THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
April 19, 2015
“Believing is Seeing”
Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.
Not all that long ago, my wife and I were traveling somewhere. It was snowy, windy, and cold. I could have been December, January, or February, I don’t remember. As we rounded the bend in the country road I noticed out of the corner of my eye four deer standing out on the edge of the field, near the woodline; they were easily 500 yards off. I said, “look, deer.” We kept going. She said to me, “are you watching the road?” She’s that kind of navigator. I told her, “of course I am!” She wondered how in the world I managed to pick those deer out of the landscape. Some of you know how I did it. My eyes are tuned to that image. It jumps out at me.
I was standing in the parking lot about a month ago, talking to someone. I paused. “What?” they asked. “Listen,” I said, “snow geese.” They wondered aloud how I heard that.
It’s a habit. Over the years I have gathered an encyclopedia of times and places where deer can be expected. Not specific places, but if I am in a familiar spot that helps, then I can anticipate seeing them.
When I get surprised is when I see deer where I don’t expect to see them. When I was at Princeton, my advisor’s home was on the edge of town and he couldn’t keep shrubs in his yard. The deer chewed them to the ground every winter. This was suburbia. I thought he was hallucinating until when I was there one day having lunch, the deer came up between the houses for their lunch. They startled me. I didn’t expect to see them in that setting.
Hearing is the same thing, we get tuned to certain sounds. Snow geese on the horizon. A baby’s muffled cry down the hall. Sometimes, though, we don’t hear and we don’t see.
It is like the nurse who had a patient in the hospital. She had cared for the man for two weeks, nurturing him back to health. The man went back home to his wife. One day they were in the grocery store and this nice young woman came up to them and greeted them, saying ‘It is so good to see you again.’ He looked at her during an awkward minute. His wife looked at him. He looked at the young woman. Finally he said, ‘do I know you?’ ‘Why sure she said…’ he interrupted her and said, ‘of course! I know you! I just didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!’ Some things are easier to recognize in a setting that we expect them.
I hope you don’t mind if we think about this variable experience we call ‘seeing.’ It is common in the bible to hear this word, see. Peter begins speaking to a crowd and uses this word ‘see.’ John writes a letter to a church that is enduring division and he uses the word, ‘see.’ In the gospel, Jesus tries to quell the disciples confusion saying, ‘see that it is I myself.’ I want to emphasize these conversations, not in a way that some people do, to criticize. I want to take a close look at those people so that we might learn something about ourselves. We all develop our vision as we grow older, but one thing we all do; we see things through our own ‘lenses.’ Behind most of the decisions we make, things we say, what we do, what we like and dislike, is how we ‘see.’
I have a childhood memory of the first house my family owned. It was a warm summer evening and after dinner we were sitting out in the backyard eating watermelon. What I remember is my grandfather telling me that the seeds were bugs. I couldn’t bring myself to eat watermelon for years. Even now, I can plainly see that the seeds are not bugs, and yet I don’t eat it if I can avoid it. What is going on here? You know what is going on here. I am entirely able to observe that those little black bits are not bugs, but seeds. Yet, no thanks to the watermelon.
We come to Peter. Peter and John have just healed a lame beggar. At the gate of town where the beggars congregate a man looks to Peter for something. Peter knows what he wants. He anticipates what he wants. Then, in one of the greatest lines in scripture, Peter takes the man by the hand and says,
I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
The man begins jumping around and shouting for joy. The people nearby were, of course, astonished. What did they see? You can imagine what some investigator would hear if he interviewed the witnesses. But Peter didn’t wait for any speculation. He explained to them what they saw.
We come to the letter writer John. John is writing to a church that has been divided over some kind of disagreement. We don’t know what it was. But whatever it was, John told them there is one medicine for what ails you:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
So for us, there is something wrong if we cannot recognize the love of God in one another. It is present for all to see and yet something hinders our ‘seeing.’ What would it be? Is not God’s loving grace such a powerful presence that it is obvious? Apparently not. Not if you aren’t looking for it. Not if you do not anticipate it.
We come to John and the disciples in the upper room. I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. Last week I watched a part of the tv mini series, A.D. I told myself that I didn’t need to watch it. I’ve read the book. As I watched, I was impressed, surprisingly, that the writers and editors did not depict the disciples as a group unanimous in their resolve, in anticipation of the risen Christ. They were not. Not in the book, not in the t.v. series. The writers of that series depicted the upper room scene. Just like in scripture, they had trouble ‘seeing Jesus.’ “They were startled and terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost.”
I know people who limit the possibilities to that realm. You know, to the ‘religious.’ It is as if Faith is active only in the territory of the spirit. They might say believing Jesus is the Christ is something that is important in that it gives us hope for eternity. The risen Christ is encountered in the bread and the wine, and in scripture read and preached. And, to their credit, Jesus can be encountered there. But there are other places too.
Some things are so hard to see. We are so prone to miss what is going on around us.
One of the hardest things to see is the Risen Christ in our midst. So John wrote these things to remind all of us that we need to practice ‘seeing,’ and build our own ‘encyclopedia’ of where we notice God at work in the world around us. If we decide ahead of time the likely places where we will encounter Christ we can increase our chances. But where?
John wants the reader to know that the place to look for the presence of Christ is not beyond the earth. But that the sacred center of life is still in the world, in the flesh and blood, material world. This is where God is active and alive. This is where people can know God and where God lives with and empowers people. In the world around us. In people around us. Sometimes in the most unlike people and places.
And because of this passage and so many other passages in John, no one who reads these stories can then continue to believe that following Jesus Christ means being concerned only for matters related to the soul. Then, with the ancient heresies of John’s day, and now, with those ancient heresies dusted off, the dwelling place of God is not off in the world of the spirit somewhere, fenced into what is sacred but not secular, but within this physical world in which we live. Let us not create false divisions.
We have to tune our eyes and our hearts so that we might believe this, and so see it.
You can see Jesus in the daily ministry of the church. Where? As we are armpit deep in the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual…human hurts of people in our church, our community, and our world. As we gather around the Lord’s table and Word of God our eyes and hearts get readjusted. And when we go out to serve this same God, we continually re-discover God, the living and true God, noticing this presence around us; There, God meets us and continues to empower us for ministry in this world. See?
You are witnesses to these things.