Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hold on Lightly (John 20:1-18)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdelene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, “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.’”  Mary Magdelene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

St. John’s Gospel begins the Easter story with the words, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark . . .”  Our discovery of the risen Christ always begins there – in the darkness.  The story begins with a solitary figure walking through the darkness, filled with fear, uncertainty, and a sorrow too deep for words.  While it was still dark, Mary Magdelene went to a tomb because earlier in the week, Jesus had been killed.  With him, her hope had died.  Her journey in the cool and quiet of that early morning is representative of the road many of us walk, feeling that we are alone, and stumbling around in the darkness.  We have all, at some point, been where she is – alone and in the dark.

Earlier this week, an old couple received a phone call from their son who lives far away.  The son said he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to come for a visit over the holidays after all.  “The grandkids say hello.”  They assured him that they understood, and then hung up the phone in the silence.  Earlier this week, a woman went into her supervisor’s office to hear that times are hard for the company and they’d have to let her go.  “So sorry.”  Earlier this week, someone received terrible news from a physician.  Someone else heard the words, “I never loved you.”  Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified, and the darkness is crushing.

No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen.  None of us is ready to approach the empty tomb before we have knelt at the cross, none of us is ready for the joy of resurrection before we have known the abandonment of the crucifixion.

Those few but faithful of you who joined us for worship on Thursday and Friday of this week know what I’m talking about – I only wish all of you had been able to experience what took place in this sanctuary on Thursday and Friday nights.  Now, in the life of us clergy and musicians, we often refer to Holy Week among ourselves as “Hell Week,” simply because of all the extra services to plan and sermons to write and volunteers to recruit to help with those services, which is no small task when half the congregation has left for the beach already.  Many times for us professional ministry types, Holy Week is this marathon of worship services that all seem to blend together, leaving us wondering which day it actually is and which service we are about to lead.  Rightly or wrongly, that is how we often feel during Holy Week, and if we manage to make it to the couch this afternoon having pronounced the right liturgy at the right services on the right days, we count it a success.

This year has been different, at least for me.  Those who were here Thursday and/or Friday know what I’m talking about – our Holy Week services were some of the most profound and deeply emotional I have ever experienced.  On Friday night, as we sat here in this space, the light slowly dimming from the setting sun and the candles that were extinguished with each reading until the service reached its inevitable climax as Jesus died on the cross, feelings of despair and despondency and abandonment washed through the place.  I have been attending and leading Holy Week services for the better part of my almost 32 years, but what I felt this year seemed, I’m not sure what to call it, it just felt so – dark.  And so real.

It was that darkness – that place of abandonment and despair – through which Mary Magdelene walked on her way to the tomb.  No one is ever ready to encounter Easter until he or she has spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen.  Easter is the last thing we are expecting, and that’s why it’s so terrifying.  Today is not about bunnies and candy and springtime flowers and girls in new dresses and boys in new suits; well, perhaps without Jesus, that is all it’s about.  But with Jesus, it’s about more.  Much more.  With Jesus, it’s about more hope than we can handle.

And yet, Mary couldn’t have known – how could she – that the best days with Jesus still lay ahead of her; she thought the best days only lay behind her.  How often we make that mistake, too – believing that the best is always and only behind us, often believing it so firmly that we are blind to what God is doing in the here and now and what God desires to do in the future.  Then again, maybe that’s not entirely our fault – after all, it’s awfully hard to see in the dark.

Mary arrived at the tomb, and she was startled to discover that it was empty.  Where’s Jesus?  There’s a scene from Forrest Gump in which Lieutenant Dan asks Forrest, “Gump, have you found Jesus yet?” to which Forrest replies, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”  It’s hard to hear that without thinking of this cartoon that’s made its way around on facebook: (show “have you found Jesus” cartoon).

Mary wants to know – where’s Jesus?  Was it body snatchers?  Grave robbers?  Had the authorities moved him to a secret location in the middle of the night?  She told Peter and the other disciple, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  John then tells us that there was a lot of running back and forth to the tomb, which interestingly enough, is still what we disciples of Jesus do when he’s missing – we just make ourselves busy and run around a lot!

