Jesus said to her, "Do not hold onto me, because I have-not yet
ascended to the Father. " John 20: 17
Have you seen Christ hanging around anywhere lately? Somewhere I heard that he has risen from the dead and has been seen by his followers. Well, if he is alive, then surely he must still be roaming about the world meeting with his followers. Right? Didn't he promise that wherever two or more are gathered in his name he would show up as an anonymous guest? Has the Risen Christ come to you like he did to those early disciples at a tomb, in a locked room, or by the seashore? Could it be that on some unsuspecting evening Christ glided through the locked doors of your home with the ease of a thief in the night? Maybe Christ sat with you as you ate fried fish for breakfast by the lake. Has he called out your name while you were anointing a tombstone with tears? Did he come to you and show you his scarred hands and feet as
you were probing your own doubts? Or possibly you were at your job and Christ intruded into your work place with the disturbing question: "Do you love me more than all this?" Have you caught sight of the Risen Christ?
I don't know about you, but I would like to see Jesus "in the flesh." I wish I could meet him face-to-face. I want him to "walk with me and talk with me along life's narrow way." Like Mary, I would have grabbed hold of him and never let go. But for you and me, that's just not possible. Jesus is not physically present any longer. And by all appearances our experiences of Christ's living presence are rather momentary and fleeting. We are the disciples from Emmaus. Often we don't recognize that it is Christ that is walking alongside us. But, at times we may catch a glimpse of the Risen Christ out of the corner of our eye as we study the Scriptures or break bread together. But, as soon as we seem to grasp the sandy presence of Christ he slips through our fingers.
Mary tried to hold onto Jesus. But she had to let go of Jesus in order to grasp the presence of the living Christ. It was early Sunday morning that Mortician Mary went to Jesus' tomb to straighten his tie and to make sure his carcass smelled nice with a bit of spice. When she got to the tomb she saw its gaping mouth was wide open. Her first thought was that grave robbers were on the prowl. She sprinted off to tell Peter what had happened. Running to the tomb, Peter did the mile in four minutes flat. An anonymous disciple did it in 3 minutes 50 seconds. Peter looked into the tomb and saw a cocoon of burial garments. Peter arrived and stepped inside. The anonymous disciple saw the cocoon and believed ... in butterflies and a Christ with wings.
Meanwhile, Mary stood outside the tomb watering the grass with her tears. Then she bent over and looked into death's open mouth and saw two bookend-angels at the head and at the foot of the tomb. No sooner had she seen the angels than she turned around and spotted Jesus in cognito, disguised as a gardener. She couldn't see Jesus through the blur of tears and death. So, she questioned the gardener concerning the absconded corpse. The gardener spoke her name in a tone of voice that was unmistakable and like magic she pulled a Rabbi from the hat of the gardener. At least that's the way Mary saw it, For you see, when her eyes were clear of tears Mary didn't see the Risen Christ, but rather her old friend Jesus, the Rabbi from Nazareth. She was clinging to her past experience of Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth. But, Rabbi Jesus had died and had risen as the exalted Christ (and to tell you the truth, he hasn't been the same ever since).
No longer would Mary be able to sit at his feet and listen spellbound to his teachings or hear the laughter dance from his lips. Now she would have to listen for his voice through the stories of the emerging church. No longer would she be able to touch his physical presence nearby. Now she would have to feel his presence in her heart. No longer would she be able track down the physical presence of Jesus. Now she would have to stalk his elusive presence in the Spirit. So, she clung to the feet of the Rabbi Jesus and would not let go.
Jesus looked down at Mary. She clung desperately to his feet, like a child tightly holding onto the string of a helium balloon that might at any moment float away. He commanded her to stop holding onto him, for he had not yet fully ascended. It wasn't that Jesus couldn't fly up into the sky with the weight of Mary on his feet. Rather, Jesus wanted Mary to let go of the string of her old experience of his presence. She was not to cling to some by-gone-Jesus, some once-upon-a-time Jesus. Jesus had not been restored to the same physical life he possessed before his death. Resurrection is not resuscitation. Mary could no longer hold on to the human Jesus. He was now to be present to his followers in a new mode of existence. After Jesus had ascended he would come to his people in the gift of the Spirit. Instead of holding on to the Jesus of her past, Mary was told go to the disciples and prepare them for the coming of the Spirit. From now on, Mary would have to stalk the elusive Spirit to encounter Christ's presence.
To experience the presence of the living Christ will mean that we become stalkers of the elusive Spirit. As the Resurrection stories remind us, we cannot easily nail down the presence of Christ. Christ's presence in the Spirit blows where it wills. We may hear the sound of his life's breath but not know whether he is coming or going. In our desperation we may cling to a paper Jesus of an ancient time and far away land or a Jesus-we-knew-once-upon-a-time. But we will have to let go of any by-gone-Jesus of a dead past. For The Risen Christ is among us here .and now in the presence of the Spirit! Our urgent longing for the presence of Jesus will be met only as we experience the Risen and Ascended Christ in the elusive presence of the Spirit.
