A number of years ago a young friend … a high school student, close friend of my daughter, and sometimes attender of our church in Texas … told me she had been exploring Wicca. In fact, she had decided she was Wiccan (in part, she admitted, to engage the ire and fear of her “Born Again Christian” step mom). I, on the other hand, didn’t respond with repulsion or disdain. I usually choose to be the calm pastoral presence in matters of religion and youth. Since this conversation was happening in an electronic chat session, I was even better able to respond with a genuine affirmation of her spiritual quest and a “cool” curiosity about the Wiccan religion. The young woman explained about the yin and yang, the balance between male and female and a few other basics of the religion. “That’s fascinating,” I continued, “I’m wondering if there’s something you miss as a Wiccan that you had as a Christian …” She typed her answer relatively quickly, “I guess I miss the personal relationship; there’s nothing really personal about Wiccan.”
In the Bible Belt, we heard a lot about the importance of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. As northeastern Presbyterians, we tend to focus more on the corporate acts of mission, the intellectual tenets of faith, the creative and redeeming power of God … we rarely talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet, as I read this week’s chapter I was confronted by the personal … the one-on-one, relational aspects of the post-resurrection encounters with Jesus.
The testimonies of the resurrection are close, personal, individual, and familial. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. She spent time with him, loved him, even anointed his feet with expensive oil. Yet, after talking with the angels, and hearing the news that he is risen, she is still in denial. She only recognizes “the gardener” as Jesus when he speaks her name. Hearing the familiar voice call her name triggers an immediate response, “rabbouni” … clearly, a defining of the relationship … “teacher.”
The two disciples on their way to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus among them, even after they were talking together about the recent events in Jerusalem and the teachings of the prophets. Not until the talk and teaching turned to relationship … it was in the eating together, the breaking of the bread, that the two realized they were in the presence of the risen Christ.
Jesus appears to the disciples in the house, but Thomas wasn’t with them. Even though they reported that they saw Jesus’ hands and side, Thomas wanted the personal encounter. He needed to touch Jesus’ wounded hands and put his hand in Jesus’ pierced side before he recognized the reality of the resurrection. Up close and personal.
Peter was hand-picked by Jesus to be the rock on which to build his church. Peter argued with Jesus, fought for Jesus, denied Jesus, wept for Jesus. Yet when he sees the man on the beach, he doesn’t think “Oh, this must be the risen Lord.” When they manage to catch a miraculously large net full of fish, it’s the “disciple that Jesus loved” who first acknowledges, “It’s the Lord.” When Peter hears this testimony, he doesn’t go about his routine of hauling the 153 fish in to shore … no, he realizes he’s naked (reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the garden in the presence of God), gets dressed, and jumps into the water to meet Jesus face to face. Then, they sit together and eat … sharing loaves of bread and grilled fish.
And then Jesus commissions Simon Peter; but first he interrogates him about how Peter loves him. The Rev. Doug Hughes shared this insight from the Greek words for love during the Sunday School presentation Sunday morning at Allentown Presbyterian Church. Remember, following the breakfast on the beach, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. The Greek language has a number of words that we translate as “love.” Two of them are agápe (ἀγάπη) and philía (φιλία). Agápe relates to the spiritual and unconditional love we share for humanity in general. It is the kind of love that Jesus often speaks of … love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself. Agápe expects nothing in return; it’s a sacrificial love. Philía is the love we have for our family and close friends. It’s used in the name of the city of Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love.” Philía is a love of mutuality, of give and take. It’s relational; it’s personal.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he uses the verb agápe, “ἀγαπᾷς με” , and Peter answers, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” using the verb philía, “φιλῶ σε” (John 21:15, 16). The third time, though, Jesus changes his verb to philía, “φιλεῖς με.” (John 21:17) The gift of the resurrection, then, is not just an agápe or spiritual love of the LORD God, but also a philía love or close friendship with Jesus Christ. Many have written that the three times Peter declares his love of Jesus is healing the brokenness of the three denials before the rooster crowed on Friday morning. It is the restoration of relationship, forgiveness.
For me, this makes the resurrection real. No, it’s not merely metaphorical or symbolic. It’s not just an idea or a philosophy about the meaning of life. It is the essence of life itself … from the breathing of spirit into Adam, to the restored friendship/brotherhood between Jesus and Peter, Thomas, and Mary. This is our life, too. A life lived in proximity to God through a personal relationship with the risen Lord.