All that running got to be too much for her, and she breaks down in tears near the entrance to the now-empty tomb.  Spotting the angels, she’s unimpressed and not even that afraid at the sight of these heavenly messengers, and when they ask her what’s wrong, she just blurts out, “They have taken away my Lord,” and the text doesn’t say so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she actually added, “You big dummy!”  Then another man, one she supposes to be the gardener, asks her why she is weeping and you can hear exasperation and combativeness in her voice – “Please, if you have taken the body away, please, just tell me where it is, so help me . . .”

The gardener doesn’t answer.  He just says one word.  He calls her by name, “Mary . . .”  And when, out of the darkness, we hear our name called, we recognize the One who stands before us – the crucified One is the risen One, he who had died now lives again, the treasure that was lost is now found.

Indescribable joy wells up from the depth of her being and lunges to embrace this resurrected Jesus, but Jesus, to our dismay and certainly Mary’s says, “Do not hold onto me.”  I have to admit that I don’t like this part of the story very much.  I’d have written this part differently.  Cue the waterworks, start the sappy reunion music, pan in for a long tearful hug, get that dual camera angle where you can switch back and forth between the close-up on both of their tear-stained faces, and that split second before the hug is so long as to be awkward, have them pull apart, have Jesus say, “Go, get the others, and tell them I’m back.  We’re getting out here and going home.”  Wide shot on the sun peeking over the horizon, the music builds, and the credits start to roll.  End scene, print, and start writing your acceptance speeches for this year’s Oscars.

That’s how I would have written the scene, which is perhaps a good reason I didn’t, because we’d have ended up with a very different Gospel.  This reunion with Jesus isn’t the end, it’s actually just the very beginning of God’s new redemption story.

Mary just didn’t know that yet.  Following Jesus is a never-ending process of losing him in the moment we have found him, only to continually discover him anew in an even more unimaginable form.  Jesus just won’t stay put for any length of time, you couldn’t even keep him dead for very long.  Every expectation we place upon Jesus is simply another futile effort to stuff him into the tomb.  The problem with Jesus is that he just won’t stay where we expect him to.  Every time we try to grab him and pin him down, he says, “Don’t hold onto me.”

Jesus knew that for Mary to grasp him now, she would have missed the transformation of his resurrection.  She would have missed the power and victory Jesus now had over the forces of sin and death.  She would have been glad to see him as a flicker of light in her own darkness, which would have easily blinded her to the realization that he is the Light of the World, the One who is capable of overcoming all darkness.  “Do not hold onto me” – instructions from Jesus that were really for Mary’s own good, lest she embrace only a partial Savior and thereby cultivate a stunted faith.  Holding onto Jesus in that moment would have allowed her to hold onto all that Jesus had been, yet would rob her of experiencing all that Jesus was yet to be.

Friends, the resurrection is like the starting gun of the new creation.  To paraphrase 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “If anyone is in Christ, BAM! New Creation!  The old life has passed away, the new has begun.”  The resurrection reminds us that God is making all things new, and so the task of faithful people everywhere is not to hold onto and preserve what was, but to embrace the new movements of God in our midst.  Embracing what we cannot yet see and most certainly can’t understand is no easy task, yet Jesus calls us to step out in faith and experience the new life he offers, rather than reminiscing about the life we once had.

“Do not hold onto me” – we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it was.  The way out of the darkness is only by moving ahead.  And the only person who can lead the way is the Risen One.  Not the old preacher and friend we left behind.  Until we embrace a new Savior, one who has risen out of both our disappointments and our expectations, we’ll never understand Easter.

For John’s Gospel, the Easter story begins alone and in the dark.  But thanks be to God, it doesn’t end there.   An encounter with the Risen Christ changes us.  It always does.  What matters most is not our own confidence in our hold upon Jesus, but the reality of knowing that he holds us.  And on this day, when God makes all things new, that’s more than enough.

We get the feeling that Mary was never the same after the resurrection.  Nor should she have been.  The crucified One is the risen One, who meets us in the darkness, calls our name, and embraces us with a hope that is bigger than we can handle.  What seemed like the end is just the beginning.

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