Growing up in the church, I always had a lot of questions. There were a lot of things in the Bible that I found confusing, and downright contradictory, and I wanted someone to explain them. Often the answers were unsatisfactory, and I struggled to understand why the adults in my church did not just have clear answers. So imagine my delight in adulthood when I discovered the Episcopal Church and the way that the Church seemed to embrace questions. Of course, the answers were still not always clear, and priests used words like “mystery” and “I don’t know.” But at least I was in a place that welcomed the questions, and that fact gave me hope that one day, I might actually figure out all this “God stuff.” And of course, going to seminary was a dream – I could actually spend 24-7 steeped in my questions, in textbooks, and in my favorite spot, the Library. And though I discovered that there is rarely one answer to a question, the fact that there were myriad answers that one must hold in tension was just fine. I was just happy to have developed some of the language and ideas around those big questions.
So imagine how proud I was when my first child finally started asking questions about Jesus. I was going to be the parent who did not have to use words like “mystery” and “I don’t know.” I did know, and with her first question, I launched into an explanation of epic proportions. It was not until I looked in the rearview mirror of the car and saw her eyes glazed over and her attention fading that I realized I had lost her. Somehow my accumulated knowledge and reference to the debates of scholars was of no help with a three-year old.
What I probably should have done was taken a cue from John’s gospel that we hear today. The funny thing is that John’s gospel is usually pretty heady – his sentences are often convoluted and complicated. And to be honest, sometimes my eyes glaze over and my attention fades when I read John’s gospel. But today’s lesson is a little different. Today, as we hear about the most significant fact of the Christian faith – Jesus’ resurrection – John is not abstract or intellectual at all. Quite the opposite, the encounter between the risen Lord and Mary Magdalene is visceral, emotional, and deeply, deeply personal.[i]
This kind of revelation about God is not what we expect from John’s gospel. This is the same gospel that begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” No mangers, angels, or kings. John is all about theologically explaining Jesus. So why then does John give us a story about Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple running around like crazy people? Why does John have Mary repeatedly not being able to see past her grief to realize that not only is she speaking to angels who are trying to give her good news, she is also talking to the very man whom she is grieving? John beautifully transitions today from being a writer who consistently presents Jesus in heady, intellectual ways, to being a writer who also shows us that Jesus is most known in the tangible, realness of life. In the story, Mary is desperate to see her Lord’s body – what she imagines is the last tangible piece of him left. She is so distraught that she cannot even see clearly when he is looking at her straight in the eye. Only when she has turned away in despair, is she able to find Jesus. Jesus says, “’Mary,’ and the sound of his voice saying her names helps her to see him. He does not offer a general address; no, he uses a word that applies to her and her alone, a word that captures the utter particularity of her individual life – her name.”[ii]
We do not get a distant, transcendent Jesus in John. We do not get some flowery, academic description of a concept of Jesus. We get a real man, addressing a real woman, using the sound of his raspy voice, calling a woman by her very own name. The gospel does not get much more real and tangible than that. John’s gospel is such a relief to us today because who among us cannot relate to the busyness of this text? Before we get to the part of Jesus saying Mary’s name we have Mary and disciples running back and forth, people walking past one another without a word, Mary misinterpreting things because she is so singularly focused on what she thinks should be happening. Of course she could not see Jesus. Neither can we. We are running from work to home to meetings to practices to church. We are answering emails, hearing headlines on the news, and eating dinner. We are on the phone, driving the car, and scarfing down lunch. How can we connect to Jesus in the chaos of our lives?
We can certainly try to connect to Jesus through the study of academic readings and theological debates. We can try to mentally work our way toward Jesus. But more often, Jesus is revealed to us instead through embodied, physical ways. As one scholar explains, “As he did with Mary, Jesus comes to us not as a general idea or an imagined ghostly figure, but as a presence that reaches beyond our mind’s overt powers of knowing and touches our lives in ways that we cannot see. They are felt – tasted, touched, smelled, heard, seen in image, and as such, often as unconscious as they are visceral.”[iii] Sometimes we will experience God through study and the use of our minds. But sometimes, we will come to know God through the emotional and personal – like being called by name.
Once we are willing to accept that there are some things that are beyond our knowing, we can perhaps lessen our grip on our Episcopal embrace of the intellect, and realize that some things of God have to be experienced. In order to do that, we are going to need some help. We are going to need to “go to church and be in a space where we physically, emotionally, communally, experience Jesus in our midst.”[iv] Whether in the taste of the communion wine, the smell of the Easter flowers, the sound a favorite old hymn, or the feel of hard wooden pew, church is one of those places in which the familiar tastes, smells, sounds, touches, and sights stirs up something deep inside of us. Though church can certainly feed our minds, we can feed our minds anywhere. But our bodies need to be fed too. And sometimes the only way to feed our body is through our physical, visceral experiences that can only be had in church – so that our bodies might be reminded of Christ too.
Of course, that means we are going to have to give up some things. We are going to have to give up on the notion that our brains will be able to answer all our questions. We are going to have to give up some time on Sundays so that we can place ourselves in the position to taste, touch, feel, see, and hear Jesus. And we might even have to be willing to say the occasional, “I don’t know,” when our children ask us really hard questions. But my guess is that children, and even adults, when they are willing to admit it, might be relieved to hear us say, “I don’t know. But sometimes in my gut, I can feel Jesus with me. And every once in a while, though the thought may be really strange, I really can hear Jesus calling my name.” My guess is that the ambiguity, the visceral, tangible concept of Christ, and the sense of wonder and mystery you share might make for a more engaging answer anyway. Amen.
[i] Serene Jones, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 376.
[ii] Jones, 378.
[iii] Jones, 378.
[iv] Jones, 380.