Preached on Easter Sunday, 4 April, 2021, to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Texts: Ps 118.`-1,14-24; Acts 10.34-43; 1 Cor 15.1-11; jn 20.1-18.
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.’” (John 20.17)
There’s something unbearably poignant about Mary’s desire to reach out to Jesus and to be comforted by him, to hold him, to hug him, and then to be rebuffed. We’ll consider why Mary can’t hold Jesus in a moment, but for now, let’s just dwell in her thwarted desire to hold on to her teacher and friend, miraculously returned to her.
Haven’t we all felt that thwarted longing in this last, long year of pandemic? How many grandparents have longed to hold grandchildren, and how many visits have been conducted through windows at nursing homes? How many friends have not been able to hug one another? How many have died without holding a hand, save for the brief touch of a rubber-gloved nurse? All of us, in this year of stasis and isolation, have known something of Mary’s longing to reach out and hold on to life.
I can’t explain why Jesus refuses to let her hold him. He has previously allowed his body to be touched – by those seeking miracles, by those seeking to adore him and anoint him, by those seeking to arrest him, to harm him, and to kill him. Perhaps something has changed in his resurrected form – the last chapters of the gospels hint as much in their references to a Jesus who mysteriously comes and goes, passing through locked doors.
And yet Jesus is not a ghost. In the same post resurrection accounts, he eats breakfast with his friends, breaks bread with them, and allows Thomas to touch his wounds. The resurrected Jesus is still embodied, as he has been since the beginning, when as St. John tells us, “the Word took flesh and dwelled among us” (Jn 1.14).
The new post-Easter order is not some triumph of spirit over matter, it’s not some transcendent escape from the gross, physical world as some have believed in the history of the church. On the contrary. The Resurrection is about God’s commitment to the flesh. Jesus showed us the Father’s commitment to us when he called Lazarus from the tomb. Likewise the God who raises Jesus from the dead, and who wishes to be our Father as he is Jesus’ Father, this God is totally committed to us.
Like Mary, we crave reassurance. Like Mary, we want things to return to normal, to be like they were. We want the damned pandemic to be over. We want the churches to be full of people and song. We want to hold our grandchildren and hug our friends.
Like Mary, we want to cling to Jesus. Even if Jesus keeps a distance, and says “don’t hold me”, we need to hear his promise. ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The promise of Easter is that the God who raises people from the dead is our God, our Father. The same care and power that God uses to raise Jesus from the dead is given to us.
We can’t hold one another yet, and we can’t hold onto Jesus. We don’t know when the pandemic will end, or what the future will hold. However, Easter comes as it always does and reminds us of God’s commitment to us. Our God, our Abba, our Father, who raised Jesus from the dead, will raise us from pandemic and lockdown. Our God will raise us from our sins and from the pasts that may haunt us. Our God will reunite us with those we love and long to hold, now and when we arrive in the company of the saints. Nothing – not plague, not fear, not death – can keep us from this God is life and love. Happy Easter.