“Seeing and Believing” – April 30, 2017
Luke 24:13-35 Peripheral vision is our ability to see things without looking directly at them. It’s the vision out here. I learned about peripheral vision as a young teenager when I joined a marching band. One of the most important things in marching band is being part of a line or a form, being right beside someone else, without looking directly at them. When you’re marching, your focus has to be straight ahead, or maybe somewhere else determined by the artistry, but you can’t turn your head to see if you’re in line. We were taught to use our peripheral vision to get ourselves where we needed to be as part of the team. In other words, we were taught to see others – to know where they were – without looking at them.
Such learning doesn’t happen immediately. It takes practice and so early on, when we were first learning, we would stop often as a group so we could look around and fix whatever needed fixing. Eventually we developed an instinct using both muscle memory and peripheral vision, and our awareness of our surroundings grew through focused practice. Over time, I think this training taught me the power of peripheral vision as the power of indirect knowledge and sight, the importance of paying attention to my surroundings, and it taught me to trust that I could get where I needed to be, even without direct vision.
As we move through the Easter season, we engage in a similar kind of training. The primary task of Easter is to learn to see Jesus – the Risen Christ – and to come to believe in God’s miracle of new life. Part of this learning involves recognizing Jesus in our lives, even if or when we can’t see him directly, at least at first. It is a kind of training the first disciples experienced in the days immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. They had no experience of resurrection and so it was a process to discover what it was like to see the Risen Jesus. Today’s gospel story about a walk to Emmaus and an evening meal is a story about this process, and the mystery, of learning to see Jesus.
It is still the day of the resurrection – Easter Sunday. The empty tomb has already been discovered and news of it has started to spread. Two disciples are headed to a village outside of Jerusalem, walking along the road, talking about what has happened, when Jesus arrives to walk with them. “But,” we are told in verse 16, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks about their conversation and after expressing their surprise that he didn’t already what had been going on, they respond with the whole story of the past days: “You mean you don’t know about Jesus of Nazareth?!? He’s a prophet mighty in deed and word… our leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. And besides this, today, three days later, some women of our group astounded us! They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said the he was alive. Others went to the tomb and found it as the women had said!” I imagine the story coming out in a rush… like they’ve been replaying it over and over it as they walked, wondering what to think, what to make of the events of the past few days. But they have not yet learned to see the resurrected Jesus who is walking with them.
Jesus could have just said… it’s me! It’s Jesus, of whom you’re speaking! He could have, but he didn’t. Instead, he began the process of teaching them to see differently… he began to teach them to see without looking, to discover what it is that’s in their peripheral vision. He opened the scriptures to them, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, and then… upon the offer of hospitality, Jesus transforms a simple meal into a sacramental moment. The guest becomes the host as Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives bread to these disciples. “Then,” the story reads, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” Between the teaching from scripture, and a simple meal transformed by simple gestures, made possible by simple hospitality, something incredible happens… I might even call it a miracle… when these disciples learn to see Jesus anew. “Their eyes are opened, and they recognize him.” It is a moment of revelation, but like many such moments, it doesn’t last very long. As quickly as their sight is renewed, “he vanished from their sight.” One moment… recognition, revelation… the next moment – “poof!” – gone.
Macular degeneration is a terrible vision impairment that affects too many people, mostly seniors. It is the leading cause of visual impairment for which there is no cure. People with macular degeneration lose their central vision, so all that remains, if anything, is the peripheral vision. I hunch that it is human nature to turn to look directly at something we see in our peripheral vision. We see a colour or a movement and we instinctively turn to look at it. I can barely imagine what it might be like, how disorienting it must be, to see something, or to be aware of something in the periphery, only to have it disappear when you turn to look at it. Is there something there? Was I just imagining it? Is my mind playing tricks on me?
In hindsight, the disciples in our story realized that Jesus appearance to them wasn’t such a sudden revelation, but that their hearts had been burning inside them when Jesus was opening scripture to them along the road. The eyes of their hearts had recognized Jesus – like a movement in their peripheral vision – before their eyes were able to see clearly.
In his 2003 book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes about four different ways faith has been understood in the history of Christianity. One of the four meanings has to do with vision – visio – a way of seeing. In particular, it has to do with “a way of seeing the whole, a way of seeing ‘what is,’” reality. (34, italics his) He suggests that the whole of what is, the whole of reality, can be seen in 3 distinct ways and that how we see largely determines how we respond. Seeing reality as hostile and threatening will evoke one kind of response, likely fear. Alternatively, seeing reality as indifferent – neither hostile nor supportive of our lives – will evoke a different kind of response, likely a less anxious one than the first but still precautionary such that building our own security would be important. Thirdly, seeing reality as life-giving and nourishing, full of wonder and beauty, gracious, is more likely to evoke a response of trust and generosity and the ability to care for others. More than believing a set of proposition, faith can be lived as a new way of seeing the fullness of reality in the interconnectedness of our lives with others and with God. (34-7) Faith as a matter of the heart – as learning to trust what we see in our peripheral vision – has the power to transform the very relationship is seeks to see clearly and how we believe in Jesus as risen and alive.
The first word in both the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds is the latin word “credo.” In modern times, it has most commonly been translated as “I believe,” generally understood to mean “I give my assent to…” the following list of statements. But the latin roots of “credo” are better understood to mean “I give my heart to…” More than belief as an intellectual exercise, ‘credo’ is an expression of heart-felt faith. More than assenting to propositional statements, believing is about trusting and loving God with all one’s heart. In just a few moments, we will stand together to confess our faith using words that faithful Christians have used for millenia. But today, and maybe for the rest of this Easter season and even beyond, I encourage to replace “believe” with something else… you might say “I give my heart to God… I trust Jesus… I love the Holy Spirit… I see…” Take your pick but stick with it, and over time, see how it shifts your faith… how might changing the active verb in our creed renew our sight? encourage us to see differently? to have greater vision?
In marching band, we needed to stop often as we were learning something new, so we could turn and look around and get ourselves where we needed to be. It takes practice to use and to trust our peripheral vision. Like the early disciples who we walk with today on the road to Emmaus, along with disciples throughout the ages, we need moments of direct sight, of central vision, of revelation, to learn to recognize Jesus as he walks along with us. Through reading scripture and sharing a simple meal of bread and wine in a sacramental moment, we too can suddenly recognize that it is Jesus who has been among us all along. The moment of vision may pass quickly, with Jesus’ vanishing from our sight as quickly as he was revealed. But we can trust the moment such that the recognition remains. We can learn to trust that the flashes in our peripheral vision are, in fact, God, and we are right where we need to be.