Recognizing Jesus


Guest sermon by Sam Pillsbury.

The sermon begins at minute 17:40 of the video

John 20:19-31



Sometimes the most extraordinary and wonderful things appear right in front of us, present to sight and sound, smell and touch – and still we miss them. We do not recognize what is right in front of us.


Recognition is key to today’s Gospel. Here we famously encounter Thomas’s need for physical proof that Jesus has been resurrected. 


For centuries, Thomas’s skepticism served as a foil for preachers going on about faith, but today I want to talk about the power and importance of true recognition. I see this passage as not just about the disciples recognizing Jesus — but about us recognizing each other. 



In almost all of his resurrection appearances, Jesus initially goes unrecognized. He’s a stranger walking on the road to Emmaus. He’s the gardener. Even here, in his first appearance in the locked room, the other disciples don’t recognize him right away. Listen


When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”


Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord, having seen his wounded hands and side. They needed physical proof too.


I’ll come back to this thing about the “for fear of the Jews” because it’s very much part of our larger theme, but first we need to understand what it means to really recognize another person.


To truly recognize another is to see who they all are as a unique part of creation. Not just to put a name to a face, but to see the special person. And care for that person’s good.


That kind of recognition doesn’t happen that often. The people we encounter mostly do not see who we really are. Most do not see or care about our unique gifts. 


The truth is, most of us don’t do better. We are so caught up in our own busyness, that we greet each other in only the most cursory way. This can be even true with loved ones. I am as guilty of this as anyone.


But make no mistake. All the great evil done on this planet begins with nonrecognition – missing or denying the unique good of the other. The divine in the other.

Sexual Violence, Racism and anti-Semitism

I’ll start off with two familiar examples of nonrecognition involving sexual violence and race. Then I’ll add a third which should be a  particular concern for Christians. 


As a law professor I devoted years to studying nonrecognition of sexual violence. We know there are so many girls and boys, women – and men, who have been forced into sexual contact by another. We know this violates body and soul. We agree that it’s awful. And yet, when the person accused of doing this is trusted or loved, be it clergy, public official, entertainer, friend or parent, many people just don’t want to believe it. They demand extraordinary proof that it happened. Over and over again, we do not recognize the wounded Jesus standing right in front of us. 


Something similar happens with race. Race difference blocks recognition. We know that from studies on eyewitness identification, and a whole bunch more. All of the attacks, verbal and physical on people of Asian descent in the last year are examples of people reduced to a type, and not seen for their unique God-given selves.


Another example. I think we’ve all seen Officer Derek Chauvin, hand in his pocket as he knelt for nine minutes on the back and neck of George Floyd. His bland expression showed nonrecognition. Floyd would never have died had Chauvin seen him as the unique and valuable human being he was. Instead, to Chauvin he was a type, a dangerous type.


Which brings me back to our Gospel passage and the “fear of the Jews”. The Book of John is the only of the four synoptic Gospels that makes repeated, negative references to “the Jews.” The book of John was the last of the Gospels written, and reflects the bitter divide at the time between the Jesus movement and rabbinic Judaism. Both were working out how to deal with Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the second Temple in 70 A.D. Each group had reason to fear and dislike the other. But that’s explanation and not excuse for these words.


Talking about “the Jews” as the enemy of those gathered in that locked room is bizarre because everyone there, all the disciples and Jesus, were Jews. Jesus came to save the people of Israel. He never broke with the faith of Abraham and Moses. Though he was part of a larger argument about the essence of that faith.


Typecasting Jews in this passage and elsewhere opened the way for a millennium of anti-Jewish discrimination, and genocide. Which all Christians must own. Nonrecognition can be a terrible thing.


The Wonder of Recognition

On the flip side, true recognition can be wonderful. And not as hard to manage as you might imagine.


There was an article in the LA Times recently about a new clinic at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center specializing in treating those with long-haul Covid. So far doctors have more questions than answers about why some suffer terrible symptoms, month after month. The story focused particularly on the experience of patient Larry Searight and his treatment by Dr. Catherine Le. The story described their initial encounter. I quote:


[Dr] Le told Seawright she did not have answers or a bag of proven tricks. But she listened and asked questions. And then she listened some more.


“It was like angels descended from heaven,” Seawright said. “Just to share and for her to look back at me and nod in affirmation – that was in and of itself healing.”


Why was it healing? Because Le recognized the unique person and pain of Larry Seawright.



Do you hear the echo in this story of today’s Gospel passage? Do you see the way that we are called to recognize Jesus – the divine – in each other?


Remember, in today’s Gospel passage all the disciples recognized Jesus by his wounds. Not by his face, not by his clothes, not by his words. But by the wounds he had suffered in crucifixion. By the evidence of his pain.


It’s such a powerful way for us to recognize each other. Not by our names or numbers, not by our birthdates or genders or races or ages, not by what makes each of us impressive, or scary, but by our wounds. 


I think it might be the key to our salvation. I think it’s why Jesus came back the way he did. 

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