Losing Jesus?

March 2nd, 2020

John 20:1-18

The last few days have seemed like an eternity as we’ve reflected on final meals, footwashings, betrayals, brutal beatings, crucifixion, and preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. After all of that—and because of all of that—we long for this day when we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as God’s triumph over sin and death, and what a glorious day it is! The stone is gone, and we even stuck our heads into the tomb for good measure. Jesus is no longer in the tomb, nor has he been taken. “He is risen! He is risen, indeed.”

Countless sermons have been delivered on this passage and rightfully so. It contains a series of powerful gospel moments: an apostolic footrace, linen wrappings without the corresponding corpse, a weeping woman, angels, and a risen but unrecognizable Lord. Often lost in these narrative elements, however, is Mary Magdalene’s troubled refrain: someone has taken away my Lord. She expresses a concern for the location of Jesus’ body no fewer than three times throughout this passage.

Mary first reports the body’s disappearance to Peter and the other disciples. This first Easter proclamation is filled with blame, doubt, and uncertainty. Her words prompt Peter and the other disciple to go and see for themselves. Similarly, in tear-laden words, Mary reports to the two angels that “they” have taken away my Lord, never once stopping to inquire of the divine messengers regarding Jesus’ location.

On a third occasion, in the presence of Jesus himself although she mistakes him for a gardener, Mary wonders aloud about the location of the corpse. In an interesting narrative twist, Mary seeks clarification from the supposed gardener: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). The anxious uncertainty that motivates Mary’s remarks and questions is somehow anchored in her ignorance of the Resurrection. She has yet to encounter the risen Lord. It is almost as if the absence of his body exacerbates her grief. Mary Magdalene’s frantic search for Jesus suggests that finding a corpse on Easter morning is preferred to the absence of Jesus’ body altogether. She has found her treasure yet she does not recognize its form. She is holding on to the crucified Jesus so tightly that she is unable to grasp the resurrected Lord.

Mary’s frantic search ends abruptly when Jesus calls her by name. Her eyes and heart are opened to his presence as she hears the familiar voice of her rabbi, her teacher. Although the text does not say, it is not difficult to imagine Mary reaching out to embrace Jesus or falling at his feet. Her mind must be filled with relief, confusion, and sundry questions at this point. Her Easter morning is indeed a serendipitous one.

Returning to the text, however, it is striking that immediately after Mary realizes it is Jesus who stands before her, she is forbidden to cling to him: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (20:17). She is then instructed to deliver a message to the brothers: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (v. 17). (Are we to hear echoes of Ruth’s memorable speech in these instructions by Jesus?)

What! You can’t be serious! What kind of tragedy is this? It isn’t enough that Mary is mourning the torture and crucifixion of her teacher, now her own expectations in the wake of his death and subsequent resurrection are frustrated as well. Why is Mary being told that she is about to lose Jesus yet again? Granted, she is not losing Jesus to death, but she is losing him to the Father.

Next week’s Gospel reading reveals that Jesus was quite content to let Thomas “hold” on to him by placing his hands in the wounds; why not Mary? Are we to think that Jesus ascended after meeting Mary only to descend again before meeting Thomas? Did Jesus simply change his mind in the days between the appearances to Mary and Thomas? Scenarios and explanations such as these seem quite unlikely, so perhaps this Easter morning we should question more deeply Jesus’ response to Mary on that first Easter morning if we wish to learn something of what Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates for us and within us.

Earlier in John’s Gospel, after the footwashing (14:18-19), Jesus informs those present that in a short while the world will no longer see him, but he goes on to say that he will be visible to his followers. Two chapters later, Jesus again promises that “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice” (16:22). Is it possible that Mary has mistaken Jesus’ appearance to her on Easter morning by associating it with the promises made in 14:18-19 and 16:22?

If this is the case, then Jesus’ admonition against holding on to him functions as an instructive correction with regard to resurrection and postresurrection life. Things are not as they were. Jesus’ abiding presence will not “appear” as it did before. Instead, Jesus’ presence will permanently “appear” in the form of the Spirit. In this way, then, John’s Gospel, unlike Acts, paradoxically interrelates resurrection and ascension. Just as John associates Jesus’ glorification with his crucifixion, so in 20:1-18 we find that Jesus’ resurrection should not be separated from his ascension.

Mary Magdalene mirrors many of our concerns and wishes on this Easter morning. Resurrection seems so unlikely, so distant—although it is ever so near. Like Mary, we are frantically searching for whatever shred of proof or foothold of new life we can find. Yet this passage insists that we not expend energy trying to hold on to Jesus or worrying about losing him, for only when we release him to God do we receive the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

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