Touching the Body of the Risen Christ

 

St Peter was guarding the Pearly Gates where he would welcome and then interview new souls who were coming into heaven.  He saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention and said, “Hey Jesus! Would you mind guarding the gate for a bit while I go run an errand?”

Jesus said, “Sure. What do I have to do?”

Peter said, “Just find out about the people who arrive. Ask them about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve entry into heaven.”

“Ok,” Jesus said, “Sounds easy enough.”

So Jesus manned the gates for St. Peter (kind of like our senior warden Mike is manning the gate for the bounce house after Eucharist). The first person to arrive at the gates was an old man. Jesus welcomed him and then looked closely at him and asked, “What did you do for a living?”

The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.”

Jesus remembered his own earthly existence and leaned forward and asked, “Did you have any family?”

“Yes,” the old man said, “I had a son, but I lost him.”

Jesus leaned in more closely and said, “You lost your son? Can you tell me about him?”

“Well,” the man said, “he had holes in his hands and feet.”

Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”

The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”

 

We have a misrecognition of Jesus in this story just as we do in our Gospel reading this morning. Just as the old man Geppetto thought Jesus was his son Pinocchio at the Pearly Gates so too does Mary Magdalene think Jesus was the gardener at the tomb. It is not until Jesus says Mary’s name that she recognizes him as her Risen Lord and cries out “Rabbi!”[1] So a question for us this morning is how do we recognize and experience the Risen Christ in our lives?

After recognizing Jesus, it appears that Mary then rushes to embrace him since, according to our translation, Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me.” Other translations render the phrase “Do not cling to me.” However, the Greek verb here is actually hapto, which means “touch.” So Jesus is actually saying, “Do not touch me” (me mou hapto in Greek. Noli me tangere in Latin). Now these words are very mysterious and to me, very frustrating. They are frustrating to me since this entire season of Lent, which began 40 days ago, back in March (March 1st), we at Redeemer have been trying to experience the Gospel of John and Jesus through the five bodily senses: through listening, tasting, seeing, smelling and throughout this Holy Week, through touching. A couple days ago (on Maundy Thursday), we gathered here to wash each other’s feet, as Jesus commanded us to do, as a symbol of love and service to one another. In general, the Gospel of John invites us to use our senses to understand and appreciate deeper spiritual realities, but here Jesus says, “Don’t touch me.”

What makes this statement of Jesus also very mysterious is the fact that in this very same chapter in John (chapter 20), Jesus invites his disciple Thomas (often known as Doubting Thomas) to put his finger on his hands and side. So why does he tell Thomas to touch while telling Mary, “Do not touch me”? Well, as I said, way back on Ash Wednesday, apparent incongruities in Scripture are not simply mistakes or mere contradictions, but rather invitations into the deep, paradoxical mysteries of God. So what mystery are we invited to understand and experience, even with our sense of touch, on this Easter morning?

What does Jesus say to Mary after saying, “Do not touch me”? He says to Mary, “Go to my brothers” (20:17). With these words, Jesus is telling Mary that if she wants to touch Jesus’s body, she is now invited to do so among the community of believers, which, after Easter, is understood to be the Body of Christ. In one sense, the Risen Christ has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and in another sense, the Risen Christ remains here among us, whenever we gather in his Name. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders writes, “The fundamental sign […] of the really present Jesus is the ecclesial community itself, which is now the Body of Christ, the New Temple raised up in the world.”[2] This is why it makes sense for Jesus to invite Thomas to touch his risen flesh in the very same chapter because Thomas is in the midst of the community of believers, the Body of Christ.

The Gospel of John teaches that if we want to experience and touch the Risen Christ today, we can do so whenever we gather as a worshipping community, as the Body of Christ. Because we do not live in first century Palestine, we cannot touch that same tangible body that Mary Magdalene touched. But we can touch the Body of Christ as it is made manifest to us today, in the Eucharist and in this very gathering of people who proclaim the resurrection.

One of the benefits of being a smaller, more intimate community, is that, during the passing of the Peace, we generally get to greet everyone in the room. And that is generally done with some tangible sign of peace: a handshake or a hug or a kiss. I often have to cut short the Peace because there is so much greeting and hugging. And then after that, we have a tradition of gathering in a circle to bless people on their birthdays and anniversaries. I have realized that we are kind of a touchy-feely group. And although some people might be uncomfortable with that and we need to always be respectful of people’s boundaries, I see us, in many ways, fulfilling Jesus’s command to Mary to “Go to my brothers and sisters” because, Jesus says, if you want to experience me now, you can now do so among the community of believers. So every time we greet and hug one another, we are greeting and hugging and being hugged by the Risen Christ, who promises to be present and alive among us.

My spiritual journey has led me to explore other faith traditions and to seek wisdom from various spiritual leaders such as the Buddha, Lao Tzu and even the prophet Muhammad. However, after a few years of exploration, it became clear to me that Jesus was my rabbi and my guru. I appreciate understanding Jesus as my guru because a guru functions as one’s access to the divine as Jesus is for me; and also because the term reminds me of an experience that my father shared with me about his own spiritual journey. My father, who grew up Jewish and explored a variety of spiritualties, wanted to become a follower of a living Indian guru named Sri Chinmoy (who died about 10 years ago). However, Sri Chinmoy turned him away because, in his apparent wisdom, he sensed that my father’s true guru was actually Jesus. At the time, my father was disappointed by this because he knew that it was much more helpful and spiritually beneficial to have a living guru with whom one could physically engage and interact, rather than a teacher like Jesus who died 2,000 years ago. But it was actually through a group of Jewish believers in Jesus that my father came to understand Christ as very much alive (as we proclaim on this Easter Sunday) and very much present within the church. As I have grown in my own personal understanding of Christ, I have also come to experience him as very much alive and present; not just present within our thoughts and memories and prayers; but present in the physical sacraments; the consecrated bread and wine; and present within and through our own bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit.

I also came to understand that in order to truly grow in my experience of the Risen Christ, my relationship with him needed to expand beyond an individual and personal relationship to a communal relationship. In other words, if I wanted to touch and be touched by the Risen Christ, I felt invited to do so within the community of believers, the Church, within the Body of Christ. And that’s really why I am here now as a priest, because I have come to experience the Risen Christ tangibly within the church, and tangibly within this particular church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, and Redeemer being another important name for my guru. And even though things get challenging and messy within community (as things do in all communities), the Risen Christ, the Redeemer, promises to remain present and at work within the church, within this community. The Risen Christ is alive and here with us, right now, tangible and accessible to our bodily senses. Can we recognize him?

I would like to conclude with one beautiful and practical way that we can experience and perhaps recognize the Risen Christ among us right now through our bodily senses; and that is, by singing together. Throughout the season of Lent, which is a time of repentance, we have been fasting from using the word “Hallelujah” which we say during times of joy. This Easter morning is a time of joy so we can finally unleash our Alleluias and I’d like us to do so together by singing a song by another spiritual master named Leonard Cohen. It goes like this…

[1] See Zacharias Thundy, Rabbouni (John 21:16) by Mary Magdalene: A Misreading (2016)

[2] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) 58.

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