Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Noli me tangere

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Easter Sunday, 17 April 2022

John 20:17  Jesus 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.'"

One of my lockdown projects
          was to read my way through the entire set
          of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe Novels.
                    All 23 of them!
I now know more than I ever thought I would
          about the Napoleonic wars,
but my big problem came when I got the end of book 23.
          because I always find the ending of a book, or a book series,
          to be something of a bereavement.
You see, when I’m reading, I enter into the story:
          the characters become real to me
                    and losing them at the end of the last page
                    can feel like a real loss.
I don’t want to let them go.
          I want to hang onto them, to cling to them,
          to find out what they will say and do next.
It can be very hard to let go of the friends I make in the stories I read.
          And I know I’m not alone in this,
                   because the whole industry of fan-fiction is designed to cater for those
                    who want to know more about the characters they have come to love.
Sometimes, as with Sharpe,
          if the book I’m reading is part of a series,
                    I need to plough straight on into the next one,
          not losing the characters that I’ve come to know so well,
                    wanting to see what happens to them next.
But sometimes, what I really want to do
          is go back to the beginning and start reading it again,
          now that I know how it ends.
And here’s my question:
          In what way does knowing the ending
          affect the way we engage the story?
Of course, there is one golden rule with novels,
          that I try desperately hard not to break.
And that is the rule that one should never, ever,
          turn to the end and read the last page.
To do that is to break covenant with the author,
          it has something of the air of cheating about it.
But of course, once the ending is properly known,
          any future re-reading of the story
          has to take place in the light of what is now known
          about the outcome of the story.
And this is exactly what we have going on
          in our reading today from near the end of John’s gospel.
It’s not quite the last page, because there’s a little bit after it,
          but it’s certainly part of the concluding narrative of the story.
And the thing about John’s gospel,
          as with all the other gospels,
is that it is written for people who already know the ending.
Not a single person sitting there in the first century,
          hearing John’s gospel read to them for the first time,
would have been wondering, at the crucifixion scene,
          whether this was the end of the line for Jesus.
This whole gospel, that we’ve been reading through since the start of the year,
          is a story that’s been written for those
          who are already part of the next instalment.
And so we need to hear the account of Jesus’ appearance to Mary
          from the perspective of those
          who already know the end of the story.
The significance of this narrative isn’t
          that Jesus is, in some way,
          still very much alive and with his disciples.
Rather it is that the encounter with the risen Christ
          needs to go somewhere.
It is a story about the significance of the events,
          rather than the events themselves.
And so we come to the characters in the story.
And don’t hear me wrong here,
          I’m not suggesting that there was no such historical person
                   as Mary Magdalene, or Simon Peter,
                   or the otherwise anonymous disciple whom Jesus loves,
                             or even Jesus of Nazareth himself.
But what is certainly true for us,
          is that we don’t directly encounter the historical figures
                   that lie behind the gospel stories.
We meet them instead through the words of the gospels.
          So, here in John’s gospel,
                    we meet John’s ‘Mary’, John’s ‘Simon Peter’,
                   John’s ‘beloved disciple’, and yes, John’s ‘Jesus’.
They become real to us as we read them into being in our minds;
          and people long-dead come to life in our lives
                    as their stories take breath
                   and are breathed into being once again.
And so it is that Mary Magdalene reaches out
          to try and cling onto the man she encounters
          in the garden outside the empty tomb.
The usual translation of this verse doesn’t really do justice
          to the force what of John is trying to put across here.
Jesus’ response to Mary is often translated as ‘don’t touch me’,
          which can seem very odd given that only a few verses later
                    Jesus is happily inviting Thomas to not only touch him
                    but to put his fingers into the wounds of crucifixion.
And there has been much, in my view unnecessary, metaphysical speculation
          about the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body,
          and why Mary isn’t allowed to touch it.
But I think this is to miss the point.
We’re not talking here about Jesus’ physical historical resurrected body.
          We’re talking about the resurrection of Jesus
                    as it is encountered within the narrative of the gospel of John.
And so we need to meet the story on its own terms,
          and to hear it as readers who have already encountered
                   the resurrected Christ in our own lives,
          present with us by ongoing encounter with the Spirit of Christ.
So the simple translation ‘don’t touch me’ is inadequate,
          and we need to delve a little deeper
to discover the more accurate renderings:
          of ‘don’t cling to me’,
                    or ‘don’t try to keep me’,
                              or ‘don’t try to possess me’.
This isn’t about whether Mary can touch Jesus.
          This isn’t about the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body.
Rather, it is about the fact that Mary has to let Jesus go.
          She cannot keep him, she cannot possess him,
                   she cannot cling onto him.
We know Mary Magdalene from earlier in John’s gospel,
          when she is standing near the cross with the other women,
                   watching Jesus die.
And the other gospels similarly have her playing her part in both
          their crucifixion and resurrection stories.
Luke’s gospel even gives us a bit more information,
          telling us that she received healing from Jesus
          for the seven evil spirits that had possessed her.
This is clearly a woman whose name is known
          throughout the early Christian community
          as a person who was close to Jesus during his life.
And here in John’s gospel we are shown her crisis in the garden,
          as she meets the resurrected Christ for the first time.
What is immediately clear is that, for her, things are very different now,
          but also that she still wants them to be the same.
She wants to cling onto the Jesus she has known.
          She wants to hold fast to the Jesus of history.
And she has to be told
