In our sermons over the days of Eastertide, we are considering various responses to resurrection, including our own. If the gospels are any indication, there’s no right or wrong way to respond to resurrection. The gospels give us a whole encyclopedia of the ways people respond to Jesus’ empty tomb and his return to his followers. Some see and believe, some look around in bewilderment, some doubt but come to believe in time, some race from the tomb to tell the story. There’s no uniform response to this moment, with all of its mystery and possibility. That means there’s space for all of us and our reactions, too. Sunday’s sermon was focused on Mary’s reaction in John 20.11-18. Listen or read below.
Some of us might think we have a firm grasp on Easter.
Last Saturday, an adorable 5-yr-old in our church was asked by her mother a poignant question. The mother asked her daughter how she thought Jesus’ friends and followers must have felt on that Saturday, after he died, with their hopes dashed and fears confirmed. “That must have been very hard, don’t you think?” the mother asked gently. “Well yeah,” the little girl replied, “But, I mean, the Easter bunny was coming the next day.”
Some of us just have a handle on it. The traditions are rehearsed, the music memorized, the themes ingrained. “He is risen indeed” we say loudly, ringing our bells. But do we recognize the power of what we’re trying to hold in our hands, contain in our traditions, encompass in our words?
The author Annie Dillard has asked it this way: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats [AND Easter bonnets] to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares, they should lash us to our pews.” (1)
Because it’s an incomprehensible power that led to Jesus finding his way back to his friends and followers. It’s an inexplicable power that brought him to the moment in this passage where he speaks Mary’s name, appearing to her ever so intimately, right in the darkness and silence of her life. That’s the power of resurrection. And it moves Mary. It changes her. It amazes her.
But notice how quickly that sense of wonder turns to an attempt to control and possess. Mary responds to this power that has taken hold of her by trying to take hold of it – of him. Reaching. Grabbing. Trying to hold it still and close to her. Yes, some of us think we have a handle on Easter. And some of us might think we have a firm grasp on Jesus, too. What is it in Mary that seeks to hold on to him? What is it in us?
A good friend of mine and I have had an Easter tradition that we’ve held for several years now. Both of us are pastors, and it’s an idea we got from another pastor – so just bear that fact in mind as I tell you this peculiar tradition. For the last several years, at some point on Easter Sunday, we’ve made a habit of one of us calling the other. It doesn’t matter who calls, the call only lasts a few seconds and the message is always the same. One line. Last Sunday the call came from him to me early, while I was driving to church. The annual message was simple: “He’s on the loose,” my friend said. And with that we hang up.
Now that’s just weird preacher talk, I know. It’s a strange way to say “Happy Easter” or “He is Risen,” but for me it’s hardly Easter without that phrase now. Because that’s the message – a message of the expansive, far-reaching, un-contained wideness of the power of God in the risen Christ who is always – always – loose in this world, free from anything that attempts to possess him or encase him. Including us.
To be sure, we know the resurrected Christ as one who is intimately connected to our lives in loving relationship, so close to us we can almost touch. But look again at our text this morning. Resurrection doesn’t merely mean that Christ is with us. It also means that he is pulling away from us.
In our passage, Mary comes with the others to the grave and expects what she had always known – all any of us had known to this point in human history: that Pontius Pilate signs the death orders and covers the tombs with stones, that broken people stay broken in this world and dead people stay dead. You see and hear enough of that, and in the face of the evidence the sensible people give up the ridiculous idea that anything will change. So she comes seeking only a body, nothing more. She comes accepting death and defeat. She walks slowly, under the weight of all her hopelessness, grief and resignation that “this is the way things will always be.”
