The other year my curate Sarah gave me a book for Christmas. It was not a great theological tome. Nor was it a modern novel to help me understand the world a little bit better. It was a cartoon book with the title ‘Where’s Jesus?’ …a Christian version of ‘Where’s Wally’. Just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about ‘Wally’ is a little chap with dark hair and glasses and a red and white scarf who stars in a whole franchise of books, the whole purpose of which is to hunt him out in the crowd in the double page spread you are given every time you turn the page. And he is surprisingly hard to spot…at the train station, at the football match, in the disco. There are people who look a bit like him…same glasses, same hair style, same clothes but finding him is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Well, you can get different versions of the ‘Where’s Wally’ books. Not so long ago you could find a certain government adviser’s ‘Where’s Dom?’ book in Barnard Castle. Mine was ‘Where’s Jesus?’ I ignored it for most of the Christmas period…but then was drawn in to find the golden faced man with swept back hair like one of the BeeGees and a beard straight out of ‘mountain man’ country in the Mid-West. Jesus too proved hard to find: down by the lake, on the picnic, at the zoo – but he was there, in the crowd all along, doing ordinary stuff but usually ‘helping someone’ or giving them a big cheesy smile.
Our reading today tells us that ‘the Son of Man’ is present to us in unexpected places…or are they so unexpected for Jesus? He is there in the crowd looking back at us in the face of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the prisoner. We sort of ‘get this. It’s a lovely idea isn’t it? I remember being struck, many years ago by a Christmas story by Tolstoy (Papa Panov). Papa Panov dreams of being able to present a pair of shoes to the Christ-child. In his dream he is told to look out for the Christ-child who will visit him the next day. He goes about his work, trying to be generous to those who visit his shop or are seen out through its windows but there is no sign of the Christ….until, of course, he realises that Christ has visited him repeatedly in the faces of his other visitors: the street sweeper to whom he gives a cup of coffee, the young mother who has no shoes for her child, the beggars in the street with whom he shared his cabbage soup.
There’s a verse in Hebrews that encourages us to be hospitable because, it says, ‘some have entertained angels unawares’ by being so. Most famously, Jesus comes to his disciples on the Emmaus Road, but they do not recognise Him, in fact ‘their eyes are kept from recognising him.’ One of my favourite writers is the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. She speaks of this Emmaus Road passage and reminds us that Jesus does not want to be ‘owned’ or held onto by His followers. He disappears from their sight. All we have, she says, is His command to ‘follow me’, said over his shoulder as he blends into the crowd of humanity so well that, if we choose to go after him, we must search every face on the off chance that it might be his.’
She goes on to say ’we can still catch a glimpse of him here and there in the face of a gardener, a foreigner, a stranger on the road. If we are thorough, we will handle each person we meet with care, just in case it is he: if we are diligent we will wash some feet along the way, feed some hungers, soothe some sorrows, just in case they are his. You can never be too sure.
With so many faces to sort through some of the details of what he looked like are likely to get lost…. Chances are that in looking for him and wanting so much to find him, we will begin to see a little bit of him in everyone we meet.’ (from Mixed Blessings)
I think she’s got it there hasn’t she? This belief or doctrine that Christ is present to us in other people traces its origin right back to the first chapter of Genesis where we are told that we (men and women) are all made in the image of God. That image is focussed for us in the person of Jesus (described in the New Testament the ‘image of the invisible God’) but is present in every single human being. Our reading is a challenge to remember the word ‘every’ in that sentence. He is present in ‘every’ human being – including those whom society seeks to exclude but for whom Jesus had a particular care.
It is difficult, (difficult but possible) to cross the divide that separates the well from the ill. It is difficult, (difficult but possible) to cross the divide between the well off and the poor, the well fed and the hungry. Difficult too to reach out to the prisoner whose crime repulses or the refugee whose need seems so great, more than many in our country feel can be borne. Yet Christian people do it because Christ did it and we are transformed by doing so. And we do it as best we can. We do it whenever we reach beyond our own concerns to someone else who needs help, encouragement, a kind word or some practical support: a lift to hospital, a listening ear, a welcome into the community. A cup of coffee. A meal provided through the Food Bank or a place at table, a ticket at an event that might not be affordable without help. We do it as we sponsor chaplains in prisons or provide a creche through the Mothers Union for families of prison visitors. We do it as we raise money for Christian Aid or Water Aid: as we click ‘donate’ onscreen to enable help to reach where it is needed. We do this along with all others who have been moved by the spirit of Jesus so in the words of the well know collect for today
Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.