This past week, as I prepared these words, I have been giving a lot of thought to the idea of image and what I mean by that is, what image do we project to those around us and, what image do we see? These are important questions that, for our spiritual nature, we need to be able to answer.
On Thursday I had the honor of officiating a funeral for a 97-year-old woman called Helen. As so often is the case, I received a phone call from the funeral home asking if I was available for a funeral. I did not know Helen and had no connection to the family, and they had no relationship to Bethany. In my preparation, I spoke with Helen’s daughter Sharon to try and get some information about her mother for the service. She told me about her childhood and some of the memories of her mother. We spoke about Helen’s love of golf and gardening and of course, the love of her grandchildren all the way to her great, great grandchildren. This information allowed me to paint a picture of Helen in my mind and allowed me to see an image of her.
While I was waiting for the funeral service to begin, I was speaking with the funeral director and about Helen. The funeral director had been involved with this family for years and knew them rather well. We started talking about our grandparents and memories that we had of them. He told me about his grandmother who was blind and the only way she knew which of her grandchildren were there was by touching their face. He said when they would arrive at her house, she would call them each over so she could “see them,” and she would feel their face with her gentle touch. She knew each person by the shape and feel of their face, and from that, she would form an image of them in her mind.
In today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke we hear of Jesus encountering his followers on the road. He suddenly was with them, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Scripture tells us they were “startled and terrified” by this and at first they did not recognize him. He showed them, as he did with Thomas, his hands, his feet, and his side the wounds of his crucifixion so that they would recognize him. Their mind would not allow them to see Jesus in front of them, after all, they witnessed his death shortly before this encounter, but now he was standing there and showing them his wounds, and they recognized him.
In another place, we read about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and encountering who she thought was the gardener of the cemetery. It was not until he called her by name that Mary recognized that it was Jesus and not the gardener standing in front of her. And in another place, we read of yet another appearance and those there did not recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them. These were all images that Jesus projected, and they were able to see him face to face.
But what about us?
We all have different images, husband, wife, father, mother, friend, minister, brother, sister, etc. Each of these images is different and the same from the other. Out image in our work in perhaps very different from our image at home or in a social environment. Believe it or not, most ministers, including me, are introverts and it takes an enormous amount of energy to be in social situations and because of this we often come off very aloof and unapproachable. It is an unfortunate image that we project.
But the image that I am most interested in is in the image of God and the image of Christ.
I was once asked how I saw God. Think about this for a minute, if a sketch artist was sitting with you, and the artist asked you for a description of God what would you say? I was asked this question shortly after the movie “Oh God” with George Burns had come out. I am not sure how many of you remember this movie but George Burns was God so for me, at that moment, God looked like George Burns. We call God father, but what if the person we are talking to does not have a good father image? Maybe their father beat their mother or abandoned them when they were very young so to call God “father” is not a positive image. The point is, we make God in our image and we see God as we need to see God, and there is nothing wrong with that. Theologically God has no gender or form except when God became and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, the Word of God.
Over the last 2,000 or so years there have been many images of Jesus in all forms of art. I think one of more famous is the one that shows Jesus with the long flowing blonde hair and the piercing blue eyes. Now, this is where we have to separate the historical Jesus from the image of Jesus that we have. Historically we know that at the time of his death, Jesus was approximately 33 years old. He was single; he was a rabbi of some renown. He was from Palestine in the Middle East. Chances are he did not have blonde hair and blue eyes. Because of his age and his position he would have had a beard and traditionally long hair. So we have a historical image of a 33-year-old male from 1st century Palestine. If that same sketch artist asked us about Jesus, this would be the historical picture.
But we also have the spiritual Jesus. Theologically Jesus was human, and he was divine. Our Trinitarian theology says that he shared the same nature with God. The Gospel of John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, Jesus, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So Jesus is God in human form but how we see that form is much different.
Time for another movie reference. The movie is called Talladega Nights and is a film about a race car driver. Now the movie is a comedy and for some, not a very good one, but for me, it was a pivotal movie in the theological education. About halfway through the movie the main character and his family, along with his best friend, are sitting down to dinner and they are about to pray before the meal. During the prayer, Ricky Bobby, that is the main character played by Will Farrell, prays to “baby Jesus.” I wish we had a projector in here so I could show this clip but later on, today google it….
Anyway, Ricky Bobby’s grandfather objects to the prayer to “baby Jesus” he says that Jesus was a man with a beard. The counterpoint to the argument is that for Ricky Bobby, he lies to picture Jesus as an infant. At that point, now bear with me here, Ricky Bobby’s friend jumps in and says that he lies to picture Jesus in a “tuxedo t-shirt.” Now you might be sitting there looking for something to throw at me, but the point of the illustration is that we see Jesus as we each see Jesus and for some of us it might be Baby Jesus, for some it might be full grown adult Jesus, and for some, my guess is a small minority of you, you like to see Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt and all of that is just fine.
We need to spiritually see Jesus in a way that brings joy and comfort to us and if that means he needs to have blonde hair and blue eyes, I am okay with that. But the real question I have for you today is, do you see Jesus in others and can they see Jesus in you?
We are, all of us, created in the image and likeness of God we have been given the divine spark. The creation story from Genesis says that God breathed his breath into the nostrils of the first humans; we contain the very breath of God. I am not sure we truly understand what that means to be created in God’s image and to contain his very breath.
I often speak of the command to love God and love of neighbor. For me, this is the Gospel, and nothing else matters if we do not practice that sort of love. And that love is unconditional. We are also commanded to love our enemies and those who wish us harm. These are non-negotiable in the life of the Christian, and they are also challenging. But we are commanded to do that because of the divine spark, that image of God in us and the other. Someone once told me that we may be the only Bible someone ever reads and we might be the reason they come to Jesus or the reason they flee from him.
So we need to think long and hard about something today. Do we honestly see the image of God in others and by others I mean everyone because how we treat them, what we say to them and about them should be influenced by that image? If that was Jesus standing there in front of us would we treat them like that or would we say that because it is Jesus standing right there in front of us and he tells us that himself? Matthew 25 the righteous ask him “lord when did we see you hungry and feed you or naked and clothe you.” And he answers, “as you do it to the least of these you do it to me.” When we insult someone, when we mistreat them, when we lie or gossip about someone, when we refuse to help them because we do not think they are worthy or when we drop bombs on them, we do it to Jesus.
The question for this week is, do I honestly see Jesus in the other and I am projecting the image of Jesus so others can see it?