A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, June 2nd 2019
How many of his here this evening use spectacles? A large majority. As John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons might say, “The eyes have it, the eyes have it”!
I’ve worn spectacles or contact lenses since I was ten years old. The fact that my older brother needed them from a similar age probably alerted my parents to the possibility that I would need them early in life. Once I started copying down my homework from the blackboard incorrectly week after week I was soon taken to the eye hospital, followed by the specialist doctor, who lived and worked from a large, posh house on Belfast’s very posh Malone Road. And everywhere I’ve lived since then I’ve been well acquainted with the local opticians. Since coming to North Shields I have already gone to Specsavers, thanks very much.
So, obviously, when I read my Bible I’m used to doing so through lenses. When you have to guess the top letter on the optician’s eye chart if you’re not wearing them, there’s not much option as far as that is concerned. Maybe it’s that experience, as one of life’s four-eyed, that makes it easier for me to recognise that we all read our Bibles through particular lenses, and tonight’s Gospel reading, Luke 24: 44-50, confirms that thought for me.
The risen Jesus meets together with the Eleven, and with others, on the same evening that he had met with two on the road to Emmaus. He invites them to touch his body to experience the physical aspect of his resurrection and confirms that by eating a piece of fish. Then, tonight’s Gospel passage tells us, he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ (24:44) Contemporary Jewish understanding tended to classify the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of law, prophets and wisdom. Jesus referencing, Moses, the prophets and the psalms covers these categories; saying, in other words, “you can find me in all sort of places scripture”.
To some extent, this cannot have been news for his disciples, especially the ones who had accompanied him for the three years of his ministry, hearing what he taught, seeing the things that he did. Still, we’re told, ‘Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.’ (24:45) That sounds terribly like what he did with the two disciples who had been travelling to Emmaus: ‘Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared … then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’ (24:25, 27)
On the first Sunday evening service of this year’s Easter season – Easter Sunday evening – we were with Jesus and the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Now on this, the last Sunday evening service of the Easter season, with Pentecost Sunday coming next week, we are with the Jesus, the Eleven and some unnamed companions. The statement that Jesus makes before explaining the scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus is pretty much the same one he makes to sum up his message after he explains the scriptures to his disciples in the evening: ‘Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem.’ (24:46-47)
‘Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem.’ I am confident that the great, great majority of Jews, both then and now, would respond to that statement with a hearty, “where on earth does it say all of that in our scriptures?” Yes, there are references to the Messiah. Yes, there are some passages about the sufferings of God’s servants. Yes, Jonah was in the belly of whale for three days and three nights. Yes, most of us believe that there is a resurrection of our bodies at the end. Yes, and also at the end, the other nations are pictured coming to Jerusalem. But there’s no place in scripture where ‘it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem.’ We just can’t see it.
And they are right. You can’t see that or read that in the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament as we Christians call it – unless you are already wearing your Jesus spectacles. I never lose my spectacles. The moment they are not in front of my eyes I am completely aware they have gone. First thing in the morning I open my eyes. Next, I open my spectacles case. There was one occasion, some years ago when I woke up in the morning, opened my eyes, and for the briefest of moments thought that my vision had been miraculously healed because everything was in focus. Then I realised I had forgotten to take out my contact lenses before going to sleep the previous night!
We are always wearing our Jesus spectacles when we read the Bible. That is equally true when we read the Old Testament, but it’s also then we are most prone to forget that we have them on. Sometimes, some of us Christians try to prove to others what we believe about Jesus by saying that the Old Testament foretold him and all that was important about him. Then we get disappointed because the person we are trying to persuade looks at us like we are half-mad, because as far as they are concerned those Old Testament passages mean no such thing. The thing is, we are wearing our Jesus spectacles when we read such verses and they are not wearing theirs; they may not actually have a set, even though Jesus spectacles are free and available to all.
When we turn back to our Gospel passage we see that Jesus was interpreting scripture in this way to those who had already met him. They knew Jesus, they had seen and heard him, they had just touched him; and Jesus was inviting them to re-read the scriptures in the light of that experience. They were, so to speak, being issued with Jesus spectacles in order to read the scriptures. And it was then, as it says in Luke’s Gospel, that ‘he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.’ (24:45)
So how does that work today? How are people to have a meeting with Jesus that then equips them to read the scriptures through Jesus spectacles? As the last few verses of Luke’s Gospel, and as the early verses of his Book of Acts tell us, Jesus is no longer available in the same way as he was for the first disciples. He has “ascended”, gone into heaven. He has stepped out of this world and into another place where God is truly present; he is now in some different “dimension” that is beyond our current understanding: ‘for now we see in a mirror dimly,’ says Saint Paul, ‘but then we will see face to face.’ (1 Cor.13:12)
In such circumstances how can anyone meet Jesus as the required first step to understanding scripture? Initially, that sounds impossible, but a few moments thought reveal that this can’t be impossible. After all, in the centuries since Christ’s “ascension”, millions and millions of people have encountered Jesus in ways that make them turn to him as the means by which they will interpret the whole of their lives, including how they understand what they read in the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. How does this happen? Where, when and why did they discover and put on their Jesus spectacles?
Well, think about how it has worked for you, for people that you know or have known. Why did you or they start understanding all of scripture from the perspective of knowing Jesus; why did you start reading it through Jesus spectacles? Well, obviously, the bibles stories themselves played a part; the ones that tell us about Jesus. But lots of people manage to read these stories or hear these stories without ever making Jesus the lens through which they read the scriptures and view the whole of reality. I can think of a couple of ways in which this happens.
First, you start reading the Bible stories, the scriptures, through Jesus spectacles when you meet Jesus, or see Jesus, through the impact he has had upon the lives of others. The great, great majority of us did not first meet up with Jesus through stumbling across a copy of the Bible in the street; someone introduced him to us, told us the stories, provided explanations. And importantly, the truth of the explanations was backed up by our observation that Jesus was alive and working in their lives. This then led us read the scriptures in a new way, a Jesus-focused way; through Jesus spectacles.
Second, having been introduced by others to Jesus through the scriptures, and having seen Jesus alive in them, as we took to reading scripture for ourselves, sometimes we had a direct meeting with Jesus. This can be difficult to describe or to pin down; different people will describe it differently. Such meetings can be described something like this: “As I was reading the Bible passage it felt as though I was in the presence of something or someone who was telling me that what I was reading was as true as anything could be in the world. And I felt that this person or presence was as trustworthy as anyone or anything could be in this world. And from now on I would be reading the Bible from the point of view that Jesus was the truth by which all of it would be measured.”
What on earth is all of this about? Well, last Tuesday evening, here at church, we had the first of our two Prepared for Pentecost meetings, and the eighteen of us were talking about meeting God in others and in different situations. In conversation we shared about experiences of revelation and guidance; about feelings of a presence or a voice speaking to us. We were talking, of course, about our experiences of encountering the Holy Spirit; which is, when it comes down to it, about being able to meet with Jesus in the here and now – the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, after all.
I think that’s why, in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus has opened the minds of the disciples to the content and significance of scripture, as understood when seen through Jesus, he then tells them that before they can become witnesses to these things, something else must happen: ‘And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ (24:48) Acts 1:5, as part of Luke’s retelling of this meeting between Jesus and the disciples, puts it more directly: ‘you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So now, living in the world without the incarnate Jesus who has ascended, if we are to meet him and experience him as the basis for how we read all of scriptures and live our lives; if we are to put on our Jesus spectacles, then we discover that what we need are also “Holy Spirit specs”. And for that, now we turn our eyes towards Pentecost, and the coming of God’s ‘power from on high’.