Don't need to see Jesus to be in his presence

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seventy years ago, "Citizen Kane" was released. The American Film Institute ranks this 1941 film as No. 1 in its list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time. The movie was directed, produced and written by the man who also starred in it: 25-year-old Orson Welles. Famously dictatorial at that young age, Welles once cut a hole in the floor for one memorable scene in order to get a camera angle just right. The decision held up filming for days. His innovations changed the way motion pictures were made. Welles had a vision in his mind about how the film should look; he would not be deterred by budget overruns, which he saw as a minor concern.

In the late 1970s, Welles was scheduled to make a speech at the small college I attended in western Pennsylvania. One of my fellow students, now a playwright and theater professor, was so excited about the forthcoming appearance of the legendary director/actor that he breathlessly said, "I would pay a lot just to watch Orson Welles breathe."

As it happened, Welles canceled his booking. I never found out why. I was looking forward to seeing him, though not nearly as much as my friend.

I've had the opportunity to meet some famous people over the years, and I've wondered, did meeting them really make any difference to me? Isn't what truly matters their work and not some brief personal encounter?

Occasionally, I'll hear someone say something like, "It would be great if Jesus were standing here now talking to us."

Well, this is going to sound odd coming from a pastor, and it may incite a few responses on the newspaper's website, but here goes: We don't need him to do that.

We really don't.

When Jesus made ready his departure, a subject he covered exhaustively with the disciples -- despite their unwillingness to hear -- he said he would not leave the disciples bereft. He would send the Holy Spirit. A primary role of the Holy Spirit is to keep Jesus' presence alive with his followers: "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father -- the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father -- he will testify about me." (John 15:26)

The Spirit represents Jesus in every time and place. The Apostle Paul adds to the Jesus' words, suggesting that the Spirit makes it possible for us to recognize Jesus' actual status: "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." (I Corinthians 12:3)

It's a good thing that we are only left with his words and deeds. If we had access to a picture or a sound recording or a video, we would be the poorer for it. We live in a time that elevates style over substance and physical attractiveness over all. A picture of the actual Jesus of Nazareth would only get in the way of faith.

So, looking back, I didn't miss very much when Orson Welles didn't show up all those years ago. Thanks to the presence of the Holy Spirit, everything I need about Jesus is provided to me. But one day, when I shrug off this mortal coil and slip the surly bonds of earth, which hopefully won't be soon, I look forward to seeing him with resurrection eyes. That will be a No. 1 moment, no question.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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