It is a peculiar thing that Jesus’ followers don’t recognize him after his resurrection. In the narrative of John’s gospel, think of Mary Magdalene, who comes first to the empty tomb – she turns around and there is Jesus. But she doesn’t recognize him. She mistakes him for the gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.” Also in John’s gospel, you may remember that the risen Jesus appears to his disciples some days later. It is just after daybreak on the shore of the sea of Tiberius when Jesus appears, but the disciples don’t recognize him.
We could also turn to Luke’s gospel, to the familiar story of two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus comes and walks with them along the road, but they don’t recognize him. He speaks with them about the scriptures and everything that has happened, but they don’t recognize Jesus.
What a peculiar thing that Jesus’ disciples and followers don’t recognize him. Perhaps the problem is that they are so convinced Jesus is dead (and why wouldn’t they be convinced of that) – they are so convinced Jesus is dead that their minds can’t accommodate his presence.
Jesus is dead. This just can’t be Jesus.
You may have had a similar experience – I know I have. You see someone on a street corner who looks so much like a loved one who has passed away. You may be thrown off balance for a moment at the sight of them. But you don’t spend much time dwelling on the possibility this is your loved one – because you know that he or she is gone. Perhaps this is the reason the disciples don’t recognize Jesus – they quickly, almost unconsciously, dismiss the element of recognition. He’s dead. Can’t be him.
Oliver O’Donovan, who is professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh suggests another possibility. He suggests that the reason it’s difficult for the disciples to recognize Jesus – is because in him a new world, a new creation is before them. O’Donovan puts it like this: “Why is the resurrection difficult to see? Because it is more real than the world to which our perceptions are fashioned, within which we have learned to live and to observe.”
We live daily in a world of sight and touch and imagination and dreams. We pass from one moment to the next, from one meal to the next, from one day to the next, from one experience to the next. And nothing in our world, nothing in our everyday, nothing even in our imaginations or dreams, can prepare us for resurrection, the new life, of Jesus. Since the resurrection life of Jesus is more real than the world to which our perceptions are fashioned, within which we have learned to live and observe, the disciples don’t recognize him.
The disciples do not recognize Jesus, because there is something astonishingly new, impossibly different, about their risen Lord. He is risen from the dead, alive in a new way that is both physical and spiritual, alive in a way that captures his full glory. They, on the other hand, remain in a pre-resurrection world of sorrow and pain and shadows.
There’s something important to notice here about this problem of recognition. It is this: That this new creation isn’t something we can train ourselves to see. It is not within our natural human capacity to recognize the new world that has come into being in and with the risen Jesus. The capacity to see this new world is something that comes as absolute gift – a spiritual gift – a gift of God. It is only when Jesus speaks to Mary, when he calls her by name, that her heart is opened, that she turns to him, and says with recognition: “Teacher”. Similarly, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus until he breaks with them – as he shows himself to them in the breaking of the bread, then their eyes and hearts are opened. The capacity to see this new world of resurrection life in and with Jesus is something that comes as absolute gift. A spiritual gift to be received with gratitude and joy.
Let me change gears for a moment and turn to a question that might at first seem out of place. It is this question: What day of the week do we gather for worship? What day of the week do we gather for worship? Of course the Jewish Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, is the seventh day – the day on which God is said to have rested from all the work of creation. That is why the seventh day, Saturday, is the day of rest and worship within Jewish community. But Christians worship on Sunday, which is the first day of the week. It is often said, and rightly, that we worship on the first day of the week because the first day of the week, Sunday, is the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The first day of the week is the day the risen Jesus appears among his followers.
Yet within the Christian tradition, dating back to at least the second century, we find another possibility. If Sunday is the first day of the week, and Saturday is the seventh or last day of the week – then it is also possible to think of Sunday, as an eighth day – the day after the week ends. The Letter of Barnabas is an early Christian text dating to the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century. And in the Letter of Barnabas, the writer speaks of the Sabbath rest that God gives us in Jesus. In doing so, the writer puts these words into God’s mouth: “The Sabbath which I have made, in which I will give rest to all things, is the beginning of an eighth day, that is, the beginning of another world.” The beginning of another world. The writer continues: “Therefore we also regard the eighth day as a day of celebration, in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest…”
We gather for worship on Sunday, yes, because this is the day on which Jesus rose from the tomb. But we worship on Sunday also because it is the day of new creation – the eighth day – the day on which a new world, a new creation begins.
