Easter 2017: “Do Not Hold on to Me”

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The Rev. Teri Daily

By Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806 – 1858) – Painter (Russian) Born in Russia, Moscow. Dead in Russia, St.Petersburg. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today is the most holy celebration of the church year.  The hangings are white, the candles are glowing, lilies decorate the chancel, incense rises in the air, and we hear gongs and singing and alleluias.  Today we come face-to-face with a life and love that is greater than any darkness we will ever face, even death.  It is tempting to want to stay in this moment forever – to hold on to the here and now and to never even enter the rest of the liturgical year.  But that isn’t the way things work.  Easter isn’t in the holding on; it’s in the going forth.

In today’s gospel reading, it’s the first day of the week, and Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid.  After she finds the tomb empty, she runs and tells Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Mary then returns to the tomb and stands weeping outside it.  She speaks to a man she thinks is the gardener, but when he calls her name she knows it’s Jesus.  She answers, “Teacher!”  And Jesus’ next words are telling: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  “Do not hold onto me.” 

It’s been said that every post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in the bible is a commissioning, a sending out – and we see precisely that in this encounter between Mary and Jesus.  Mary isn’t to linger in the moment; she is to tell the disciples what she has seen and experienced.  Jesus tells her “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Encountering the risen Christ always results in a call to mission – a call to proclaim a love, a faithfulness, a reality that is beyond our wildest dreams.  Easter isn’t in the holding on; it’s in the going forth.

But going forth into a post-resurrection world can be hard; it can be uncomfortable.  Sometimes we prefer to stay where we are – maybe not just in the glow of an Easter sanctuary, but also in the status quo of our lives.  And in this, we are in good company.

In the gospel of John, even the disciples have trouble really believing in a resurrection reality.  Peter rushes into the tomb and sees first-hand the linen wrappings lying limply where Jesus had been, and the cloth that had covered his face rolled up and off by itself.  We’re not told if he believes or not at the time.  But we are told that the disciple whom Jesus loved believes in his resurrection on the spot.  Just in case the empty tomb isn’t enough, Jesus appears later that day to the disciples gathered behind locked doors (all except Thomas, that is), and one week later Jesus appears again to the disciples (this time with Thomas present). 

We might expect that these encounters with the risen Christ would change everything for this band of followers.  But only one chapter after today’s reading, Peter goes back to what is familiar to him – to what he knows, to what is less risky, to what he believes is in the realm of possibility for him to do.  He goes back to fishing.  So Jesus confronts the disciples yet a third time with the reality that he is risen; he calls to them from the beach and fixes them breakfast.  When Peter realizes it’s Jesus, he throws on some clothes, jumps in the water, and begins to swim to shore where Jesus is; the resurrection takes Peter by surprise all over again.

Two thousand years later, we, like Peter, all too often glimpse resurrection only then to return to life as usual.  It is easier to hold on to our old ways, the way we’re told things have to be.  We don’t want war; then build more nuclear weapons to intimidate our neighbors.  That is our only pathway to “peace,” we think.  Pictures of premature babies and cancer-stricken patients stir our emotions; but on the national stage, any desire to promote health and well-being gets bogged down in complex debates about individual mandates, hidden tax cuts, and freedom of conscience bills.  We end up celebrating when only one in ten persons are without health insurance – that’s our idea of success.  We long for deep community, for people with whom we can walk through life and share both our joy and our pain; and we dampen that need with shallow conversation and surfing the internet on a cell-phone. 

We take our dreams for peace, equality, community, and so many other things and whittle those dreams all the way down into bite-sized portions.  That’s what we can digest without risk of disappointment or injury, and so these diminished dreams become the most we hope for.

Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in that field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-seed kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at [church] but not for the marriage supper of the Lamb…[1]

It can be hard to let resurrection sink in and take hold of our life – of our thoughts and actions.  After all, resurrection crosses the boundaries of what we think is possible.  It is always more than what the world tells us to expect.  It is always just beyond what our minds can grasp.

The fact of the matter is that, just as Jesus told Mary not to hold on to him, we, too, can’t keep the risen Christ in our grasp. No matter how much we try, we can’t make the resurrected Christ into an agent of our own desires or limit his actions to what we deem possible.  He isn’t bound by wrappings and linens in today’s gospel, and he also won’t be bound by our partisan interests or prior experience or comfort level or imagination – or even by our liturgical seasons.   The risen Christ always surprises us, coming in places and ways that the world deems foolish or impossible.  

The risen Christ calls to us in a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to violence and who now come together to work for reconciliation, in the face of an addict one-day clean, in the joy of villagers who (after losing so many children to water-borne diseases) now drink clean water from a well, in a friend who offers us forgiveness, in sunshine after a rain, in the promise of each new day.

Easter is not just a one-day celebration of the resurrection that happens once in the course of the liturgical year.  Easter is 365 days a year.  Easter is recognizing the risen Christ in our midst every day, in every situation no matter how dark and how dire.  It is being attentive to the signs of God at work in the world; it is listening closely for Jesus to call our name.  For as it’s been said, “Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?”[2]  Resurrection is no fairy-tale; it’s the deepest and simplest truth about the way things are, if only we have eyes to see it and hearts to trust it.

Today we encounter the risen Christ once again in the bread and the wine, in the faces of one another, in the newness of this day and the gift of second chances.  But we can’t stay in this moment.  This encounter, too, is a commissioning.  We are sent forth from this place to name resurrection each and every time we see it, in every situation.  We are sent forth to put ourselves to work in those very places where we encounter the risen Christ.  We are sent forth to trust in a light and love greater than any darkness.  We can’t settle for anything less; we can’t fall back into the safe and familiar.  Easter is not in the holding on; it’s in the going forth.  Only resurrected lives can change the world. 

 

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy-Tale (New York: Harper Collins, 1977) 70-71.

[2] Buechner, Telling the Truth, 81.

With special thanks to Dave Daily.