I was talking to my spiritual director this week about the events of Holy Week and Easter and I said: I feel a resistance to being defined by this story and she said it’s not a story it’s a relationship. And then I paused because I wasn’t sure if that was just a statement or a kind of rebuke.
In today’s Gospel we read the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples and saying ‘Peace be with you’. Their reaction is one of fear – they thought they were seeing a ghost – but Jesus says ‘Look at my hands and my feet, touch me and see for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.
Reading this story two thousand years later it seems even more difficult to explain what we might mean to talk about our relationship with Jesus.
And what does it actually mean when you or I say we know Jesus, or we that we believe we can speak with Jesus?
Before I saw my spiritual director I got to go to Deanery Synod and listen to Bishop Richard – who is our area Bishop. Richard is an evangelical so he thinks that we need to spend more of our time telling people about Jesus. He condemned those who think there are many paths to God and re-iterated the importance of the one path through Jesus.
Talks like that always leave me feeling a little second class or as if I must have missed something. It can sound like they are describing reality as some kind of mathematical equation. As if saying the word Jesus to as many people as possible was what it’s all about.
But I still think it’s useful for all of us to try and work out what it might mean for us to know Jesus, or just what we might mean by it. There’s a wonderful section from a Theologian writing about Jesus. He says that although Christians meet in churches because they believe their coming together is a mark of Christ’s presence, in fact the gathering of the church community is also a vivid mark of his absence. Not just because we can’t see him but because there is something scandalous about proclaiming Jesus as Lord in the midst of a church community which is so divided, petty, and imprisoned by its own prejudices and habits.
The scandalous truth is that the path to our relation with God passes through our relation with human beings. In church we are called not to ignore the presence of others but to make our way to God through them.
One of the things we must learn about our relationship with God in Jesus is that it comes through our relationship with others rather than in an imaginary direct contact with Jesus that presupposes his full presence. Whether we like it or not our relationship with Jesus is always mediated through scripture, through the sacraments but most importantly through the people gifted to us in the gathered assembly of the church. So if you want to find Jesus open your eyes and look around yourselves.
Do you remember your first love? Maybe not your first lover but the first person you fell head over heels in love with? And then do you remember the break up? I tell you when Catherine Maycock left me I had a week of drinking my parents port and listening to Mahler (I recommend Mahler for all times of personal anxiety) – I was out of my mind. But for most of us there have been other relationships, other friendships and we begin to learn that there are ups and downs, times of unexpected joy and times of unrepentant misery as well as a lot of humdrum in between.
In the same way our relationship with Jesus grows and changes over time. It can’t grow if we don’t much care for it, or if it becomes stale or taken for granted.
The sacraments can help us here because when we become people who share together in the Eucharist we also recognise our own sense of becoming or growing in relationship with Jesus.
This relationship is not an object which we can define as this or that, it’s a work in progress, a journey, an exploration, a way of living, a way of loving. And most importantly it’s a benediction, a joy.
And although it might be useful for us to remember our first love, to re-discover in here (Heart) what we are still doing ‘in here’ (Church), it doesn’t actually help us to be always digging up the why questions, trying to trace how real it all is.
It seems to me that too often we want to nail Jesus down, to define him once and for all. Like the image in the Wallace Stevens poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ we want ‘To lay his brain upon the board/and pick the acrid colours out/to nail his thought across the door/its wings spread wide to wind and snow’. But no relationship can ever be like this.
Gabriel Josipovici in his wonderful book ‘On trust’ writes of Wittgenstein grasping that the proper business of philosophy is not the unveiling of some great truth but the patient unravelling of the intricate steps of confusion and self misunderstanding by which we come to persuade ourselves of the existence of such a great truth’.
Jesus victorious in his resurrection is not an image we can hold permanently in freeze frame, a great truth we can take home to devour in private. The resurrection is not money in the bank.
No, our relationship with Jesus reflects our own brokenness and lack of perception, it shares some of the failings we find in all our relationships, and like all our best relationships eventually it comes down to something as ephemeral as trust.
And for many today in our society it’s a fantasy, this Trusting in Jesus in the midst of the family of the church. The joke is that we can only speak from within the story and our story, is less a story and more a relationship with all the imponderables that that creates; A relationship which becomes a kind of sacramental labour of love.
Our trust allows us to believe that this relationship which can feel like limitation, like anachronism, like having to spend time with a lot of people some of whom we maybe don’t even like very much, – that this relationship is also a blessing, a becoming and a setting free. Amen.