One of the most important roles of church leaders is to help their congregations discern where and how God is present and at work in their current situation. The question is not whether, but where. We see both the mystery and the wonder of this in the ways Jesus’ disciples struggle to identify him in the Gospel stories.
Several times the Gospels portray the disciples as failing to identify Jesus after his resurrection. John reports that Mary didn’t recognize him on Easter morning, until he called her name. (John 20:11-16) Later we learn from John that the disciples in their fishing boat did not know it was Jesus calling them from the shore until their nets were filled with fish. (John 21:4-7) Luke tells us that his disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter evening did not recognize Jesus as he joined them on their journey, despite their extensive dialogue, until he broke bread for them. (Luke 24:28-35)
As close as they were to him, the disciples did not always recognize Jesus, even before his resurrection. For instance, when he appeared to them walking on the water during a ferocious sea storm, they did not know it was Jesus. (Matthew 14:26-27) Jesus later told them that many will serve him without recognizing his presence, when they minister to people in crisis. (Matthew 25:31-40)
In each case where they failed to identify Jesus, the disciples were in a traumatic situation. When we are in circumstances of distress, we likewise are less likely to see Jesus in our situation, even if he is standing right in front of us. Where is Jesus in our current context of maintaining social distance, unable to gather for worship, battling death near and far, and suffering economic distress?
Wherever there is illness, Jesus offers his healing touch. Wherever we see people reaching out to touch and heal others, even at the risk of losing their own lives, Jesus is present.
Wherever there is suffering, Jesus comes alongside as the suffering servant. Wherever we see people suffering with those who suffer, Jesus is present.
Wherever people feel overwhelmed by weariness or anxiety, Jesus offers rest. Wherever we see those who provide respite to the anxious and exhausted, Jesus is present.
Wherever people are endangered by pestilence or hostility, Jesus offers shelter. Wherever we see people protecting those in peril, Jesus is present.
Wherever people huddle in fear as his disciples did following Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus appears to speak peace. Wherever we hear voices of peace, Jesus is present.
The stories of Jesus’ appearances after Easter disclose that he is present whether or not his followers are aware of it. The reason we seek him in prayer is not to get Jesus to show up, but that our eyes may be opened to see him and his salvation (which is what “Jesus” literally means) already at hand, even when it seems impossible.
As he prepared to leave them, Jesus paradoxically assured his disciples, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20) Those who trust his presence even when they can’t see him are especially blessed, Jesus told Thomas, who had insisted on seeing him visibly. (John 20:29)
It is hard to see the Risen One when the COVID-19 angel of death is still running unchecked among us. It is hard to see the Risen One when people find themselves cast unexpectedly and capriciously into dire economic need. It is hard to see the Risen One when factions rail against each other over whether to prioritize public health or personal freedom.
As pressing as these distresses may be, our calling is always to proclaim Jesus as present among us, precisely here and now, whether we see him or not. He is always and everywhere Emmanuel, “God with us.” Nothing and no-one can ever separate us from God’s love revealed to us in the person of Jesus: God with us yesterday, today, and forevermore. (Romans 8:38-39)
Pointing to Jesus,