“Holding On (But Not to Jesus)”

1999 Covenant Conference
Evening Worship, November 5, 1999

Sermon

“Holding On (But Not to Jesus)”

John 20:11-18

Anna Carter Florence
Instructor of Preaching
Columbia Theological Seminary

In choosing to preach an Easter text paired with an Advent text for this Friday evening in November, I think I am breaking every liturgical rule I know and teach (to say nothing of shredding every ounce of common sense I have), since I am reasonably sure that every one of you out there is either preaching or listening to sermons on these Scriptures regularly, if not annually, and you aren’t doing it in early November. Let me just say that I think it’s a good thing for teachers to model foolishness for their students. Let me also say something not very Presbyterian: I hope this foolishness is a sign that the Spirit’s got after us. We need a little foolishness right now, a little Spirit-filled foolishness, because my friends, there is a lot to be done. And only a fool is going to get involved; only a fool is going to keep faith; only a fool is going to believe that the Church can be whole in these difficult days. Yes, we need a little foolishness right now, a little Spirit-filled, covenant-filled, networking foolishness. Which is why I want to start with Mary, at the tomb on Easter morning, where all this foolishness began. I want to start with what looks like an amazingly foolish question, even for an angel: Woman, why are you weeping?

Woman, why are you weeping? I’m assuming that angels keep up with the messianic news; it wasn’t that they hadn’t heard. I’m also assuming that angels get training in pastoral sensitivity; it wasn’t that they didn’t care. But there it is, that foolish question–asking a woman in a graveyard why she’s crying–which in retrospect maybe wasn’t so foolish. Because she could have answered a lot of things, couldn’t she?

Why am I crying?
I’m crying for his body, nailed to a cross
.
I’m crying for his body, laid in a tomb
.

But what she said was this:

I’m crying for his body, stolen away.
They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.
Oh, they’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.

That’s something we hear a lot the first semester in seminary, after the biblical department has had its way with the students.

Oh, they’ve deconstructed my Bible;
they’ve taken away my Jesus, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him
.

But I’ve heard it in youth groups, too, when the teenagers start losing what little idealism they had, and coming to terms with the world we’ve left them:

Oh, they’ve ruined my planet with violence and hypocrisy;
They’ve taken away my Jesus, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him
.

And I hear it in the church, whenever a group of people gets scared that things are going to change if we sing different hymns; things are going to change if we use different words; things are going to change if we hire a woman or invite the homeless or pray to “Sophia” or ordain a gay man. Things are going to change if we do that, and what if we don’t like it? What if we can’t tell whether those changes are Christian or not?

Oh, they’ve desecrated my church with heresies and humanism;
they’ve taken away my Jesus, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him
.

I don’t think the church in our time is weeping for a crucified Jesus. I think the church is weeping for a stolen body, and a desecrated tomb. They’ve taken away my Jesus; oh, they’ve taken him away. Do you hear that where you are, that weeping and wailing? It breaks your heart, even as it makes you crazy.

Oh, they’ve taken away my Jesus (goes the tune); they’ve taken him away.
Wasn’t it enough that they re-imaged and re-imagined him?
Wasn’t it enough that they demythologized and deconstructed him
With new christologies and soteriologies and eschatologies
and God knows what else, so that we don’t even know
what he is or where they’ve laid him when they’re through?

Oh, they’ve taken away my Jesus (goes the tune), and you know who “they” are:
those liberals, those conservatives,
those liberationists, those fundamentalists,
those radical feminists, those orthodox evangelicals,
those Presbyterian Layman/Presbyterians for Renewal/
More Light/ Witherspoon/PraXis/Prolife/
Covenant Network/That All May Freely Serve/Louisville office Presbyterians–
they’ve made our church a tomb,
and our sacred things a laughingstock.
They’ve taken away my Jesus,
and I don’t know where they’ve laid him
.

When you’re crying over a stolen body, everyone you meet is a potential thief. That’s where Mary is. Jesus appears right in front of her, and she can’t even recognize him in the state she’s in. She thinks he’s the gardener, and that he did it!–which is major textual irony if I ever saw it. “Sir,” she begs him, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She might as well have said, Look, I won’t press charges. Just show me the body, and we’ll pretend it never happened. I guess that’s what you do when you’re crying over a stolen body. You hope you can strike a deal and pretend it never happened. You hope you can put the body back and no one will get hurt. Do you hear that where you are?

You know, if we just get the right action from the majority of presbyteries
If we just settle this diversity thing once and for all
If we can just keep the church from splitting
over the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons
If we can do that, maybe we can just put the body back in the tomb
and pretend it never happened.
Maybe we won’t even have to change too much
.

When you’re crying over a stolen body, I guess that’s what you do, and I guess that’s what you hope for. Look, just put it back, and no one will get hurt.

I think we in the church have been living this pattern for quite a while: suspicion, accusation, secret deals. A lot of foolishness, and not very biblical, if you read this text, because the story isn’t nearly over. Two things happen. The first is that Jesus calls Mary by name. And the second is that he won’t let her hold onto him.

When you’re crying about who took your Jesus away, I guess there’s only one thing that will stop you. Mary. MARY. You have to hear him say your name. I don’t know why, except that maybe we can’t see resurrection any other way. And you have to see it; you have to see it, because it’s not like you can explain it; if you could explain it, Jesus would have said, “I believe you’re operating with a false hermeneutic, Mary. Sit down and let me interpret these events for you.” You can’t explain resurrection. It addresses you; it calls you out. Mary! That’s all he had to say, and she knew. There isn’t any guilty gardener; there isn’t any stolen body. There’s a risen body! And what are the first words out of her mouth? A confession: Rabbouni!–which doesn’t mean “teacher” at all, but, my Lord. My Lord!

