What did Jesus look like?
When I was in Seminary, I had a full beard and long hair, which I wore in a ponytail – about halfway down my back. For the day of my Old Testament final exam, I decided to wear my hair down around my shoulders. Our professor, the brilliant scholar John Collins, walked past and commented, “I swear, Marthame; you’re looking more and more like Jesus.”
It so happened that, at the time he made this comment, there was a conference going on in Chicago about the painter, Warner Sallman. Sallman is famous for that face of Christ painting – you know the one: Jesus the Nordic shepherd, with the high forehead, the pointed nose, the beautiful flowing hair, the perfectly quaffed beard…If we’re honest, we know that this majestic, European fair-skinned Jesus bears little resemblance to the man who walked the road to Emmaus, but what did Jesus look like?
When I was in high school, I attended a workshop at an Atlanta church. The speaker was presenting his evidence that Jesus was a dark-skinned African. The tribes of Israel had been in captivity inAfrica, Jesus and his family had sought refuge there, and in Revelation, the return of Christ is depicted as a man with “feet like burnished bronze” and hair “like white wool”. Of course, it was North Africa –Egypt to be precise – that was the Biblical place of both refuge and captivity. And the description of “wool” refers to the color, not the texture, of the hair in question. This was probably no more or less accurate an historical depiction of Jesus than Warner Sallman’s Jesus the Teuton. But what did Jesus look like?
My father had his own theory. He didn’t think that Jesus looked much like a white man, or a black man. He figured that Jesus probably looked a lot like a man from the Middle East. The person he knew best that fit that description was Fahed Abu-Akel, a friend of this congregation and of mine, founder of Atlanta Ministry with International Students, former moderator of our denomination’s General Assembly. Fahed is a Palestinian Israeli-Arab from theGalilee. But rather than a head of wool or a magnificent flowing mane, Fahed – even then – had very little hair to be described poetically. Fahed looks very little like the image of Jesus we likely hold in mind; but my father’s point is well-taken. What did Jesus look like?
From our gospel lesson this morning, it seems that not even the disciples knew how to answer that question. No sooner have the women found the tomb empty than two of them set off for the village of Emmaus, a town seven miles to the West of Jerusalem. The risen Christ makes a cameo, joining them as a fellow traveler; but they don’t recognize him. They talk to him about him, and they still don’t know who he is. He then explains to them how Jesus was the Messiah, explaining the Scriptures to them. And still, after close to two hours on the road together, they have no clue who this man is – and apparently they haven’t even bothered to ask his name! Finally, they get to Emmaus, and invite Jesus in for supper. And as soon as he breaks bread, their eyes are open, and they recognize him – and he vanishes. They are so astonished that, even though it is close to evening, they immediately get up and go back to Jerusalem to tell the others.
What does Jesus look like? And what happens when we recognize him?
If this story has anything to teach us today, it is that we recognize Jesus when we share with others. That’s the thought at the heart of our communion celebrations – that when we gather around the communion table, Jesus is in our midst. But it’s not limited to the communion table – any table where we gather in fellowship with one another, Jesus is there with us. And yet, like the disciples, we can be slow on the uptake. So often our eyes are closed to the presence of Jesus.
That’s why the disciples are so wonderful. They had immediate access to Jesus for three full years. After the resurrection, they got another forty days. And even so, they still don’t get it! And yet, as our first reading reminds us, despite their many shortcomings, Jesus still puts them in charge of that early church.
It hasn’t been quite two months since the events on the road to Emmaus, and as Peter addresses the crowd on the bizarre happenings of Pentecost, he becomes the face of Jesus. After all, the church is the body of Christ, right? If that’s the case, then somebody’s gotta be the face.
And that’s no less true of us today as a church, some six thousand miles and some two thousand years removed from the events in our morning’s texts. We are the body of Christ. Where we go, we bring the presence of Jesus.
Think about the ministries we support: our commitment to the Druid Hills Night Shelter is one example, where we go to serve men who are trying to get off the street, men whom society has pretty much given up on; we are the face of Jesus, sitting at table and breaking bread with others.
Or our Food Pantry, where we live out Christ’s command to feed the hungry, but even more so, to love those whom we serve; or our Habitat for Humanity build, where we become Christ’s hands and feet, working alongside a family as they work – and work hard – to put a roof over their heads. There are so many other examples – our Bargain Shop, our Christian Education classes, our Preschool, our prayers and our acts of kindness to one another as we deliver meals and help with chores. We are the face of Jesus.
What a blessing – and what a burden – in a world that is so in need of Jesus!
As if we needed any reminder of that, this past week brought news of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I don’t feel any need to add to the exhaustive and exhausting commentary you’ve already heard. But I did find this one piece of information absolutely fascinating.
Christians make up some 2% of the population of Pakistan. The Presbyterian church’s history there goes back to 1854, more than 150 years ago. Today, the estimate is that there are some 300 Presbyterian congregations in Pakistan, with membership of more than a quarter million. I knew some of this already. But here’s what I learned: there is an Abbottabad Presbyterian Church. In the town where bin Laden had been hiding for some six years, a city of some 300,000, there is a Presbyterian church no more than two miles from the now-famous fortified compound.
What that says to me is simply this: there is nowhere that Jesus won’t go. Since 2005, the very person whom most of us consider the personification of evil was living in walking distance of three churches – one of them our very own. Titus Presler, an American Episcopal priest currently serving with the church in Pakistan, put it this way: “While our tendency is to imagine the site of such an event as bin Laden’s death on some utter edge of experience, such events occur amid living and complex communities where voices of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rarely absent.”
Friends, we are the face of Christ. We may not live in Abbottabad, but we know that there is darkness in our own community. And it, too, is often out of site, hidden behind walls. It’s the darkness of addiction, of suicide, of abuse, of cruelty, of selfishness, of indifference to suffering, of hopelessness and despair. And even though it is a void, we are the ones who bring the hope of the gospel. We do that as a church, yes, as an institution, but we also do that as individuals. Our lives come in contact with the darkness each and every day – and into that darkness, we are invited to be bearers of light. We bring the gentle touch of encouragement, the thoughtful act of kindness, the listening ear of hope, the challenging word of selflessness and the promise of purpose.
In short, there is no place that Jesus will not go, which also means that we do not go there alone. Christ is with us, walking that road, opening our eyes, feeding us.
What does Jesus look like? Does he look like a Norwegian strongman, or an African warrior, or a Palestinian Israeli-Arab? Yes.
What does Jesus look like? He looks like us.
May we have the wisdom and the faith to be the presence of Christ wherever we go.