Jesus sightings: John 20:19-31; delivered April 3, 20

Jesus must have been more than a little frustrated when he stepped out of that tomb on Easter morning. He goes all the way to hell and back, literally. Then when he arrives back on earth, no one recognizes him!  Years ago, Harry Chapin created a foot stompin blue grass musical of the life and ministry of Christ.  At the resurrection Jesus, played by a very gifted actor, Tom Key, reappears on stage, after the crucifixion.  He yells out to his friends, “I’m Here!”  With a long drawn out “HEEEEERE.”  Like he’s expecting an impromptu party or something. 

But in our Bible there’s nothing—at least at first.  Zip.  Zero.  Mary, dear beloved Mary, thinks he is the gardener. Two followers on the road to Emmaus, speak to him at length, even sit across from him at a table and don’t catch on that he’s back. Here in our scripture reading for today, even when Thomas is TOLD that the man before him is Jesus, he’s STILL not sure:   “Well, he sort of kind of looks like Jesus, but I don’t know.  Give me a minute. Let me look at those hands again?”

It’s all very bizarre, almost laughable, isn’t it?  Well, I say it’s almost laughable, but it’s not when it happens to you, and I suspect that it has—this not being able to recognize people you know.  Say you’re at the grocery.  A woman approaches you, wheeling her cart, coming from the opposite direction.  She calls you by name, gives you a big hug, comments on how it’s been such a long time since you have seen each other.  She asks after your family.  All the time you are smiling but inside you are in crisis mode. “WHO IS THIS WOMAN????  You go through that mental checklist.  No, she’s not from church; she is too young to have been in school with me.   She doesn’t live in my neighborhood—at least I don’t think she does.”  Finally the woman moves on, thank goodness!   A week later, you’re looking at your calendar and you see that you have an upcoming doctor’s appointment, and it comes to you. That woman at the mall.  She’s the receptionist at your doctor’s office! 

This has happened to you, right?  You haven’t lost your mind—yet. The problem is that at the shopping mall, the woman you ran into was out of context.     

So funny the way our minds work.  There’s this short film that has become a classic.  It was produced by a man named Daniel Simon, an experimental psychologist.  The film shows six people lined up on a stage.   Three out of those six people are wearing white tee shirts.  One of the six people is holding a basketball. The instructions we, the viewers are given, is to count how many times the people in white tee shirts toss the ball.  Remember, just count the times the people in white tee shirts, others are wearing black Tee shirts,  toss the ball.  The game begins.  The six people toss the ball, back and forth, among themselves, but the counting process is difficult because the six people are moving around. When I viewed the film, I correctly counted 15 tosses by the people in white tee shirts.  I got the correct answer,Ta dah! I did not see the really odd thing in the film until I watched it a second time, though.  This time around, I noticed that as the ball was tossed and the people moved around, a man in a gorilla costume walked across the stage.  He actually stood in the middle of the stage looking at the camera for a few seconds before he moved out of viewing range.  How could I have missed seeing him?!  The video demonstrates our own selective viewing.  I was focused on the ball and the people wearing white tee shirts.   I wasn’t expecting or looking for a man in a gorilla costume and so he didn’t register in my brain.  

And that’s what happened when Jesus came back to earth, apparently.  People don’t normally come back from the dead. Jesus’ friends and loved ones dealt with the new reality of Jesus resurrection by, well, by ignoring it.    

The same goes for us in today’s world.  There are certain places where and certain situations when we expect Jesus to show up, but other places and other times, well, not so much.  

The times and places EYE recognize Jesus, in my heart as I go about living my life?   At church, of course—not all the time, but sometimes. A prayer will strike me as particularly poignant, maybe.  At Ebenezer Presbyterian, where I served for 3 ½ years before coming here, a woman named Rachel, asked for prayers every week.  Rachel was in her 60’s I’d say, and she was caring for her extremely elderly mother, “Mama.” Rachel would tell us about “Mama’s” latest health concerns and ask for prayers.  One Sunday I saw, not the right word, better I guess, “felt” or “imagined” Jesus sitting right beside Rachel as she talked about her mom, his arm around her shoulders. And of course, he was sitting beside Rachel—his arm was draped around her shoulders.

       We are supposed to recognize Jesus in the faces of little children, but I don’t really.  Maybe you have better luck.  I think with me, I’m just too swept up by their cuteness to remember to look for Jesus, then.   I DO recognize Jesus sometimes when I am at the dinner table with friends and family members, with our heads bowed in prayer. I think that is probably what Jesus meant when he said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name.”

