Seeing Jesus

By Steve Rice

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.

I find it a bit bothersome that the first four times Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, they had no idea who he was. I don’t mean they were so shocked to see him, that they were unable to put together a coherent sentence. I mean they didn’t know who he was.

Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen Lord, thought he was the gardener. When he appeared to the disciples later that day, they didn’t know it was him until he showed them his hands and his side. Then the next week, he did the same with Thomas. He even asked Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And now we are in chapter 21 and Jesus appears to seven of the disciples, and when he does, they absolutely have no idea that it is Jesus. Four appearances, counting Mary Magdalene, in just over 30 verses, and they don’t recognize him.

I would give a pass to the appearances on Easter Day. They weren’t expecting to see Jesus Christ as the risen Lord, I get that. But you would think the next week, they would be prepared. Or even in today’s Gospel, when he meets them as they are fishing, that they might have a clue that this is risen Christ. But you would be wrong. They didn’t know.

It’s not helpful, let me assure you, when the Church exists to proclaim the truth and the power of the presence of the risen Lord, to read that those who knew him best — who walked with him, ate with him, lived with him, and labored with him for three years had no clue who he was just days after the resurrection. If they didn’t know it was Jesus, what hope do we have?

That, my friends, is a good question and one worth asking.

The physical process of sight is fascinating. Light enters through our corneas and is focused on the retina. The retina transmits information through the optic nerve to the brain and it is there that we “see.” We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our minds. That’s how we see images when we close our eyes. It’s how we dream.

Intuitively we know that our eyes can only gather information; they do not and cannot by themselves determine what is real. We use a different set of eyes to peer beyond the immediate information to determine if something else is there.

A mother watching a classroom of children playing and laughing and smiling can immediately look beyond the smile and laughter of her child and see something is wrong. No one else can, but she can. The same information is received through the corneas, retinas, and optical nerves of everyone else, but she sees something else.

A different set of eyes looks to see if there is nothing else behind the image, or if there is.

To understand the world around us, we need to see what is beyond the obvious. We need to perceive. We need to sense. We need to see, as impossible as this sounds, what is unseen.

Our Lord teaches us this in his first appearances after the resurrection. It would have been easy to appear in a way that was obvious to Mary Magdalene, to Thomas, to the rest, but that would not have forced them to open the eyes of faith.

Even in the conversion of St Paul, as he is traveling to persecute more Christians, a light from heaven or, shall we say, the light of Jesus Christ knocked him to the ground. St. Luke specifically says that even though his eyes were opened, he could not see. He heard the voice of Jesus Christ but asked, “Who are you?”

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asked Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen [with their eyes] and yet have come to believe.”

Jesus teaches his disciples to look beyond what is obvious through the cornea, retina, and optical nerve and see truth.

Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus when he spoke her name. She screamed, “Rabbouni!”

When he appeared to his disciples later that night, he showed them his hands and side and they then rejoiced.

When Thomas saw his hands and his side, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

And when Jesus told Peter and the other six to cast their net off to the right side and the catch was too great to even pull into the boat, John shouted to Peter, “It is the Lord!”

The disciples did not recognize Jesus Christ based on his height or skin or the sound of his voice. They recognized him only when he spoke their name, showed them the glory of the cross, when they were obedient, and when bread was broken.

Let me put those in a different way. How do we see Jesus Christ?

When our name is called — you are marked as Christ’s own forever — the power of holy baptism and then living to understand what being marked as Christ’s own means.

When we see his wounds — when we meditate on the cross and see the indescribable love of Jesus that was poured out for the sins of the world.

In obedience — when we do what he tells us, even if we don’t at first understand, we discover the power of this providence. Paul didn’t see until he went to Ananias, as he was instructed, and had him lay hands on him.

In the breaking of bread — the two men on the walk to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until the breaking of bread. In this scene, after the fish are caught, there is a fire with fish — and bread. A sign of the Holy Eucharist.

How do we see Jesus Christ through the eyes of faith? Holy Baptism, the holy cross, walking in his ways and following his commands, and in the Holy Eucharist.

These aren’t metaphors for Jesus. This is how we come to know him. This is how he revealed himself to his friends. This is how he continues to do so.

If you have a hard time seeing Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, keep looking. You’re in good company. His closest friends had no idea he was standing right before them. But he was truly there. And when the eyes of faith were able to see what was in front of them, they all — to a person — cried, “It is the Lord.”

The Rev. Steve Rice is rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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