March 27, 2016 - John 20.1-18

“Holding on to Jesus”

John 20:1-18

March 27, 2016 (Easter)


Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But 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 around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.


Well, the weather is all weird.

Easter is celebrated at a time when darkness is overpowered by light, after the season begins to change from winter to mud, um, I mean Spring.

It’s a good time to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

People have accused Easter of just being a baptized celebration of the first warm days of spring.

Our Gospel for this Easter begins with an account of a group of disciples who went out to the tomb on the first Easter morning. They must have been a sad lot, going out to pay their respects to the body of their now-dead teacher and master. Mary Magdalene was one of the women who was there in the group going out to the cemetery that morning. Her great friend Jesus had died. The one who reached out to her and loved her, and had embraced her, had died. Mary went out with the rest of them in grief to pay her last respects to the memory of her friend.

When people go through grief, they often report what a huge achievement it is just to put "one foot in front of the other." To keep on keeping on becomes a great achievement. Perhaps that's the way Mary went out to the tomb that first Easter.

When people go through a great trauma, like a great grief, such as the loss of a child, spouse or parent, we don't expect them so much to triumph, as simply to survive. Simply being a survivor is triumph enough. Amen?

There are so many times in life when the greatest virtue is to simply keep on keeping on, to stay, to take up accustomed rituals again, to get up and go out to work, even though you just want to give up.

Well-meaning friends sometimes tell us when we are in grief, "You must get up and get going. You need to get moving! Get up! Get dressed." Mary did that on the first Easter, yet she also didn't do that because she stayed at the tomb.

The other disciples came, saw the empty tomb, and raced back to Jerusalem to preach, "He is risen!"

But Mary lingered. She stayed. And because she stayed Jesus met her and she saw the Risen Christ for herself and she believed.

A pastor I know was appointed to a troubled church that had lost hundreds of members in the last decade. Like a lot of inner-city churches, the church had lost touch with its neighborhood and had been in decline.

By the grace of God, eventually things got better and things started to change. They grew. One day, he had the occasion to thank one of the loyal, older members for her support and for her leadership. He thanked her for simply staying with the congregation during its rough times, and, because she stayed, she helped lead the congregation forward.

"I stayed here because I couldn't get out of my mind that God had a purpose for this church," she said. I stayed because I was convinced that God would one day bless us and use us.” Then she said to the pastor, “You came to us as our pastor and, despite first impressions (!) you turned out to be that blessing that we needed. I am glad I stayed, because if I had left, I would have missed out on a resurrection!"

Maybe that is what Jesus expects of us this morning. I don't know if you greet the resurrection proclamation "He is risen!" with strong, firm faith and with strong belief in the resurrection reality. But maybe you don't have to. Maybe all that you need to do is simply to be here. And you are!

You need to stay here, linger for a while before the mystery of the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as the empty tomb, and the resurrection of Jesus. You need to keep on keeping on, following the rituals of the church, put one foot in front of the other in the grand Easter procession, keep receiving the body and blood of Christ, just hold on, until you have the faith you hope to have.

As Mary was reminded, we can't hold on to Jesus. He is on the move. But before Jesus heads to somewhere else, he addresses Mary by name, he allows her to reach out to him. We can hold on to Jesus. But the beautiful thing is that Jesus, the resurrected Christ, keeps holding on to us, keeps reaching out to us, embracing us, and holding us.

A woman reported to me on a dramatic conversion that she had experienced in her life. She said that belief had always been a problem for her. Since she was young, she had greeted the faith of the church with nothing but doubts, questions, and misgivings. Yet here she was, mid-life, being given the faith that she did not have. She said that she had a vivid experience of the presence of the Risen Christ. She said that it was if a "light came on in my life and things fell into place and I finally understood, I saw, I believed."

I asked her if she knew why she had been given this gift of faith now, at this particular time. She responded, "I have no idea why the light finally came on and things fell into place, right now at this specific time. I just know that I kept standing up every Sunday and saying the words of the Apostle's Creed, saying them over and over again, saying them from memory but not really in my heart. If you had stopped one Sunday and asked me, 'Do you really believe what you are saying about the resurrection, about the virgin birth and all the rest?' I don't know that I would have been able to have answered affirmatively. But one day, I did believe. I am so very glad that I stood up, for all these hundreds of Sundays, and affirmed what I believed before I believed it." I am so glad that she stayed. 

It is a shame when people break away from their family of faith – their church family – because it is seldom over important matters.  It is usually over matters of turf, or miscommunication, or because someone’s ego isn’t getting stroked in the right way.  This only happens when we lose sight of Christ.  The love of Christ in us covers all the little faults in others.  When we do not love each other with the love of Christ, and when Jesus is not our main focus, THAT is when church people begin to nit-pick each other to death.  And what a blessing we miss when we lose focus on Jesus.  The devil can’t make us do anything if we are holding on to Jesus Christ.  How do you think we are doing?

A pastor reported to me that his church went through a traumatic battle over sponsoring an interracial daycare center in the basement of his church. Two families left the church in opposition to the opening of the daycare center. But most of the members stayed.

One of those who stayed reported a conversation a couple of years later with one of the people who left in opposition to the daycare center.

"She asked me how things were going at the church. I proudly told her that things were going great, that we had experienced more growth in membership last year than in any previous year of the decade. I explained to her how the daycare center had been the key to getting back in touch with our neighborhood. I told her that it was a miraculous thing to behold.” Then he said something to her that was astounding: “Aren't you sorry that you didn't stay to see the miracle? When you left, you cheated yourself of experiencing one of the most miraculous works of God that I've ever seen.'"

Jesus calls people to "follow me." He takes people on a journey. But sometimes Jesus must be happy if people just stay. I don't know how you have come here this Easter morning. I don't know if you are here bearing strong faith. Maybe you've got your questions and doubts. That's okay. The point is you stayed. You have therefore put yourself in a great place for the Risen Christ to reach out to you, to call your name, to hold on to you, so that you may, by faith hold on to him. Amen! [1]


Every night shall be broken by Dawn,

Every tear shall spring from Joy;

Every step shall become a dance,

And every word shall carry a song.[2]



[1] Copious portions of this sermon inspired by Will Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, April 4, 2010.

[2] Chalice Worship, p.436.

  April 2018  
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