A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 16, 2017
John 20:1-18 GNT
When I get comfortable with the way things are, I sometimes would rather they not change. Take, for instance, going to the grocery store. When you have gone to the same grocery store for a few years, you get acquainted with where everything is. And there is a certain amount of comfort in going through the aisles and checking off your list. And when you only need one or two items, and are in a real hurry, you can run in and go straight to aisles 10 and 12, grab your items, run to the self checkout, and be on your way.
But then when you go in one day to find everything rearranged, it can throw you. “What is this?” you exclaim. I experienced this a few months ago when I ran into Food City for communion bread. In case you didn’t know, Food City remodeled and expanded a few months ago, and they rearranged everything. I went to one corner of the store looking for communion bread, where it had always been, only to find the Pharmacy. And the deli and bread section was now on the opposite corner of the store, where the Pharmacy used to be. I didn’t like it – at first anyway.
Well, most of us are creatures of habit. We do not like change when we are happy with the way things are. We like for things to stay the same, and when things threaten to shift or change in our lives, we can get very uncomfortable.
So when we are faced with some tragic or life-threatening change, it throws us into a real panic mode. A significant change or tragedy threatens to undo us. All of a sudden we may feel like a boat that has been un-tethered from its mooring, to be carried out to a violent sea by a raging storm.
The inclination is to hold on for dear life to that which we know and are comfortable with. Such had to be the way with those intimate followers of Jesus. They had gotten to know and love him. They had grown comfortable by being in his presence, sitting at his feet and listening to his stories and teachings. Jesus had instilled within them a vision of what the world could be like within the Kingdom of God. He had given them hope of a better life. He had become their beloved Teacher, and they his faithful followers. It was comfortable being that way.
And then in a matter hours, their world was turned upside down. An arrest in a garden while at prayer. A speedy mockery of a trial the next morning. And by noon strung up on a Roman cross. And all in the space of about 15 or so hours.
So they were thrown into shock, disbelief, anger, grief, and the longing for things to just be the way they were. And so, in John’s resurrection story, we see Mary Magdalene, one of those closest to Jesus, wanting to hold onto Jesus for dear life.
Mary’s response is the universal response – we want to hold on to our loved ones, and we want to hold on to life as we know it. We do not want to let them go. But we then hear Jesus say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me” (20:17).
For there comes the time when we just have to let go. Mary Magdalene, as well as all the others who were so close to Jesus, had to resign themselves to the fact that the Jesus they had come to know and love was no more. Whatever idealistic hopes and dreams they had pinned upon Jesus as a messianic deliverer from their Roman oppressors, or the bringer of a change in the world order, had failed to materialize. Rome, it seemed, had been the victor yet again. Rome had killed their Jesus and all the hopes they had pinned upon him, just like it had killed hundreds of others who had questioned their authority and called to account their injustice and oppression.
And so, the followers of Jesus were faced with the reality of needing to let go of the past with its unrealized dreams and expectations, as well as the Jesus that no longer was.
We, too, sometimes find ourselves in the same situation. As much as we would love to hold on to the past and those we love, we know that in reality things change, tragic events happen, loved ones die when we don’t want them to. As much as we want to hold on and keep things the way they are, we reach points in our lives when we have to let go.
Mary Oliver offers us some poignant lines at this point. In her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” Oliver says,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Now, such is not to say that we should not grieve those whom we lose by death. And such is not to specify an acceptable length of time for the grief process. The grief process for everyone is different. Some people grieve the loss of loved ones for years, as did my grandmother who grieved the loss of my grandfather for seven years.
But in the process of letting go of a time and circumstances that will never again be, there must be a looking forward to a future filled with new hope and new possibilities. And such is exactly the situation that the followers of Jesus found themselves in. “Do not hold onto me,” we hear Jesus say to Mary Magdalene. “But go to my brothers” and tell them what you have seen and heard. Go forth into the future with new hope, new possibilities, a new message of Good News to share with the world!
The Easter message is the message that death, and oppression, and injustice are not the end of the story. But God has vindicated Jesus by bringing new life out of the tragedy of death, and by laughing in the face of the powers of the world that would oppress and seek to kill the truth.
And so, the Jesus that his followers had known was gone; crucified and buried. But the Spirit of Jesus would continue to live on in the parables he taught, the teachings he had shared, the kindness and compassion he had lived, the death he had died standing up to injustice and oppression, and the spiritual presence his followers would experience whenever they gathered in his name to pray and break bread together. The future before them was much more glorious than any of them could have ever imagined!
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book titled The Last Week, state regarding the “stories that sum up the central meaning of Easter . . . Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way. He is no longer a figure of flesh and blood. . . . this is one of the central affirmations of Easter: He is a figure of the present, not simply of the past.”1
But the early followers of Jesus had to let go of the past as they had known it in order to look forward to the future before them filled with new hope and possibilities.
And as I have stated, there come those times in our own lives when we, too, have to let go of a past that no longer exists or no longer serves us well in order to be able to look forward to the future that can be. And the reality of this truth is different for each of us. It could be a broken relationship, a change in job or profession, letting go of a bad habit or addiction that is draining the life right out of us, or opening ourselves to a change in life direction.
The reality of life is things do change; nothing ever stays the same. We can try to pretend that things have not changed and try to hold on to a life that no longer exists. Or like those followers of Jesus, we can let go of what we had hoped might have been and look forward to the future that actually is with new hope and confidence. Is not this an Easter message for us – today? May it be so. Amen.
1Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. Pp. 204-205.