Where do we, who cling to Jesus for dear life, encounter the presence of the living Christ today? The classic path to encounter the Spirit of the living Christ is through the Christian traditions: the scriptures,the breaking of bread, the Christian community, Christian liturgy and ritual, and devotional practices. These ancient paths of Christ's followers mediate the Risen Christ to us. They trigger the mysterious presence of Christ. You know what I mean, don't you? A woman has just gone through the death of a loved one. She sits alone in their bedroom crying. The grief is hard to bear. Day passes into day in an endless blur. Looking for some source of consolation, she opens the Bible and reads Christ's words, "Let not your heart be troubled." The written words come alive and become inner words of peace that still the troubled sea of her heart.
It's an Easter Sunday. Spring, with broad brush, has painted the trees a bright green. The leaves seem to sparkle in the sunlight. The dome of the sky is a crisp blue. A door on a suburban home opens. A man goes out to pick up his newspaper. He's had a stressful week at the office. He breathes in deep the Easter morning. In the distance the church bells ring. They seem to call out to a child inside him. He hasn't been to church since he was in grade school. For some crazy reason he decides to go to church. At first he's a little uncomfortable in the pew, but the warm greetings of the people put him at ease. An Easter hymn is sung a little off key. A flood of childhood memories of mom and dad taking him to church begins to pour from his eyes. Something, someone has reached inside him and touched where no human hand could touch. It is the hand of the living Christ.
The elusive Spirit of Christ comes to us on the wings of a sermon, the unadorned reading of the Scripture, the melody of an old hymn, a lit Christ candle, the breaking of the bread, a moment of solitude. We experience a living presence rushing through us and we wish that we could grab it and hold on to it for dear life.
I have often gone hunting for Christ, the fox. I have stalked the Spirit of Christ with eyes stretched wide open. I have seen the tears of Christ on Passion Sunday in worshippers overcome by the truthful story of the cross. There have been moments when I have stood around the communion table, when the bread was broken and the cup shared, that I could almost feel the feather of Christ's Spirit brushing up against my cheek. I have spotted Christ in moments when in solitude the Scripture began to burn the brand of truth into my heart.
I have seen Christ in the actions of an African-American woman. She was driving a Cadillac on Montrose street in Houston. I was behind her car waiting for the light to change. It was the dead of winter. A chill in the air was biting a homeless man walking by in thin clothes. He was hugging himself to fight off the cold. I could see that the woman in the Cadillac was well off. She wore a coat with a fur lined collar. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the homeless man. I watched in amazement and wonder as she opened the door of her Cadillac, dashed across the street toward the shivering man, took off her expensive coat,draped it over the shoulders of the scruffy-looking stranger, hopped back in her car and drove off. It was an epiphany. I had seen Christ.
I have seen Christ on the city streets. I have accompanied Christ on walks for hunger and protests against nuclear weapons and have stood in a circle near some site where a person was gunned down, praying for the peace not of Jerusalem, but of Houston, of Philadelphia, of Washington, of the US, of Iraq, of the world. Christ was there. And for a few brief moments I have caught Christ, that cunning fox by the tip of the tail.
Now, you may say that it was all in my imagination. That may very well be true. But, you could say that of any experience of the Spirit world. In Bernard Shaw's play St. Joan there is a dialogue between St. Joan and Captain Robert de Baudricourt, a military squire. Joan says to him, "I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God. "The skeptical squire responds, "They come from your imagination." To which St. Joan boldly answers, "Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us." (1) Possibly that is why many of us fail to recognize the spirit of the living Christ among us in cognito. We just can't imagine that Christ is present!
Mary experienced the presence of the living Christ. But, she had to stop holding onto the Jesus she had known before the resurrection. So, in the power of her Easter experience, she ran and proclaimed the good news to the other disciples and they too encountered the resurrected Christ. And the good news was spread to about 120gathered in a room, who later at Pentecost were filled with the burning presence of the Spirit of Christ. And they went into all the earth and told people of all nations that Christ was indeed risen. And after two thousand years you and I heard the good news and the Spirit of the Risen Christ blew through our lives. And we haven't been the same ever since!
One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer prize winning author has captured the spirit of Easter morning where she writes about the longing to grab hold of the Spirit of the Risen Christ:
You have to stalk. .. You can wait forgetful anywhere for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear as he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh; you can bang at the door all night till the innkeeper relents, if he ever relents; and you can wail till you're hoarse or worse the cry or incarnation always in John Knoepfle's poem: "and Christ is red rover ... and the children are calling/come over, come over." (2)
Some gather in churches on Easter morning to fulfill a duty to visiting parents. Some gather to display their Easter clothes. Others gather out of habit or routine. Still others gather to cling to a by-gone-Jesus trapped in the tomb of history or locked up in some childhood memory. But some of us... some of us come to hunt for Christ the fox. We come to stalk the Spirit. For we believe that Christ is red rover. And we are the children standing with arms stretched across time crying out. .. "come over ... come over!"
(1) George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1924), 59.
(2) Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (San Francisco: Harper, 1974), 205.