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 Holding on to Jesus

Sermon - 4/08/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 20:11-18

The Easter story, a very familiar story, comes from the Gospel of John this morning. In this story, it begins with Mary Magdalene discovering that the tomb had been opened up, and she goes and runs and tells the Disciples and Peter (and an un-named Disciple that we presume to be John), and they race to the tomb, and they get there and look inside and see nothing but the grave-clothes folded up neatly.

And then we pick up the rest of the story beginning in verse 11:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 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.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

So, how much do you wonder, what happened? What really happened on that morning? If you had a video camera, what would it show?

Because I think some people, probably many or most here, know that the Gospel stories are each different at this point. There's a different group of women, Jesus appears to different people, he says different things, even appears in different places.

And then if you were listening to Liz when she read the scripture from 1 Corinthians, Paul has a different account altogether. Paul leaves out the women! We all know the women were first, right? What's with this Paul? Someone will say "Well, duh, we know how Paul treats women", you know, being submissive to men, women keep silent in church, and all those negative things Paul says about women.

I don't buy that. That sounds more like certain Congressional committees on birth control -- let the women keep silent, right? :) That's not the genuine Paul, who proclaimed equality in Christ. Who even names Junia -- a woman -- as an Apostle of the Lord, alongside of him.

So, I've been convinced that those more negative things about women's role in church, and being subservient to men, and all of that, that is the reaction against the radical message of equality that Paul proclaimed. That's an addition by an later folk in the church who just couldn't go that far.

If you read Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, their book "The First Paul", you know what I'm talking about. They make Paul sound like the leader of the women's suffrage movement and co-sponsor of the equal rights amendment :) And it's right-on.

So I don't know what to make of the fact that Paul doesn't mention Mary, or any of the other women as being witnesses to the resurrection. This is the most important story in the Gospels. It's the most important story in the Bible. It may be the most important story in the world. You'd think the least the Disciples could have done is gotten together and gotten their stories straight! What did you see? Here's what I saw, etc.

The fact that they didn't, and that each records a different version of these events, is the greatest witness to the authenticity of the resurrection account. That each experience was so powerful, and so unique to each individual, it could not be harmonized, but they all had to be included.

This is for us a very important clue as to how we are to understand Easter. Not as some remove event in ancient history, but as a part of our own experience today.

Our family had an opportunity to make a road trip over New Year's, to Pasadena. The cost of gas for 30 hours on the road:


The cost of two nights in a Motel 6 in Bakersfield:


The cost of 4 tickets to a BCS bowl game:


Nothing! They were a gift -- thank you, thank you!


The cost of the opportunity to celebrate the first Rose Bowl victory for the Ducks in 95 years with your children:

Priceless! YES!!!!!!

Yeah! Easter is kind of like that! It's my resurrection experience (or at least the resurrection of the Ducks) :)

Only 100, a 1000 times better than that. So here's my contention this morning, the radical claim I want to make (and no, it has nothing to do with the future of the Ducks and the next football season). My claim (actually, it's the claim of the Gospel) is that the good news of Easter, the real miracle, is not about Jesus. It really isn't.

The resurrection is something much more wonderful, much more miraculous, much more shocking, much more exciting than the resuscitation of the body of one man 2,000 years ago. The great miracle of Easter isn't what happened to Jesus, it's what happens to us.

And that's why all those debates about whether the resurrection involved the physical body of Jesus, or whether it was some spiritual apparition allowing for the risen Christ to appear and disappear at will, or maybe some kind of visionary experience that each of the followers had and that's why there's so many different accounts.

All those debates, you see, are simply misguided. They miss the point. It's not about the body of Jesus. It is about the body of Christ. And if you've read your New Testament, you know the body of Christ is us. Followers of Jesus, we are the risen body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ.

I think that's the whole point of this otherwise cryptic message of Jesus to Mary, when she recognizes him and she says "Rabbouni", that's a Hebrew term of endearment for one's teacher, kind of like I am known here as your holy Reverend Dr. Blockhead (and other such terms of endearment that people use for me here :). Jesus responds to Mary, "now hold off Mary, don't hug me, don't touch me" -- is this because he's not a touchy-feely kind of guy? Is he radioactive from the resurrection? What is this about?

