.
What are we to make of all this? What is the message here? The Gospel of John is clearly stating that the Jesus who appeared to the disciples was physical, and yet defied the laws of the physical world by appearing out of nowhere.
There have been primarily two ways this has been interpreted through the ages. First there is the most accepted and ancient way of interpreting John’s story. The story says what it means and it means what it says. This Jesus was not some apparition that appeared out of the disciples’ mutual grief. Jesus was not the object of a mass hallucination. And there is no symbolism in John’s story. In fact, there is no interpretation required. A very real, physical Jesus, composed of the exact same atoms and molecules that comprised his body when he was murdered, appeared out of nowhere right in front of the disciples. End of story.
And it would be a mistake to throw that interpretation of the story out just because it doesn’t seem possible. After all, God, and not you and me, gets to decide what is and what is not possible. But if you question whether or not this story happened exactly as written, you are not alone, and it does not mean there is something lacking in your faith. Theologians and sincere Christians through the ages have wrestled with the implications of John’s story.
Modern liberal scholars tell us the story is symbolic. And this is a comfort to those of us grounded in modern science. We 21st Century human beings don’t like stories that have Jesus walking on water, stilling storms, and performing other deeds that conflict with the laws of modern physics. So we turn to symbolism.
The symbolic interpretation of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance says that no, of course a physical Jesus was not present in the room. That would be scientifically impossible. But the Spirit of the risen Christ is a real thing, and the author of John’s gospel makes the appearance of Jesus to his disciples, which was surely a spiritual thing, a physical thing, so readers of the gospel would understand that this wasn’t just some hallucination.
In other words, John exaggerates the way Jesus appears, to symbolically reveal the truth that Jesus really was there. This interpretation has provided comfort to those who believe in the spiritual reality of the risen Christ, but who do not believe that God makes exceptions to the physical laws built into the fabric of creation.
Did the disciples actually see Jesus? Not according to this interpretation. Did they actually touch Jesus? Not according to the symbolic reading. They experienced Jesus. They shared a common experience of the risen Christ, and their experience was real. They did not imagine it. They were not hallucinating. The Spirit of the risen Christ was right there among them, and they knew it. They had no doubts.
But how do you convey such a thing? How do you convince somebody that the spiritual is as real as the physical? Since air, or wind, was the ancient symbol of the spirit, think of it this way. How do you convince somebody that air, which we can’t see or feel, is as real as the floor on which we stand?
John’s answer, according to this interpretation, was to say the disciples really did see and touch Jesus. They really did see the air, and touch the air. John had to say that in order to make people understand that he was talking about something that is was real.
It’s no secret that I love the Gospel of John. I love John’s gospel because of the way it drags us kicking and screaming out of our normal way of thinking about things, and forces us to look at the world anew. Jesus told us time and again that we have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear. John tries to give us new eyes. John tries to give us new ears that hear the story of Jesus in a different way. John wants us to have one of those “aha” experiences. You know, one of those moments in life when the light suddenly comes on. We hear the same story, we read the same words, we look at the same world, and suddenly everything is different. But it isn’t the world that changes—it is us. And we read some parable of Jesus, and the words on the page are exactly the way we found them yesterday, but now—today—the parable is speaking to us in ways we couldn’t have imagined only an hour before.
Make no mistake: John wants to change us. John’s world is a world where spirit is not just as real as the physical world—it is more real than the physical world. And if that sounds ridiculous, think again. If you enjoy reading about quantum physics, you know that according to the greatest scientists of the modern age—Einstein, Schroedinger, Planck, Eddington, Heisenberg—the physical is not the ultimate state of reality. Atoms come from somewhere else. The great mathematician, physicist and astronomer Sir James Jeans said it well. Every object arises from the fact it subsists, quote, “in the mind of some Eternal Spirit.”
These aren’t religious gurus praying and chanting on the side of some mountain in Nepal. These are scientists, who insist that the physical world originates in some intelligence far beyond the physical—a reality which people of faith call God.
Let’s leave that strange and mysterious world of modern quantum physics, and go back a couple of thousand years to that strange and mysterious world of John. In his own way, he is saying much the same thing those modern quantum physicists are saying. Mind is as real as matter, and spirit is as real as mind, and the reality of a human being is composed of all three—matter, mind and spirit, and not necessarily in that order of importance.
Consider again John’s story of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples. Is it really important to determine whether or not the event occurred exactly as recorded? Does it matter whether or not the actual atoms and molecules of the body of Jesus were present in the room?
It may matter to some people, but honestly: I don’t think it mattered to John. For John, in Jesus Christ something happened that pointed to a truth far beyond notions of physical matter, mind and spirit. In Jesus Christ all the world was reconciled to God. In Jesus Christ, matter, mind and spirit were united in one eternal truth. Jesus was the union of the physical and the spiritual. He was the union of the finite and the eternal. He was the union of God and humanity.
Looking at the appearance of Jesus to his disciples the question for John is not, “Was it physical,” or “Was it spiritual?” The question is, “Was it real?” And John’s answer is a resounding yes. Jesus Christ really was there with the disciples following his death.
And John leaves us with a message, and a question. His message? Jesus was a real and present reality for the disciples. His question? Is Jesus a real and present reality for you?