SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 16, 2017; Easter Day, Year A
Exodus 19:9-23; John 20:1-18

“Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold onto me…’”
John 20:17

It’s a glorious holiday, Easter. But it’s got built into it a certain difficulty: there’s nothing to hold onto.

The tomb is empty, after all. Where once the dead Jesus had been laid, now there is nothing. Emptiness. Absence. Void.

After a short time walking around on this earth — forty days, according to church tradition — the risen Lord ascended into heaven, and has not been seen on this earth in a physical body ever since.

No wonder so many in the surrounding culture focus on things you can hold onto: colored eggs, flowers, baskets full of candy, a new spring wardrobe: all tangible signs of new life, the new life of spring.

Each and every one of those things you can hold onto.

How like our faith this is, in so many ways! The most important realities of our Christian faith are things unseen. Except for the physical elements of the sacraments — water, bread, wine — the church has precious little to offer by way of tangible signs. Instead, the center of our worship is the word of God: airy, insubstantial, hard to hold onto.

This is especially true of us Protestants. The Eastern Orthodox have their icons, the Roman Catholics their crucifixes and saints’ statues, but we’ve got just the fleeting breath of human speech: words voiced and carried away — we trust and pray — on the wind of the Spirit. Our hope is that such words — spoken in a sermon, inwardly digested in personal Bible reading, shared from person to person by way of testimony — will lodge in some fertile soil, as seeds. But so often, we never know, do we?.

*****

That’s much like the dilemma facing Peter and the beloved disciple (whom we presume to be John). Alarmed to see the stone rolled away, they look into the tomb and see nothing. Or, very little. No angels appear, at least not to them (as John tells it). There are just the graveclothes, neatly folded.

That in itself is a mystery worthy of a detective novel. Had someone stolen their Lord’s body away — the most likely hypothesis — those grave-robbers would not have carefully stripped a putrefying corpse of the one material between it and their own hands.

But even in the face of such a baffling mystery, scripture tells us they “saw and believed.” Believed what? It’s not entirely clear. Peter and the beloved disciple don’t go fetch the others and tell them the good news. John says they went back home.

We need to consider more carefully what John means by “saw.” There are three different Greek words in this passage meaning “to see.” The first one John uses to describe the response of both Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple who reaches the tomb first. Mary sees the stone rolled away, and the beloved disciple sees the linen cloths lying there. The Greek word is blepo, the ordinary word for seeing. It describes a brief glance, no different from thousands of things each of us glance at, every day.

Then, Peter catches up with them — he was a little slower on his feet — and actually goes into the tomb. He, too, sees the linen cloths, but this time the word is theoreo. It’s a word you may even recognize, because it’s where our word “theory” comes from. It’s also the root of our word “theater”: that place we go to see things acted out upon a stage, to enter deeply into a story and discern some message there.

Peter examines this phenomenon of the neatly-folded graveclothes and, like any good scientist or detective, his gaze lasts a little longer. Theoreo implies a more careful examination. He sees the evidence, but he also ponders its meaning. That’s the second word for seeing in this passage.

Evidently, something sinks in now for the beloved disciple, because John recalls his experience by saying he, too, “saw and believed.” In this third occurrence of seeing, there’s yet another Greek word: eidon. That word’s translated many different ways into English: “to look,” “to see,” “to experience,” “to perceive,” “to take note,” “to see to,” “to take care.”

There are times when we see, and there are other times we really see. There are times when, in conversation with someone about a difficult topic, you or I may respond by saying, “I see” — meaning, I comprehend.

John doesn’t tell us Peter “saw and believed.” Peter’s still engaged in theoreo, in wondering, as he makes his way home from the tomb. That’s the sort of seeing a great many people are engaged in today, as they ponder the resurrection of Jesus. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you sitting here today are in that category. “Here’s a fascinating mystery,” you say to yourself, “the story of a man who came back from the dead. It’s a well-attested story, a story the church has been proclaiming for centuries, but there’s no hard evidence for it. The evidence is all circumstantial. I think I’ll mark this for further investigation. I’ll keep on wondering.”

Then there are others who see in that more focused sense, as in the Greek word, eidon. There are those who say of this good news of resurrection, “I see,” meaning “I get it!”

*****

Well, what is it that makes the difference? What is it that moves people to go from “Isn’t this a fascinating theory?” to “There’s a truth here so compelling, I’m willing to stake my life on it”?

Our story provides us with an answer. The answer lies in what happens next.

Even with the other two disciples, whatever it was they saw and believed doesn’t seem to have truly sunk in. Not entirely. It hasn’t yet made much of a difference in their lives.

They go back home. Having seen evidence of the greatest news the world has ever known, they say, “Isn’t that interesting? I wonder what’s for breakfast?”

It’s Mary Magdalene who’s the first to fully realize it. Mary, that disciple whom Jesus healed of some dread mental illness — he rid her of “seven demons,” the scriptures tell us — who then went on to become a major financial backer of his ministry and a steadfast leader. Mary was not a sex worker of low moral standards whom Jesus redeemed — there’s not a shred of evidence for that in the scriptures. That story’s a bit of fake news some early church leaders dreamed up, to minimize the role of Jesus’ most prominent female disciple. If you were going to build a church dominated by men, you couldn’t have a woman as one of the most significant early leaders. The thing to do was trash her reputation: which they did, with no biblical evidence for it.

