Rowan Williams on different encounters with Jesus


The then Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking on 6th May 2011 at the Fresh Expressions day called 'Changing the Landscape'. He happened to speak about the variety of encounters different people had with Jesus. This is quoted below:


And as we read the Gospels what we see of course is an extraordinary spectrum of different kinds of encounter. There's the encounter that leads people to jump in feet first, literally in the case of St Peter. There's the encounter that makes people sit up, suddenly review their lives and, in great confusion, start out on a path about which they have no idea with a lot of stumbling, Matthew the tax collector perhaps. There's the sort of encounter with people who are very frightened of change but desperately eager that it should happen for them and in them and who slip up to the edge of things, hoping to get a little bit of the flavour of change and like the woman in the crowd with the flow of blood just reach out, touch for a moment the garment of the Jesus who's passing by only to find of course that Jesus, with his infallible instinct for embarrassing people, rounds on her and says, 'You want something?'


And then there are those people who are interested and who don't know quite how much that interest might mean and are very nervous indeed of the implications they just about guess at and who come to Jesus by night and never come out fully and yet hear things that stick. Nicodemus. Well now, if you were to ask which of those people in the Gospels belongs to the church I think you would have a very usefully confusing discussion as a result. I'm not at all sure. We tend to think it must all be necessarily the feet first model but does Nicodemus become a 'disciple'? Does he become a learner in the school of God's new law? Well, yes and no, and he's taking his time over it. And of course he only emerges in full technicolour, so to speak, as a follower of Jesus when Jesus is being buried which does make one think a little bit – and that corresponds I think to a certain kind of religious identity which is quite happy to be identified with the Jesus who is part of the past, with the heritage Christ as you might say. But that's another story. Let's for the moment give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he is still a listener, a hearer of some kind.


So all of these people are, in some ways, on a spectrum of belonging with Jesus, a spectrum of different kinds of encounter. What holds them together is, of course, boringly simply - Jesus - but more specifically it's Jesus as, how shall we put it, Jesus as suggesting, opening up, change and newness. And I'm very glad that we've got this language of landscape around in our discussion today because I think that's very close to what's happening – the landscape gets to look different when Jesus is around. People see things in a new way, themselves and one another and God and God's world. And I think there's something really rather central, really rather basic about that image of seeing thing afresh.


It's an image that really comes into its own, doesn't it, in St John's account of the Resurrection. Peter and the beloved disciple running to the empty tomb and, looking in, noticing and then 'seeing' – the words are very clearly differentiated in the Greek – you notice, you take in, and then suddenly the picture reorganises itself. You know those puzzle pictures you look at sometimes and you're asked, 'can you find a face in this?' or 'can you find a figure of some kind?' and you look and you scrutinise all the details of it; you observe, and then you see. That's something of what seems to be going on as the disciples come to the empty tomb. The whole landscape reorganises itself and they see.


And so keeping up this backwards and forwards movement between the New Testament and where we are today, part of what we're about in mission is trying to be the sort of peoples or sort of communities around whom and with whom or through whom people see things differently. And that's not just abstract seeing, that's not theory because when you see God and yourself differently, things really do happen, you become a different person when you see differently and - just thinking back to what we were hearing about from Bart earlier on - I think that what's being described there, as in so many community enterprises like this, is giving people the opportunity to see what they've never seen - about themselves, about the possibilities of their community, about the possibilities that God open up - in a world where so many possibilities are getting closed down all the time and, for me, part of the heart of the gospel is always a matter of saying, 'the world is much bigger than you think and there is much more to you than you ever suspected'.


So when we talk about fresh expressions I'd like to think that we're talking about countless local enterprises of vision; enterprises of vision where people are being encouraged and nourished and enabled to see what they hadn't seen before so that the picture shifts. You see the picture in the picture. You see beyond the details. You see a greater world. And it's this for me that lies behind the importance in so much of our discussion - we've already heard it this morning - the importance of understanding pace or speed, the timescale on which people move.


Looking once again at the gospels it seems pretty clear that Jesus expects some people to change pretty quickly and yet he sits in those long, patient meandering conversations – with the Samaritan woman at the well, and Nicodemus - as if to say, 'Alright so you haven't got it yet. Let's keep at it and don't be rushed' and I think that is how Jesus relates now to people. And we can't ever quite see ourselves which category people fall into and that's where the patience that we heard about earlier really does come in I think, the patience to say, 'Well I'll do my best to introduce you to Jesus and the vision he gives. What happens to you then goodness knows, but we'll be there as it happens. We're not going away.'


So the pace, the style, the tempo if you like of learning discipleship is something whose variety we have to respect and that's one of the things that is very, very difficult to explain to funding authorities of various kinds and to institutions who like to have fairly defined and tidy timescales on which to work. It's really difficult but I think it's one of the central challenges and tasks that all of us have in communicating with the wider Church, trying to get across something of this sense of patience and plurality so that the encounter with Jesus can happen in the way it's meant to happen.


Quote acknowledged with thanks to Fresh Expressions