Letting go of Jesus
Week of Sunday April 20 – Easter Day
Gospel: John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Life just happens
We didn't choose to be here, but for most of us the realisation that we will one day not be, is a matter of distress. So we begin the lifelong task of making sense of ourselves and preparing for our dying. We may only be obsessive enough about some activity, or drinking sufficiently, to keep the issue from the surface of our minds, but the questions never go away. Sometimes their haunting fills our lives.
A good religion is a discipline, or a path, which wider human experience has found helpful and productive for making sense of life, and for helping us become more fully human. It faces death. It is a path which seeks to uncover and be true to the reality in which we find ourselves. In this sense, someone of quite secular persuasions can be religious. They are serious and disciplined about being the most human they can be.
Bad religion may be extremely disciplined, but builds its "humanity" at the expense of others. It scapegoats. It projects. It condemns others instead of facing the complexities and fears and failures of its practitioners. It often builds layers of denial about the way life really is; artificial bubbles of existence which have a certain internal coherence if one can wall out the wider realities with which life presents us.
In these religions we deny our own failings by victimising others who have similar failings; "I am not so bad," we reason. We deny death by investing in cryonics, or power, or possessions, or adopting easy superstitions about "life after death."
And so there are Fabians, Humanists, Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Buddhists whose religion is a poor thing, and stands as a warning to us. And there are the same disciplines, and more, better practised by other folk, which are noble and humanising, and from which we may learn much.
Like so much of life, the discernment of "good" and "bad" is an uncertain art which we must learn.
My religious path reckons that to claim we can, even in principle, fully understand reality is a ridiculous hubris; we are too much a part of it to stand over, or apart from, all reality and comprehend the Mystery of it all. We call this Mystery "God." We intuit—let's be honest here—that the Mystery is fundamentally for the good of things—rather than indifferent or even hostile, and that it has some purpose, (teleology) even if we have only the haziest understanding of that purpose. In other words, there is some meaning and purpose about reality beyond what we can create within it.
The discipline by which we live is shaped by our observations of the world, and especially by reflections upon, and the living out of, the traditions of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. His teaching and way of living is an exemplar of a life that we find attunes us to the Mystery and directs us to ways of living that maximise our humanity. He points us to a way of living—you could call it a cultural and social ideal—he called "The Kingdom of Heaven."
One of the early theologians of the church imagines Jesus calling us to trust his vision of life lived attuned to the Mystery. He claimed that by trusting the vision and living it out, however imperfectly, we could enter a new dimension of understanding of life which he called "eternal life." This man experienced a radically different relationship with the Mystery which was so freed of the fear of death that it became in some way timeless. Life is now rather than lived in fear of the future, or driven by the harms and pain of the past.
This theologian is the author of the Gospel of John. The gospel shows development of the text over time which indicates a community tradition stretching beyond one person. It is the experience of more than one person.
John reshaped the traditional stories about Jesus into a story of seven signs pointing to God the Mystery. He emphasised that we should look beyond the signs, or within them, to see That to which they point. There is then an eighth sign which is the death of Jesus himself, and his resurrection. And like all the signs, we are meant to look beyond the surface of the story for what it is pointing to, for what it is saying about the Mystery we call God.
To argue about the literalism of the Resurrection, let its the mechanics, is to turn away from John's purpose. As Bailie puts it
… the business of the gospels is not journalistic; it is kerygmatic. They were written to keep before the community the meaning of Jesus' life and death. By embroidering the rudimentary narrative of the most primitive tradition, the evangelists were not trying to revise the past but rather to highlight its meaning. The central, irreducible fact at the heart of the post-crucifixion narrative is not so much a factual event, capable of being journalistically recorded, but rather it is an experiential event, one that for all its factual elusiveness was still being experienced by the evangelists and their communities, and which is still being experienced today.
Resurrection, and the empty tomb, are symbols which seek to communicate a continuing experience of Jesus' presence despite his death. As with all symbols, they point beyond themselves to something else.
We understand that to argue over the literal veracity of Hamlet is to miss most of what it says to us about being human, and that to dismiss the truth of Hamlet because it is not a "true" story is foolish. To measure the truth of resurrection by its literal veracity, or otherwise, is to make a similar category mistake.
Do we wish to take seriously the claims of resurrection and what it means about our relationship to the Father? (John 20:17) If so, we should at least consider that the only way the community of the early church could satisfactorily express their experience led to what our worldview considers the manufacturing of the story of the empty tomb. This is not to avoid or deny the historicity of what happened, but to allow our rationalistic worldview to escape its captivity to the literal, and to begin to more deeply appreciate other aspects of the resurrection.
