Jesus on the Lexington Avenue Local
|From the Community Soup Kitchen at Christ Church|
Over the Easter season we have been making again the unlikely claim that Jesus is back; that the crucified poor man of Galilee has overcome death, has appeared to his friends, and is with us always (cf. Matt 28: 20). Even with that claim though has come the acknowledgment that most of us who place our faith in that fact will not have seen him; like Thomas, we are blessed for believing without seeing. And as we get closer to Ascension and Pentecost this issue of absence becomes more acute. Where is this risen Jesus now?
In the Gospel today Jesus refers to this absence and to the fact that although he is gone in one sense, the "Advocate," the Holy Spirit, will ensure his presence. If you were asked about knowing or finding Jesus or the Holy Spirit, what you think of first may be some sort of extraordinary and unmistakeable experience, like one of the great saints, but nervous if your barista told you she had seen him earlier today. Truth is, that sort of unmistakeable experience always been the exception rather than the rule; most of us must labor with different kinds of presence.
Often people have emphasized the significance of a "personal relationship" with Jesus. At its best this is a profound truth, but in practice has often turned out to mean that Jesus is promoted as a name for an imaginary friend. The problem with imaginary friends is of course that they are the products of our own wishes, yearnings, or fears, and thus reflect us, rather than the friend that we are really looking for. And the cost comes in the forms of Christianity that are projections of members' interests and insecurities; of prosperity theology, of self-indulgent piety, and even, God help us, white supremacist theology.
The Church teaches us though that we already do have the Spirit of Jesus, not from our imaginations first and foremost, but from other gifts of God which help connect us with the true living Jesus.
Two of these are fundamental to what we do as we come together today: first, we hear the gospel proclaimed, and we believe in fact that whenever scripture is proclaimed it can be the "word of God" which is offered to us. There are times we struggle with scripture, with its cultural and historical specifics, but the word that comes to us is not about information but about how we may be shaped even in those struggles. And at the beginning of the gospel of John, that Word of God, that power of God to create and connect with our human world and the whole of our material universe, is identified as Jesus himself: "the word became flesh and dwelt among us." Hearing scripture is always an invitation to connect, not with the Jesus of imagination or the Spirit of self-fulfilment, but with the real Jesus, both of history and of the lived present. This Jesus is not amenable to blessing the political and economic projects of the western bourgeoisie; he calls us all to follow him, to leave those behind and find something better than idols of national, ethnic, or personal self-aggrandizement.
Second, we encounter Jesus in the sacrament of the altar, as the bread of life. From the very earliest times Christians have understood that we encounter Jesus not merely as a memorial or enacted reminder but genuinely and personally in the breaking of the bread. The one who had his last supper brought bread and gave it to his friends as his body and a cup of his blood, gives them to us as well. The ordinariness of the elements is not an impediment to his presence, but the appropriately humble means by which one who never coerced people into discipleship might be made known to us today. As we eat and drink together, we are called into a communion that is his gift of a life lived with and for others, and not only for ourselves.
These are personal encounters with Jesus but they are neither coercive or thunderous, and are capable - as Jesus always has been - of being misunderstood and ignored; but in them he invites us to encounter him, to be changed, and to invite him into ourselves as a home.
There is at least one other means that scripture tells us the risen Jesus may be known to us. I saw Jesus a couple of weeks ago on the Lexington Avenue subway. I had been at a swank dinner at a restaurant on the upper East side, and getting on at 68th St/Hunter College I found him tucked in the corner of the carriage, beanie pulled down over his eyes, shopping bag with worldly possessions between his legs, and a little dog which under different circumstances may have been white tucked under his arm asleep with the one who loved him best.
Whimsical as that may seem, I am here thinking of what Jesus says in the 26th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, where in a picture of the last judgment he solemnly tells those who had encountered the poor that what they gave to or withheld from the hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned was given to or withheld from him.
That night, Jesus was not in need of my dollar more than of my quiet companionship as we rode and he slept; but I believe this teaching is to be taken just as seriously as the traditional teaching of the church about Jesus as the word of God, and about Jesus as the bread of life. It is not accidental that here on this campus the ministry of the Community Soup Kitchen takes place juxtaposed with the altar, with a painting obviously evocative of the last supper hanging above the space where food is shared among those in New Haven who need it.
Eight days ago, Jesus went to the Topps supermarket in Buffalo, NY. Peyton Gendron, the shooter in the massacre, imagined "Christian values" into his manifesto - but the poor man Jesus was not with him, but rather was among those shot, crucified again.
Jesus invites us not to imagine him, but to be his own imagining, his deepest wish, and thus to find our own imaginations transformed by his presence. Listening to his word, eating at his table, and meeting him in others, we find him in our faltering but faithful living, and prove him risen; triumphant over death in Buffalo, in New haven, in Jerusalem, and now reigning in the midst of us, creative Word, paschal lamb, and poor man of Galilee.
(Sermon at Christ Church, New Haven, Sixth Sunday of Easter 2022)
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