Saturday, April 6, 2013
Is that you Jesus?
Several times a week at the grocery store, I pass a fundraising table for a Christian camp I’ve never heard of. The sign invites passersby to “Help Change Lives”.
I always smile benevolently at the middle-aged man behind the table.
“Care to help?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I reply.
“Okay. Have a blessed day.”
This happens often, though not so often that the guy recognizes me as the smiling old dude who never gives a cent.
But to be perfectly honest, the word “Christian” in the camp’s name raises questions. There’s no time to vet the place while buying bread and milk.
The man standing behind the collection box looks nice enough, and it may well be that the camp serves children of all ethnicities and social classes and encourages them to imitate Jesus’ example of loving and accepting everyone.
On the other hand, the place could be a project of the insanely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, or a training ground for an evangelical mission agency that sends missionaries to Ireland to convert the Christians to Christianity.
So doubt paralyzes my impulse to grab my wallet.
It’s sad, especially on the Sunday when millions will read about the nagging doubts of the Apostle Thomas, that the word “Christian” invokes distrust and doubt.
Last week I joined Martha and Katie, my spouse and daughter, at our favorite restaurant. After we were seated, I excused myself and went to the bathroom to wash my hands.
Inside, I was startled to see a tall man bent over the sink. He was scrubbing his face with an excess of hand soap while crooning “Glamorous” in a fulsome, falsetto voice.
I turned to leave the room but the man caught sight of me.
“Sir, excuse me,” he said. He gestured grandly toward the sink and stepped aside. “After you,” he said as soapy water drizzled into his beard.
“No,” I said, “Please finish up.”
The man pulled small scraps of paper towel out of a miserly dispenser and dabbed at his face.
“I got time,” he said. “Waiting don’t bother me. I been in prison three years. Just got out.”
I glanced at the bathroom door and stepped to the sink. I let a little water trickle in my hands and quickly shook it off.
“Are you heading home?” I asked.
“I am,” he said. “As soon as I can get the bus.”
“You must be a happy man.”
“Thinking about getting out is all that kept me going.”
I usually don’t offer benedictions in public restrooms, but the guy seemed so joyful.
“God bless you,” I said. “I hope it all goes well from here on.”
“God bless your kind self,” he said.
He continued in the same genial vein.
“Spent all my money on the bus ticket,” he said. “Haven’t eaten today. Can you help me out?”
I tend to ignore requests like that when I don’t have time to think them over. My hesitation probably stems from conflicting genes I inherited from my paternal grandparents. During the Great Depression, Grandma was famous for doling out samples of her canned meat to starving hobos, while Grandpa was known to defend his larder with a .45 revolver.
I inherited more of Grandpa’s tightness than Grandma’s generosity, but Grandpa never negotiated with an ex-con in a restaurant bathroom.
“Don’t have a lot,” I mumbled, reaching for my wallet. I pulled out three crisp dollar bills and gave them to the man.
His eyes crinkled as he grinned.
“God bless you more,” he said, almost laughing. He clutched the money to his chest. “God bless you, man.”
I smiled and backed slowly out of the bathroom.
Martha and Katie were still waiting for our food when I took my seat. I glanced back at the bathroom and saw the man had also exited and was pressing the three dollar bills on the counter. The waiter nodded and brought him a basket of bread. The man stuffed a bread stick into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully as he packed the rest of the bread into his jacket pocket and walked out of the restaurant.
Soon our food was delivered. I leaned back in my chair and mused how I would tell this interesting story to Martha and Katie. I knew I had time to think about it because Martha was staring intently at her iPhone and Katie was absorbed by a large bowl of macaroni and cheese.
Suddenly I had an epiphany, or thought I did.
“I wonder,” I said, picking up my fork, “if I just talked with Jesus.”
Martha glanced at me quizzically.
The passage from Matthew was running through my head.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-39)
Actually, I was fretting about the more negative passage:
“Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)
Jesus, I said to myself. I should have sprung for more than three bucks.
I took some solace in the fact that the man seemed satisfied by my grudging largess.
And of course there’s always a chance the man was just who he said he was – not Jesus but a recently paroled convict looking for a meal as he waited for the bus home.
But it doesn’t make any difference because Jesus made it plain that we should treat convicts and strangers as if they were him.
That’s a helpful thing to keep in mind, not only because otherwise we’d treat convicts and many strangers with contempt, but also because it’s not always easy to recognize Jesus.
Immediately after his resurrection, Jesus’ closest friends failed to identify him. Mary Magdalene, the first to arrive at his empty tomb, didn’t realize Jesus was the man talking to her until he called her name.
In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus joins two of his disciples on a walk to Emmaus, but Luke reports “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (v.16). Mark reports, a bit mysteriously, that Jesus appeared to them “in another form” (Mark 16:12) which, as author Garry Wills writes in What Jesus Meant, is “hard to interpret.”
“Jesus appeared in numinous form (Wills writes) … his body was not the earthly body any more, but one both outside time and space and affecting time and space.”
The resurrected body of Christ could pass through walls and, ultimately, ascend into heaven, but Jesus could also allow Thomas to touch his wounds of crucifixion. Even more amazing, Jesus could eat with his companions.
From our 21st century vantage point, where digital media create virtual realities on plasma screens, the sensationalism of the resurrection begins to dim. Jesus’ strange post-death appearances, which galvanized his contemporaries into the fiery evangelical movement that transformed the world, no longer excites many modern minds. The figure in the Easter stories makes us think of a benign zombie or, perhaps, an exhilarating Elvis sighting.
Even for lifelong mystics and dedicated theologians, the resurrection of a dead Jesus is hard to accept. I have known Christian educators who admitted they doubted it.
Over the years millions have found themselves repeating Thomas’s disbelief:
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
In our age of secular skepticism, our doubts go deeper than Thomas’s. When Thomas touched the wounds of Jesus, he believed. If Jesus appeared to a skeptic today, he would likely be dismissed as a holographic illusion.
And so, on the second Sunday of Easter, many of us are – like Thomas – paralyzed by doubt.
The challenge, according to Presbyterian writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, is not to stop doubting but to free ourselves of doubt’s paralysis.
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith,” Buechner wrote. “They keep it awake and moving.”
The greatest problem many skeptics face is that neither their faith nor their doubts are alive and moving.
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep,” Buechner wrote in Wishful Thinking.
The same is true of the resurrection of Jesus. For some, the declaration, “the Lord is risen” sends hearts soaring; for others, the phrase invokes skepticism and doubt. Whether we accept it or reject it, if we no longer struggle with the notion, our souls have fallen asleep.
Keeping our souls awake requires constant interaction with the resurrected Jesus.
But how will we know him when we see him? Even his contemporaries didn’t know who he was when they encountered their resurrected leader on the road or in their homes. Two millennia later, in an age of secularism and doubt, how can we possibly recognize him?
Fortunately, Jesus made it easy for us. He is present, he declared, whenever we mingle with our fellow humans.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me some clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36; 40b)
Thomas doubted the presence of Jesus and all of us live through long periods of questioning and distrust.
But the bottom line, Jesus told us, is that he never left us. He is with us when we least suspect it.
Which brings me back to my earlier question: was the ex-con I encountered in the restroom of a local restaurant Jesus?
I have the answer to that on the highest authority. Of course he was.