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(Note: Due to ongoing weather services for Sunday, April 15 were cancelled 
therefore there is no updated sermon.)

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at 
Clarence Presbyterian Church on April 1, 2018.

HARD SAYINGS OF JESUS: DO NOT HOLD ME 

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father."

Today we conclude our Lenten series on the hard sayings of Jesus.  We have explored words of Jesus that are hard to understand or expressions that seem to be almost contrary to our conception of Jesus’ character.  Some of these expressions have been hyperbole that we have struggled to comprehend.  Some of the hard sayings were commands that were easy to understand but hard to put into practice.

Today we focus on some hard words spoken by the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” We can only imagine how difficult it was for Mary to hear these words. 

Think for a moment of all that Mary had been through over the last several months.  Mary had met Jesus when she was down and out.  Tradition teaches us that she was a prostitute, living on the margins of society.  Her life was in shambles.

Jesus' love had transformed her. His care had given Mary's life new meaning and purpose.  She responded to his love with her own love in return.  Then she saw him go to Jerusalem.  Almost before she knew what was happening, Jesus was arrested.  He was taken before Pilate and condemned to death.  Mary was present on the fringes of the crowd as Jesus was nailed to the cross.  All of Mary's hopes and dreams slipped away as Jesus slowly died on the cross.  

Because the Sabbath was approaching a proper burial could not be completed; thus Jesus was hastily taken down from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb. Mary was just beginning the process of mourning the loss of Jesus that first Easter morning as she made her way to the tomb to properly prepare his body for burial.

When she arrived at the tomb she found that it was empty.  The body of Jesus was not there. She went back and told the disciples that the tomb was empty.  They came and saw the empty tomb and returned to their homes.  But Mary sat down near the tomb and began to cry.  After all that they had done to Jesus, they had committed one final act of cruelty; they had stolen his body.  

Mary is sitting by the empty tomb weeping, when someone comes up to her and asks why she is crying.  She thinks he is the gardener so she asks him what has been done with the body.  Her weeping blinds her to the identity of the person.  Then the Risen Jesus said, "Mary, Mary"-- and Mary recognized her Lord.  In her joy she reaches out to hug him.  But he says to her “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Jesus, who she saw crucified, had come back to life and he was standing before her and she wants to fully connect with him in a physical way to reassure herself this has really happened.  She may have wanted to make sure he not just a ghost, but it is really Jesus alive. But Jesus rebuffs her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

What is Jesus trying to tell Mary?  He is not saying it is wrong to touch the resurrected body.  This is not some latent form of Gnosticism which is hostile to the flesh.  Later in John’s gospel Jesus encourages others to touch the wounds on his body.  Jesus is not teaching some early dualism that believes there is a strict separation of the spiritual and the physical.

I believe that what Jesus is telling Mary is not to hold on to the way things had been.  It would have been very tempting for Mary to believe that the resurrection was merely resuscitation.  Jesus had been put to death by the Roman authorities.  He was buried, but now he has come back to life.  She may well have expected that Jesus would just take up his life as before.  He would come with her.  He may have had to go into hiding for a while from the authorities.  He might have gone into the wilderness to let all the controversy over his ministry die down.  Mary could have gone with him and taken care of him.  Then after a while, when the focus of the Jewish and Roman authorities had moved on to the next crises, Jesus could have returned to his teaching about the kingdom of God.  Mary could well have expected to just take up where they had left off before his arrest.

But Jesus said to her “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  Jesus is telling Mary that things are not going to be as they were before.  He was not going to be with her in the flesh.  He was going to return to the Father and he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them in all things.  Jesus, who had been present locally in the flesh, was now going to be present everywhere through the Spirit.  The resurrection does not mean resuscitation but rather transformation.  Mary would experience a new relationship with the Risen Christ.

So what does this all mean for you and me?  What do Jesus’ hard words to Mary mean for us?  I believe we can understand Jesus’ words at two levels.

First, Jesus tells us to be open to a variety of images of him. In the Scriptures there are a variety of ways of understanding Christ.  If you visit art museums around the world it is absolutely amazing how many different ways artists have sought to capture the meaning of Jesus.

