An interesting book has recently been published entitled ‘What did Jesus Look Like?’ (Joan Taylor, Bloomsbury). What do you think he looked like? What image comes into your mind when you recollect Jesus’ physical appearance? Does he have a beard? What colour are his eyes? What does he wear? One elderly lady who received Holy Communion at home would often repeat to me the story of how shocked people had been when she told them that Jesus would have had dark coloured skin. But she was quite right in that. Often our image of Jesus is coloured by the pictures of him we saw in our children’s bibles and story books or by one of the great film portrayals of Jesus. All of these can make him appear bit like us, quite western rather than middle eastern…but always with a beard!
Then again, you may well think; what does it matter? The point about Jesus is not how he looked, but the kind of person he was, what he taught and what he achieved. You would of course be right. Yet, just as the physical appearance of each of us speaks of our age, gender, racial background and much more, so the way Jesus appeared would have been part of his message as God in human form. There are a few clues in the new testament as to how Jesus looked. In common with other male Jews of his day, he would have worn a tunic with a mantle over the top which would have had tassels on the corners. Some men wore long tunics in rich materials with long tassels on their mantles. But Jesus chides the Scribes for wearing such garments, (Mark 12.38) so we can deduce with some certainty that Jesus would have worn more modest clothing. When Jesus is stripped for crucifixion, we learn that his tunic is woven in one piece. (John 19.23) This may well indicate a simple inexpensive garment. We can conclude that Jesus’ appearance would have been modest devoid of any signs of wealth or status.
Jesus was a ‘dress down’ rabbi; his appearance detracting nothing from the message he brought to people in all walks of life. But his disciples and close friends would have been much more aware of his physical body than casual acquaintances. When we are closer to someone, we recognise when they are not themselves, when they are tired or upset; when they are happy and energised. There are references in the gospels to Jesus being hungry (Mark 11.12) thirsty, (John 19.28) and tired (John 4.6) Jesus shows frustration (Mark 9.19) and of course anger (Mark 11.15) We could find other references to Jesus’ emotions all of which would have been visible in one way or another to those who knew him best. In the gospels, we have the accounts of close human interaction with a very physical Jesus. Even though Jesus had told them: ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ (John 16.16) They still struggled to grasp at that point any idea that Jesus would die and then be alive again; that there would be a time when people would relate to Jesus as a non-physical person.
This brings us to our gospel reading for today and the saga of Thomas, the disciple who missed out on Jesus’ appearance behind locked doors on the Sunday evening of the resurrection. (John 20.19-31) Thomas will not believe that Jesus is risen until he can touch the body of Jesus. For that, Thomas is often seen in a bad light. He has become known as doubting Thomas. But was he so wrong to want to see Jesus’ body, to see the mark of the nails in his hands, and to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side? (John 20.25)
For two or more years, all of them had related to the physical Jesus. They knew what he wore, his mannerisms, the way he walked, the noise he made when he cleared his throat. The message that God was making known in Christ was more than just words. It was not a disembodied message. It was incarnated. The word became flesh and lived among us (John 1.14) as John has it in the prologue to the gospel. So surely it would have been unfair for Thomas not to have had the experience the others had in the locked room? To have the chance to be acquainted again with the body which was hammered up on a cross to die; to see and touch that appearance ‘marred beyond human semblance’ as Isaiah prophesied. (Isaiah 52.14) He is granted that grace and so is able to join the others in testifying that Jesus was alive again. It is that testimony upon which we, who have not seen the physical Christ in history may place our belief and so be blessed as Jesus says to Thomas. (John 20.29)
Jesus’ physical body, his appearance, is an integral part of the Christian message. We should not loose sight of that. Our faith is not built on visions and religious experience, but in the fullness of God in Christ living, crucified, risen ascended and to come in glory.
But the disciples had to move on. They could not hold on to the risen body of Christ. As Jesus says to Mary Magdalene in the garden: ‘Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (John 20.17) We take their testimony as our starting point for our faith and experience of the risen Christ. When Jesus comes into the locked room proclaiming peace, he sends out the disciples with the same commission he had received from his Father and then breaths the Holy Spirit. (John 20.21-22)
It is thought by many that what happens in that room is John’s way of telling us the Pentecost story, that he thought the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at that point rather than at the festival as Luke says in the Acts. There is no reason for us to opt for one over the other. While we make much of Pentecost, Whitsun as the time when the Holy Spirit comes, and the church is born, the Spirit is in no way absent until that moment. Behind those locked doors, as Jesus is again a physical body, carrying the scars of the cross, so he prays for the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. It will now be through this unseen but powerful presence of God that they will relate to him from now on.
We relate to those we love as they are physically present with us. When we are separated by distance, we miss them. When they die, are bereaved. Yet, Jesus blesses us with his Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God that we might believe and live in relationship with him. We cannot see this Spirit no more than we can touch or feel him with our physical senses. To Nicodemus, Jesus likens the Spirit to the wind. (John 3.8) It’s power is seen and heard, but it’s source remains a mystery. Today we understand that the wind is air moving between high and low-pressure weather systems. That makes us no less aware of its presence as it dries the washing or powers a ship under sail. Maybe we have some idea of how radio waves, mobile phone signals and the internet work. We cannot see them or feel them but if we need to call an ambulance or order a pizza, we rely on them. For people of a few generations ago, they would have seemed miracles of the first order. It is as we make use of them in our lives that we become convinced of their reality.
Jesus is not a physical reality for us. That he was once a physical presence with those who shared his life in Galilee and Jerusalem is important. It is the way, through incarnation, that God seeks to redeem the life of the world. However, like Thomas, we must now understand that we must now relate to him through the gift of his Spirit. The Spirit is unseen, yet as countless generations of Christian people have found, as they have sought him, been open to him, experienced him, he has proved real in transforming their lives. Let us seek a continual filling of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that we may know Jesus now in the Spirit and be ready to share the close fellowship with him which is our inheritance in heaven.
Easter 2 08.04.2018