Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Ways of Seeing

Second Sunday of Easter
28 April 2019
10.30 Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

In 1972, the art critic Peter Berger wrote an influential book called “Ways of Seeing”

The book is currently being revisited by Radio 4 as it seeks to examine how we might now look at things anew in the digital age

But as the title of the original book suggests, John Berger challenged the way we look at art and asked us to look afresh at what we were viewing

He starts his book by observing that

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak”

In other words, the child can often see the genuine picture when we might not be able to

He goes on to say that

 “We explain the world with words……………[but] the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight”

In other words, the description does not give us the true picture

And even if something is painted or photographed, we often need to look beyond the picture itself to discover the reality behind it

“Ways of Seeing” seems an appropriate title for the readings of Eastertide

This period of Eastertide – in which the church now resides – is one where we hear the accounts of witnesses to the resurrection and what people actually saw

Since Easter Eve, we have heard of

  • The women and the disciples who discover the empty tomb early on the Sunday morning
  • The account of Mary Magdalene when she mistook Christ as the gardener

And this morning from John’s Gospel where we hear that

  • The disciples experience Christ in a locked room where Christ shows them  his wounds and his sides

There are more to come

But added to the mix this morning, the seemingly unrelated account of the valley of the dry bones in the Book of Ezekiel.

I don’t think it is unrelated to the Gospel reading but, to that, I will return at the end of the sermon.

The Resurrection accounts are recalled each and every year and form the bedrock of our faith

St Paul makes the point in his letter to the Corinthians

“If there is no resurrection, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain”

Paul, helpfully, lists all those who havewitnessed the risen Christ in the aftermath of the resurrection

  • Peter
  • Then the twelve
  • More than five hundred of the brothers
  • Then to James
  • And last of all – Paul says – he appeared to me

No less than 515 witnesses, if my maths is correct

He is setting out the case as to why the Corinthians and the fledgling Christian community should believe in the resurrection

Put simply – so many people have seen the risen Christ- you should believe too

The message to the Corinthians is the same message to us today

However, Paul’s list of witnesses, if we are honest, can leave us quite cold and unmoved

It begs the question whether seeing is believing or is there something more to it?

The account in the Gospel of John this morning sets out in more detail one of the listed encounters.

In the account we have heard this morning, the disciples are in a locked room “for fear of the Jews”

Mysteriously, Christ appears among them

Then, to prove who he was, he shows the disciples his hands and his side

As a result, the disciples “rejoiced”

However, this detailed account poses us with a very different set of problems:

  • How could the risen Christ pass through a locked door?
  • How is it that the disciples could not, at first, recognise their friend Jesus?
  • Is this a spiritual or bodily resurrection?

We could be excused for admitting that this is, yet another, Resurrection encounter which we cannot fully comprehend 

However, I think there is a clue in the reading this morning which might help us with our uncertainty rather than detract.

The physical questions, which are left open and unanswered, are strangely counterbalanced by the emotional response from the disciples

Whatever the answer to the physical evidence, the disciples nevertheless

“Rejoiced when they saw the Lord”

Whatever they had seen, they clearly felt certainty in their hearts

And, after Christ breathed on them, they were empowered to loose and forgive sins

Clearly something remarkable happened to them in their encounter

This account in John’s Gospel is, in some ways, is similar to the account in Luke Gospel of the encounter with Christ on the Road to Emmaus

A story which also follows on immediately from the empty tomb

Here two of the disciples/

  • Despite all they have been told
  • Despite all they have witnessed

Failed to recognise Christ as he walked with them on the road

This encounter, again breaks, all physical boundaries

  • Jesus appears from nowhere
  • He is not recognised by his closest friends and
  • At the end of the meal, he vanishes from sight

It was only in the breaking of the bread that “their eyes were open” and that they came to recognise Jesus

As Luke put it, while they were sharing a meal with Jesus “Their hearts burned within them”

They knew the risen Christ

It is not the seeing but rather the emotional response to the encounter which leads to their certainty

In my own encounter with Christ as a student, an overwhelming feeling of joy accompanied a description of Christ’s passion

And so returning to Peter Berger and his book “The Way of Seeing”  

As he pointed out, when we look at something, we cannot always be certain of what we are looking at

As Berger says

“The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled”-he is absolutely right

However, Berger goes on to say

“When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words can embrace and no embrace can match”

In other words, the emotional response is also part of the seeing and completes the picture

And so it this morning with this description of the risen Christ

When the disciples “see” the Risen Christ they can’t be sure what they are seeing and nor can we from their physical descriptions

However their emotional response provides us with a completeness which finishes the picture

In the locked room, their emotional response is one of Rejoicing

When they meet Christ on the Road to Emmaus “their hearts are warmed”

So too with us

We may struggle with the picture that is painted by the risen Christ through the lens of the Gospel writers

But being moved to rejoice in worship, proclaim the Gospel and encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread, completes the “seeing” for us just as it did for the disciples two thousand years ago

And as a result, we too, like the disciples, become a transformed community-

And this transformed community can of course be “seen” another way

As the prophet Ezekiel says

Thus says the Lord God to these bones;

I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live

I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin

And put breath in you and you shall live,

And you shall know that I am Lord