I was quite struck by the man who took a photo (wrongly labelled at first a selfie) of himself and the hijacker of a plane, which turned out to be an instance of some love affair gone seriously awry. It got me thinking about personal identity and our modern ability to record and diary everything in the minutest detail. Does such an ability to photograph, record and write the details of our lives mean that there is nothing left to hide, nothing left to learn, everything laid bare? What will historians make of our time and culture; will they understand everything, or does the profusion of information, detail and self-disclosure obscure reality?
Or to put it another way:-
Would the disciples have taken a selfie with Jesus on the beach? If so, would that photo have proved for all time that Jesus was resurrected?
I have a sense that the resurrected Jesus couldn’t be recognised in a photo from the past, even if we did have such a photo. And I sense this because recognising the risen Jesus is more than seeing and knowing a face; the disciples did not recognise Jesus at first, only when he revealed himself in action. We cannot look at a photo and see the Risen Lord nor can we find anything that will prove for all time that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather, we too are required to develop eyes of faith. Recognising the Risen Jesus, the early accounts tell us, requires faith. Moreover, for those who first encountered the resurrected Jesus, that encounter was also framed by a prior relationship.
Let’s look at the Bible readings we’ve seen today. Firstly, at Peter.
(John 21:1-19 and Acts 9.1-20)
For Peter that prior relationship with Jesus had become overshadowed by his denial of him. It could have been easy for Peter to refuse to see the Risen Lord. However, his encounter with the risen Jesus becomes an opportunity to remake their relationship. In his threefold insistence of his love for Jesus, Peter’s future is redrawn. His future becomes his Christian vocation, no longer a fisherman he will be a ‘fisher of people’. Jesus gives Peter back his former identity as his friend and then extends the relationship, he now too must become part of Jesus’ mission on earth – not only a friend but also a co-worker.
Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ, on the other hand, depends on him not seeing. His three-day’s blindness is a necessary counter to Paul’s determined arrogance that only he knows and is right; he needs to experience the bleakness of his own ignorance. All the same, that encounter was framed by a prior relationship with Jesus, a relationship of opposition and persecution. Note that the voice from heaven asks: ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’. Jesus’ address suggests a personal relationship, surprisingly, because Paul didn’t know Jesus when he was alive. But Paul’s persecution of the early followers of the way, is framed as personal persecution of Jesus himself. For Paul, like Peter, Jesus comes to him to reframe their prior relationship and to offer a new future, one in which the person who has seen becomes a co-worker in Jesus’ mission.
These resurrection encounters with the Risen Christ extend to our time and to our lives and they follow the same pattern. Having faith in the Risen Lord is not simply knowing the resurrection stories. I believe, we too, individually, can meet the Risen Jesus in our own time and lives. What does that encounter look like?
The Bible narratives suggest that our encounters with the Risen Lord, if indeed we have them, will make sense of our past and offer us a new future. Jesus comes to us not as a stranger but one whom we know, perhaps either as enemy, friend or simply as the one we’ve rejected or ignored. How is that? Jesus is not simply a man, but also God. Therefore, whatever way or ways we have known God in the past, our encounter with the Risen Jesus will redraw the parameters of that relationship.
How we meet Jesus, in what form and what manner will be dependent upon who we have become. But if we personally see the Risen Lord, not with our eyes, but with eyes of faith, it seems unlikely that that encounter will leave us cold or unchanged. We will, like Peter and Paul, and countless others after them, be invited by Jesus to share in his work on earth. That is another way of describing our vocation, the outworking of which will be unique and specific to us. Vocation doesn’t mean priesthood, vocation means our unique identity formed by God and our co-operation in seeing the unfolding of that identity for the purposes of the kingdom.
We also can be sure that the resurrection stories reassure us that Jesus does not come as judge, but as reconciler and healer. He does not condemn us, rather he wills us to see him. What he requires from us is that we turn around, notice his presence and step-out with him as companions, friends and disciples, willing to suffer anything to be part of his kingdom.
If Jesus came to our society, the records of his life, encounters with him and details of his teaching may proliferate on twitter and facebook, or alternatively, he would die somewhere unnoticed by the eyes of society, by people absorbed with themselves. He would be a footnote in a newspaper or television broadcast, another radical campaigning for justice, who was silenced by the authorities. There may be some reports of people making strange claims about his body and seeing him again, causing divisions in a well-established religion, but apart from that, there would be no general agreement, or well-documented proof. For God is a silent worker, appearing to those and being noticed only by those who have eyes to see.