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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Holy Double-Take
May 8, 2014

What do you do when all the hopes you have invested in people, plans, and institutions collapse into rubble? That is precisely what Jesus’ disciples are facing in the days and weeks following his crucifixion.

Numb with sorrow, the women and men in Jesus’ inner circle react to his devastating demise with classic shock symptoms. They hunker down into a huddle of shared grief. When Jesus was arrested, they scattered; now that he has been slain, they regroup for mutual consolation.

Mary Magdalene leaves the group early in the morning to pay her respects at Jesus’ grave, only to find it empty. Instantly she is slung from the bogs of bereavement to terrified consternation – what has happened to his body?! She stumbles back to the group with her awful news, then returns to the gravesite, inconsolably weeping. Still reeling with dismay, she looks up to see someone she takes to be the groundskeeper, and her distress spills out onto him – “Where have you taken him?” The stranger calls her name, and suddenly she stops short in a holy double-take – it’s him, it’s Jesus!!

Two of his followers leave the group after three days, walking dejectedly to their home seven miles away. Along the way a fellow-traveler sidles up to them, and they begin talking through the week’s awful events. They walk the miles together, and when they reach their home they invite him to spend the night since it’s nearly dark. He agrees, and as they sit down to supper, he offers grace and suddenly their mouths fly open in a holy double-take – this stranger with whom they’ve spent the last few hours is him, it’s Jesus!!

Jesus’ friends can’t languish in their grief cluster forever. Life must go on, so they decide to go home and head back to work. There have been a few Jesus sightings since his death, but he leaves as abruptly as he appears. They can’t wait around forever, uncertain of when or where he’ll be seen next, so they decide to return to their familiar boats, the same ones he had told them to abandon back when their hopes in his program were riding high. They unfold their parched nets, draw them through the familiar dark waters all night long, yet come up utterly empty. Packing their gear away as dawn begins to expose the barrenness of their fish bins, they see a stranger on the shore who advises them to drop their nets in another nearby spot. They humor him – what’s to lose? – and swiftly their nets fill to overflowing. They turn back to this amazing shoreline fishing guide and do a holy double-take – it’s him, the stranger is Jesus!!

In each of these three stories, something suddenly snaps them into recognition. With Mary, it’s hearing him speak her name. She instantly knows who he is when she realizes he knows who she is. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that when love reigns in us, we will know fully just as we are known fully. Reaching out to people by name, taking the risk and trouble genuinely to know them, still has the same effect today. As we reach out to welcome one another by name when everything conspires to separate us, we will recognize Jesus in each other as well.

It wasn’t hearing his words that led the Emmaus-walkers to recognize the risen Lord.  Certainly what he had to say was wonderful; indeed, their hearts burned as they clung to his every word. Yet they recognized him not by what he said, but by what he did. As he raised his head heavenward in thanksgiving and spread his hands earthward in sharing the bread their mortal bodies craved, they suddenly recognized that this is the same Jesus who did precisely this everywhere he went. Thanksgiving. Abundant sharing. With these as our hallmarks, people will recognize Jesus in us as well.

For the disciples, going back to the nets Jesus had called them to abandon is nothing short of blatant back-sliding. They have given up on Jesus – but he hasn’t given up on them. What startles them into recognition is the abundant blessing he lavishes on them precisely at the point their faith has broken. When we extend to the wayward blessing rather than blame, people will recognize Jesus in us as well.

Imagine a church that lives this way: Embracing one another across lines that ordinarily divide. Pouring ourselves out in thanksgiving and self-offering in a world entrenched in fault-finding and self-preservation. Lavishing blessing on those upon whom everyone expects us to heap blame. Imagine the holy double-take such a church could cause the watching world to take: “It’s him! Jesus is alive!”

In Easter joy,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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