April 10, 2016

I Know That Face

    In a previous ministry job, I used to plan an orientation for young adults to the city of Chicago. I totally ignored sights like the Sears Tower, Millennium Park, or Wrigley Field, but I always took us to St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on the southwest side. It’s one of the city’s predominantly African-American Episcopal churches, and it sits along one of the city’s sharpest borders between impoverished neighborhood on one side, and flourishing suburb on the other—that is, between Austin and Oak Park. The smallish church building is also just opposite a much larger Baptist church with a very impressive water fountain.

We’d usually sit in a circle with the Vicar, named Chris, who would tell us about ministry in his corner of the world. Their worshiping congregation hovered around thirty people when I was last there, but I’ve never been in a group as diverse in race, age, status, and family type. As the Vicar told me once, “We have one of everything.” They lift up marginal voices by create space for work by artists with disabilities and producing the work of a playwright who portrays the impact of HIV/AIDS and homophobia on an African-American family. As activists, the church members protest unjust incarcerations and immigration policies that divide families. They are, I believe, one sign of the kingdom that God’s people are struggling to inherit.

Not that my eyes were fully open to the signs in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. On one visit, I wandered off to a chapel space where there was a very large icon of a black man with white hair and a white beard. His clothing had a multi-colored, African pattern. I was curious about the painting, and it was on the tip of my tongue to ask the Vicar, “Is this St. Martin?” I just assumed the man in the painting was probably the congregation’s patron saint. 

But, in a moment of saving grace, before I could ask my question, the Vicar said, “This is our painting of Christ the Liberator.” It turns out that in the year 2000, the church had decided to finally change the worship space, music, and iconography designed by and for white people in the nineteenth century. They wanted instead to reflect an image of the divine that longed to connect with the building’s now African-American members and neighbors. This painting of Christ, coming with courage and power to heal and free and recompense his beloved people, was part of the church’s transformation. And yet, because of the prejudices and privileges that habituated me to images of Christ that looked like me, I had failed to recognize the risen Christ even as I looked directly into his eyes.

* * *

After misrecognizing a form of the risen Christ myself, I’m a little more understanding of the disciples in the gospels of Luke and John. When Jesus, their close friend, appeared before them after rising from the dead, they mistook him for the gardener, or walked and talked with him on the way to Emmaus without recognizing him, or, in today’s gospel, saw him standing on the beach in the morning light and didn’t know who he was.

The identity of Jesus eventually comes into focus for the disciples, at different paces and with different triggers for their recognition. In these stories, it seems that the risen Christ catches his disciples unprepared for how the resurrection would transform his own flesh and appearance, or he catches them blinded by their doubt that Jesus could return from the dead. But although I have some more understanding for their misrecognition, these stories don’t give us all the help we need as we look for the risen Christ today. 

See, these stories belong to a tradition largely associated with Peter, in which appearances of the risen Christ are a privileged experience for Jesus’s closest and earliest followers—the ones who knew him in the flesh. In today’s gospel, it’s first the beloved disciple and then Peter who quickly recognizes Christ. Peter throws his clothes on, jumps out of the boat, and swims to the shore where Jesus is making breakfast. And our first reading on Easter Sunday featured Peter giving a speech about how God raised Jesus on the third day and “allowed him to appear, not to all the people,” he said, “but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:40-41). In this tradition, the risen Christ appears to his chosen few, offers or shares a meal with them in his resurrection flesh, and expects the rest of us simply to believe their testimony about what they saw.

But there’s another tradition of the risen Christ, associated with Paul. In this tradition, the risen Christ might appear before any of us. But the reason that this Christ is hard to recognize is that he comes in the form of the persecuted.

We hear Paul’s experience of the risen Christ in our first reading, when his name is still Saul. The Scripture tells us that he is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” On his way to Damascus to arrest more followers of Jesus, a flash of light drives Saul to the ground, and a voice confronts him. When Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?”, he hears this answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” There was the risen Christ, right before Saul’s eyes in the form of those he was determined to hate, and yet Saul couldn’t recognize him without this additional infusion of supernatural light.

When Paul describes this experience in his own words, he lists this appearance of the risen Christ in a sequence of appearances that start with Peter and the disciples but don’t end there. Paul writes that Christ “appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time . . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all . . . he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). So this risen Christ appears one-on-one to his disciples, to a group of twelve, and to a crowd of five hundred. This risen Christ appears to those who knew him during his lifetime, and to late-comers like Paul. This risen Christ, who says “I am . . . who you are persecuting”, transforms Paul, and transforms us, from persecutors to nurturers and champions of the persecuted and excluded and oppressed. 

In our opening prayer this morning, we prayed to the God whose Son made himself known to his disciples, and we asked this God to “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.” It’s right in the midst of his redeeming work, whether in a small congregation resisting violence to bodies and souls in the southwest corner of Chicago, or in our own congregation, that the risen Christ is searching for our eyes. It may take a painfully long moment for our eyes to snap into focus, but there he’ll be—the risen Christ, illumining our blindness so we can see him and say, “I know that face.”