“Do Not Hold Me”
Easter 2017 … John 20:1-18
Rev. Phillip R. Fenton
“Do not hold onto me.” vs. 17
He was always hard to get a hold of-Jesus – hard to pin down. I’ve often wondered if he was like our oldest son and came out of the womb feet first and full speed ahead. I wonder if he tried to climb out of the manger. There is that time when he was 12 and visited the temple in Jerusalem with his parents. He slipped through their fingers and they had to go search for him. And, then, when you expected him to be in the temple, he might just as surely be hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners on the wrong side of town. It probably shouldn’t have surprised us that the grave couldn’t hold him either. It was always hard to figure where he might turn up next.
All Easter does is make it that way for all eternity. Christ is on the loose now. There is no pinning him down, no getting a handle on him, no holding him back. He’s like a firefly on a warm summer night. Lightning bugs, we used to call them growing up in East Texas. They’re harmless little things that blink in the black night air – a mating ritual really. But what did you do? You tried to catch them, didn’t you? You couldn’t just let them be, could you? Couldn’t just watch for where they would light up next and enjoy them. You had to grab them, didn’t you? Had to imprison them in a glass jar with a tin top with holes punched into it. But what did you gain by capturing a firefly? In no time, it would die in captivity. It couldn’t do you any good as long as you tried to control it and hold onto it.
Same with Jesus. That Easter morning Mary has gone to pay her respects to her Lord. She knew where he was – in the grave. She knew what he was – dead. Filled with grief and remorse as she was, she still knew what to do in that situation. But when she arrives, something has happened. Something disorienting. The stone is rolled away, the body is missing. She doesn’t get it, and so she turns to ask the gardener where they have taken Jesus.
“Mary,” he says. “Rabboni,” she answers, “Teacher.” It doesn’t say it, but we have to assume that she either throws her arms around his neck or starts to.
But he says, “Don’t hold me.” What? He was finally held in the arms of love and not nailed down by hands of hate. Why would he want to break away from that?
“Don’t hold me,” he says.
What’s going on here? Something very fundamental really. Something so important that you can’t really understand Easter unless you get this. Every time we think we have hold of Jesus, he won’t stay long because he has places he wants to take us, people he wants us to meet. Jesus is free of the grave and roaming at large in the world now. He will not be confined again. He is on the loose, and we have to track him like a firefly, watch for his flickering light. He wants us to live faces forward. “Don’t hold me.” What God wants to do to us because of Easter means we can’t go back to the way things were, back to the old life where everything was familiar and not frightening like it is now.
“Don’t hold me.” He was not on his way back to her and the others. He was on his way to God, and he was taking the whole world with him. This may be why all the other gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us not to be afraid – because new life is frightening. It is unnatural. To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future – none of that is natural. (Barbara Brown Taylor … The Unnatural Truth)
The purpose of resurrection isn’t restoration of what was or is; it is new life. We’re not moving backward to the “good old days”; we’re not standing pat in our current thinking and ways; we are doing something entirely new. Christian faith does not look back to a great teacher and example but forward to where Jesus leads, and how we will embody and live out his teaching and example.
It’s easy to get seduced into longing for the way things used to be. We face difficult times and we just wish we could go back to some stage in our life and live it out again. A failed relationship, an illness, some other hurtful event has changed the course of our life. A career that hasn’t gone as we had planned. If I could just rewind the tape and have a fresh go of it. To re-do the failures, or to re-live the successes.
We want to hold onto the familiar times. But this pull is so powerful that we will even hold on to destructive behaviors and destructive relationships because it’s what is familiar. The worst example I ever saw of this involved my own parents. In the twilight of their lives you would have thought they were worst enemies. The Gruesome Twosome I called them; every day they destroyed each other’s spirit a little more. They would complain about the other to their friends, complain to their pastor, complain to me. “Why don’t you get the help you need to fix this?” we asked. Or, “If it’s so bad, if you’re that miserable, why don’t you put an end to your misery and separate?” But that would mean to change, to grow, to confess and forgive and be forgiven, to do something new, and oddly enough the thought of that was more fearful than remaining in the familiar.
But not so odd really; in fact it’s quite commonplace. We hold on to what is, as unfulfilling and unsatisfying as it may be, because to let it go and move into a new way of being and doing is more fearful.
Some of you have come to Easter even though regular worship, regular attention to things spiritual, has not been your pattern for some time. You are fully aware of how many times in the past months you’ve said, “We really need to get back into the church, get active again. There is a hole in our lives. We’ve tried to fill it with other things: activities, stuff, endlessly running here and there. But it remains empty, because we know it belongs to God. We’re empty. We need to get back into faith, back into church.”
But then you realize that to do so would mean to change, to do something new. And you further realize that you are not really expecting or wanting to make the needed changes. And you decide to settle for the safe Jesus you have now – who is there if you need him in a pinch, should the wheels come off, but a Jesus who won’t make too many demands on your busy life.
Some of you may have given up on believing that what’s not right in your life could be different, better. You hold to what was, resign yourself to what is, but not what could be. And that’s natural. Grief is natural. Loss is natural. Guilt is natural. Hurt is natural. Resentment is natural. Regret is natural. Un-forgiveness is natural. “I feel powerless. I guess I’ll just have to live with this the rest of my life,” you say. That’s a pretty natural way of thinking, isn’t it?
But what if Easter’s unnatural message is true? What if sin is forgiven and condemnation is canceled? What if the power behind resentment and regret can be transformed into a new joy and new hope and a new creativity?
The other day I read an article by a journalist who had interviewed several people who had survived an attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Since 1937 over 2,000 people have successfully committed suicide in that manner. And 1% of those who attempted it survived. The journalist asked his group of survivors what was going in their minds during the 4 seconds of that fall. And to a person they responded that they regretted the decision to jump. One of them, Kenneth Baldwin, said, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I thought was unfixable was totally fixable.”
Kenneth Baldwin is still alive – 32 years after the suicide attempt. He has raised a family and teaches high school students. “Everything I thought was unfixable was totally fixable.”
That’s the incredible, unnatural promise of Easter. God has put a comma where we have put a period, and creation will continue to prosper. Death, grief, loss, guilt, un-forgiveness – all those things are natural. But those stones have been rolled away. God has planted a seed of life in us that cannot be killed, and if we can remember that then there is nothing we cannot do: move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, make peace with those who have hurt us, change the world. (Barbara Brown Taylor … The Unnatural Truth)
Recreated through Easter we are agents of recreation.
Three friends who went to the same church were asked, “When you’re in your casket, and friends are mourning over you, what would you like them to say?” Artie answered: “When people are looking at me in my casket I would like them to say I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.” Eugene said: “I would like them to say I was a wonderful teacher and servant of God who made a huge difference in people’s lives.” Al said: “I’d like them to say, ‘Hey, look – he’s moving!'”
Are you moving into resurrection life or are you holding on to an idyllic past or a safe, predictable, but mediocre present?
What Mary didn’t see that morning, what you may not see yet today is that Jesus wants to love and be loved by every Mary of this earth, every Mary and every Michael and every other one by any other name. And for that to happen he has to free her and you and me from our graves of fear. We have to let go of him and follow him into a future where the only thing that is known for sure is that you never know to whom he will send you next. From now on there will be no truthful way of speaking or thinking about him except as the one who lives alongside us and seeks to be expressed through us, so that our every word and every act is a word or an act of God pouring out love for the people of this earth.
There is no calling more worthy of our lives. If you have settled for something less, then I pray that Easter’s message will break through into your life and you will experience a new beginning.
Christ is on the loose! He’s calling your name. Follow him. But don’t hold onto him. Amen.