In the story world of John’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples that he is going away, but he would not leave them without his presence. How could that be? Most spiritual truth is paradoxical in nature. The Father, says Jesus, will send an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to be with them forever. The Advocate is currently “with” them, apparently in the person of Jesus, but will be “in” them (in a different nonvisible, nonphysical sense) after Jesus is gone. The Spirit of Truth, who will function in Jesus’ name will teach them “everything” they need to know and bear witness to Jesus (John 14:15-20, 25-26; 15:26).
The presence and activity of the Spirit of Truth will not be limited to the disciples however, but will be active in the world convincing and enlightening all people about spiritual reality (John 16:8-11). John declared in his beautiful prologue that the light and wisdom that became incarnate in Jesus is the light and wisdom that is in every person (1:9).
Here the distinction is made between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. Christ is a title attributed to Jesus, which includes Jesus, but means more than Jesus. Paul makes this same distinction when he speaks of Christ living in him and in the Messianic communities gathered in the name of Jesus.
And as John points out (attributing the words to Jesus in 16:8-11) the Spirit of Truth, the “Christ Spirit,” the “living Christ” is not restricted to the Christian community, but at loose in the world and in all people revealing, convincing, enlightening them to spiritual truth. Harvey Cox points out in The Future of Faith that “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers” (p. 53).
In one Easter story told by John, Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb and is distraught. She encounters someone who she thinks is the gardener. It is actually Jesus, but she does not recognize him. When he speaks her name, she is enlightened. Then she sees, knows, encounters, experiences Jesus. Jesus next says, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
In light of the Johannine narrative the point here, I believe, is that Jesus could no longer be present as Jesus; he would be present as the Spirit of Truth/the Spirit of Christ. Mary must give up the physicality of the pre-Easter Jesus in order to experience the presence and power of the living Christ, who is “more” than Jesus. In the biblical tradition there is an obvious and clear continuity between Jesus and Christ, but Christ is a much larger reality than the historical Jesus. (Notice the clear distinction made in the Johannine text above – “my God and your God” – between Jesus and God.)
Brother David Steindl-Rast points out that the connections people make between Jesus and Christ are greatly impacted by upbringing, cultural conditioning, and the circumstances of one’s life. He notes,
“A Christian child may grow up with a continuous confusion between Jesus and God. A Jewish child might discover that even mentioning Jesus is asking for trouble. If we are lucky, we might meet Christian followers who are true followers of Jesus and bring the joy of God’s love to everyone they meet. But we may have the misfortune to meet people who claim a special closeness to Jesus and are obnoxious. The culture of our ancestors may have been destroyed in the name of Jesus by well-intentioned but misguided missionaries. Or we may have grown up in a culture in which the most admirable traits are somehow connected with Jesus, from Handel’s Messiah to 12-step programs. A fair-minded approach to Jesus demands a colossal effort for many people to overcome either negative prejudice or biased exclusiveness . . . In any event, we owe it to ourselves to get as clear as picture as we can of Jesus [the historical Jesus], whose impact on history set in motion a nonviolent revolution that is still in full swing: the struggle to overcome the love of power by the power of love” (Deeper than Words, p. 48).
On a personal and communal level, this Johannine Easter story compels us to ask ourselves what we are holding on to that is hindering us from experiencing the living presence and power of Christ. (By the way, this is true whether you take the story literally or metaphorically).
It could be some deep hurt or betrayal or grievance story that we replay in our minds over and over again. The more we replay it the more we are weighed down by resentment and bitterness and entangled by frustration and anger.
It might be some regret, a dashed dream or a missed opportunity that we will never get back. Or a past failure or failures that have us questioning any possibility of our doing something that might have value and significance.
Or it might even be the image of God or Jesus we grew up with that no longer, if we would admit it, works for us or makes good sense to us. But since we have lived with this image for so long, to relinquish it, to let it go feels like we are being disloyal or unfaithful to our parents or our past Christian heritage and the pastors/teachers who taught us and have meant so much to us.
But there can be no significant growth, no movement forward, no development, no becoming “more” unless we can stop clinging to whatever it is that is keeping us from living right now in the spiritual presence and power of Christ.
In a kind of picture book for adults Trina Paulus tells about the life journey of two caterpillars who eventually become butterflies. The one named Yellow is the first to undergo the transformation. She stumbles across a caterpillar who is hanging upside down. He tells her that he has to do this to become a butterfly. When she inquires further he says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”
That’s the issue isn’t it? Do we want to move on so much that we are willing to let go of whatever it is keeping us from changing? Yellow says, “You mean die.” The other caterpillar says, “Yes and No. What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away” (emphasis mine, Hope for the flowers, p. 75)
Think of all the stuff in our lives that feeds the false self, the ego self, the little self (the self that looks like us, but is not the real or true self) and keeps us from moving on to a higher level of spiritual enlightenment and growth.
I love the final line by the Tom Hanks character in Castaway. He finally makes it off the island and discovers upon his return home that the woman he loved, whose memory kept him going on the island, has remarried and has a child. He is, of course, heartbroken. He tells his friend that he has lost her all over again. But then he says, “I’m alive. I have ice in my glass . . . And tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring.”
Maybe it’s time we step outside of whatever tomb we have been buried in and let go of whatever it is that we have been clinging to, and look to the sun and take to the sea and let the waves of new life, hope, and faith wash over us.
(This article was first published at Baptist News Global)