Significantly, Mary doesn’t join the others in going back home. She sticks around the cemetery. Who knows what she’s thinking may happen?

She’s weeping outside the tomb, then turns and looks into it once again. She sees two angels. Angels! The Greek word for seeing here is not blepo, the brief glance; nor is it yet eidon, seeing with comprehension. It’s theoreo: seeing in a deep way, and wondering.

Who are these two people clad in white, and what are they doing in her master’s empty tomb?

“Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask.

How can she even answer the question? How can she, in a few words, explain the utter desolation she’s been feeling, ever since Jesus gazed up at the heavens and said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”?

Mary stood there steadfastly through it all. She watched him die. She saw them take his body down from the cross and lay it in that borrowed tomb, maybe even helped them do it. For him she had been ready to perform the tender duty of preparing his body for burial, washing his cold and rigid limbs, rubbing them with fragrant oil — though she and the other women were kept from doing that, by the advancing sunset that signaled the start of shabbat.

Mary supplies the simplest answer that comes to mind: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Of course, you know what happens next. She turns around and sees Jesus, but doesn’t know it is Jesus. She pleads with this mysterious man — if, indeed, he is one of the grave-robbers — to return the body to the tomb. But then he calls her by name, and she knows. In an instant, she goes from theorizing about what may have happened, to seeing, to truly seeing and understanding!

She flings herself into his arms.

The text doesn’t say she does that, but we can infer it from Jesus’ instruction to her: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Why does Jesus say “Don’t hold onto me”? Well, we’re not entirely sure. All these centuries later, it’s still a bit of a mystery — just as the resurrection itself is still, when you come right down to it, a mystery.

Maybe it has something to do with his resurrection body. Jesus, in those post-resurrection appearances, does have a human body his friends can touch. Luke takes pains to tell us he eats a piece of fish: getting across the point that this is a resurrected human being, not a ghostly apparition.

Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that he’s on the move. In Mark and Matthew both, he sends the message, “I am going before you into Galilee.” And from then on, the risen Jesus turns up in one place after another. He comes and goes at will, according to no discernible pattern. Sometimes even solid walls don’t stand in his way.

It’s all a bit of a muddle. This resurrection event was such a radical departure from anything anyone has ever seen that it just doesn’t fit into our usual categories.

*****

“Do not hold onto me,” he says. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, this bright morning, something to hold onto? Some bit of evidence, some tangible proof, for what we hope against hope may be true: that death does not have the final word?

My friends, there is such proof you can find today. It’s the same proof Mary found of old, that led her to go running off and tell Peter, John and all the others what she’d heard and seen, that made her apostola apostolorum, “apostle to the apostles.”

That proof is Jesus himself. It’s not a set of facts. It’s not a file of historical evidence. It’s a person. It’s a relationship. It’s a relationship you or I or anyone else can have, if we but ask him into our lives.

I promise you that, if you do invite him in, and live your days on the strength of this encounter with the resurrected Lord, you will have something to hold onto. And that is your memory of that very experience, and the present reality of the living relationship you have with him.

Listen, I can’t explain the resurrection to you. No one can. It’s a singular event, that defies scientific or any other sort of analysis. Even the scientists can’t define a singularity. A singularity, by definition, is something that happens once, never to be repeated. That means it can’t be recreated in the laboratory, nor studied in the field.

In the world of theoretical physics, there are objects like that. There are certain sub-atomic particles that burst into existence for a brief instant, but come and go so quickly there’s no way to capture or study them. The scientists know of their existence only by the tracks they leave: the ways they influence other particles.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is something like that. The raising of a human being from death to life, and from thence to life eternal, is not something anyone has seen nor heard of since. But we can see the tracks, the traces of this resurrection event, across the church and across human history every since.

If you hold onto anything this day, hold onto Jesus Christ himself. It’s not so much something we hold onto, as someone. Our Lord describes it best, earlier in the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Not “I was — or will be — resurrected.” I am the resurrection. If you know me, you know the resurrection also.

But there’s another thing in this life you can hold onto. Scripture tells us the body of Christ is still alive and present in this world. “The body of Christ” is the church. It’s one thing — and a very important thing — to make a commitment to Christ in your heart. But if we do not likewise make a commitment to enter into Christian community through a worshiping congregation, we’re very much like those disciples who saw the empty tomb, said “Isn’t that intriguing?” then went back home.

Take Mary Magdalene, instead, as your example. When she had witnessed the wonder of her Lord standing before her — living, breathing and embracing her — Mary’s first impulse was to run and tell the others. She sought out community in Christ.

So, I invite you to know him today, or to renew the relationship you already have. Ask him into your life, to take up residence in your heart. Then, go seek out the church. Make Christian community a part of your life. For there is nothing in this life more worthy of holding onto than our relationship with him, and — through him — with others of like mind and heart.

Let us pray:

Speak to us, Lord Jesus,
in the stillness,
in the silence,
in the beauty of a spring morning,
bursting with new life.
Set aside our hesitations,
our fears,
our dogmatic demands for proof.
Give us confidence that,
if we step out onto the bridge of faith,
that bridge will hold:
and that, waiting for us on the other side,
will be the one who says,
“Courage, it is I. Be not afraid.”
Amen.

Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.