There are pictures of the infant Jesus sleeping peacefully in the manger.  There are painting depicting Jesus as the Judge at the end of time...  There are images that show Jesus welcoming the children to him and Jesus up ending the tables of the money changers.  There are representations of Jesus in every color of humanity.  There are depictions of Jesus teaching on the mountain and others of his healing.  There are paintings that emphasize his humanity and others that focus on his divinity.  Some artist’s liked to show Jesus suffering on the cross and others the joy of his resurrection.

I could go on and on in sharing different aspects of Jesus that are found in art and Scripture.  Each one of these images is true, but they are partial truth.  It is the collage that gives us the truth of the Christ event.

One of the dangers of the spiritual life is for us to hold on too tightly to one image of Jesus.  You and I, because we are human, have our favorite image of Jesus.  These favorite ways of thinking of Jesus can give us comfort and hope.  But each one is limited and if we hold on to them too tightly we will fail to grow in our understanding of God.

As we grow and mature in our lives different images speak to our situation in life. Many of us when young have an image of God as the judge who rewards those who are good and punishes those who are bad.  This is one image from the Old Testament.  It helps inculcate good values and behavior in young people.  But it is not the fullness of truth.  In almost every life difficulties come that are not of our own making. If we hold too tightly to the primitive image of God we will either blame ourselves for our suffering or reject God as unloving.

The same is true of almost every image of God.  We must learn to expand and claim a variety of images of God as reflecting the truth of our lives. The writer Brennan Manning talks about healing our image of God.  He believes people so often focus on God as the demanding judge whose main purpose is to condemn.  He tells us:

The old religious image of a vindictive, mean, and jealous God gives way in Jesus to the God of faith who cherishes people, all people, and had made his abode with them.  Jesus presented a God who does not demand but gives; does not oppress but raises up; does not wound but heals.

The Risen Jesus tells us to let go of all the images of him that keep us from growing in love.
A second meaning of Jesus’ words “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” is that we must be constantly open to meeting God in new ways.  Mary had been able to speak to Jesus directly person to person.  For a couple of years she has been a follower of Jesus.  She heard him speak to the crowds, she had seen him perform wonders, and she had eaten meals with him and spoken with him face to face.   When he died on the cross she knew this was all over.

But then the Risen Jesus stood before her in the garden.  Mary thought the relationship would take up like it had been before, but then Jesus told her that he would ascend to the Father.  He would no longer be in the flesh.  They would have to communicate in new ways in the spirit.  She could talk to him through prayer and the breaking of bread.
Each one of us has our preferred ways to relate to God, but Jesus’ words “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” warn us that these ways change over time.  The writer Rod Dreher first started on his path to faith at age 17 when he visited Chartre Cathedral. He tells us:

I did not understand this at the time, but God set the hook in me inside that cathedral. It was there that I began an ambivalent quest for him, not really wanting to find him, but also unable to deny the power of that revelation. I could not explain how I knew that he existed—I saw him and felt him and was overawed by him at Chartres. The presence of God radiated from the Chartres cathedral so powerfully that it even pierced the dark wood into which I had retreated.

During another dark time in his life, following the early death of his sister, he again visited Chartres, but it was not the same.  He tells us “Oh I was quite melancholy about it. I wanted so badly to see Chartres again as I has seen it before. I wanted that same feeling of connection, of being part of something so much bigger than myself.”

Dreher learned that truth that the way we communicate with God changes over time.  There are many times when one form of prayer that has been meaningful in the past dries up.  It can make God seem to be in hiding.  The answer is not to give up on 
God but to let go of that practice and try another.  God is able to speak in new ways along different steps in our journey.  You and I are called to try new ways to relate to God.

        There are many ways for human beings to communicate with God.  Some people find they experience God in nature, others worshipping in sacred spaces, others through prayer, others find God in the sacraments, others through music or art or literature.  The Risen Jesus finds many ways to communicate his love and direction if we are open.

On that first Easter morning Jesus said to Mary Do not hold me.  
                The same Risen Lord says to us on this Easter day to let go of the past.
                        He invites us to give up old ways and welcome new ways

As the Risen Christ charged Mary so he charges us.
During this Easter season may we keep our eyes open to discover the
Risen Christ in new ways

        For the resurrection of Jesus calls us to look to the future.
                  It calls us to open our hearts and minds to new images of God
                          Looking for new ways for us to know and communicate with Jesus.