Holding On and Letting Go

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/04-24-11.mp3]Don’t hold on. Let go…

This morning, we’re back in the garden. But unlike Thursday, where the garden was the place of betrayal, and unlike Friday, where the garden was the burial site, this morning, it’s simply a scene of confusion.

Mary Magdalene has gone to visit the tomb. A quick word about Mary. Centuries of interpretation have imposed upon her the identity of a woman of ill-repute. And while the gospels never spell that out, the fact that she is from Magdala, a port city (if you get my drift), is enough of an implication that this interpretation might be on target. And so, her visit is one of homage. This Jesus may be the first man who has treated her with the dignity and respect she deserves. He included her as a disciple. And now he’s gone…

But what’s worse is that his grave seems to have been violated. The stone has been rolled away. She runs in a panic to Simon and John who in turn go to check out the scene, leaving there as distressed as she. But Mary lingers. And she stays long enough to encounter angels and the risen Christ himself, but she is so distraught that she doesn’t even recognize him standing before her. It is not until he speaks that she understands that it is Jesus. And as she moves to embrace him, her grief turned to joy, he tells her not to hold on; but instead, to go back to the disciples and tell them the news.

How impossible that must have been for her! The one person who has treated her well, the one who has honored her as she deserved to be honored, was taken away by death. And now, it appears that this death was not real. But he doesn’t have time for reunions – don’t hold on. Let go. And go and tell the others what you’ve seen.

Don’t hold on. Let go…

For the past few months, we’ve been exploring this theme of “Packing Light” – in other words, in a world and in a culture where the accumulation of “stuff” is of the utmost importance, how do we be sure that we keep what is needful and eliminate what is not?

And therein lies the paradox: you would think that Jesus would be one of those things to bring along. And yet, here he is, telling Mary to let go. And that’s just it. In this exchange between the risen Christ and Mary, there is a lesson that sheds light on how challenging faith can be to our assumptions. Faith in God, faith in Christ, faith in something beyond ourselves, often feels like it’s just beyond our reach. So when we finally get a glimpse of it, when we touch it, even momentarily, when that moment of faith becomes real as comfort or dignity or joy or relief, we want to grab hold.

Like Jacob wrestling the angel, we want to hold on for dear life, demanding to be blessed. Or faith becomes a treasure, something we want to preserve for the rest of time. We want to put it in a display box where fingerprints and sunlight and the vagaries of an air-conditioned world will not be able to touch, to distress, to disintegrate, to devalue it.

But that gets us to the heart of the problem. Faith isn’t memorabilia: it loses its value when boxed in. Faith is faith only when it’s turned loose.

Don’t hold on. Let go…

This is exactly the problem with resurrection. Jesus isn’t Lazarus. As we read a few weeks ago, Lazarus died, and then Jesus raised him, but only so that he could go on to die another day. But not Jesus. And when Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, he wants to make it clear he’s not a figment, a ghost, an apparition. This isn’t simply a transformation into a spiritual reality. He invites Thomas to touch the place where the nails were driven. He eats with the disciples, breaks bread with them. He is not dead; nor is he mere spirit; instead, he is alive and real and physical, but not in the same way that he once was.

Resurrection isn’t the status quo. It is a total and utter transformation into a completely new way of being. The Jesus that Mary thought she knew isn’t the Jesus that stands before her in the garden. And that can be almost as terrifying as the idea that Jesus is gone.

Don’t hold on. Let go…

Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern gothic writer, constantly wrestled with questions of faith. She was distressed by the way that good people would do their best to domesticate Jesus, to box him in. But O’Connor knew that faith was risky. She put it this way: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” We may like to think that the purpose of faith is to keep us warm at night. But the risen Jesus defies our efforts to keep him limited.

Many of you know exactly what she was talking about. You’ve had that moment in your life where you think you’ve finally got Christianity figured out, that there are no surprises left. God is love, love your neighbor, and the rest flows from that. But then there’s that moment when you realize there’s a lot more to this than you ever imagined. God is love, yes, but God is also God. Love your neighbor, yes, but also love your enemies.

I’ve shared the story with you before of Will Campbell. Campbell was born dirt poor inMississippi. After serving in the South Pacific in World War II, he went to college and seminary and studied to be a Baptist preacher. His first call was to serve as chaplain at the University of Mississippi. In the mid-1950s, Will Campbell was fired for playing ping-pong with a janitor who happened to be black. From there,Campbell went on to work with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white member of its ranks.

In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, he relates the story of the shooting of Medgar Evers, the young African-American who had integrated the University of Mississippi’s Law School. When Evers’ died from those wounds,Campbellwas with a close friend, who challenged the very assumptions of his faith. “Brother Will,” the friend asked, “Did Jesus die for Medgar Evers’ sins?”

“Yes, of course he did,” came the quick reply.

“What about that redneck Klansman that shot him. Did Jesus die for his sins, too?”

Campbell wrote of that encounter: “At that moment, I became a Christian.”

He visited Evers’ family, to bring them some hope in the good news of resurrection. And he then went to visit with that young Klansman in jail, to bring him some hope in the good news of forgiveness of sins and release to prisoners.

Campbell’s moment of conversion is embodied in another quote of Flannery O’Connor’s: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

Our encounters with the risen Christ defy our expectations and take us into uncharted, even terrifying, territory. Mary wanted to grab hold of the Jesus she knew and never let go. But the resurrection doesn’t allow for that. Maybe it’s that faith always keeps us guessing; but more likely, it’s that faith always keeps us stretching. Learning about God isn’t confined to Sunday School lessons for children. There’s no graduation from Christian Education. There is always more to absorb about how God works. There is always more to learn about faith than there is a lifetime in which to do it.

So where are we? We’re back in that garden, standing side by side with Mary, face to face with Jesus.

And in that encounter, it slowly dawns on us: The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

So let him go…