Sunday, March 27, 2016

Holding on Lightly (John 20:1-18, Easter Sunday)

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.

I remember family beach vacations as a small child – maybe 3 or 4 years old – when I would scoop up a handful of sand and carry it back to where my family was sitting, and by the time I got there, the sand was mostly gone.  So, determined, I would trek out again, and hold the sand even tighter than I had before, and was disappointed to find that I’d still lost it.  I did the same thing trying to carry handfuls of ocean water, each time, with the same results.

Have you ever tried to hold on tightly to something, only to have it slip through your fingers?  When that happens, our instinct may be to hold on tighter, only causing it to slip through fingers all the more rapidly.

The scripture we’ve just read is John’s account of the Easter story.  Perhaps you noticed a curious little detail in the story, in which the risen Christ tells Mary Magdelene not to hold onto him.  I invite you to hold onto that little detail this morning.  May we pray.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the little girl who went to church for the first time, and it happened to be Easter Sunday.  Her parents picked her up after Sunday School, and said, “Well, what did you learn?” She said, “Aliens came from outer space and lived for awhile on the earth.  God is one of those aliens, and when we die, we go to live forever in a spaceship with him.”

Her parents said, “Is that really what they taught you?”

She said, “No, but if I told you what they really said, you would never believe me.”

John’s Gospel begins the Easter story with a solitary figure walking through the darkness, filled with fear, uncertainty, and grief.  While it was still dark, Mary Magdelene went to a tomb because earlier in the week, Jesus – her teacher, her Lord, her friend – had been executed.

Mary arrives at the tomb, and she’s startled to find that it’s empty.  We’ve read the story, and we know why.  Jesus has left the building!  But the characters don’t know that.  They’re not thinking of resurrection.  They’re wondering who took Jesus’ body away, and why?  Was it grave robbers?  Body snatchers?  Had the authorities come and moved the body in the middle of the night to an undisclosed location?

The characters in the story didn’t know, as we do, that it’s Easter Sunday.  All they know is that the body of Jesus is missing, and it’s too much to take.  One final insult on top of injury, and Mary bursts into tears as she peers into the empty tomb.  She asks the angels who are sitting in the tomb where Jesus is, and she is so upset, it doesn’t even register in her mind that she is talking to angels – real, honest-to-goodness-God’s-messengers-to-earth-dressed-in-white-glowing-halo-whole-bit – angels.

She turns to leave the tomb, and in the cool of that still-dark morning, she bumps into a man she supposes to be the gardener, and, through her sobs, she says, “Sir, if you have taken him away, please, just tell me where you’ve put him.  Please . . .  Please  . . .”

Sometimes in our darkest days, we can’t find hope.  Yet, God moves even in the darkness.  The gardener just says one word, “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 died now lives again.

Friends, Easter begins in the dark, but thanks be to God, it doesn’t stay there.

And here, where Mary goes to embrace Jesus in her joy, he says those curious words: “Do not hold onto me.”  Why?  Simply put, Mary is reaching for things as they used to be. But resurrection is not a restoration to the way things were before. When Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me,” it is as if he is saying, “Mary, don't hold onto the way I was in the past, because everything is different now. There's no going back to the way it was before. The hope I give you is not about turning back the clock—it is about transforming your life from here on out.”

Mary was trying to hold onto good old days that lay behind her, unaware that the best days with Jesus actually lay ahead of her, and Jesus was calling her to reach, with faith, toward a future that was brighter than her past. 

It has been 18 years since I graduated from high school – Class of ’98, baby, Powercat Pride!  That means we are two years away from our 20th reunion, and some of my classmates, bless their hearts, have started a Facebook group for the reunion.  They’ve been posting photos and sharing memories, which is all well and good, but I’ve realized in seeing those posts, that mentally, emotionally, socially, I think some of them are still in high school.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed high school.  I’m still in touch with a handful of close friends.  I look forward to seeing people at the reunion.  But I don’t want to re-live those days.  I don’t want to go back there. 1998 isn’t coming back – and the more tightly they hold onto those glory days, the less able they are to live in the now, let alone step with boldness into a future that could be, and should be, brighter.

We can do the same thing in our faith – holding onto our glory days so firmly that what could be a promising future slips through our fingers.  We can become so convinced our best days are behind us that we stop looking for good days ahead of us, and so pine for yesterday that we mortgage tomorrow.

Craig Barnes put it this way: He said, “What we long for, what we miss and beg God to give back, is dead. Easter doesn’t change that. So 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 Savior. But not the old Rabbi we once knew, which is only one more thing that has to be left behind. Until we discover a new vision of the Savior, a savior who has risen out of our disappointments, we’ll never understand Easter.”

Resurrection is not simply a fancy word that explains why the tomb was empty. Resurrection is the experience of the presence of the risen Lord! More than just the realization that Jesus has somehow defeated death for himself, resurrection is the promise that conquered death so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. He conquered death, not just so we could know that death isn't the last chapter in his story; he conquered death so that you and I can rest confidently that death and darkness and pain and sorrow and confusion and despair are not the last words in our own stories—that through the risen Christ the last words of our stories are words of divine love that conquers all.

Resurrection is a central belief to our faith, and yet, there are a great many people of faith who live as if the resurrection never happened.  Their lives aren’t transformed by the presence of the risen Christ, and they’re still stumbling around in the darkness, holding onto grudges and hurts and sins and negativity, all manner of self-destruction and spiritual dead ends.

So long as we hold onto these things, they keep a hold on us.  But friends, today is Easter; because of the resurrection, we need not allow those things to maintain their hold on us.  It’s a great day to let those things go and turn toward new life in Christ. And so, if you’ve come today and you’re holding onto grudges, behavior, attitudes that are less than Christ-like, or

If you’ve come today and you’re holding onto guilt, regret, or shame from something in your past,

Whatever it is that you’re holding onto that’s got a hold on you and is keeping you from experiencing the joy of walking in the new life Jesus invites us into, today is a great day to let go of all that is holding you back, so you can follow the risen Christ down the path
of new life.

The Easter story begins in the dark.  But thanks be to God, it doesn’t end there.   Mary was never the same after the resurrection.  An encounter with the Risen Christ changes us.  It always does.

Today’s the day for new life in Christ.  The hope of resurrection is not only for Jesus, it’s for all of us who follow him, too.  Jesus is out of the tomb; no need for us to hang out in there, anymore.

No need to keep holding on to what has been.  The risen Christ stands before us today, with a better offer: what is yet to be.  Let’s not hold onto our past so tightly that our future slips through our fingers.  Jesus has left the tomb and stepped into new life.  Whaddya say we go with him?

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