Sunday, July 31, 2016

What Makes You Know It's Jesus?

What Makes You Know It’s Jesus
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 31, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Exodus 3: 7-15
Luke 24: 18-31
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Do you remember the old commercials for Tootsie Roll pops? There was this wise old owl and he was challenged with finding out how many licks it would take to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop. He would start counting. . . one. . . two-hoo. . . and then crunch. . . he would bite into it. He just couldn’t wait to get to that chocolatey center, and so the official scientific discovery would have to wait. . . the chocolate was just too tempting. I bring this up because this image best describes I think certain aspects of my youth class from this week at Bible School. The name of the class was “Images of Jesus” and the idea was that I would show them pictures of Jesus from art work, and we could see how the many different ways that Jesus has been depicted throughout time. We’d start with paintings and then branch off into movie depictions, writings, songs, etc. I took a class like this at seminary, and I found it very rewarding. . . and I had taught an adult study based on the idea here, too, but I hadn’t ever taught a group of teens. I thought I was up for the challenge, and I think it was valuable, but I had an idea after the first day that I wish I would have done, and this is where the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial comes into play. I wish as an introduction to the class, I would have played a variation on Pictionary, you know the game where you draw a picture to try and get them to guess the word. . . in this variation all of the words would be Jesus, and they would have to draw Jesus. . . and then as soon as it was guessed. . . they would stop. . . and then maybe we would get an understanding of what the definitive marking is for Jesus. . . what is the point in a picture where you go, “I got it that is Jesus. I recognize him now.” I think playing that game would have helped some. . . to introduce the idea that certain things tip us off immediately in recognizing a picture of Jesus, but like the Owl and the tootsie roll pop, we jump right over them, without taking the time to think about it.

I want you to picture Jesus in your head. What is it about the mental picture in your head that makes him Jesus? Is it the beard? The piercing blue eyes? The knowing smile? The kindness written on his expression? What is it that makes this picture of someone, Jesus? Is he on the cross? Does he have the markings of crucifixion, like holes in his hands? Does his action reveal him as Jesus? Is he doing one of those Jesusy things from the gospels? Is he hanging on the cross? Is he clothed in white sparkling samite. . . during the course of the week, we also played a game, where we did some categories. . . I asked the question. . . if Jesus walked into the room right now, what would be the first thing that Jesus would say to you? What would that be for you? Would he tell you everything is going to be alright? Would he say he loves you? Would he say keep calm and follow me? Or would his knowing eye, seem to look right through you into your soul. . . all at once making you feel all the guilt you have, for every questionable thing you’ve ever done? It’s an interesting question. . . how do you see Jesus? Who is he to you? Where does that image come from? The gospels are filled with so many different encounters of people with Jesus, and they all react to Jesus in just as many different ways. And I faced this question this week, who was Jesus to you when you were 13? How is he the same? How has he changed?

The question about what Jesus looks like is an interesting one because no one really knows. There was no polaroid snapping paparazzi in the first century, no facebook, no google images. . . no Roman celebrity mugshots making it on the Imperial DMZ. We have no idea what Jesus looked like, but yet it is something that has puzzled, inspired, and divided people for centuries. So much so that there were people in the 13th century who believed that a cloth that wiped the blood and sweat from Jesus’ face, left somehow the imprint of Jesus’s face, from which they could tell what he looked like. My kids this week thought that was crazy. . . but lest we find the people in the 13th century to be so gullible and naïve. . . go ahead and google “The Shroud of Turin” and you will find similar claims being made even today. . . people are so desperate for clarity on the likeness of their savior that there are actually people who swear that this cloth leaves behind something definitively shows what Jesus looks like. . . . There is also a computer created image. . . that I guess is based on Jewish. . . mid-eastern DNA. . . it is what Jesus is supposed to really look right. . . and of course there are folks who say it must be accurate because it is science and DNA. . .this is the definitive picture of Jesus, so what if he kinda looks like a cave man. . . and if you find this image, which is everywhere on the internet, you will also find people using it, using the picture to claim Jesus and to ridicule others. . . Of course everything on the internet these days does that. You find people asking, would you follow a Jesus who looks like this, no beard, no blondish brown hair, no piercing blue eyes? What would your answer be? Of course on Sunday, here in church, asked by a preacher, you’d say yes, of course right? But really would you? What is it that makes us follow Jesus? What is it that makes us know it is Jesus?

This question of image is important not only because we are a vision oriented species, and need to see to believe, but also because there are so many references to ‘image’ in the Bible. There is the first in the first chapter of Genesis, where it emphatically states that humans were made in the image of God. And then again in the ten commandments, when it states, that we are not to make any graven images of God, nor worshipping them as idols. Both of these it would seem are important when discussing visual representations of Jesus, too. We can see in the Christian history of images of Jesus a tendency towards idolatry of the images. And we see the backlash against such things, like during the Reformation when depictions, seen as idols where burned and destroyed. What is the trouble with images. . . why are they forbid in the Ten Commandments? Is it just because God is a jealous God and doesn’t want any competition? Or is the reason much more for our benefit?

I’ve always come at this question from the standpoint that it is for our good because God knows us so well and our tendencies. There are two major problems that are inherent to images, paintings, and photographs and the human relationship to them. The first is the very natural idea of the limitation of an image. . . the oneness. . . the fact that if God is this, or looks like this, then he cannot look like that. . . He created us as a visual species, and we are dominated by our sight. When we see something it is hard to unsee it, and it becomes an image burned into our psyche making it hard for us to see anything else. The bearded, blue eyed Jesus is a prime example of this. How many of you when I asked you to picture Jesus had that image come to mind, but that image is not at all close to historically accurate? How many of you could envision a Jesus another way, maybe another race, maybe a black Jesus, or even a Chinese Jesus, but again if you google it you will see those images. . . yes even a Chinese Jesus, but to be honest the beard does make its way to China. . . . so when we see a picture of something it becomes for us definitive of the thing itself, and that can be problematic because we may miss something truly wondrous about God or Jesus that does not fit our pictures. . . I’ve used this metaphor a number of times. . . because other things can become definitive for us,  not just pictures, sometimes miracles. . . and if you experience God in one way, then you expect to always in that same way. . . that would be like someone waiting at the Red Sea for it to part again. . . you might be waiting awhile. You can see the limitations of image.

The other issue is with an image because of its limitations it can be used and wielded. I’ve already talked about the strife on the internet, but our history is fraught with use of the image. All the way back to the Roman times. . . Constantine had a vision that said, you will conquer under this sign. . . the sign of the cross. . . and since then we have been fighting and fighting against the battle over the use of images, their power, and how we wield them. It’s dangerous because it is so subtle. Often times we don’t even know we are doing it, and the image becomes divisive, and needlessly so because there need not be any limit to what God and Jesus mean to people. These limitations are man-made not God-made. . . just like the images are man made.

Except for one. . . that is. . . the image of God. . . . we are each made in the image of God.. . and in that way we should see God when we see each other. Think of the many faces then God would have and could assume. . . and if this connection wasn’t enough. . . he also sent his son, Jesus Christ to don a face, a face that we would know, a face that we know, even if we don’t recognize it in one face. . . in this morning’s New Testament lesson, two of Jesus’ followers were walking along the road, they were joined by someone they did not know, did not recognize in outward appearance, it was not until Jesus broke bread that they could see him for who he was. This is the image that we must remember. . . loving service. . . Augustine said,

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.

And the greatest image of Jesus Christ is love. . . let us bear that image as the body of Christ, and just as importantly to see that image in all of those that surround us. Amen.