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Seeing, but not seeing…


17 April 2005 11:00 | Fr John Cullen

NT: 1 Peter 2.11-17; Gospel: John 16.16-22

Surely we can be forgiven for having more than a little sympathy with the disciples who are so puzzled at what Jesus was getting at in that reading from John's Gospel. "What's this that he says?" they ask one another: "'A little while and you shall not see me; and then in a little while you shall see me'?". I must confess that I was somewhat relieved to discover that several reliable commentators note that most of the language of this passage is 'marked by a studied ambiguity'!

From our standpoint, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, listening in, as it were, on this discussion between Jesus and the disciples, we may think that the meaning of the apparent puzzle is obvious. Jesus is simply telling the disciples that soon he will be leaving them, to be crucified, and then, 'in a little while' - three days later to be exact - they will see him again when he is risen from the dead.

But as so often happens in our dealing with the Bible, that would be to jump to a wrong conclusion. We need to look more closely at what Jesus is really saying. And here we come up against the stumbling block of reading the Bible in translation. For what may have puzzled the disciples - more than just the obvious conundrum of not seeing Jesus, and then somehow after 'a little while' seeing him again - was the fact that Jesus uses two different words for our English word "see".

What Jesus is actually saying is: 'In a little while, you will no longer be able to observe me, to look at me, as you are looking at me now, sitting here at the table with you.' And then he goes on to say: 'But after another little while, you will perceive me with true vision, you will see me as I really am."

For those of us brought up to respect hard facts and scientific proof, that's an upside down way of thinking. To the 21st century mind, to see things, and people, as they really are is to observe them with our physical eyes. To talk of perceiving, or regarding people or events with eyes of faith, is to move into a highly questionable realm…. For most of our contemporaries that is very much a counter-cultural way of thinking, it's also open to self-delusion. Isn't it?

Now remember, the disciples still hadn't understood what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of his impending death. Yes, they recognised that his teachings were arousing suspicion and hostility among the authorities; and yes, some of the earlier followers had fallen by the wayside; but those who had stayed with Jesus were convinced that he was doing God's work, and that couldn't be allowed to fail. Jesus must be victorious. The Jewish leaders must be challenged, and the Roman occupying forces must be overthrown….

So much for their understanding the purposes of God! "Listen to me," says Jesus, "I'm being serious. Soon you will have cause to weep and lament, but people around you will be rejoicing and celebrating, because they will be rid of me."

"Yes," he goes on, "you will be distraught with grief, but believe me, your sorrow will be turned into joy." This does not simply mean that joy will eventually take the place of their sorrow. Jesus is making the much bolder claim that the disciples' sorrow, and the very cause of their sorrow - his death on the cross - will in fact become their joy. The cross, for Christians, is not a defeat which the resurrection overturns. The cross, for us, is itself the victory: of faith over doubt, of hope over despair, of love over hate.

The cross is the source of our joy, because it was the means of the release of life, God's life, for us and our salvation. The resurrection doesn't undo or re-dress the horror of the cross; the resurrection celebrates the victory of the cross. That's why throughout the Passion narrative in St John's Gospel, as Jesus looks towards his death he says: "The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified…." And again, "Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him…." When the powers of human evil did their worst, in crucifying God, God achieved his greatest triumph, in saving humankind.

And that's why, for Christians across the world, this service, the eucharist is at the very heart of our worship and our life. For it's here we speak of 'celebrating' the Lord's death - not as a sad or grisly memorial, but as a remembrance of just how much God loves us, in that he came to us in Jesus, and here Sunday by Sunday he continues to give himself to us in the transformed gifts of bread and wine. Here we share in the feast of our salvation. Here we are reminded that we have eyes of faith.

Here we come seeking forgiveness of our sins, soothing of our sorrows, and healing of our hurts. Here we come to encounter the living God, in his holy word, in his sacrament of love, and in one another. To look upon our company exercising only our physical sight, we see one another merely as fallible and sinful human beings. But to see one another - and ourselves - with eyes of faith, is to recognise who and what we really are: that first and foremost we are children of God, made in the image of God, and capable of transformation by God, just as the bread and wine are transformed, that we too may become means of grace to one another.

The eyes of the disciples were eventually opened, and their sight adjusted, but only after they had experienced the profound grief of the crucifixion. Then, as Jesus had promised, their sorrow was turned into joy, as they came to realise that in the light of his death God was glorified, and everything - themselves included - was transformed as a result. Here at the eucharist you and I share the fruits of that transformation. Here at the eucharist we learn to see things as they really are.

And so we come: O draw us to thy feet,
most patient Saviour, who canst love us still;
and by this food, so aweful and so sweet,
deliver us from every touch of ill:
in thin own service make us glad and free,
and grant us never more to part with thee.
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