When she sees the empty tomb and the pile of clothes, she doesn’t understand it at first. “Someone has taken him away,” is the only plausible explanation she can offer. For who could even conceive of anything different? Even when Mary sees the two figures in white, her fear doesn’t subside. She weeps. Her shoulders are rounded. Her arms are clutching her chest. Her head down, looking for cover somewhere – anywhere – safe and sorrowful, when she’s interrupted by this gardener. He asks her questions, every word interrupting the privacy of her mourning. Every question “Why are you weeping?” or “Whom are you looking for?” seeming to intensify the reality of her suffering. Until she realizes the most important question – the unspoken question – “How does this gardener know my name?” (2)
And the gospel says that Mary turns. She turns in her recognition of the risen Christ, and it is a turning point for all of us, turning into a story of so much possibility and life, where our best hopes no longer lie dead or encased, where the beloved of God will not be broken for ever and always, where new life is possible through the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. And no sooner has Mary encountered it, than she reaches for it. She seeks to grasp it. She has it right where she wants it. And Jesus says to her,“Don’t hold on to me, Mary.” Mary had been holding spices for burial and a bulletin for a funeral, and now her hands are free and she is trying to hold on to the power that brought Jesus back. She doesn’t want to let go. Mary’s reflex – face to face with resurrection – is to hold it.
It recalls the kind of unabashed love and passion that C.S. Lewis describes in one of his very last books – a book on love, in which he examines various Greek words used for the concept of love and finally concludes that at bottom they come down to one seminal distinction: the difference between what he calls “need love” and “gift love.”
“Need love,” Lewis says, sees in every beloved object or person a value to be coveted or possessed. Need love moves out and seeks to grasp and to appropriate for itself. Need love is always circular, reaching out to the beloved to bring value back to itself. Lewis contends that many times when we humans say to another, “I love you,” what we are really meaning is, “I want you. You have a value that I very much desire to make my own, no matter what the consequence may be to you.” “I love you” so often means “I need you.” (3)
Isn’t that sometimes what we mean when we express love to one another? And isn’t that so often what’s behind the love we profess to Christ? Need love.
We see it in Mary, and we understand it. We recognize her reflex. Her posture. Those bent shoulders and clutching hands are ours so often. How can we expect her to do any different after all she’s seen and heard? She doesn’t want to lose him again. Of course she holds on.
But Mary is not the first to reach for him. Even from the time he was an infant, Jesus never fit into the hands of those who sought to hold him. From the very first, when his parents brought him to the temple, they came to know he would not be like others. “This child is destined for the falling and rising…” said the righteous and devout Simeon, “He will be opposed.” And they knew they could never hold him closely enough.
That’s why he so easily slips through the grasp of his parents in the only boyhood story we know of Jesus in the gospels, slipping away from them on the road from Jerusalem to be found about his “father’s business.” He was growing stronger and older, you see, becoming more than their expectations could hold. Until he finally strikes out and heads to the wild-eyed prophet, John, attaching himself to a message of repentance and change. There were so many safer places we might have wanted him to go, but he goes out to the wilderness where people dream of how to reorient their world. Then he takes that message and crosses boundaries throughout his ministry, which frustrates so many who had once delighted in him, like those in his home town of Nazareth, who attempt to lay hold of him and run him out of town, only to see him slip away once more, “passing through their midst” the text says – once more through their grasp.
People were always trying to get their arms around him so he would live up to their hopes for him. People were always trying to grasp him, so he’d remain still instead of constantly compelling them forward and in new directions. People were always clutching him so he would fit their expectations. And when he didn’t, they corporately grabbed hold of him. And it took all of their collective strength for him to finally go where they wanted him to go, as they took him to a hill outside Jerusalem.
Mary was not the first to reach for Jesus. “Don’t hold on to me” is a message of resurrection, because it had been so central to the message of Jesus’ life, as it remains for all of us who think we can grasp him, understand him, define him, contain him. In the words of the theologian Karl Rahner, “If God’s incomprehensibility… does not call us out of the little house of our homely, close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity.” The message of Jesus. (4)
Mary wanted him to remain there in that garden of assurance. And I confess to you all the times in my life I have wanted to hold him. I’ve wanted Jesus to stay still and be a clutch-able Christ, and not so elusive and constantly compelling me forward. “Don’t hold onto me.” I’ve wanted him to remain in that safe and secure place, standing near to me, loving what I love and hating what I hate, and I hear it again, “Don’t hold onto me.” If the Jesus we worship stays in one place, fitting all of our categories and meeting all of our expectations, then we can be sure it is not the Jesus that was led out to a hill to die, and it is not the Christ that appeared to Mary on the first day of the week. “Don’t hold on to me.”