Bailie says the
… experience of the resurrection is the end result of a process -- a process that may have taken a great deal longer than the few hours or several days as depicted in the gospel accounts. And one which entailed pondering of the crucifixion in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the journey from the catastrophe of the cross to the resurrection -- from disbelief to belief -- the empty tomb was a very tentative, shaky first step, and not the end of the journey.
My concern with the text for this Easter, then, is to take the story on its own terms rather than argue around "did it really happen." By the time of his writing John is clearly convinced of Jesus' resurrection. What is he trying to tell us about it? I suspect it is something far beyond physical mechanics.
It is still dark
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
Within the traditional story John makes us aware of his concerns. It was still dark means Mary is still in the darkness, she has not seen who he is. She has not seen the light.
Unlike the raising of Lazarus, there is no need to roll back the stone. (Chapter 11) Something of a different order has happened here.
It is the first day of the week; a new tradition is beginning, and Mary is the key figure in this. She is the first person there. She is not some anonymous person. She is named clearly and specifically. It is Mary who calls Peter and the other disciple.
Raymond Brown concludes that the interplay between Peter and the other disciple is a device to get the other disciple into the picture as a key leader of the church as well as Peter. There is no real attempt, in his reading of the text, to give one precedence over the other.
They have all found the tomb empty. There is no attempt to explore the mechanics of what has happened to Jesus. All we see is that he has gone, and that he is not bound as Lazarus was in Chapter 11. Something of a different order has happened. But, as Lucy Hogan puts it, "There are no shouts of joy, no celebration. The emptiness of the tomb does not seem yet to have made a difference." We are still in the dark.
13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).
Mary does not know what has happened. The empty tomb does not mean resurrection, only that someone has laid him somewhere else. This is the way the world works. We die and we are gone. Only a corpse remains. And in Mary's loss, even that is taken away.
Yet on this first day of the week, the day of a new beginning, not the beginning of John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1, but a new beginning, we remember that
… in the opening of John's gospel, Jesus' first words are a question directed at the disciples of John the Baptizer. "What are you looking for?" [Greek: ti John 1:38] And here, in this beginning, this new creation, Jesus asks Mary the very same question, "Whom are you looking for?" [Greek: tina John 20:15] A new ministry is beginning, a new story. (Hogan)
What are we looking for? Bread for a full belly? (John 6:26) A body? Life unconstrained by time? If we seek the wrong thing, we may not see what, or who, is true.
Mary's "mistake" (Hogan, NT Wright) about the gardener is one of John's entrés into the deeper significance of his text, and in this case, of the resurrection. The Hebrew word for garden is paradise; my Father is the gardener, he said in 15:1. In this new beginning she has caught a glimpse of the ultimate, of creation as it is meant to be, and a moment in the presence of the Mystery.
17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
It is only a glimpse. Jesus' command "Do not hold onto me…" warns us that life cannot go on as before. Jesus being raised from the dead does not mean he will be with them in the same way. The good news in that is that he goes "to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." His going suggests the my Father – your Father relationship is dependent upon our letting go of our first understanding of him, and our first relationship with him, if we want to enter into it more fully.
Loader puts it like this:
Mary is not to hold onto Jesus, which would amount to an understanding of resurrection which missed its point and place Mary with the fingering Thomas. John no more wants to deny actual resurrection than he wants to deny miracles of the ministry, but he appears to pursue his concern of directing people’s attention to something much more significant. Ultimately what matters is believing that in Jesus we see the Son who has come from the Father and has returned to the Father.
In John 16:7 it says "… I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."
And at the end, "Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.'" It is a woman who sees, and it is a woman who lets go of her first desire and first understanding and believes-trusts enough to do as he says— If you love me, you will keep my commandments— (John 14:15) and is thus able to carry the news. If the woman at the well was the first evangelist, Mary Magdalene was surely the first apostle— the first one sent.
What is it that we cannot let go in our constant denigration of this woman? Does the message she carries frighten us so much? What can we not stop clinging to?
NT Wright is quoted at length by Nuechterlein.
… in terms of our attempt to assess, as historians, what these stories think they are about, and where they belong in the early Christian scheme of things, it is extremely strange, and extremely interesting, that at no stage do they mention the future hope of the Christian. [My emphasis.]
