April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48; Psalm 4
Last year I went to the eye doctor, for the first time in longer than I can remember. I know I often act like I’m 13 but in fact I’m 45 years old, and I was starting to feel like things that used to not look blurry were starting to look a little blurry. So it was time to see an expert. Turns out, I still have perfect, 20/20 vision, something my wife Julie envies. She’s had to wear contacts and glasses for most of her life, and one of her frequent prayers for the boys when they were younger is that they would both inherit my perfect vision.
A couple of years ago the four of us were riding on the subway. And sitting across from us was a woman and her little boy, looked about 5 or 6. And this poor guy was seriously upset about something, and being very very aggressive towards his mother. She was alternating between pleading with him, barking at him, and basically using every ounce of her strength to restrain him.
And every passenger on that train, including me—with my perfect, 20/20 vision—could see this unfolding, they could see this mother and child locked in painful public combat. And as only straphangers can, all of us essentially made the choice to “mind our own business.”
Every passenger, that is, except my wife. Julie, who envies my perfect vision, didn’t see what we saw at all. She looked at that mother and child and her imperfect eyes saw something entirely different. And before I knew what was going on, she crossed the subway car, held out the water bottle she was carrying, and asked the little boy: “Do you want this?” The look on his face was one of total astonishment. A wave of calm and quiet suddenly washed over him, even as his cheeks were still streaked with tears. He stuck the bottle in his mouth and kept it there, like it was the only thing that could hold back the tidal wave within him.
Meanwhile, Julie sat down next to the mother, who was just as surprised as her son. Julie embraced her, and said, over and over again. “I know it’s hard, I know it’s hard, but you’re strong, you’re going to be OK.” The woman nodded a few times, and then she broke down and began to weep into Julie’s shoulder.
I’ve spent over 20 years in awe of my wife’s compassion, but I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of her than I was at that moment. Hell I was even proud of myself for just being associated with her. After we got off the train and we were walking home, my elder son Thaddeus looked up at me and said “Dad can I ask you something?” And me, still feeling proud and exalted said “Sure son.” And he said “Dad, if you’re the one who’s going to be a priest, how come Mom was the one who helped that woman?”
“Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him.” This phrase from our Collect this week leaps out at me. It’s certainly a nice metaphor. But what does that really mean, “the eyes of our faith?” What’s the connection between vision and faith?
I think we start to make one in the resurrection story from Luke’s Gospel that we heard this morning. This passage to me is all about seeing, and not seeing, and about the receiving of a new kind of vision.
In the story Jesus visits the eleven remaining disciples at the end of what must have been a very long and strange Sunday. Emotions are running high; rumors are swirling—some women had visited their Master’s tomb and found it empty, guarded by angels; others claimed they had encountered him, risen from the dead. And then suddenly, he appears before them. Jesus himself, this man for whom they had sacrificed everything to follow, this man in whom they had placed not just their own hopes but the hopes of their entire nation, and who had then seen those hopes destroyed in the most disheartening and humiliating possible way, this man himself now stands before them, and greets them.
But the disciples cannot believe their eyes. They are afraid, they think he is a ghost. Even after Jesus shows them his hands and his feet, even after he asks for a piece of fish and eats it right there, in front of them, their joy is tainted with unbelief. They see him with their eyes, yet it seems they cannot quite behold him.
In fact, the disciples’ inability to recognize Jesus is a recurring theme in Luke as well as in John’s Gospel. Think about the appearance on the road to Emmaus, which immediately precedes today’s passage. A disciple named Cleopas and his companion spend the better part of an afternoon in the presence of Jesus without recognizing him. It’s not until they sit down to a meal, and Jesus breaks bread, that they finally see him for who he is.
So we have to ask why? Why is it so hard for the disciples to see Jesus, when he’s standing, speaking, eating in their presence? I think part of the answer lies in the way Jesus associates the disciples’ disbelief with a certain unsteadiness of heart. When Cleopas and his friend can’t seem to make sense of the events of that day, Jesus calls them “slow of heart;” and they themselves exclaim how their hearts burned as they walked and talked with Jesus, as if their hearts were bursting with a truth which their eyes were blind to.
Jesus then addresses the eleven disciples’ confusion and fear by asking “why do doubts arise in your hearts?” I think Jesus affirms for us here that there is an intimate connection between the heart and the eyes. He seems to be saying that the quality of our vision depends on the condition of our hearts.
So what do we call this deeper kind of seeing, this vision of the heart? And more importantly, how in the world can we have it?
A little over a year ago, I took MetroNorth up the Hudson River to a former Franciscan monastery, where I attended a weeklong Centering Prayer retreat led by an Episcopal priest named Cynthia Bourgeault. Cynthia’s teaching draws equally on classic spiritual writings and on cutting edge neurobiology, and she believes that through contemplative practices like Centering Prayer, we can transform our hearts into organs of perception. And lest you think she’s speaking metaphorically, I can assure you, after spending a week with her, meditating in total silence, she is not.
We modern Westerners have trained ourselves to associate thinking and perception exclusively with our brains, and to see the heart as solely the source of our emotions. Cynthia teaches that, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there has been a consistent practice of “putting the mind in the heart.” Through devotions like the Jesus Prayer, or Prayer of the Heart, Eastern Christians have been refining this technique for centuries.
And it’s absolutely crucial to see that this is not some obscure, mystical teaching—it forms the core of Jesus’ message. For proof of this we can simply look to the Beatitudes: it’s right there in Matthew Chapter 5, verse 8:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
It turns out that having perfect, 20/20 vision does not guarantee that you will behold him. It turns out that the eyes of faith are in our hearts. And I think Scripture gives us a name for this practice of seeing with our hearts. When Jesus explains to the disciples once again the meaning of his passion, crucifixion and resurrection, he tells them “You are witnesses to these things.” And here he means something much stronger than merely seeing with the eyes. So witness is the name we can give this kind of vision.
And to be this kind of witness is to be not a passive bystander, but to testify, as an active, dynamic source of compassion in the world. I think we can make this distinction even stronger when we remember that the Greek word for witness is “marterus”—from which we get a word we’re very familiar with today: “martyr.” Martyrdom is nothing more or less than Christian witness.
Now I’ve put a lot of different ideas in play here, so in closing let me summarize a bit.
Our Collect tells us that to behold the risen Lord, we have to open the eyes of our faith. The disciples throughout the Gospels have a difficult time recognizing the risen Lord because of their troubled, doubting hearts. And they can’t recognize and understand him until he sits down to share a meal and reminds them of their calling as witnesses, as martyrs, as those who see with more than their eyes.
And this kind of witness, this kind of martyrdom, is available to all of us. It certainly doesn’t require a dramatic and violent death. It can be as simple as looking across a subway car and seeing a woman in deep distress, and testifying to the love of Christ by reaching out to her in pure compassion. This sense of martyrdom is not the unique gift of the saints. It’s the inheritance, and the calling, of every Christian.
My friends we find ourselves here, in the midst of this Easter season, rejoicing together in the resurrected life of our Saviour. Let’s commit ourselves to exploring this vision of the heart, this life-giving, light-shedding, truth-dwelling witness, this martyrdom which gives us the strength, and the courage, to open the eyes of our faith, and behold him.