Our guest preacher, Hal Edmonson, is a native of Madison and an M.Div. student at Harvard Divinity School. His sermon is entitled, “Seeing and Believing, or, Why Jesus is Like a Moonwalking Bear.”
It was about an hour into the protest when I first saw Jesus. I was standing on the steps of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston on a January morning. Twenty-thousand or so people crowded into Copley Square, demonstrating against the order banning citizens of six predominantly-Muslim countries, and effectively ending refugee resettlement in this country. The rage was palpable. The signs were witty, maybe, but the knuckles that held them were white hot with fury. And there, held aloft by someone a few feet ahead of me, I never found out who, was Christ. An icon, The Christ of Maryknoll. Jesus is there, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. His mouth is hidden behind the wires, leaving only his eyes truly visible; His hands rest on the tangle of metal, and though the steel talons have left stigmata of their own, his fingers yet curl their way around them—not a spasm of agony, but an embrace; a sign, almost, of blessing. Providentially, perhaps, in the crowd that left almost no room to breathe, Christ stayed in front of me; when speakers thundered their denunciation, when chants got into some very not-safe-for-church language, and when the crowd tried to make space in the middle of those twenty-thousand for some of the Muslim organizers to pray, there He was, staring at me. Wondering.
He hasn’t stopped. It’s an image I can’t seem to shake. He’s there, floating into my field of vision whenever I’m watching the news, in prayer, in reading, even on my long runs along the Charles River. Which, for me, is really rather strange. I’m in seminary and not art school for a reason: I like words. A lot. I encounter God in the syntax of things, and trust the power of the word to wind its way down in to the dusty corners of the human heart, dwelling there until it is needed most. But I’m not an image guy —I still have nightmares about a particular Art History final in Junior Year of college.
Don’t get me wrong, I find art beautiful. But images don’t stick with me the same way that a line of poetry does. There is always something intolerably ambiguous about images. They lack clarity, for there are always details that I miss. Take this icon, for instance: you can’t see Jesus’ mouth. There’s so much there that could change the whole picture. Or, what do I make of those eyes? Are they convicting? Pitying? Crying out for help? Uttering words of comfort? There is too much uncertainty, defying my desire to pick apart the motivation until I decode it all. That, I think, is why this particular image has been haunting me: I want certainty. And it won’t give it to me.
Our readings for today, and the Gospel in particular, are among the most often quoted in the New Testament—and if we can be real for a moment, also probably among the ones that make we Episcopalians most uncomfortable—because these passages, too, seem to be all about certainty. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus says. “None come to the Father but by me.” These are the words that launched a thousand missionary ships, used as the proof that salvation is beyond the hands of those who don’t see their place in the universe quite the same way. And what, for good or for ill, has come to define faith for many, many Christians—including, in the past or right now, probably a good number of us in this room: Belief, pure certainty, to the point that—like Stephen—we’d able to suffer and endure death on the strength of our conviction alone.
But the image of Christ in that icon has me wondering what it is that Jesus is really asking the disciples for, here. Remember that there weren’t really “Christians” yet. What we now consider to be truths, the distillation of them that we recite in the Nicene Creed, nobody had bothered to put together. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say what to believe in, as far as intellectual concepts. He’s a lot more cryptic. He says, “Believe in ME.” He doesn’t tell them the way, he says “I am the way.” I. Me. Myself. Jesus isn’t talking about all the theology and creeds that would eventually come to represent those things, or the scriptures that would tell about him. ’I’ doesn’t mean just what I do, or what I say, or what is accomplished on a cross, or in a tomb. It’s an all-of-the-above-and-then-some sort of situation. When Jesus says ‘I’, he means, well, that. He resists a reduction to some essence that is easier to digest. All of it, all of it, together, matters. Being the Incarnate Word of God is to defy simplification. Just as each of us have a core to our being that defies our worst moments, our most thoughtless words, and our greatest accomplishments, Jesus isn’t going to let himself be easily defined. Incarnation is to take on all the complexity, ambiguity, and irreducible beauty of humanity. To take any of that away is to take away the gift of incarnation itself. He is the way, accomplishing by the mere fact of his being a relationship between humanity and God that is inseparable. Following instructions isn’t quite enough. People are complicated, you see, even if you are, quite literally, God.
