The earliest testimonies to Jesus’ resurrection had difficulty describing what had happened. It defied everyday categories, and it was life-changing. For followers like Mary Magdalene, Peter and (much later) Paul, Jesus’ living presence was both undeniable and indescribable. Both.
The only undisputed first-person testimony in the New Testament actually comes from St. Paul. In First Corinthians Paul tells us that Jesus forgivingly appeared to him (15:8), not as a flesh-and-blood body (15:50), but as a life-giving spirit (15:45). Jesus’ body was a “spiritual body” (15:44), as different from the body that was crucified as a stalk of wheat differs from the grain that was planted (15:37). It was also a shared body, with Paul and his readers as its “members” (12:27). Imagine trying to photograph any of THAT. The experience changed him from a Christ-hater to a Christ-follower (15:9), from a radical excluder to a radical includer (more about radical inclusion in Galatians 3:28).
The Gospel accounts were written decades later. They were based on handed-down, first-person testimonies. The Gospel of John, for example, claims to be based on earlier writings by a never-named “disciple whom Jesus loved,” but a later group of likewise unnamed followers gave us the version we have today (John 21:24). And the way the accounts are told suggests that they’ve been written not just to give “the bare facts” (are life-changing facts ever bare?) but to awaken later listeners like us to Jesus’ living presence.
These handed-down, creatively reworked stories still hint that the risen Jesus couldn’t easily be described.
For example, read this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 21:1-19. While the disciples were in a boat fishing unsuccessfully, we’re told, a stranger on the beach tells them how to make a huge catch and invites them to breakfast. Starting with the never-named disciple whom Jesus loved, they gradually become convinced that the stranger is “the Lord.” (The narrator calls him Jesus.) But they’re never completely sure. They’re still tempted to ask, “Who are you?” even after they’re convinced it’s “the Lord.”
So there’s a convincing encounter with Jesus, an encounter with “the Lord,” when an initially unrecognized stranger invites the disciples to a sunrise cookout on the beach. But it wasn’t a question-free encounter. This meal with this very strange stranger is much more than it seems, and they’re dumbfounded. For them Jesus’ living presence, God’s presence, is both undeniable and indescribable.
There are at least two points to this story. One is to tell us how Jesus’ first followers’ lives were turned upside down by undeniable yet indescribable encounters with him as their living Lord AFTER his all-too-describable execution. The other is to invite us to look at every-day events like the meals we share, especially with strangers, in a different light. Maybe such meals, whether a Eucharist or something less formal, are much more than they seem.
Sure, much of the time at such gatherings, we’re a bit distracted. We just don’t notice that our very lives are filled and embraced by One “from whom, through whom and in whom all things are” (Romans 11:36). But every once in a while we may wake up and realize that an undeniable, indescribable embrace is happening to us as we come together.
Whether that’s ever happened for you or not, the reason gatherings like these are still happening 2000 years later is because in every generation something like this does keep happening to lots of Jesus’ followers. So open yourself to that possibility, and see what happens.