"Do not hold onto me", Jesus says, "because I have not yet ascended to the father". So, after he ascends to the heavens, then Mary can give him a big bear hug? How's that work?

Now, if you don't read or hear these stories of the resurrection and say "Huh?", you're not paying attention. The two Disciples raced to the tomb -- and they just find the grave clothes, folded up nice and neat. Huh? Mary looks into the tomb, moments later (she's right there, right behind them), she looks into the tomb, and what does she see? Two angels. Huh? And then, Jesus says to her "Don't touch me Mary", not yet. And then, little-by-little, keep reading the story in John's gospel, Thomas, remember that story of Thomas? Jesus says to him, 'if you're not so sure it's me, put your hand in my side, touch me, feel the wound'. Huh?

Those two on the road to Emmaus, they experience Jesus, they see him there in the breaking of the bread, and then he's gone. Huh.

These are incredible, remarkable stories. They should make us wonder. My favorite aphorism of John Dominic Crossan is "Emmaus never happened, Emmaus always happens". An Easter faith that is alive and vibrant is not about what happened then, it's about what happens now. It's about discovering that real presence of the living Christ in our lives today.

Diana Butler-Bass tells a wonderful story in her new book we've been talking about, many of us are reading it, "Christianity After Religion", of a bishop, when asked, if he believed in the resurrection, responded: "Believe it? I've seen it too many times not to".

And then she goes on, later in the book, to tell her Emmaus story, of encountering the risen Christ at a bank, of all places. In the suburbs of Washington, DC where she lives, and she went into the bank one day, and three Tellers (it was a slow day), nobody else, and one was a Muslim woman wearing a scarf, the other a Hindu woman with the red dot on her forehead, and the third a Catholic woman with a crucifix. And she laughed and said "You all look like the United Nations of banking". The Hindu woman responded "You know, you're right, you should see our customers -- between the 3 of us, we cover a lot of languages".

And so then they began this conversation about their different faith traditions, right there in the bank. She related how, because it was Lent, that she had given up meat and had started a vegetarian diet. The Hindu woman offered to her family recipes of wonderful vegetarian dishes. And she said when we eat food from India then we talk about the people of India and we pray for the people of India (much like our children this morning are doing for that little girl). And when we have food from Africa, we do the same thing. And food from Asia, and food from Latin America, then we talk about the people of those countries and we pray for them

And the Muslim woman responded "What a wonderful idea. We all need to love our traditions and be faithful to our God, and teach the beauty and goodness of other religions too". And then the Hindu women said "That is the only way to peace, to be ourselves and to create understanding between all people".

And so they continued to talk for awhile about their traditions, and the religious freedoms that they've found in this country. And the Muslim woman said "People here are very tolerant, curious about different religions. Much better than other places, here there is a real respect. I can be a good Muslim here".

As Diana turned to leave (the Catholic woman had left earlier, just the two other women were there), she stopped for a moment, she thought, and she said "I would wish you a happy Easter, but instead I wish you both peace". And the Muslim woman said: "Peace of Jesus the prophet upon you. And, a very happy Easter to you".

And then as she reached the door, the Hindu woman called out "Happy Easter to you!". And Diana says, when she got to the car, she realized tears were streaming down her face. And she writes: "I really felt the power of the resurrected Jesus so completely in my soul, as I had rarely done before".

That is the Easter experience. An experience of the risen Christ that is available to every one of us, often coming to us when we least expect it. Even in times of grief and death, as I have experienced so many times in working with families in times of bereavement.