Which is a bummer, for the disciples, because they really want simple instructions. Thomas is hung up on this whole ‘way’ thing, and a number of commentators on the Greek point out that he’s confused by Jesus’ words—he’s picturing an actual road, going to a physical place, and probably thinking that if he’d had Google Maps, he could have skipped the whole following-Jesus-around-a-desert-thing. Phillip, meanwhile, wants Jesus to show him the Father, like, now, and that would satisfy him.
But instead, Jesus says you already have these things, in me—together in my words, in my works, and in the work of death and resurrection that is yet to come. None of them make sense without the others. They’ve missed the desert for the sand. What Jesus wants from them, in the end, isn’t their obedience, or their intellectual assent (though there are times when Jesus might have taken those too!). It’s their sight. It’s their willingness to see, look at the image right in front of them—the only image that can convey the fullness of Incarnation, to see what God’s mercy has wrought upon the earth, and the vision of the Kingdom that is coming, and is already here. Seeing, at least this time, is believing.
The trouble is, believing isn’t always seeing. There are these psychology test videos, maybe you’ve seen them, where there are two teams of people passing a ball back and forth, and you’re asked to count how many passes are completed. After about thirty seconds, the video freezes, and the narrator asks you how many passes were made, and then shows the correct answer. Then, she asks whether you noticed the moonwalking bear. And then you go back, and watch it slowly, and sure enough, there’s someone in a bear suit grooving their way across the floor. Our brains can only take in so much information, so we prioritize what to look for; we get the information we think we need, and filter out the rest. We’ve “succeeded” in the task before us, maybe, but if we failed to notice a moonwalking bear, what did we really see? It’s kind of the same with trying to believe in Jesus now. The world, same as it ever was, is overflowing with injustice. The demands on us to feed, to shelter, and to console are great. And it’s oh-so-easy to pray for just the things we think we need to do them, or to read the parts of scripture that seem to touch on them perfectly, that assure us we’re right, and doing our part, and so on. We’re much like the disciples, in that respect: we want the most efficient route possible. We want to know that we’ve done all we could, and followed our instructions.
But we miss things. We always do. We miss how easily, for instance, Christ-like compassion can slide into only showing compassion to those who are most Christ- like. We can miss the moments of weakness, and pain, and grief. We can get so caught up in the work of the world that it starts to become an idol in its own right. We can forget that we are called to a Christian life not on account of our own righteousness, but because we, too, are entangled with sin, and dependent upon God’s mercy.
That’s what happened to me, standing in that crowd in Copley Square, seething with anger and grief at the thought of families days away from being able to leave refugee camps only to be thrust back into limbo. I wanted to hold people accountable, to defeat them, to humiliate them with caustic poster-board signs. And there was this face of Christ staring back at me—not egging me on, just watching. Vanquish all your enemies, His eyes said; there will be new ones. Right all the wrongs; they won’t stay that way. Fortify your convictions as much as you want; God has a way of eluding your logic. I am the Way. I am the truth. I am the life.
It’s much easier to hate error than it is to love that truth. (I paraphrase here one of my favorite quotes from Michael Oakshotte, from his essay “Introduction to Leviathan”.) Error is a lot more comprehensible, at least. But it matters that we keep this vision of our truth, of the whole person of Christ before us. Icons, obviously, are something I’ve gained a little appreciation for over the past couple of months, and I recommend you try praying with one if you never have. There are things to be learned from crucifixes, out of fashion though they are these days, or from paintings, or books that have been written imagining the bodies that Christ might have called His own. Precisely how one does this matters a lot less than that we keep looking, keep one eye on the image whenever we get caught up in words. It’s a discipline, you see. It takes practice. But one, I believe, that keeps us grounded. There will always be more work, more injustice, more pain. And in the moments of inevitable discouragement, when the certainty of prevailing is long gone, maybe what sustains isn’t inspiring words of scripture, or prayer, or self-care, but simply the image of the Word: the human form of Christ— limited, and frail, and broken, and because it is all these things, the reminder that God has already entered, irrevocably and fully, into our lives, is with us still, and that our salvation will not be on our own terms. Precisely the thing that frustrates me about images is their power: they keep teaching, keep drawing you out of yourself, inviting you to notice things that you never did before. Remember, in the work ahead, that in Christ, flesh is word, and word is flesh. Remember that image, even when it is unclear. Keep looking. You never know what you might have missed.