At the end of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” Indiana Jones and his father, Henry, have found the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ from the Last Supper. But the earth is splitting apart as they try to escape and Indiana is hanging precariously on the edge of a crevice trying to keep the cup from disappearing into the depths of the earth. His father is hanging on to his leg to keep him from falling. Both have dedicated their lives to searching for artifacts such as this one, and Indiana believes the artifacts have been more important to his father than his family has been. But they look into each other’s faces, and his father simply says, “Let it go, Indiana.” Let it go. It is a hard thing to do, but sometimes you just have to let go of something or someone that is of great value to you.
That is the truth I want to focus on in the Easter story this morning. When Mary finally realizes that it is not the gardener standing before her, but Jesus himself, the immediately expected response would be for her to throw her arms around him in joy. But anticipating this, Jesus cautions her, “Do not hold onto me.” Let me go. Hard words.
Would you like proof that Jesus rose from the dead, something concrete that will remove all doubt and give you utter certainty about who he is? Sure, we all would, but we will not find it. But that is why people are so eager for things like the Shroud of Turin to be proven to be authentic or the Holy Grail to be found.
But when you turn to the Easter accounts in the Bible it is as though everything happens in a mist. In fact, it is almost as though the writers want to emphasize that nothing but faith could help people see then, and the same is certainly true for us now.
In today’s story, Mary does not recognize Jesus. It is only when he calls her name that recognition happens. Jesus tells her not to hold onto him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. There is no way for us to understand the implications of that statement. Later he shows up in a locked room, but he is also able to eat and he offers for his wounds to be examined. When he walks with disciples on the way to Emmaus they do not recognize him as they journey together and he teaches them about the Scriptures. Only when they get home and are sitting at the table and he breaks bread, gives thanks, and blesses it, are their eyes opened to recognize him, and just that quickly he vanishes. He appears on the beach at the Sea of Galilee and is recognized by the disciples only when he tells them where to cast the net and it comes up loaded with fish after a night of coming up empty.
There seems to be both continuity and discontinuity in the Risen Christ. It is possible to walk with him on the road and have a conversation with him without realizing it is him. It is also possible that in the things he says or does or the way he says them or does them there is no doubt that it is him. So this period between the resurrection and the ascension has its own challenges for the followers of Jesus. There is certainly joy in knowing that death did not have the last word with Jesus, and in experiencing his acceptance and forgiveness of all their failures at the end. But Jesus leaves no doubt during this period that things are not going to be the same and that it is a time for letting go of the way things used to be and embracing the way things are going to be from this point forward. He will continue to be with them in the Spirit, but they will be front and center in leading the movement forward.
So I guess if the friends of Jesus faced such ambiguous experiences which required them to let go of many of their expectations and prior experiences, we should expect the same. What are some of the things we might need to let go of?
Perhaps one is skepticism based on lack of credible, verifiable proof in the Bible story. There are many who participate in churches because they think that is a good thing but they do so without really buying that Jesus was the Son of God and Savior of the world who rose from the dead. And at the other end of the spectrum, we might need to let go of a biblical literalism that leaves no room for questions and leads to legalism and judgmentalism.
Perhaps we need to let go of some of our expectations about churches and Christians. Specifically, many seem to think the church should be a perfect place where none of the ugly things that happen out in the rest of the world are going to happen. Well, churches are made up of us sinners just as every other organization we are a part of is, and that is not going to change in this world. Choosing not to participate in a church because you find the people there hypocritical is the easiest cop-out in the world. The requirement for becoming a member of the church is not that you have learned to master good behavior. It is that you recognize you are a sinner and are in desperate need of help from someone who can save you.
We need to let go of the idea that as Christians we are just along for the ride. All we need to do is come sit in our pew, take a seat on the boat, then go back home. Much better to view your pew as a charging station, where you come to get recharged to go back out and do the work God calls you to do. None of those early followers seemed to have big things in them, but when Jesus sent them out and they went, they found that the Spirit empowered them to do far more than they could ever have imagined. God gives each of us abilities and resources and wants to use us for his purposes in the world.
Another assumption to let go of is that if God wanted me to do something for him in the world he would send me a clear message out of the blue, maybe even through an angel. Surely that is how people get called to ministry or church music, or Christian education or the mission field, right? Mine did not come in a Damascus Road experience. It came through much deeper engagement with the Scriptures, which led me to less skepticism about Jesus and more skepticism about the world, and through some trusted friends encouraging me to consider ministry.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a great short story called “Martin the Cobbler” which helps bring all this together in my mind. Martin is a Russian shoemaker who lives alone. His wife died, then a few years later their only son died. He becomes bitter and angry and quits going to church. One day a man comes to see him and tells him the only way to deal with sorrow is to forget yourself – let go – and live for God. Martin asks him how you do that and he is told that Christ has shown the way and he should get a New Testament and study it.
So he did, and began reading it every night. It made a huge difference in his perspective and attitude and understanding of God. One night as he read his Bible he heard the words, “Martin! Look into the street tomorrow, for I am coming to visit you.” Martin was not sure whether he had been awake or asleep, but when he got up the next day it was much on his mind.
As he worked that day he kept looking out the window at regular intervals. At one point he saw an old soldier he knew shoveling snow outside his window, and he was obviously struggling. He invited him to come in, cleaned his boots for him, and made him some hot tea. He kept looking out the window, so the soldier asked if he was expecting someone. Martin told him about his dream, and about how much Jesus had come to mean to him and why. When he finished, the soldier had tears rolling down his cheeks. He thanked Martin profusely, saying, “You have taken me in, and fed both soul and body.”
The soldier left and Martin resumed his work, continuing to look out his window often. Soon he saw a poorly dressed woman with a crying baby she was trying to keep warm. Martin rushed to the door and invited them in to get warm. He fixed a hot lunch and held the baby while the mother ate. She told him that her husband was a soldier and had been sent to a distant post 8 months ago and she had not heard from him. When her baby was born, she was fired from her job and had not been able to find another. Martin found a jacket for her to wear and gave her some money. She burst into tears and exclaimed, “I thank you in Christ’s name, good grandfather. Surely it was He Himself who sent me to your window so you would have compassion on me.” Martin smiled and told her that Christ had placed him in the window because he himself was coming to visit Martin. The woman nodded and said, “That may very well be.”
There was one more instance during the day when he saw a boy steal an apple from a lady with an apple cart. He went out and settled the matter and reconciled the two to the point where they left together.
That night he sat down to read his Bible, somewhat disappointed that the promised visit had not happened. The Bible did not open where he had left off the night before, and at the top of the page he read the words, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in… Inasmuch as you have done it for one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it for me.”
Martin understood then that his vision had come true, that his Savior had visited him that day, and that he had received him.
Do you see what this is? It is a modern day resurrection appearance of Jesus. It becomes clear when we let go of the expectations, when our name is called, when bread is broken, when Scripture is read. And when we start expecting Jesus to show up in our lives daily and start opening our eyes to watch for him, he most surely will show up. In the story, Martin finds Christ in the people he welcomes, and they find Christ in him. Rather than puzzling skeptically over the resurrection appearances in the Gospels, we would be better served by being participants in contemporary resurrection appearances.
I’ve asked Mandy to sing a hymn during communion today, and when she does you might enjoy having your book open to follow the words. It is number 727. “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Let it be so. Amen.
David J. Bailey
April 20, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church