And that is because, as Richard Rohr, Franciscan Priest and teacher of Contemplation and Spiritual Direction, he says "Death and resurrection is the pattern of creation. It's written into the DNA of creation. It is the divine way". He notes that nothing lives unless something dies. The food we eat -- whether plant or animal -- comes from life that has ended and has taken on new form in our bodies. The energy we consume comes from the decay of living things in the form of fossil fuels. Geothermal energy comes from the Earth as it cools, as the Earth itself is dying. And even the Sun -- the Sun! -- is dying. I hope I'm not scaring anyone this morning :) We've got a few billion years before it finally explodes in a super-nova of glory and consumes all life on earth, they tell us, if there's any life left by then. But it is dying, and in the process of dying it is giving off life for us.

This is the way, the pattern of the universe. The point is, from the Big-Bang of 20 billion years ago, and the first breath we took, all life is dying, and yet (this is the great wonder, the great mysteries, the miracle) new life comes into being, that resurrection happens again and again and again.

Christ, as the apostle Paul says, is the first fruit of the resurrection in which we all participate. "Do not hold onto me", says Jesus, "I am ascending to my father and your father, my God and your God". What is mine, in other words, is yours as well. Let go of me, that God may grab hold of you.

Author Mona Simpson gave the eulogy for her brother Steve Jobs at the Memorial Church on the campus of Stanford University. Some of you have heard me tell this story before, or may have read it in the New York Times. Renowned for his intensity and hard work, as well as his creativity, she said: "Death didn't happen to Steve, he achieved it". He worked at, like he did everything. Looking at each member of his family, each of his children, and finally at his wife one last time before looking past them into space, he said his very last words: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!".

Now there are those who would say whatever glory he saw in that moment was fleeting, was temporary, because he was not a born-again Christian (he followed some Eastern tradition, Buddhism I think). Therefore, you know, resurrection was not a possibility for him.

I, on the other hand, like the preacher and popular Christian author Rob Bell, believe that in the end, love wins. That no matter our failings and fallings, God's love is greater. And that the promise of resurrection is for each and every one of us, it's not an exclusive promise for a little, small, tiny select group. It's part of creation.

So why then should we believe these things if it doesn't matter? Well, you see, it does matter. It matters a lot. For all the good that Steve Jobs did for the world of technology (and you know me, I think he walked on water right alongside of Jesus, being an Apple guy), what if he had had that experience, that wonderful glorifying resurrection experience, what if he had had that much earlier in his life? Would that have made a difference? Might that have changed something? Might all of the wonderful, good things he created have even been more so? Maybe.

Maybe he could have used that wonderful creative talent to bring more than just a computer company back from death. Maybe he could have used his wealth and status to create smart-healthcare, and not just another smart-phone. Maybe he could have joined with his old nemesis Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet, and the other great philanthropists, and created an even greater project to truly change this world with their wealth.

You see, all I am saying is that there is so much more to life for each and every one of us when we learn to trust that way of death and resurrection, the way of letting go, and following Jesus. Dietrich Bonheoffer says 'It may be the way of Martin Luther, giving up his life in the monastery, it may be the way of the Disciples, giving up their life of fishing, death comes in many forms, but it is still a death in Christ, and the experience of new life in Christ'.

Andrew Sullivan writes of that way in the cover story for Newsweek, of all places, this week. Great story, go out and get it. He cites the many failures of the church, and yeah, we know. We all know, there are many failures. The cover says "Forget the church, follow Jesus". Well, OK. And he goes on, then, to lift up the example of Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis as two people who really got it. Jefferson because by stripping the gospel of all the stories that don't meet the test of reason and modern knowledge, and when we do all that, we find in Jesus a message of non-violence and power-emptying that is the deepest miracle of all. And St. Francis because he lived that message, trusting in the simple, terrifying love of God for creation itself.

And so Sullivan concludes: "This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment, it let's it be. It doesn't seek worldly recognition or success, it flees from wealth and power. This sheer Christianity, seeking truth without expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God's will, is more vital than ever. And one day, soon when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again".

Indeed, it always does. This is the promise of Easter. The resurrection of Christ that is for us to claim as our own.

Hallelujah, Christ is risen.


[Note:  the video below depicts the flowering of the cross during the 2 Sunday services at First Christian Church on Easter Sunday, 2012]





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