There’s this cartoon making the rounds these days in which a woman has just opened the front door of her home where she discovers two neatly dressed gentlemen with white shirts and black ties, presumably door-to-door missionaries of the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness persuasion. The woman has opened the door to them, they stand there, the three of them, the woman and these two men, in the doorway of her house when one of the men asks the woman a question, “Ma’am, have you found Jesus?” The punchline doesn’t become evident until the reader notices a bit of robe and sandal, the hidden profile of a darkened figure, peeking out from behind the woman’s flowing set of living room curtains, some distance behind her. Apparently, Jesus was out on the lam and had taken up residence in this woman’s home.
Have you found Jesus?
On one level, this question feels distinctively Evangelical. That is, it belongs to a certain brand or flavor of Christianity. Not all Christians are comfortable talking this way. But on another level, the question “Have you found Jesus?” belongs to all of us, every one of us. One of the petitions in the Prayers of the People, Form II, asks us to pray “for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him.” For all who seek God, for all who are looking for Jesus, like the woman in the cartoon.
When I hear that prayer petition, I often wonder: will I ever not seek a deeper knowledge of God? I say this without belittling the relationship I have with him. But who among us does not yearn to grow deeper in the love of the One who has loved us to the cross and beyond it? A deeper knowledge of him... In this life, at least, this prayer keeps me from complacency.
As an aside, one of the challenges for Protestant Christians, I think, is to affirm the certainty of salvation alongside and next to an abiding thirst to go deeper. One man confidently told his friend, “I don’t know about you, but I know where I’m going!” Somehow this man’s assurance had become an arrogance doing violence to the charity, the love, of the Gospel. But in the life of faith, the terms are not simply on/off, in/out, safe/not safe, but “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” “marked as Christ’s own,” “a good start, holy entrance, into a relationship of breadth and depth as we pray to dwell in him and he in us.”
We are always seeking, I suppose.
Have you found Jesus?
It’s something to think about: the way the Christian life takes on the shape of hide and seek. We are always seeking, and this can save us from complacency; but if we are not careful, it can also lead us to feelings of inadequacy or despair. As in, always seeking, never finding. The same inner urge that leads us rightly to surmise that we haven’t yet arrived might also tempt us to believe that we are not enough. So if we think of ourselves as always seeking God, we confess that some days we feel like small children, with a daunting illustration of “Where’s Waldo” before us, desperately looking for the pointy hat.
Why can’t we find the dagggum hat?
What on earth is wrong with me?
Maybe you know other Christians or friends for whom they only wish they could have found Christ hiding behind the living room curtain. But, for them, finding Jesus hasn’t proven that easy. Despite long hours in silence, prayer has not come naturally for them. Despite sleepless nights and anguished cries, your friend feels like heaven’s door for her is closed. Like she’s talking to herself and so she sometimes makes up reasons, excuses, she blames herself, in order to protect God from her doubts. Your friend may have begun believing that there is something spiritually defective in her that prevents her from finding God. Like God would make himself more accessible if she could get her act together.
Our Gospel today comes to gently challenge those who, in despair of finding God, have turned to the false medicine of self-hate. (1)
For the third straight week, beginning with Easter Sunday itself, the Gospel has spoken a story about people who are no good at hide and seek with God. People who have sought God and failed. And these people are not just any people - these people are Jesus’ very good friends. They didn’t believe when they heard it, but even when Jesus appears before them, they cannot escape their terror, fear, and doubt. In attempt to satisfy their fears, Jesus eats fish. This isn’t a ghost or hallucination or the result of their having eaten spoiled anchovies on last night’s pizza. And yet all through the gospels, as the risen Jesus returns to his friends, we find some version of what appears in Matthew’s gospel, wherein “the disciples worshiped him, but some doubted.” We sometimes tell ourselves that the life of faith would be easier if he would just come to us like he came to Thomas and the rest, but lessons like today’s lesson challenge that belief. In today’s lesson, Jesus appears to and eats with his friends, and some of them walk away at the end of the story as fearful as when it started.
But lest we get as caught up on the disciples’ failings as we get caught up on our own, let me name here the gentle challenge that these gospels mean to speak to those who, in despair of finding God, have turned to the false medicine of self-hate, and this is the gentle challenge, the main point that the gospel is making about the disciples: failures or not, Jesus has come to them. That’s the main point.
Jesus has come to them.
Love does not wait for them to get their act together. Love makes no condition for his appearing. Even when he stands before them and they fail to recognize him, their failure isn’t final, but instead becomes the starting point, the next new beginning, for the forgiveness, the mercy, and loving-kindness of God, as he patiently points back to the Scriptures, interpreting them for his friends, revealing himself to his friends. Breaking bread, eating with them. Despite their shortcomings, blind-spots, and fears, he comes to them anyway - because he loves them. And with the tenderness of a mother gently waking her children, he lovingly opens their eyes.
As it turns out, the life of faith is hide and seek, but the strange, good, glorious news of Easter and the Gospel is that we are the ones hiding and Christ is the One seeking. Unrelentingly seeking. And this Good News makes faith so much more than a hat to find on Waldo or a riddle to be solved or a task to be performed, to get just right. Faith takes the shape of a love song not from you but sung to you from the lips of the One who is head over heels for you and won’t let you go. This is the Good News of Easter. If Jesus seems hard to find, before you give up, look closer - nearer than the distant hills on which you’ve kept your gaze till now. His love requires a portrait and not a landscape lens. You need to know that you are beloved of God, and that his heart seeks you.
The revelation that faith is at least as much about Jesus finding me as my finding him inspired one anonymous poet to craft the hymn we know as #689 in The Hymnal 1982. I share it with you by way of closing:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me; it was not I that found O Savior true; no, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold; I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea; ‘twas not so much that I on thee took hold, as thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but oh the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee; for thou wert long beforehand with my soul, always thou lovest me.
So come, come one more time to the table that the Lord who sought you has also prepared for you. Break the bread, drink the cup. One more time, let him open your eyes. Be found again, alive in the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.
(1) And superstition, which is the belief that getting the act together would compel God to show up. But that takes as a little far afield from our main thrust here.
Sermon preached April 23, 2012, at St Christopher's by-the-Sea