April 16, 2017
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Iris, our four-year-old daughter, thinks I’m clingy. She doesn’t use that word, but she thinks it all the same. She does not want to hold my hand when we cross the street or walk through a parking lot. Actually, she refuses to hold my hand. There was a time when she was happy to hold daddy’s hand.
For the record, in case child protective services are here, I am not hurting her hand. I’m holding her hand firmly.
I understand, developmentally, that she is enjoying a state of robust autonomy, which I would like to encourage. But another part of me is a tiny bit hurt. I think, somehow, I’ve lost something. Or maybe I am glimpsing something that I will lose one day. And maybe I do hold on a tadge more tightly than I need to.
Jesus tells Mary, “Don’t cling to me.” All our life, we have been schooled in the idea that we should cling to Jesus. Hold on to Jesus. Keep Jesus in your heart.
But today, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, don’t cling to me, don’t hold on to me. It’s in the imperative voice, as in Do.Not.Cling.To.Me. That’s shocking in itself, but when we consider Mary’s state of mind, Jesus’ command seems harsh as well.
Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, her mind suspended, maybe paralyzed by grief. Her teacher, her friend, her savior – he has been taken from her and she does not know where they have taken him, that is his body. She will repeat this phrase three times in today’s text.
After seeing that the stone had been rolled away, she hurries back to the disciples and she uses the first-person plural: “They have taken our Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2b).
She will repeat it a second time, only this time in the first person singular, at verse 13: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
And finally, she says repeats a similar formula, in verse 15, to the person Jesus, who she takes to be the custodian of the cemetery, or the gardener: “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
For her part, Mary, looking at the evidence, concludes that human agents have carried her Jesus away.
By contrast, the narrator hints at the God-centered action of this biblical story – the stone has been rolled away – the narrator uses the passive voice — has been — but for the reader, this hints at a theological resolution to Mary’s confusion: she saw the stone had been rolled away and concluded robbery. The passive voice hints to us, as readers, that it was not human hands, but divine power: God rolled the stone away.
The garments, folded and in their place, are intended to remind us of the story of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. Only in the story Lazarus, others had to remove his grave clothes for him. These grave clothes – and death itself – have been completely removed without any earthly assistance. Christ left death freely and fully. Only God does that.
But stones and grave clothes aren’t the only things being moved in this text. Mary’s faith, such as it is, is being moved. Mary rises early. She goes to find a body. But the disturbed tomb upsets this journey’s intended conclusion. She runs to the disciples. Her confusion disrupts their soporific resignation.
They get up, they run. They look in the tomb and one of them believes and the other simply looks at the evidence. Both return to their home. They have been agitated, perhaps, but they are not yet participating in the resurrection. Their part will come, but for now, this is Mary’s story. It is herstory.
The suspense of the narrative is near to bursting by verse 15, when Jesus calls her name, “Mary” – a disturbed tomb upset her; her confusion activates the otherwise resigned disciples; now, Christ’s voice spins her confusion like a top with the music of recognition; she turns and looks at this one she did not recognize and suddenly, Jesus, her Jesus, the one for whom she searched, stands in front of her, not a corpse, but her teacher. And she does what anyone in her situation would do – she reached for him, to touch him.
What sort of touch was this?
Let me throw out a possibility: think of a group of soldiers. Perhaps in the confusion of a fire-fight, they believe they have lost of one their own. Ragged, bloodied, beaten, they try to regroup. But one of their number fails to answer. He is missing. They think the worst. It was only natural to think the worst. They grieve. They fall back from enemy lines.
But then, in the night of that grief, unexpectedly, the one who was MIA and presumed dead, returns, he walks into the tent, seemingly a shadow but then, when his companions recognize him, something like amazement and joy overtakes them.
They jump, they leap with cries of recognition, they grab him by the shoulders, slap him on the back, pull off his helmet, rub his head, hoist him up into the air, their joyful, amazed touch conveying the sense of a person returned. It’s almost as if the soldiers must give this person, who had been taken from them, a body again.
Small children do this with parents. Developmentally, for a young child, absence is the equivalent of non-existence. But when the parent figure returns, the child runs to you, sometimes flings herself into your arms — your arms full of groceries, or you’re barely in the door, no matter. They have got you back and they are giving you physical shape again, in some way restoring you to yourself by hugging your legs, clinging to your neck, nuzzling your cheek. Making you real again.
Just in case you had forgotten who you were, and whose you are, their hugs and touch and affections, bring you back to this world. And it’s a beautiful thing to be welcomed by children. A highpoint in my life, I would have to say.
Maybe that’s what prompts this touch from Mary – and yet Jesus forbids it: Do not cling to me.
Where does this come from? Why here and now? What’s the significance of this prohibition? For Mary? For Jesus? For us?