Tom Long is a preacher and teacher of preachers who lives in Atlanta. A couple of years ago, Dr. Long was leading a day-long workshop on the west side of Atlanta. It was across town from where he lived and taught at Emory University, so during an afternoon break before an evening lecture he realized he didn’t have time to make it home and back in Atlanta traffic. Seeking to fill some time, he decided he needed a haircut and searched for a Great Clips or Fantastic Sams where he could get a walk-in. He pulled his car into a strip mall and walked inside. “Sure, sit down, I’ll cut your hair,” the young stylist said. “I don’t recognize you,” she said as she put the cape over his shoulders and fastened it behind his neck, “Have you ever been in here before?”
He told her “No,” that he was a professor at the seminary across town and a pastor. Which strikes me as an amateur mistake. Anyone with any experience in this profession knows you don’t admit to being a pastor when you’re going to be stuck in a chair for any length of time. Not on an airplane, not in a waiting room, and definitely not in a Supercuts with someone who’s holding a razor. If you met me on an airplane, you would find out I’m self-employed.
Nonetheless, Tom Long fastened his seatbelt as the stylist brightened up after hearing he was a preacher and said, “Oh, I’m a Christian, too, you know.” “Really?” Long replied. She said, “Yes, I’m a member of Creflo Dollar’s church!”
I don’t know what that evokes for you, but Creflo Dollar was most recently in the news for his insistence that God was calling his congregation to buy him a state-of-the-art private jet. His church is one of the prominent iterations of the prosperity gospel, where the evidences of God’s blessings are often material, and pastors might drive a Rolls Royce and owns millions in real estate. And Tom Long is thinking “I’m already getting a subpar haircut; now I’m going to have to listen to some theology, too. ” But wanting to make the best of it, and maybe wanting to have a little fun, he said somewhat wryly, “So, have you got your ‘blessing’ yet?” And the young stylist said, “Oh my yes, I’ve gotten my blessing, all right!”
Dr. Long braced. He really expected her to say something about a brand-new Lexus parked outside at the strip mall or a pair of diamond earrings in the scissors drawer. But instead she said this: “I’ve gotten my blessing, all right. Two nights a week I get to volunteer in a shelter for battered women. I was one myself, you know, and they trust me. They need me. They know I love them.”
Tom Long the preacher was speechless. And he thought to himself, “My God… Jesus is loose in Creflo Dollar’s church.” (5)
Because just when you think you know – where Jesus would go, what he would do. Just when you say: “Don’t go in there Jesus. They’re not like us.” When you start to assume, “Oh Jesus, those people are gullible or full of greed.” Just when you think you’ve got a handle on him, you find out that Jesus is not where you thought he was. Not at all. He’s not just close to you. He is risen. He’s on the loose. He’s loose in a hair stylist. And in the power of the resurrection he ordains her to be a minister, and receive a blessing of a ministry of trust and compassion and the very love that raised Jesus from the dead working in her life. And if Jesus is loose in Creflo Dollar’s church, there’s no telling all the places he might be by now.
Resurrection is not something we hold onto. It’s something that lays hold of us. We don’t discover Jesus by holding on to him. We come to experience the risen one by following him – by doing what he tells us to do and being what he asks us to be. “Don’t hold on to me, Mary…” because I need you open and free to run from here with the news of what you have seen.
We might have thought that news is that Jesus is here. But it’s actually that he’s not here.
In Mark’s gospel, it’s said this way to Mary and the others: “He is not here…He’s out ahead of you…” Or in another translation: “Tell the others he is not here… He’s gone before you…”
We might say it another way this morning: “He’s not here…He’s on the loose.”
- Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
- “The unspoken question” inspired by Steven Fuller’s liturgical verse, “To Weep Outside a Tomb” (March 27, 2016)
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
- Karl Rahner, Poetry and the Christian
- From “Just In Time” at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, February 12, 2012