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.
For such a short chapter, there are a lot of familiar stories this week. That’s good in the sense that we’re all on familiar ground, but it makes it difficult to come up with something to write about that isn’t just a rehash of what’s been said over and over again. I’ve been told that many pastors dislike writing Easter Sunday sermons for that very reason. Though, they also have to deal with the “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians, who don’t have any of the “back story” behind those events. Hopefully that’s not a problem for those who have been reading “The Story” along with us.
I’m going to focus on the “walk to Emmaus” story. Like the others, it’s familiar to many of us. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, talking about everything that’s happened, when they are joined by an incognito Jesus. After they belittle him for not knowing what they’re talking about, they provide a quick recap. Jesus then goes into “rabbi mode,” explaining scripture to them. And they still don’t recognize him. But at least they recognize his wisdom as a teacher, so they ask him to stay with them. Then, finally, when they’ve stopped to share a meal, Jesus breaks bread and they recognize him at last.
The most common question on this passage, I think, is why? Why didn’t the disciples recognize Jesus? The text simply says “… they were kept from recognizing him.” So what was it? Was Jesus wearing a disguise? Was he actively trying to deceive them? I don’t think so. I think it was they themselves who stood in the way of seeing Jesus for who he was.
When Jesus first appeared to them, they were deep in their own thoughts. They had heard the reports of others who saw the empty tomb, but they were just trying to make sense of it all. They were so caught up in their own world that, when Jesus approached them, they actually mocked him! “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” I can hear the condescension in their voices as they explain it to him. At which point, Jesus takes them to task, explaining scripture to them yet again.
To the disciples credit, they at least begin to realize that there’s something special about this guy they met on the road. They still don’t know who he is, but at least they want to spend more time with him. Perhaps they were looking for a new rabbi to follow. In any case, they urge Jesus to stay with them. And it’s there, finally, when he blesses and breaks the bread, that they see him for who he is.
I see the disciples in this story as being on a journey, and not just the physical walk. They are on a journey of faith. They start out on their own, confused and isolated. They don’t know who this Jesus guy really is. As they move along their road, they study scripture. They learn more about Jesus, but they still don’t know Jesus. Finally, they reach the third stage, where they stop. Stop trying to make it all make sense. Stop thinking so much about it, and just be with Jesus. Then they know him.
Thanks to the encouragement of my son-in-law, I’ve taken up running. Though, in my case, the pace isn’t must faster than a walk. But there are advantages to my slower pace. I run on roads that I drive over all the time. But you see things at that slower speed that simply are not visible as you race by in a car. Little details that don’t even exist at higher speeds suddenly take on more significance. I think that’s what’s happening for the disciples. Once they stopped focusing on where they were going to go, and what they were going to do, they could really see Jesus.
We are all, as Christians, at various points along that journey. Sometimes we’re confused and questioning. Sometimes we’re studying. And sometimes, rarely, we can just stop, and know Jesus. And I think that all of those stages have value. We need that time of study, to make sure that the stops are with the right person! But we also, I think, need those times of confusion and questioning, to lead us to newer, deeper insights.
There is one stage of the disciple’s journey that I didn’t talk about. And that’s what happened after they recognized Jesus. They didn’t stay where they were. It wasn’t a permanent stop. They moved on, to join with the others. To continue their journey of faith.
One last thing. This has very little to do with the chapter, but thinking about stopping got me thinking about a song that was popular when I was a teen. “Stop And Smell the Roses” by Mac Davis. It’s where I got the title for this post. Enjoy.
This week we’ll be reading the story of the resurrection of Jesus That’s Chapter 27: The Resurrection. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 27-28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 19-21. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory