“Hi Chris – good to see you – haven’t seen you in ages!”
It was one of those moments again – when I stumbled across someone who definitely knows me but I couldn’t for the life of me remember who they are. No doubt you have experienced it as well. If not, well you are blessed with a great memory. The last time this happened to me was in a business lounge close to Manchester airport where people just pass through ‘nomadically’ to do a few hours of work, so I didn’t even have a place or context to help me remember. He carried on:
Him: “I didn’t know you worked from these offices as well.”
Me (struggling to place him): “Uh – hi? Oh yes – that’s right.”
Him: I’ve taken a permanent office upstairs. It’s a great deal. Works really well.
Me (desperately to myself: who is this person?…I know, I will trick him into telling me something that helps me remember): “Um how’s the family?”
Him (surprised): “What do you mean?”
Oops (we’ll come back to this later). Suffice to say this inability to recognise someone or remember their name happens to me quite regularly. Maybe to you too. If so, we can be encouraged to find that in the Easter accounts in the Bible there are several occasions where people don’t even recognise Jesus! I mean that’s pretty bad, right. So those of us who have terrible memories for names and faces can feel much better (I mean we’re talking about Jesus here!). Here are some of those moments:
1. Mary - First there’s that moving passage (John 20:11-18) where Mary, heartbroken and looking for the dead body of Jesus comes across “a gardener” and asks him to tell her where the body is. Our gardener (Jesus) becomes known to Mary in a moment of beauty where he simply voices her name.
2. The disciples - Then there’s the incident on the lake in John 21. The disciples go fishing. After all, Jesus is dead – what else is there to do? But Jesus appears on the shore, and, again, they don’t realise it’s him to begin with.
3. The two on the road to Emmaus - Possibly my favourite story in the Bible, there is the strange incident in the afternoon of that first Easter Day. Two friends are walking on the Emmaus Road, sad because Jesus is dead. But, surprise surprise, Jesus turns up to chat and walk along with them. And, in pantomime manner, we sit there shouting “IT’S JESUS!” but they don’t realise. They are, in the words of Luke 24:13-32 (The Message): “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted!”. Yes there’s mystery, intrigue, surprise – and lots of humour in this wonderful account!
We could also take a step back from Easter Sunday into Good Friday. There is that appalling moment where even God the Father refuses to ‘recognise’ Jesus. The Father who has loved the Son since the beginning, and for eternity, withdraws recognition of his beloved Son. And the Son can only cry out, in a sense, “My Father, why can’t you even look at me?”.
This moment is, thankfully, unique and does not last. But I wonder if the disfiguring of Jesus on the cross, not just physically but also under the weight of all that is bad in this world, has something to do with people’s inability to recognise him later? I don’t know.
I do think we also can mistakenly not recognise Jesus: we can forget what he looks like.
In all three New Testament cases above, people had a fixed view (Jesus is not here). They didn’t expect to see Jesus, so they didn’t. We too get used to only meeting God at church or in our quiet times. In all the other places, we don’t expect to see God…so we don’t. Here are some ways he reveals himself to us – do you see him?
1. Through creation - Paul tells us in Romans 1:19-20 that God has made himself known in his creation. We only need to open our eyes and see. From the early snowdrop in spring to the burning reds of autumn, God has added his signature to creation. Do we see Jesus in creation?
2. In other Christians - Jesus said that the kingdom of God has already begun, here amongs us. And Paul talks in Colossians 1:26-27 of “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations… which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Do we see Jesus in other believers? I think most often in church, we see some friends we stick to – and a whole lot of other people we want to avoid.
3. In strangers in need - The third way we can see Jesus is in the challenge of Matthew 25:31-40. The exchange between him and his followers basically went: “Lord when did we see you. His reply: “when you gave a drink, when you gave clothes, when you visited those who were most needy – you did it for me. That was me –didn’t you see me?”. Do we see Jesus in people who need our help?
It is hard to step aside from our day to day and remember to look for Jesus. To occasionally turn our face to God during the day and ask him to show us himself. To be prayerful at any time, not just praying during our quiet time. But the above three ways can both challenge us and give us an opportunity to recognise God in the everyday. To allow him to walk with us, to show us something new.
Lastly, back to the (real) incident of me not recognising someone:
Him (confused look): “What do you mean?”
Me (hasty retreat but no way now to back-peddle): “NO! I mean at home. How are things going?”
Him (eyeing me suspiciously): “Same old, same old – we’re OK. Anyway how are things going for you – it’s Lymm Baptist Church isn’t it?”
Me (at last! This must be someone from a previous church!): “Oh great, really settling in, loads going on, yeah loads, amazing. How about you – what’s going on at church?”
It then became a systematic process of eliminating possibilities without stepping on any more grenades, till my dreadful memory was kick-started into remembering who this good man was. And I think I only appeared slightly ridiculous.
I only hope when I do get to heaven I don’t look up dozily and mumble: "Do I know you from somewhere…?"