Year A, Easter Sunday Morning: John
20:1-18 April 24, 2011
The Rev. Adam S. Linton
“Can there be any day but this, though many suns to shine endeavor?”
We gather on this day of days to celebrate the Resurrection. On this greatest of feasts, we celebrate not the mere persistence of memory—our human memory of Jesus. We don’t gather to celebrate all sorts of remarkable ideas that we might have about Jesus. No, we’re not here because of our ideas or memories, but because Jesus himself has been raised from death. He is risen!
So, what we celebrate today is not an extension of our own selves, not an extension of our stuff, whatever that might be. On the day of the resurrection, we encounter a sacred, awesome otherness that breaks into our lives and makes everything different. Often in contemporary spirituality, we have a problem with the concept. Our tendency is to make of all things mere extensions of ourselves—the whole universe just more of what we are. We create for ourselves a universe in which there is no radical otherness.
That reduced universe may be more predictable. It may be less risky, but ultimately, it’s lonely. Into the captivity of our separateness, the Risen One breaks through. Now we celebrate, not just our ideas about Jesus, not just our memories of him, though these have their place. We celebrate today his own living “risen-ness.”
We need to recognize that in the resurrection, Jesus himself is changed—and because Jesus is changed, so are we. The resurrection is not merely a resuscitation of what had been before, either for Jesus or for us. Today’s gospel reading, especially the last portion of today’s gospel reading underscores this.
We heard the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ—whom, at first, she has some trouble recognizing. Now, there’s a feature of the text that I think calls for extra attention.
The translation that we use is a good one. In this case, it’s much better than the King James Version (although the King James Bible has many strengths and many beauties that I wouldn’t want to disparage). But because that old version is still so much in our cultural memory, I wanted to talk about it.
After Mary finally recognizes Jesus, the King James Bible has Jesus saying to Mary, “Touch me not,” as though Mary just puts out her hand (maybe only a finger), touches his arm, and Jesus says, “None of that.” It’s an unfortunate translation, and it misses the point of what’s going on.
What Jesus says to Mary after that moment of stunned recognition is more like, “Don’t hold on to me,” or “Don’t keep clinging to me.” What’s going on here? Mary has gone to the tomb heartbroken in loss, and beyond and beneath all expectation, Jesus is risen. Of course, any who have lived with death’s terrible losses can see it. Mary embraces Jesus in a grip that won’t let go: “I’ve got you back, and I’m going to hold on tight.” Who of us couldn’t know of that experience?
If we switch for a moment to the resurrection account in Matthew, there’s a clue that supports this.
In Matthew’s gospel—it’s the women, plural: “Suddenly, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings,’ and they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”
So, turning back to today’s account, we can see it: In a joy beyond words, Mary Magdalene grips Jesus in a fierce embrace and says, “I’ve got you back, and I’m never letting go,” What Jesus is saying in what follows is essentially this: “Dear one, dear one; I know. But the life I am now living, and the work I am now entering into; it’s not just the same, and things can’t be just like they were before.”
Jesus goes on to say, “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.” Yes, Jesus has defeated death. Jesus has come forth from the tomb. But what’s going on in the resurrection is not merely a resuscitation of his prior life.
So in the resurrection life that Jesus gives us, even now, we are not talking about merely reinforcing our most pious impulses and our most worthy endeavors.
Yes, the resurrection life is meant to touch every dimension of who and what we are. It’s to spread out and embrace the whole world it all its particulars. But it’s not merely confined to this world, and it won’t be defined or limited by it. Jesus is leading us to places, not only here and now, but also beyond that we can’t possibly imagine. The resurrection life cannot be reduced to—or simply equated with—even the best of our agendas.
As we ponder this, the words of today’s Second Lesson, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, are so very important. We heard,
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” So Jesus is changed, and so are we.
In the cross and in the resurrection, we are told that we have already died, contrary to what seems to be the simple facts of our existence. We have died, and our real life, the life that energizes us now, but also leads beyond the frontiers of our mortality, our real life is hid in Christ. So we’re to be good seekers of that which is now hidden.
Our life is held now in trust. Jesus is the trustee. This means that our present existence is rather more complicated than the one we had before. Our prior life may have been more predictable.
It was less risky because it was predictable. But we are now born into an adventure that we can’t describe. We are initiated into an aliveness beyond all previous imagining. Be prepared for surprises! We’re travelling in undiscovered territory.
I’ll conclude with George Herbert, the last three stanzas of his poem “Easter.” As we hear it, we’re reminded of the priority of God. As we hear it, we’re reminded that in spite of our best and most devout and pious efforts, in all that we do, even in this holy gathering, the Spirit of the risen Christ has gone before. Even if we get up early, the Lord has already beaten us to the punch. That’s the sort of thing the Lord does.
So, here are the last three stanzas of Herbert’s poem “Easter.”
I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.
Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!