Contrary to what we might think based on this text, touch and Jesus, either in his earthly life or in his resurrected state, are not mutually exclusive. Earlier in John, a woman washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears, massaged scented oil into the soles of his feet. In this chapter, Jesus will say to Thomas, “Touch me and see – put your finger into my side, see the wounds of my hands.” Touch is not the problem.
In terms of John’s theology of resurrection – John views the resurrection as incomplete until Christ ascends to God the Father. Jesus walking around, post-crucifixion, isn’t enough. John, more than any of the other gospels, underlines the abiding unity between God the Father and the Son.
But that’s the theological piece of this story. The other part of it must go to Mary.
Why does Jesus forbid this touch? It wasn’t for Jesus’ sake – if he could endure the cross, he could probably endure Mary’s touch. So, then, what was it? Could it be that Mary’s faith was authentic, but it was not complete; maybe her belief was beginning, but it wasn’t finished. Jesus’ ascension foreshadows her rebirth. The stone had been rolled away, but perhaps Mary was still in a tomb of sorts. She was stirring, but she hadn’t left the tomb sealed with her tears and confusion. And that simply won’t do for John. Her faith must be completed.
Jesus asks her, “Whom are you looking for?” This is the same question he asks the disciples in chapter one of John. It’s a critical question and to me it has a double meaning: you’re looking for me, but also, perhaps, you are looking for your true self.
For John, Mary’s faith isn’t completed by being a grieving woman, or by the woman who picks up the mess after all the men have gone home to sulk in their theological man-caves.
And crucially, it isn’t complete by picking up where she and Jesus left off, with Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, quietly taking notes. For John, her faith is perfected when she preaches, teaches, inspires, and stirs up the world God so loves.
How did this happen? Maybe she had to let go of the Jesus she remembered; but perhaps she also was beginning to see the woman she was called to become.
She let go, but in letting go, she was being born anew – not of human will, or of the flesh, but of the Spirit.
That’s her story. Herstory. But what about us? What if being a student in Christ’s resurrection school means that sometimes we let go in order to let God? That in letting go, something else or something within us all along, gets born anew?
Muhammad Ali said that “If a [person] looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 and it hasn’t changed, then he has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Christ’s resurrection asks us to see our world differently – to see it through the experience of resurrection rather than the experience of the tomb.
Does this explain why Jesus refuses to answer Mary’s prayer on her terms? After all, she wants a body to bury. She still sees the world through the triumph of death not the victory of life. She intends to continue in the life that a patriarchal world had prescribed for her. She imagines a tidy, if unhappy conclusion.
But Christ says “no” to that conclusion – do not cling to the old world, to the grave clothes of what you remember, because I am new, you are new also.
I was struck this week by George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan, in which Joan of Arc, the famous French mystic and soldier, refuses to dress in a manner that “becomes [her] sex.”
Can you suggest, [her inquisitors demanded,] to us one good reason why an angel of God should give you such shameless advice [to wear men’s clothing]?
Why, yes: [she replied,] what can be plainer common sense? I was a soldier living among soldiers. I am a prisoner guarded by soldiers. If I were to dress as a woman they would think of me as a woman; and then what would become of me?
If I dress as a soldier they think of me as a soldier, and I can live with them as I do at home with my brothers. . . .
For Saint Joan, being thought of as a woman was, among other things, a false gender construction. She refused that construction of gender. That, she said, will not give me life. She would not wear those clothes, that identity.
Iris, as I said, won’t hold my hand. But I can usually coax her into holding my pinky. I’m needy that way. Of course, we all know that one day she will say that even my pinky is no longer necessary. And I’ll just have to learn how to deal with that.
And that’s a good thing.
But it occurs to me now, what other things will she need to let go of as she gets older?
What will she need to let go of as a young woman,
or as a woman in her fifties,
or as a mother,
or as a woman who is not a mother,
or as a scientist,
or as a woman who works in the home,
or as a woman who does not,
or as a woman who enjoys singleness,
or as a woman who once was married, but is no longer . . .
what will she need to let go of?
And through all these letting goes, who will cling to her?
Perhaps if Mary teaches us today, we’re letting go of a world too narrow; she teaches us that we are held by the Spirit that blows where it wills and we cannot tell where it comes from or where it’s going. We only feel it. And we know it carries us.
So, by God’s grace, we let go . . . and let God — perhaps we will cling to each other in a love at least as sweet, in a love that will not let us go, even the very fullness of divine love.
My soul clings to you, O God, and your right hand holds me fast.
Perhaps it’s safe to cross the street now. What do you think? Shall we go now? I think the way is clear. Death is behind us. Grief cannot define us. Confusion will not keep us. Grave clothes are falling from us even now. A resurrection life awaits us.
By God’s grace and to God’s glory. Amen