This is, of course, counter-intuitive to most western Christians, Catholic and Protestant, conservative and liberal. A thousand hymns and a million sermons, not to mention poems, icons, liturgies and aids to meditation, have so concentrated on ‘life after death’ as the central problem, the issue which drives everything else, and have so distorted the Easter stories to feed this concentration, that it has long been assumed that the real point of the Easter story is both to show that there is indeed a ‘life after death’ and that those who belong to Jesus will eventually share it. As we have seen in reviewing the future hope of the Christian writers of the first two centuries, this is itself far too vague: the hope was, again and again, for bodily resurrection after ‘life after death’. But the significant thing to notice here is this: neither ‘going to heaven when you die’, ‘life after death’, ‘eternal life’, nor even ‘the resurrection of all Christ’s people’, is so much as mentioned in the four canonical resurrection stories. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wanted to tell stories whose import was ‘Jesus is risen, therefore you will be too’, they have done a remarkably bad job of it. (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 662-682)
I can only conclude that if we look to the Easter event as some kind of guarantee of our own life after death we are missing the point.
How I experience this text
There seem to be two central themes to this text in John 20. Before Jesus is "allowed" to appear to the "official" disciples, two lessons to be learned. The first is that although he was really dead he is now risen. The tomb was empty. He was in it but is now raised. It's not so much the physical mechanics that are the issue here. It's that death cannot contain or restrict whatever is going on here. The Kingdom of God, life eternal as John calls it, is beyond death in some way.
But the already empty tomb, the stone rolled back and bandages empty, and especially Mary's experience, point us toward an understanding that this "beyond death" is not some gross resuscitation. There is something other than what happened to Lazarus happening here. We cannot hold onto gross one dimensional views of reality if we wish to understand or experience eternal life; life that is in some way timeless.
Only when we understand this are we ready to see Jesus again. Only after this does he appear to the disciples.
Has my wrestling with this text, and with the discipline of this religion lead me to any sense of "etermal life," or any sense of relationship to this Mystery we call God?
I find that every time I try to hold on to life, I lose it. There is a constant giving up of what I have, even of what I treasure, if life is to remain vital. As soon as I try and hold on to an experience, or an understanding, or a security, life loses its spark. Depression increases, boredom grows, meaning erodes. I lose the depth dimension of my life; it becomes flat, if I do not keep following the insights and questions the Christian discipline places in front of me. I could weep like Mary, there is great grief in letting go, and yet no life if I do not.
It's only when Mary lets go of Jesus that she can really see him and what he is about. "Going to the Father" is a spatial metaphor which reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth was himself an icon of God. There is more to the Mystery we call God than the physical Jesus. Jesus points to the Father.
The letting go has a related aspect. It is not the letting go that we do when we have something old that we want to replace so we take the old thing to the Op Shop. Letting go is an active giving before we are ready. It is giving up possessions and ideas and certainties when we see no path forward or no things to replace them.
At the most basic level we practice letting go by giving our possessions. As much as we seek to hold on to possessions as ours, rather than things which are temporarily with us but which we do not own, then just so much do we fail to be part of the new community of neighbours, and by just so much do we fail to experience the richness of that new community.
The tomb is empty and Jesus has not only risen but also ascended to the Father. There is nothing to hold on to. When we stop "holding on," when we "let go," when we give we are freed from the old dimension and find glimmers of this different timeless life that is not bound to things and time and security.
He calls us to believe, which in the New Testament has the primary element of trusting ourselves to him rather than accepting some proposition as true. As long as we will not let go of physical life we are not trusting him. We are trusting our own be-ing rather than the being of God.
Can I put all this in more concrete terms? What am I experiencing apart from loss!? Do I actually gain anything? What has changed?
I have a certain relaxation about my death. To be hit by a car, that half second of it running over me and not being able to avoid it, brings a wave of denial and disbelief. But outside the deep evolutionary programming of the amygdala I am less concerned.
Although I am actually enjoying life—that took many years—and have no desire to give it up, there is a part of me which is intrigued to see what will happen when I die.
The owning of things and the possession of status is much less of a concern. There are fewer things for which I really care. Much that once concerned me now seems trivial.
And the world is a different place. What I mean is that I am conscious of "being formed" by this faith. I have been shifted in my values; reshaped to a much more inclusive understanding of humanity. To be neighbour, and to enact the principles of inclusive justice of the Kingdom of Heaven is a passion. It is an ideal, for sure, but something I actively desire and work for.
Finally, there is what I called the depth dimension. I do not stand outside and look at the stars. I stand in the night and am drawn among the stars. The silence of the bush flows into me. I am connected. I am at home.
My experience is that this connectedness was a huge influence in my being able to make peace with people and learning to give. But I suspect we each journey deeper into life in ways that are profoundly affected by our environment and personal history.
I find I am the most connected when I let go of the surface things. I cannot cling to meaning, or hold onto life. I must let go and simply be where I am. There are times when this is eternal.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!