January 16, 2012
In the past couple of days I have introduced myself to two different people who told me that we had already met. I am still smarting over my lack of facial recognition skills. I was leaving my Jan-term doctor of ministry course, lugging my heavy red computer case down the stairs. I noticed a young man going the same direction. I introduced myself. "I'm Alyce McKenzie. I don't believe we've met." He said, "I am (fill in name). I was in your class last January on preaching and popular culture." I absolutely hate when that happens. I do not want to become one of those professors who doesn't recognize former students. In my defense he had lost a considerable amount of weight and grown a beard.
The best response I could come up with was a sad attempt at humor to mask my social embarrassment: "Oh, yes, of course I remember you. But you've gotten taller since last year, haven't you?"
That was two days ago. Then yesterday I was by the coffee machine and, again, introduced myself to a young woman I didn't remember seeing around before. Don't I get some credit for being, though socially awkward, at least outgoing? "Hello, I'm Alyce McKenzie. I don't believe we've met." "Oh, yes, we have. You encouraged me to enroll in the Doctor of Ministry program in the first place. We met at the orientation dinner last year." This time I just apologized.
What is wrong with me that I sometimes don't recognize people I've met before? Am I arrogant? I hope not. Am I losing my short and long term memory? I didn't think so. Sometimes I have the sinking feeling that maybe I'm just not aware enough of my surroundings in general. And it's probably not because I'm walking around lost in profound thoughts.
For most human failings, there is a biblical character to provide company for our misery.
In my case, it's Nathanael. Jesus already knows him. As Nathanael walks toward Jesus, Jesus describes him: "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" (1:47) It doesn't appear to be tongue in cheek. It seems like a straightforward description based on his knowledge of Nathanael.
Nathanael says, in effect, "I don't believe we've met." Where did you get to know me? He is so moved by Jesus' prior knowledge of him that he makes a confession of faith. "Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel" (1:49). To which Jesus responds, in effect, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" (1:50-51) "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. . . . You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
In our lives, every time we approach Jesus, it is in the context of his prior approaches to us. Every time we recognize his presence in ourselves and others, in events and moments, it is because he continually recognizes God in us.
Jesus already knows us, even if we have no recollection of many of our prior encounters with him, even if we do not name or recognize his presence and efforts at the depths of our lives.
John's gospel affirms that The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep hear his voice. "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father." The sheep listen to the shepherd's voice (Jn. 10:14-16). The Prologue tells us that Jesus "came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him" (1:11). The Gospel of John has recognition and failure of recognition as a key theme. In a number of encounters with Jesus, people focus on their problems at a literal level while he stands, unrecognized, before them. For example, Nicodemus (chap. 3), the woman at the well (chap. 4) and the man by the pool of Bethzatha (chap. 5). Others do recognize him. Jesus was killed precisely because his enemies did recognize him. As his healings escalated in drama and power, so did his threat factor to those who opposed him. They recognized him as the bringer of sight to the blind (healing of the man blind from birth in chap. 10) and the raiser of the dead (Lazarus in chap. 11).
In the gospel of John, Jesus always recognizes us, but we do not always recognize him. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep—he recognizes who we were meant to be, children of God (1:12), in the tangle of our current lives. The goal of the gospel is to equip us to recognize his life within ourselves and the world. "These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). Our task is clear—with God's help, we are to enhance our facial recognition skills. Knowing Jesus is present in every moment, every person, every situation, we are to be on the lookout for him, recognizing his presence and influence throughout each day.