Sermon Title “Seeing Jesus” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is wonderful to see you on this bright Resurrection Day. Some of you have been here at Creekside — or have joined us online — since the beginning of Lent in mid-February, some of you have joined us on that journey after it began, and some of you are guests this Sunday. As a review for all of us, our Lenten theme was Open Our Eyes, Lord. We have been exploring the intersection of faith and race with the goal of seeing Jesus through the eyes of others, and seeing others through the eyes of Jesus. There are dramatic stories in John’s gospel of Jesus healing a man who was born blind, and raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. And those accounts of seeing Jesus, literally seeing and also understanding Jesus’ authority and his connection to God and his mission of redemption for the world, bring us to the account of the resurrection from John’s gospel.
I suppose it goes without saying–but I’ll say it anyway — none of us knows what Jesus looked like. There are no photos, no portraits, no sketches. There are no physical descriptions in the Bible or other historical writings of the time. What is interesting about this reading from John, is that Mary Magdalene — a follower, disciple, financial supporter and friend of Jesus — doesn’t recognize Jesus the first time he speaks to her outside of the tomb. In Luke’s gospel, later in the day that Sunday, Cleopas and his friend meet a traveler on the road to Emmaus and speak to him for most of the afternoon before they realize they were walking with Jesus. What this tells me is that seeing Jesus is an act of perception and imagination — even for the disciples who should have known what Jesus looked like — but especially for us 2,000 years later.
One group of people who externalize their imagination are visual artists. I’m going to show you a series of images of ways in which artists have portrayed the resurrection. Not all of these paintings include a representation of Christ — they’re in different media and in different styles; none of them are not right or wrong, but none of them are objective, either. Each of them represents a message which the artist is trying to convey — about Jesus, about Mary Magdalene, about the resurrection generally. I’ll try not to say a lot about each of these images, but see what you think the artist in trying to convey, and what your reaction is each of these.
1. Running from tomb
2. Leaving tomb
3. Empty tomb rainbow
4. Light behind notice the wounded hand detail of a larger picture
5. Mary and Angels
6. Realistic Mary and Jesus
7. Jesus and Mary
8. Jesus and Mary from inside tomb
9. Rainbow colors
No one had witnessed a resurrection before that day when Jesus rose from the dead, and no one has seen one since. Some of the artists portrayed that event pictorially — more photographically — and some more affectively: colors which expressed how the resurrection might have felt, rather than what it actually looked like. Whether or not you are a visual artist, seeing the resurrection is an act of imagination.
I want to direct your attention to another image of Jesus, one which has been part of our worship services since the beginning of Lent. It’s on the banner here on the chancel, and also printed on the cover of your bulletin. Two weeks ago I heard someone call it “Camo Jesus” which stopped me short for a minute, but that is actually a great description. I hope you can see something which makes sense in that banner or on your bulletin, because if you see those disconnected blobs in the right way, the pattern comes together as the face and figure of Jesus. If your brain doesn’t sort the shapes into something which makes sense, it’s just random shapes.
Mary Magdalene saw a man whom she assumed was the gardener — did he have his face covered, was he carrying gardening shears? — we don’t know. One thing we can be pretty sure of: Mary did not expect to see Jesus. After all, he was dead. She had watched him die a terrible death on the cross. The stone had been moved from the opening of the tomb and the body was gone and there were two angels sitting inside — which alerted her that something was up — but she still imagined Jesus was dead, and assumed that the body had been moved somewhere else. She even asks the guy she sees outside the tomb if he was the one who moved the body. The pattern of all these separate things doesn’t fall into place until Jesus says her name, and then the disconnected pieces come together as the face of Jesus, her Teacher and Lord.
I am not saying that Jesus can look like anything we want him to be. There are images of hatred or violence which are incompatible with who the Bible tells us Jesus is. But if we are not expecting to see Jesus, chances are we won’t. But how are we supposed to see Jesus when none of us knows what he looks like? This is where we need theological imagination; that is, the ability to see what God is doing, even if it has not yet come together clearly. Theological imagination is seeing Jesus where other see only random shapes. Theologian and Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann calls this the “Prophetic Imagination” My thanks to Tm Morphew who shared an article from Breuggemann about this. The prophetic imagination is not about cursing others with hellfire and brimstone, not is it about telling other people how they need to repent — or else. Prophets listened to God, spoke for God, and imagined for themselves and their society what God was calling them to be: people who worshipped God and God alone, a society which cared for the widows and the orphans and the poor and the immigrants. People who embodied God’s vision of peace and justice. Imagination directed in that way is an instrument of hope and vision, and a tool for building the kingdom of God.
Imagination can also be the enemy of God’s mission, depending on how it is directed. Breuggemann characterizes this as the “Pathetic Imagination,” and says:
Pathetic imagination is the assumption that the world immediately in front of us is the only world on offer. Thus all possible futures are contained within present observable social reality. This in effect means that there are no alternatives to what we have before us, and so no chance for change, no offer of alternative, no possibility of newness…. Concerning capitalism, racism, and war-mongering nationalism, plus a host of other issues, pathetic imagination serves to maintain the status quo on the assumption that present reality is beyond mutation. . .
Of course such pathetic imagination readily impacts the church. It is easy enough for a local congregation to assume that what it sees before it is all that there can be. Such a view limits vision, curbs energy, and shrivels missional engagement. [i]
I believe that the difference between Pathetic Imagination and Prophetic Imagination is the difference between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is the difference between Mary seeing Jesus dead, and Mary seeing Jesus alive. Mary understandably came to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death. The other disciples were puzzled by the empty tomb, shrugged their shoulders and left to go back home. Mary stayed because she wanted to know where Jesus’ body had been moved to. Mary assumed Jesus was dead and had no idea that Jesus was, or could be, alive. Jesus broke through her grief and lack of imagination by calling her by name. And then the pieces fell into place. Halleluia! Christ is alive — beyond reason, beyond imagination, beyond a doubt. Mary ran from the tomb crying “I have seen the Lord!”
The disciples did not believe her. They were still stuck in the world immediately in front of them; the one they could see and touch and had which rules that made sense and did not change — rules like death is forever. If we are going to see the resurrected Christ, it is going to mean looking at some of our assumptions in a different way. It is going to take a willingness to imagine the world in a different way. None of us have ever lived in a society or even worshipped in a church where the kingdom of God is fully realized: a place where everyone — whatever the contents of their wallets or the country where they were born, or the color of their skin — experiences the justice and peace of God’s desire for the world. The good news of Jesus Christ and his resurrection is that the ways things have always been is not the way things always have to be. The way we have been is not the way we always have to be. Jesus has called us by name, and we have been given the chance to see the resurrected Christ: Christ who conquered sin, defeated death, and calls us to imagine new life for ourselves and God’s reign for all people.
Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus and share the good news that Christ is risen. Proclaim the tidings near and far: we have seen the Lord and it has changed the way we see the world. Halleluia. Amen.
[i] Walter Breuggemann, “The Pathetic Imagination,” February 19, 2023.