Think back to the creation narratives of Genesis chapters 1, 2 and 3. Those narratives are poetic accounts of the origin of our world – the creations narratives point poetically to God’s creative strength. Where there was nothing, God creates a world. Where there was chaos, God brings order. Where there was emptiness, God brings forth living creatures. The creation of the world is an astonishing, unparalleled, act of God – something beautiful and remarkable exists where nothing existed. And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have an equally astonishing and remarkable act of creation – something new happens. New creation. A new world begins. No wonder the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus. This resurrection life of Jesus wasn’t part of their world, their experience, or their landscape.
Sometimes as we think about the meaning of the gospel it helps to be reminded of what the gospel is not. The gospel is not the news that our world will get better, little by little, as we all work together. The gospel is not that Jesus was a remarkable and good person who can teach us about God and about one another. Indeed, if that is the only message we have – it rings more than a little hollow. If that’s the only message we have – what do we say about the darkness that persists in every corner of our world? If that’s the only message we have, how do we respond to the very real darkness that continues to mark human existence? The message that we can basically make everything work out ok – that may be a gospel that sheltered, comfortable westerners can embrace, but it is meaningless in the face of the dramatic pain and evil of our world.
The good news of Jesus Christ, on display this Easter morning, is not the good news that we can all do a little bit better. The good news of Jesus Christ, on display this Eastern morning, is that God in Christ brings about a new creation. A new creation that is as dramatic and as inexplicable and as unprecedented as God’s creation of this amazing world. In Christ, God has come to make things right – to renew the whole creation, and us in it.
On Good Friday, we acknowledged that Jesus died under the weight of the world’s evil. We acknowledged that Jesus took the evil of the world, the hatred and cruelty and unthinking mockery of the world; the gratuitous violence, bullying, and torture that still defaces the world. He took it all upon himself, and thereby took into the very heart of God.
And perhaps it is important to point out, here, that when Jesus suffers is crucified – when he dies – there is a very real contest or fight going on. A very real contest between the truth and life and light of Jesus on the one hand, and evil and brokenness and death on the other hand. In the midst of this contest Jesus experiences very real agony.
That word agony is a curious one. It comes from Greek, and it means a contest or struggle or fight. In fact in Greek the Olympic games are called the Olympiakoi agones. The Olympic Games are the Olympic Agony – the Olympic contest or struggle of fight. Our personal agony in life is usually a deep and difficult struggle within us. Our agony is a contest or a fight deep within our hearts. But the agony of Jesus, expressed so clearly in the Garden of Gethsemane, is not only a personal, emotional agony. The agony of Jesus, the suffering and death of Jesus, is also a contest, a struggle, a fight between the life and light of Jesus, and the darkness and evil of our world.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus Christ is the first moment of the new creation. He writes that all will be made alive in Christ: “Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power…The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Jesus’ resurrection is the announcement and creation of a new world in which darkness and death and hatred and evil are defeated – destroyed. Yes, it is true that the final manifestation of God’s kingdom, of this new creation, hasn’t taken place. But in the resurrection of Jesus, a new creation springs into existence.
No wonder the disciples don’t recognize Jesus. No wonder the disciples can’t see Jesus. “Why is the resurrection difficult to see? Because the resurrection life of Jesus, the new creation, is more real than the world to which our perceptions are fashioned, within which we have learned to live and to observe.”
We live in this world of sight and touch and imagination and dreams. We live in this world passing from one moment to the next, from one day to the next, from one meal to the next, from one experience to the next. And nothing in our world, nothing in our everyday, nothing even in our imaginations or our dreams, could have prepared us to recognize the resurrection life of Jesus. It is altogether new. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, and in a way we have to ask: How could they? In him is a new creation – the physical body remains physical yet is transformed – death is defeated – new life has begun – a new world of unimagined hope and joy and goodness unfolds before them.
The capacity to see this new world is something that comes as absolute gift – there is nothing we can do to prepare for it or anticipate it or accomplish it. It is a gift of the risen Lord. Jesus speaks to Mary, calls her by name – and her eyes are opened. Jesus sits with two disciples at a table, breaks bread, and their eyes are opened. The capacity to see, and then participate in this new world of resurrection life in and with Jesus is a gift he graciously gives to us. And from the moment he opens our eyes, nothing can be the same for us –
we are drawn into the new creation;
we celebrate signs of his kingdom in our world;
we see the everything and everyone with his compassionate gaze;
we walk in his way of joyful service;
we look forward to our own resurrection with hope;
Thanks be to God. Amen.