How often do I not recognize Jesus? When I was a child I knew Jesus from a flannel graph, from a picture in a Bible, from a painting on a wall; later as a teenager and a young man I knew Jesus in the form of do’s and don’ts; I knew Him encapsulated in prohibitions and imperatives – my conformity thereto validating my knowledge of Him. I also knew Him in correct doctrine, and not just correct doctrine but correct doctrine expressed in correct jargon. I’ve known Him other ways, in ways too numerous to enumerate, and besides I don’t know that it would edify either one of us to take you on a tour of the labyrinth of folly of religion as I have known it. I don’t know that it is the folly of others, only that it has been my folly from time-to-time.
I’ve been meditating on the three post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in which those who knew Him didn’t recognize Him; the two people on the Road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and the seven disciples on the Sea of Tiberius. The account of the seven disciples in John Chapter 21 contains the enigmatic statement, “Now none of the disciples dared ask Him, ‘Who are You?’ They knew it was the Lord.” now what is going on there? How could folks who knew what He looked like before the Resurrection not know what He looked like after the Resurrection? And did He look the same at the Sea of Tiberius as He did in the Upper Room? If so, why didn’t Peter and James and John immediately recognize Jesus?
I don’t know the answers to my questions, but I do know that there have been times when Jesus hasn’t looked like He was supposed to, and there have been times when the way He has been portrayed has been a caricature and has not been the real Jesus – there have been times I thought the real Jesus took pleasure in harshness and meanness and vitriol, there have been times I thought He approved of my self-righteousness – there have been times I’ve made Balaam’s ass look like a beauty queen – and all of these times I didn’t recognize Him.
These post-resurrection Gospel accounts give me pause to think about my autopilot images of Jesus; do I know Him when I see Him? When I think I see Him do I really see Him? If He doesn’t appear as I think He should, if He isn’t on the flannel graph, do I know Him? If He isn’t a paper cutout or in a religiously tailored suit will I pass by Him? Worse, will I think Him to be pitied? Too many times I’ve been smug about Jesus; too many times I’ve thought I’ve had the answers to Him. It isn’t just what I believe that is important, it is how I believe what I believe.
And yet, having written the above, I do know Him; I know His mercy and grace and patience and longsuffering and kindness and gentleness – and His righteousness and holiness…and transcendence. The fact that I have missed Jesus so often is not the story; the real story is that He has never missed me, never lost track of me, never given up on me – or on you.
An acquaintance of mine is struggling with looking for a church, she is struggling because the churches she has known have been rigid and legalistic and authoritarian. I talk to her about a relationship with Jesus, about His mercy and grace and His desire for her to know Him – but she has had some pretty heavy negative experiences with church. I can relate to both ends of her experience because I’ve been on the giving and the receiving ends of religious nonsense.
Peter must have had a time getting to recognize Jesus. First he couldn’t conceive that Jesus was going to be crucified, then of course he denied Jesus, then he encounters the resurrected Jesus, but it wasn’t over yet. Later Peter has to come to terms that the image he has of Jesus confining Himself to Jews isn’t an image of Jesus at all, but that Peter is to call no person common or unclean. Peter has a relapse in Antioch but snaps out of it after a wake-up call from Paul, who had his own images of God that he had to unlearn. What a journey these men and women were on!
I really want to know Jesus, whether on the road or by a tomb or by the seashore cooking breakfast; and I want to share Him with others – His physical appearance may change, circumstances may vary, but He Himself is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Maybe that is a clue for me, to look for the eternal and to stop playing with the transitory – ah to be delivered from childhood – oh to know Jesus.