In one of his sermons, the Presbyterian pastor and writer Frederick Buechner observed,
When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.”
It’s a trenchant observation; but it occurred to me this week, as I was meditating on our passage from John, that Buechner actually doesn’t go far enough. He’s right that we tend to hear what we expect to hear, that which is safe and predictable, but there’s more to it than that. We also tend to see what we expect to see, for the same reason; and it’s not just the Bible we neutralize in this way, but God. We don’t see what he’s really doing, and we don’t hear what he’s really saying, because we already think we know what’s going on and what God has to say about it; and those who don’t think about God much or who don’t want to believe he exists just filter him out altogether, most of the time. Either way, we see and hear only what we’ve already decided we can see and hear, confirming our expectations by never looking beyond them or letting them be challenged.
That’s understandable, because it’s safer that way, and often more comfortable. That way, we don’t see a God who challenges our settled assumptions about how the world works, and how it ought to work; we don’t hear a God who challenges our ideas about what can reasonably expected of us, or who calls us to face things we’d rather not face and make changes we really don’t want to make. And if we don’t see the dead raised, the lame walk, the blind receive sight, and the slaves set free, since we don’t really expect to see such things—well, at least we don’t get our hopes up, either, and risk having them dashed by reality.
Faith, I think, is God taking the blinders off our eyes and the plugs out of our ears, removing the filters of what we expect to see and hear, unfixing our fixed ideas of what’s possible and impossible, and stripping away the defenses we erect against him; it’s the gift of eyes and ears that are open to him, so that we can see his hand and hear his voice, so that we can know him and recognize him at work. Without that gift, our perception will never go beyond what the world has taught us to understand.
That, I think, is what’s up with Mary Magdalene in our passage from John. I’d never really registered the first part of this passage before, but it’s remarkable. Mary’s crying, and she looks into the tomb—I don’t know why, since she’s already discovered that it’s empty; maybe she didn’t know why either, but she does—and when she does, she sees two angels sitting in there. But she doesn’t see two angels. In fact, she doesn’t seem to see anything odd about them at all. There’s no reason for two people to be sitting in there—that’s pretty strange; their clothes are bright white, which was very unusual in that age before washing machines; and presumably there hadn’t been two people sitting there just a few minutes before, when Peter and John looked into the tomb, so that’s suspicious; and yet, none of this registers with her. They ask her, “Why are you weeping?” and she says, “They’ve taken my Lord,” and pulls back out of the tomb. She doesn’t even ask them if they know anything about it.
And when she turns around, she sees Jesus—but she doesn’t see Jesus; she thinks he’s the groundskeeper. Strange man standing outside the tomb on the first day of the week? There must be a logical explanation; it must be the guy who comes by to mow the grass and water the flowers. He, too, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”—and she asks him, “Are you the one who took Jesus’ body? If so, please tell me where you put him.” It’s hard to blame her for not making the immediate leap from “empty tomb” to “resurrection”—I don’t think any of us would have done differently—but the evidence is piling up that something strange is going on here, and she just can’t see any of it. It’s impossible, therefore it can’t have happened, therefore none of it can be there.
But with God, all things are possible, and so the unthinkable has been thought, and in fact has happened; those really are angels in the tomb, and this isn’t the groundskeeper. And when Jesus says, “Mary”—when she hears his voice speak her name—then she knows him, and then she can see. She can’t figure it out for herself, even with the evidence right in front of her—she needs to hear it from Jesus; she needs him to call her name, and by doing so to open her eyes.
And when he does, when her eyes are opened, she runs to him and embraces him in love and joy and wonder; but Jesus doesn’t just let her bask in that, because she has a mission to fulfill. He tells her, “Don’t cling to me—I’m not leaving yet; but I will be returning soon to my Father, who is now also your Father, so run to the disciples and let them know.” Her eyes have been opened, she knows that Jesus is alive again, but that knowledge isn’t just for her to enjoy—it gives her the responsibility to share it. Just as she needed her eyes opened, so do the rest of the disciples; she can give them that gift by telling them that she has seen Jesus, and what he said to her.
And so it has continued, on down through history, as the faith has spread and the church has grown as people bear witness to what they have seen and heard; thus, just a few years later, the Apostle Paul would write, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Mary saw Jesus and told the disciples, and they in turn saw Jesus and told others, and those others told others; the Holy Spirit inspired the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, and we have continued to pass the word along, telling others what we have been told and what we have seen for ourselves, what Christ has done in our lives and in the lives of those around us. And as we bear witness, the Holy Spirit works through us to give faith to others, to open their eyes and ears so that they too may see and hear what we have seen and heard.
It’s important to note, it’s not on us to open anyone’s eyes; it’s not our job to make people come to faith. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. There’s value in training in evangelism, but it’s not about sales technique or learning how to talk people into things; it’s simply to help us express our faith more clearly and confidently. It’s rather like a witness in court preparing to testify—the idea isn’t supposed to be to manipulate the jury or the judge, but simply to speak the truth more plainly and effectively so that those in the court understand what really happened. Once that’s done, the work is in the hands of others; and so it is with us. Bringing people to faith is God’s work; our part is simply to do the same thing Mary Magdalene did: to go tell people we care about, “I’ve seen Jesus—he died for me, and he’s alive again. Come and see.”