It must have been a bone-weary, sleep-deprived, washed out Mary Magdalene who dragged herself to Jesus’ tomb early that morning. It was before dawn. And she was probably still numb from the events that had transpired—from the high of being in Jerusalem together, to the confusion after that Passover meal, Jesus’ arrest, Jesus’ trials, Jesus’ beating, Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ burial. It had all unraveled so fast. They hadn’t even had time to properly dress the body, to sit shiva, to say their final goodbyes.
And so she trudged to that sad place, the new tomb of a beloved. And then starts this frantic race—where is the body? Run to get Peter, then run back to the tomb following after Peter and the beloved disciple. They return home, leaving her weeping, head spinning, trying to puzzle out what was happening. And two angels [she must only in hindsight have realized they were angels for there is no gasp of amazement in the telling of the gospel of John, no comforting “Do not be afraid,” only the bare bones of conversation: “Why are you weeping?” (as if they didn’t know)—and “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him” (meaning, of course, the dead body)]. She turns and sees another figure, “but she does not” recognize him. She does not know that it was Jesus.
I suppose we could chalk it up to fatigue, to the tricks the body (and the mind) plays when adrenaline courses through our bodies, when we are panicked, when we don’t expect to see something, when we are so occupied with other thoughts that we don’t really pay attention to what is in front of our eyes. Is that how Mary can even carry on a conversation with Jesus and not know who he is? It isn’t until he calls her name that her eyes are opened and she recognizes that she is in the presence of Jesus.
But what about the story in the gospel of Luke, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who also meet Jesus and walk with him and talk with him and don’t recognize him? Only in the breaking of the bread are their hearts opened, and they know they have seen Jesus. What is happening here? Why is it that sometimes those who actually knew Jesus don’t recognize him after resurrection? And if they don’t know when they meet Jesus, what about us?
Do you remember the religious craze a few decades ago, named WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? Some of us bought bracelets stamped with those letters. Some of us tried to fashion our lives around that questions. It was a way of trying to pull Jesus and his gospel of love into the present day. I remember bringing up the phrase as I spoke out on the floor of Newark Presbytery as it discussed whether all people, regardless of sexual orientation were allowed in leadership roles of the church. What Would Jesus Do?
But that brain teaser is a little different from the question—would you know if you met Jesus? Think about it. How would you know? Do you think you would recognize his face? Would he have a certain look in his eyes? Would there just be an aura? Would you get that strange feeling that you’d met before? Would be what he said? What he knew?
We have one up on Mary, in that we are living after the resurrection. We might be able to imagine meeting Jesus. I mean, the Easter message is that he is resurrected, he is alive, he is still meet-able. Today’s Scripture lesson poked at me—what might it mean that Mary doesn’t immediately know who she is meeting? What might that mean for us?
I have always loved the writing of Madeline L’Engle (most famously the author of A Wrinkle in Time). Madeline was a prolific author, and a very spiritual person. I remember devouring her life stories in the autobiographical book, “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art” as I started my ministry here in West Orange. One image in particular stuck in my mind. She talked about how she would go out for her early morning walks on the streets of New York City. And she would recite the “Jesus Prayer”—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—under her breath, as a mantra. But she did one more thing. She looked into the eyes of everyone she met, schooling herself to see them as if they were Jesus.
Now this might seem like a crazy thing to do—New Yorkers, at least in those days, weren’t in the habit of looking anybody in the eye. You kept your head down. You lived in your own little bubble. I remember being taken by her quest to see the world—not just through Jesus’ eyes, but to see others as Jesus.
Maybe she had put the so-called “Jesus Prayer” alongside of the Matthew 25 parable where Jesus says that whatever you do to “the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” That parable challenges us to see Jesus in everyone we meet, everyone in our orbit, Everyone. But how many of us have achieved that monumental task, even on a small scale? Would we know Jesus if we met him, unawares, during our hectic lives, in a place we did not expect him to be? Would we know we had met Jesus if he didn’t look the way we expected? What do we think Jesus looked like anyway? And does it matter if we meet who we think Jesus is, if Jesus considers what we do to others, most especially to the “least of these my brothers and sisters”—to be what we do to him?
In the swirl of Black Lives Matter movement and the wrenching testimony at the trial of the one who took George Floyd’s life; in the continuing horror of attacks on those who are Asian or Pacific Islanders, on those who are Jewish, on those who are different in any way from what others call “the norm;” in the morass of hate and lies and ugliness that has been so obviously on display recently, those words “she did not know it was Jesus” caught me.
What if we looked at each person we met, each and every person, as if they were Jesus. I know there are less and less people in this country who claim they even care about religion, about knowing Jesus, much less meeting him. And I also know, to my complete shame and horror, that there are those who loudly proclaim to be followers of Jesus who espouse racial animosity, and gender discrimination or should I say domination, and withhold blessing on those who love one another—just to mention a few of the things done in Jesus’ name. If we could see Jesus in everyone we met, could we possibly behave in such horrible ways? What does it mean to meet Jesus, and not recognize him?
When we talk about God, the Trinity, Father/Son/Holy Spirit—God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—Jesus is the one we can most easily grasp in our minds. He was born. He lived. He died. He was human like us. That makes him marginally more understandable than the other two persons of the Trinity. And because he was human, he was born in a certain year, and at a certain place, we know he had specific features. This is the concreteness of Jesus. Maybe it is a good thing that Jesus lived before the cell phone. Maybe it was a blessing that he was poor enough, or radical enough, that no one drew his picture, that we don’t have a reliable description of the color of his skin, the tint of his hair, the shape of his eyes. What would it do for our faith if we did know what Jesus, the one who lived and died, looked like?
Because, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Whatever the historical Jesus looked like, Jesus, the essence of Jesus, what makes Jesus Jesus, isn’t contained or restrained in the specifics of the man who lived 2000 odd years ago. The reality of the Risen Christ somehow expands Jesus—and brings us closer to the mystery of God. The mystery that makes each of us, a child, an hier, a brother or sister. Even the least of these. Especially the least of these. Good news: we are included! Shocking news: so is everyone else!
Easter is about God revealing what power really looks like, what love really looks like, what life really looks like. Easter is the moment in the game, when the cards are shown, and the winner is acknowledged. Death, oppression, hatred, evil, tried their best, and they lost. But it doesn’t mean they won’t keep playing. It doesn’t mean that all problems have been solved. It doesn’t mean that we stop being human, with our human insistence that we know what is right, with our human stupidity in turning away from God, with our human impatience, with our human willingness to divide and conquer, with our sad human history of not seeing Christ in others.
Is all that captured in those words “she saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus?” How many times have we been in the presence of the divine, and not been able to see? How many times have we stood face to face, stood toe to toe, stood hand in hand, stood shoulder to shoulder, with God in our world, and not known?
What would it mean, if we looked everyone in the eye, and saw Jesus? Even those we disagree with? Even those we do not understand? Even those who are not like us? In some ways, it is flipping WWJD on its head. You see, asking, “What would Jesus do?” puts us in the position of Jesus. What would our lives look like if instead we said, “What would I do if that were Jesus?”
May this Easter morning bring you
light in your darkness,
joy in your sadness,
hope in the midst of pain and suffering,
strength for the journey,
friends along the way,
trust in the one who loves us
more than we will ever know.
And together, let us resolve to be made new as well,
In heart and mind,
In faith and action,
So that we might meet Jesus, each and every day.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.