A clergy friend of mine, a black woman, told me that she was at the hospital, intending to visit a sick parishioner.  She got to the parishioner’s hospital room door, but couldn’t enter, because there were too many angels, for her to squeeze through.  So maybe sometimes maybe it is Jesus’ angels we should be looking for.

This is strange, but lately, and by lately I mean the past year, not just this spring, I have smelled a holy presence, either God or Jesus I cannot say.   I will be walking my dog, maybe, and I will register a whiff of sweet and clean smelling, coming from no where, or better, everywhere.  It’s like incense, or brown soap.  I decided to explore the sense of smell in relation to Jesus, a little bit further.  I found a writer, right at our backdoors, Vigen Guroian, who is a religious professor emeritus at UVA—Armenian Orthodox.  He has written a book, actually, entitled the Fragrance of God.  Here is a quote from that book: 

“In the pearly petals of the star of Bethlehem (the flower)  the mockingbird’s evening song, the pomegranate’s sanguine seed. The lilac’s perfume scent, and the eggplant’s silky skin, Paradise shows itself to holy senses. Through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, God meets us in the Garden.

 In fact, Professor Guroian, says that  “Smell is the most mystical of our senses,” and that Christian Orthodoxy honors our senses in a way that Protestantism does not.  

Which is exactly right.  Our own John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, taught that smells have no place in Christian devotion.  John Calvin was reacting to the Catholic Church, remember.  He says that incense is an example of the ceremonialism that is inappropriate in the gospel age.  It is only because “we are so ignorant and so given up to earthly and carnal things that the merciful lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.”  

In this theological argument, I choose to side with Vigen Gurioan.   There are probably a lot of places that Jesus shows up, as either smells, sights, tastes, touch or sound. 

Jesus is God incarnate.  Incarnation, in the flesh.  We recognize God through our own flesh—our own senses. 

Truth be told, though, there may be sometimes when we prefer NOT to recognize Jesus in our lives—when we would rather Jesus not be around.  We say something mean; we do something we are not proud of—we don’t want Jesus to be around because we are afraid Jesus will judge us.     

So for instance, I share with you something I heard about on NPR, gee maybe two years ago and then I’ll be done. 

NPR shared that a statue, at St. Albans Episcopal Church in that lovely town called Davidson, in North Carolina had been erected there.  

The statue is different from your average statue.  The figure it represents, Jesus, is curled up on a park bench.  A bronze blanket, which is part of the statue, covers his head and indeed, his entire body, except his feet.  Those stick out at the bottom of the blanket. How do we know it’s a depiction of Jesus?    His feet have holes in them. You know, nail holes.  The statue, is so lifelike, though, that it looks for all the world like a real homeless person. 

Responses to the statue by people in Davidson, North Carolina have been mixed.  One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by it," says the editor of "She thought it was an actual homeless person."

That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.

Another person wrote a letter to the editor complaining that the statue “Creeps him out.”  Several people claim that it is a demeaning depiction of our Lord. 

The rector at St. Albans, The Rev. Buck, comments, though, that some people have begun

stopping by that statue.  They sit at Jesus’ feet, touch them, bowing their heads in prayer.”

The Reverend Buck continues, “The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the passage in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples, "As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.’”  Rev. Buck continues, “It's a good Bible lesson for those [of us] used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery. [Or, I will add here, that ridiculous painting of a little tiny Jesus sitting on the tremendous hand of God—and God of course sitting on a gigantic, ornate throne.]  Reverend Buck says, “ We believe [the statue] portrays the kind of life Jesus had.  He was, in essence, a homeless person."

Personally, I think the statue reminds us to be on the lookout.  You never know where and when Jesus might appear.  At a gas station, at the check out counter at the grocery store, in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, in the smell of soap, in the softness of a rose petal, as on a park bench.  After all, Jesus the Christ is definitely risen.  He is risen, indeed, walking the world on our behalf.   Let’s keep our eyes peeled and our hearts open to receive him.  May it be so for you as for me.  Amen

Years ago, I attended a service at a Greek Orthodox Cathedral.   That cathedral has a dome, and on the inside of the dome is a painted Jesus, the Christ.  His arms are outstretched like he is hugging the entire sanctuary and all the people in it. Actually, the background of that painting is blue with little stars, so maybe he is hugging the entire world.  Jesus was there, right? You could not help but feel that.