Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Don’t Hold On

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 9, 2023, Easter Sunday A

John 20:1-18

Don’t Hold On

If the Revised Common Lectionary had its way, we would hear this version of the Resurrection story every year on Easter Sunday. As much as I am typically a lectionary preacher, this seems foolish to me. There are four different narratives that describe that first Easter Sunday, and each one brings us something different. Mark leaves us with the cliffhanger; do the disciples go to Galilee to find Jesus? Matthew throws in some conspiracy to cover up the Resurrection and finishes off with the Great Commission. Luke’s account, more expansive than either of those two, Includes that first appearance as well as the Emmaus Road story and Jesus’s appearance to the disciples gathered behind locked doors. 

This story, too, has its distinctive features. At first the only one we see is Mary Magdalene, alone at the tomb before sunrise. She sees the stone out of place, and runs to tell the disciples. (Why didn’t she go look in the tomb? If you’re a woman by yourself and you think there might be grave robbers about, would you go look in?) Two disciples get into a footrace to get to the tomb; one looks in but stops short of entering; Peter (no shock) rambles right in and looks around and then the other disciple enters as well. They take stock and they believe. What they believe is hard to know, since their only reaction is that “they returned to their homes.” They believed Mary Magdalene’s report that Jesus’s body was missing, I guess. At any rate, they left, and Mary was again alone at the tomb with her sorrow. 

When she finally looked into the tomb, she saw something that the disciples had evidently not seen – do you think they would have “returned to their homes” if there had been angels inside the tomb when they looked? Apparently they waited for Mary Magdalene to be alone to ask their question of him, the question “why are you weeping?” that would seem to have a blazingly obvious answer. Even here Mary’s answer makes clear that the whole idea of resurrection hasn’t entered her head any more than it had entered the heads of the disciples; she asks where Jesus’s body has been taken. 

Her distress is severe enough that when she turns and sees Jesus, she doesn’t recognize that it’s Jesus; she thinks he’s a gardener. Honestly, he piles on a little bit by asking her why she’s weeping and adds the more practical question of who she’s seeking. By now, it seems that Mary is getting a little hysterical, and not without reason; she pleads to know where the body is and offers to take it off their hands.

If you see this scene in some movie or other, Jesus is most likely depicted as saying Mary’s name in the most tender and sweetest tone of voice possible for the actor playing Jesus to achieve. Personal opinion here: I don’t buy that. At this point Mary Magdalene’s distress is likely enough that Jesus has to speak her name just a little bit sharply – “Mary!” with an exclamation point – in order to break through her distress and get her to see him. At last she does see him for who he is and calls out “Teacher” at that recognition. 

Based on what comes next, we kind of have to guess that she grabbed hold of him in some way, probably some kind of embrace that would have been a sketchy thing to do in a culture that was quite rigid about keeping unmarried men and women separate from each other. But since nobody else is around, it’s not a big deal. What is striking, though, and what is perhaps the most discordant note in this passage is what Jesus says in response:

“Do not hold on to me.”

Jesus hasn’t been the type to be bound by strictly human mores and rules, so this seems an odd time for him to get all uncomfortable about this. No, what in fact he says is that she can’t hold on to him “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” To be blunt, this probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to Mary Magdalene at this point, having lurched from the fear and confusion at the disappearance of Jesus’s body to the amazement and shock of seeing and touching not only Jesus’s body but Jesus himself very much alive in that body. 

Sometimes a good way to help a distraught person get focused is to give them a task or a job to do – not always, but sometimes it does help. He gives her a message to take to the disciples and she does so, announcing that “I have seen the Lord” and repeating to the disciples what she has heard from Jesus. 

Were we to read on in this chapter we would see the account of the disciples gathered together in a locked house in fear for their safety, only to see Jesus appear in the midst of them without even needing a key. We would also learn that Thomas wasn’t there for some reason and that he refused to believe what his fellow disciples told him. He did, though, manage to show up a week later, and Jesus appeared to them again and even specifically told Thomas to touch his scars and quit being so skeptical. We aren’t actually told that Thomas did so, but he did at least profess Jesus as “my Lord and my God!“, so he does get credit to be the first to make that particular claim. But that’s next week’s lectionary reading. 

While Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’s scars to get over his unbelief, it’s hard not to flip back a few verses to Mary Magdalene’s being told not to hold on to Jesus. It might sound a little bit unfair at first blush. Why does that unbelieving Thomas get the special treatment when Mary Magdalene had been so faithful to be at the tomb when nobody else was? 

Well, for one thing, there’s a difference between touching and holding on

There are times when a great big embrace is really the best response to someone, perhaps seeing them after a long time apart, or in congratulations for good news or getting out of the hospital or any number of other things. 

Holding on, though, can be a way of limiting or constricting. Here Jesus says that he has “not yet ascended to the Father.” His task is not finished, and to the degree that holding on to Jesus constricts him from completing his work, it has to be forbidden. 

It isn’t just Mary Magdalene who has to be kept from “holding on to Jesus” in this restrictive or preventative sense. We may not be able to hold on to Jesus physically, but be honest; have you ever found yourself “holding on to Jesus” in the sense of resisting or pulling back from what Jesus is calling you to do or to be? 

Churches can certainly be guilty of “holding on to Jesus” too. Trying to cling to the way things have always been? That’s every bit as much “holding on to Jesus” as anything Mary Magdalene was guilty of, let’s face it. We aren’t called to “hold on” to Jesus; we are called to follow Jesus, even if the way Jesus is leading isn’t The Way Things Have Always Been. It’s hard to accept that The Way We’ve Always Done It isn’t going to work anymore, but that doesn’t give us permission to try to constrict Jesus from where Jesus must go and what Jesus must do.

A little confession time (that probably shouldn’t be part of a sermon, but oh well): I’ve had to learn this lesson in my own vocation. It would have been easy to stay put here and enjoy what is comfortable and familiar for however long it lasted. I had to learn that it wouldn’t be faithful to what God is calling me to do, to however what’s left of my vocation needed to go. And so, after today, I’m going (once we can get a whole house packed up in something like two weeks). I believe it’s what I’m called to do, but that doesn’t make it any less scary of a leap into something different and a little bit challenging, in a place unlike any place I’ve lived in a very long time. And yet, to try to deny this call would make me guilty of “holding on to Jesus,” of being every bit as restrictive and obstructive as Mary Magdalene threatened to be. 

Individuals, churches, just about any kind of human anything can fall into this trap. When Mary Magdalene let go and followed the command Jesus gave her, she became the first evangelist – the first one to proclaim the good news of the risen Christ (a bit of scripture that somehow gets ignored by a whole lot of so-called followers of Christ who insist that women can’t do that). The longer she clutched on to Jesus as she knew him, the longer she kept not only Jesus but also herself from fulfilling what God had called them to be and do. 

Way to put a bummer on Easter Sunday, right? But it has to be said: Jesus doesn’t call us to cling; Jesus calls us to obey, Jesus calls us to follow. And you know what? When we do that, Jesus will be there as well.

For teaching us not to hold on, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #245, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia; #244, This Joyful Eastertide; #232, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today

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