We can guess what she tried to do next. She tried to embrace him: that’s the second thing that happens. Because he literally says, “Stop holding onto me; stop clinging to me.” See how fast it happens? You go from seeing resurrection to confessing your faith to grabbing it with both fists. And the next thing you know, the emphasis is shifting from my Lord toMY Lord; mine! There sure is a lot of that going around, people suffocating other people with their own clenched confessions.

Do you think that’s what’s going on in the church?–a lot of weeping over who stole the body and desecrated the tomb?–but also these moments of absolute clarity when we know we have been addressed; and we see what resurrection looks like?–so we make our confession, and then we can’t help it; we start to cling to it, and control it, and defend it, and measure people against it, until before you know it, we think we can judge what resurrection looks like. Before you know it, we aren’t holding onto anything but the Jesus of our own expectations. Do you think that’s what’s going on in the church?

He won’t let us do it, will he?

Don’t hold onto me. Stop clinging to me.

It is the first post-resurrection teaching: Stop holding onto Jesus. You can see the risen Christ, but you can’t cling to him. You can confess your faith in Jesus, but you can’t own him. And that’s a hard distinction to learn, for good Presbyterians who were taught to confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and cling to the old rugged cross. It’s hard, because we are people of the Word, and we take it seriously when Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am? We take it seriously, and we spend a lot of time articulating who he is and who we are because of that, and writing it down in our denominational books. And we do it because the question is always coming up: Who do you say that I am?

Who do we say that you are? Well, that’s a question that calls for good, substantiated confessional language, and confessing in words is what we do best. Who do we say that you are?

You are the Messiah.
You are rabbi, teacher, Lamb of God, Suffering Servant, Emmanuel,
Root of Jesse, Son of David, Word, logos, bread of life,
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,
Son of Man, King of the Jews, Christ, Son of the Most High God,
poor little Mary’s boy, laid in a manger.
Rabbouni–my Lord.
That’s who we say that you are.

And what does he say?

Don’t hold onto me. Stop clinging to me.

So how are we going to do that, Covenant Network of Presbyterians? How are we going to hold onto faith without holding onto Jesus? How are we going to confess without needing to control?

I believe that’s why you’re here tonight. You see what is happening in our denomination, how people are clinging to their confessions, clinging to the Jesus of their expectations. When you are that clenched, there is no room for Spirit. You live by your own words, believing they are God’s. Do you see that where you are? Do you see how it affects everything about our life together: who we are and where we stand and what we preach and how we worship and why we serve and whom we ordain and what we’re willing to live for?

And that’s really the question, isn’t it?–what are we willing to live for? It isn’t what we’re willing to say. It isn’t what we’re willing to confess. It’s how we live what we believe. And in the end, that will tell more about us than all the words in Christendom.

A student at Columbia Seminary recently told me a story about how she got involved in the struggle for a more inclusive church. She gave me permission to share it with you tonight, and so I do, with gratitude to her. As this student tells it, not long ago, she hadn’t given much thought to the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. Oh, she knew there were divisive things going on in our Presbyterian Church; she knew the ordination question was one of them; she had friends who were gay and lesbian, but they weren’t Presbyterian, and she hadn’t thought much about what this issue might mean in the context of her church and her life. For whatever reason, it simply hadn’t come up. And then, last spring, people in her presbytery began to organize to protest against the Reverend Jane Adams Spahr and her “Woman of Faith” award. These people didn’t know Janie Spahr; they had never met her; but they decided that she didn’t deserve to be honored, and they carried signs, and shook their fists, and screamed about her sin. For this student, it was a turning point–a conversion. “I couldn’t believe the hatred in these people,” she said. “They were claiming such horrible things in the name of God; it was a poison that contaminated our presbytery. And when I saw how Janie Spahr responded to them, how she embodied such grace and Spirit, and when I met her and listened to her, I knew that I couldn’t be on the sidelines any longer. I had to get involved, because I could not be part of a church that confessed Jesus Christ and behaved like those people.”

In the end, what Jesus tells Mary is this:

Don’t hold onto me. Go and tell that I am ascending to my God and your God.

And she does. She lets go of him, the Jesus she knew and loved, and she goes out not to write the church’s first creed, but to preach the church’s first sermon: I have seen the Lord. It is not a command; it is not an explanation. It is a testimony to what she saw, and what she believes. And there is no guarantee that out there in the world, people will accept it; no guarantee at all that they will hear her as a credible witness. There is only the call to do it, and the hope that her life as a disciple will confirm what she says, which is that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. There is only the hope that how she lives will point someone else to resurrection.

My friends, if we think the resolution to our bitterness will come with more cogent explanations and insightful interpretations, we are wrong. There will never be resolution in those things. Our only hope, in the great courtroom of the church, is to let our testimony persuade the faithful. We have to live what we believe, and we have to tell what we have seen, which is that no one has stolen our Jesus away. No one has to guard his tomb. He is risen, loose in the world, and while we cannot contain him, we can surely see him and witness to him and come to his table as sisters and brothers in Christ. If our lives and our actions can speak that truth, they will testify louder than any screaming protester. They will testify to Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the power of the Spirit.

This morning at Columbia Seminary we had communion at chapel, and Phil Gehman, our dean of students, invited us to the table with words I remember from childhood.

Come to the table of Jesus Christ, and partake of this Holy Sacrament.
Come, not because you must, but because you may.
Come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because you are righteous, but because you sincerely love Christ.
Come, not because you wish to receive the benefits that Christ may give, but because you want to be a true disciple.
Come, not to express an opinion, or make a statement, but to seek a presence, and to pray for a Spirit.

It is such foolishness we offer. Don’t hold onto Jesus. Go and give your testimony. Tell what you have seen, and live what you believe.

Amen.

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