Martyn Percy: CodaFebruary 17, 2022
God and the laws of natureFebruary 22, 2022
We are incredibly grateful to the Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy for this series of reflections, which will be added to in the lead up to Lent.
One: Finding Our Pulse and Heart
Two: Finding Our Substance and Spine
Three: Finding Our Courage and Conviction
Four: Finding Our Wisdom and Discernment
Finale: At the End of the Rainbow – Finding Our Home
Four: Finding Our Wisdom and Discernment
Bible Passages and Questions: The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35)
- Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread, but it is only then that the earlier conversations with the “stranger” make sense, even with the scriptures being discussed and analyzed during the journey. When, where and how do we recognize Jesus – “see” for the first time (again) – and how does it help us with spiritual hindsight and foresight?
- Wisdom and discernment require us to know our place before God, to be humble, and to never cease in the search for truth. How do the recognitions of Jesus in the resurrection appearances help us to look and think differently?
- It is often said that there is never one date for our conversion, for we are being slowly converted and transformed every day, and each day, giving a little bit more of our life to God. What remains in us and the Church that still needs forming and converting?
- Forgiving is not forgetting; it is remembering and not using your right to hit back. It is a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.
- Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realise our need of one another.
- We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!
- When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray”. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible… but they had taken the land.
- A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human.
Discussing the quotations above, how do we begin to look at the world around us differently, with patience and foresight, and not with our eyes, but to see the world as God sees it?
I wonder how many fathers-to-be have sat staring at an ultrasound monitor, wondering what on earth they are looking at? Stood beside them is a helpful midwife, who moves the sensor over your partner’s gel-covered belly. ‘Now, if you look carefully, you can see the head. Ah yes, and there’s a leg, and there’s the heart too…yes it all looks fine and clear to me…’.
Clear? I have taken a long and hard look at two such images for both my sons, but fail to see the “obvious” features that are being pointed out me. The whole thing looks like rather bad black and white film footage of a documentary made at the bottom of Loch Ness: “in the murky depths, you can just see . . . ” Scan photographs sit proudly in our photo albums, but even now I still cannot fathom them. At best, the images resemble some kind of extra-terrestrial stuck in a washing machine on a slow cotton-wash.
But to the skilled interpreter operating the scan monitor, the images and their meaning are clear. Shades, shadows, movement and structure all add up to a more composite and definite picture. But it is one that requires interpretation, even to the most expectant parents. Even at this point, seeing isn’t believing: explanations are required.
Some years ago, the newly appointed bishop of Durham took a calculated swipe at his predecessor, Dr David Jenkins, by saying that if cameras could have been present on the first Easter morning, photographic evidence of the resurrection would now be available. It was Jenkins, you may recall, who had been hounded by the press after being widely misquoted as stating that “the resurrection was just a conjuring trick with bones”. When in fact, what he said was that the resurrection itself must be more than the said conjuring trick.
Setting this debate aside as one of the less glorious chapters in the history of ecclesiastical spats, we can nonetheless pose an intriguing question about the resurrection event: what does it mean to talk about seeing Jesus? The question isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Remember, for example, that plenty of people witnessed Jesus preaching, and even performing miracles. But in one sense, they saw nothing, for as the gospels continually point out, many people who could “see” were in fact quite blind to what was really going on. And some people who were regarded as being pretty dim-witted by their peers turned out have a very clear vision and version of the events they saw.
The gospels are full of playful parodies about sight and blindness. But underneath is a more serious and perhaps seditious intention. The gospels (clearly) reveal that there is no direct correlation between seeing and believing. Nowhere is this truer than in the resurrection stories, where the gospel writers are careful to add that “some doubted” what they saw, even when the evidence was staring them in the face. The stark visual impact of the crucifixion burns in the memory of the witnesses to Good Friday.
But this sight is out-narrated by the resurrection, which entirely alters our visual perceptions and frames of reference. Suddenly, there are sights, sensations and experiences that cannot be contained in words, let alone captured on film.
‘”The camera never lies”, so the proverb goes. But the proverb is wrong, for photographs, like paintings, do not reveal anything like the complete truth. They reveal the eye of the painter or photographer, who chose to frame one moment in still life, but not another. Who chose to tell this story, but not that one.
Pictures always tell a story – but even before the paint is dry or the negative developed, we have an interpretation of an event, which is always more than a clear re-telling or a carbon copy. Emmaus is one picture. Mary weeping at the tomb, talking to a gardener (apparently) another. Appearing in an upper room when the doors were already locked is another.
Of course, the gospels themselves are interpretations of what they witness to. The stories about Jesus are more than “simple” history. They are narratives with slants, angles, shades and perspectives – they aim to persuade as much as they inform. But when we come to the resurrection stories, we are left confounded and confused, for none of the gospel writers can really capture the event in words.
The resurrection breaks all frames of reference, bursting our perceptual boundaries, leaving the gospel writers with the huge task of trying to piece together shards of information that exceed any sense of reality. An appearance here, a disappearance there; a sighting then, but a vanishing now; one minute you can touch Jesus; the next, he’s like an apparition.
So this problem of recognition persists. Mary does not see Jesus at the tomb – she sees a man, “supposing him to be the gardener”. In the same way, the disciples on the road to Emmaus do not “see” Jesus until the breaking of the bread. The gospels, then, are all saying the same thing in the resurrection stories. All look; but not all see.
So a camera on Easter morning would not be much use. Some would still doubt, and the photograph would still need an explanation. But we can’t leave things there, for there can be no real question that the resurrection left its mark on the first witnesses. Once the disciples began to understand what they saw – and this took some while – their whole perception of God and the world was changed. From the resurrection, we gain hindsight and foresight.
There is a wonderful rawness to the resurrection stories. There are no !I knew you’d be back! greetings from the more optimistic disciples. Rather, the gospel accounts of the resurrection convey fear, confusion, doubt and trepidation – all perfectly proper human reactions to seeing a dead man walking, talking – and even eating. Or appearing suddenly in a room of fearful people, and saying “peace be with you” to a group of now even more frightened disciples!
Thank goodness, then, that none of the four gospels end by giving us abstract doctrinal reflections, in some kind of attempt to explain the resurrection. It cannot be. It is a matter of faith, which is why the stories, for all their raggedness, fear, passion and breathless wonder, are the best vehicles Christians have for trying to narrate the first Easter. And the disciples – doubting what is plainly before their very eyes.
The advantage of stories is that they give us a kind of deep knowledge that abstract reasoning can never provide. Stories give us real people or characters in specific times and places, who are doing actual things: coming to the tomb to lay flowers and anoint a body; running away scared when the grave is found to be empty; not recognising the gardener; walking with acquaintances on the road to Emmaus; not recognising the stranger you are breaking bread with. The Easter stories are about showing that the “Jesus Project”, which had looked doomed in the ashes of Good Friday, is somehow born out of the incredible and indescribable experiences of Easter Sunday. To modify a Swedish proverb, good faith is “poetry plus, not science minus”.
So Easter is about encountering the risen Jesus in the very present. “Peace be with you”, then, is not just a state of mind: it is the core of being for Christian faith. The resurrection, then, is all about embracing Jesus’ new life of peace and hope. So rather like a slowly developing negative, the more we look (and with patience), the more it all makes sense. But it begins in darkness; indeed, it is a blank image to begin with. We see nothing.
The resurrection caused the disciples to look backwards, where they saw things in the distant past with fresh eyes that now made sense of the present. And they could now look to the future, knowing that seeing is not the same as believing. From now on, they would walk by faith, and not by sight.