          that this isn’t the way it will be from this time on.
Her encounter with Jesus has to move from the physical to the spiritual.
          She has to learn to let go of the earthly Jesus
                   and to embrace the new experience of the resurrected Christ
                   that will be found in through lived encounter with the Spirit of Christ.
For Mary, there is no going back to before the cross,
          the resurrection doesn’t negate or undo
          the decisive moment of the crucifixion.
The physical body of Jesus dies on the cross,
          and the resurrection does not render that moment void.
Rather, those who, with Mary, encounter the resurrected Christ
          do so from the perspective of those who already know the ending.
At the time of John’s gospel,
          written some sixty years after the crucifixion,
the disciples of Jesus in the late first century
          knew that they didn’t encounter Jesus
                   walking and talking with them,
                   eating with them,
                   and touching them.
They knew that they didn’t meet Jesus in the same way
          that the disciples in the gospel stories
          had met him prior to the crucifixion.
Rather, they encountered him speaking to them
          through the words of the stories about him;
they met him by his Spirit present with them
          when they gathered together in his name;
they met him as they broke bread and shared wine
          in memory of his death on the cross;
they felt him touch them in the waters of baptism,
          as their lives were transformed by divine encounter
          and their sins were forgiven.
And this is the journey that Mary must make
          in these closing pages of John’s gospel.
She becomes the archetypical disciple,
          making the journey we must all make
          in our encounter and ongoing relationship
          with the resurrected Christ.
Because this is where the Jesus of history becomes the Christ of faith.
          This is where crucifixion gives way to resurrection.
This is where death gives way to life,
          and despair is transformed into joy.
This is the new world from beyond,
          breaking in upon Mary
          as it breaks in upon all those who embrace the resurrected Christ.
This is the kingdom coming on earth, as it is in heaven.
I often think that contemporary Christianity
          has something of a problem with the resurrection.
Most Christians seem quite happy with the cross of Jesus,
          and we have our finely drawn arguments
          about the nature of atonement.
But we don’t seem to know quite where the resurrection fits into things,
          and my concern is that the resurrection
                   gets relegated to being a kind of cosmic publicity stunt,
          the sole purpose of which is to prove that Jesus is the son of God
                   and allow us to know about what happened at the cross.
Mary’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus
          takes us beyond such problems,
and points us to a more profound way of engaging the resurrected Christ.
The resurrection needs to be more
          than a cosmic publicity stunt which validates the cross.
It needs to become an invitation to a new way of living,
          a gateway to a new way of being.
And a key to this is to be found in the way Mary relates to Jesus.
          Did you notice what Mary called Jesus as she tried to cling onto him?
                   She called him ‘Rabbouni’, which John tells us is Hebrew for ‘Teacher’.
          Mary was still stuck in the role of student, to Jesus’ role of teacher.
                   She was a disciple, and he her master.
Jesus counters this by re-writing the script, by changing the language.
          In the post-resurrection encounter with Christ,
                   those who would be his disciples
                   find that he is no longer their master, but their brother.
Three are 120 instances in John’s gospel
          where God is identified as ‘father’,
and yet this verse is the first time that God is mentioned
          as the father of anyone other than Jesus.
John 20:17  Jesus 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.'"
In the new world that comes into being at the resurrection,
          God moves from distant-other to present-father,
                   from elemental force to parental love,
                   from wrathful dictator to enfolding grace
          And Jesus moves from master to brother,
                   from Lord to friend.
The new Moses becomes the new Adam
          as humanity is reborn in the resurrection of Christ.
God comes near and greets us as lost children welcomed home,
          and Christ is no longer merely an intermediary between us and the divine,
          dispensing words of judgment and guidance.
Rather, Jesus is most fully God with us,
          present with us by his Spirit
          in each moment of each day.
And yet it seems to me that so many of us, so much of the time,
          keep trying to cling onto the Jesus of history.
We want the master who will teach us, and tell us what to do,
          we want the Lord who will sit in judgment on our enemies,
          and uphold our righteousness before the unfaithful.
We treat the stories about Jesus
          as if they were synonymous with the historical Jesus himself,
rather than invitations to encounter the resurrected Christ
          in our lives by his Spirit.
We cling onto our preferred version of Jesus,
          and persuade one another that he is ours to keep and control.
And if this is us, we need to learn the lesson of Mary Magdalene,
          that in order to have Christ with us, we first need to let go of him.
If you look at Mary’s journey through our passage this morning,
          we see her making three distinct moves.
She begins the chapter in the darkness of un-faith,
          in despair at the cross,
          and in confusion at the empty tomb (vv. 1-2, 11-15).
Then she recognizes Jesus in the garden,
          and moves to a conditional faith,
she can see him, but still can only see him as Rabbi,
          as teacher, as master and Lord (vv. 16-17a).
And so she tries to cling to him, to keep him familiar and close.
But the third stage of her journey of faith
          is the move to becoming someone
                    who has truly encountered the risen Lord,
          and who is then able to bear witness
                    to the truth of this new world
          that has come into being in her life
                    by the power of the resurrection (v. 18)
And John’s gospel encourages all its readers
          to undertake this journey of Mary:
                    a journey from the darkness of unfaith,
                              to the confused joy of partial faith,
                              to the gracious outpouring of resurrection faith.
We must take care not to get stuck at partial faith,
          where Jesus is Lord and Master,
                    but not yet brother and friend,
          because that way lies legalism and grace-less religion.
We need to discover God as our loving parent,
          drawing us close in love,
          and embracing us as long lost children.
Because if God remains distant and other,
          then our faith remains theoretical and abstract.
To end where we began,
          we are those who know the ending.
We are living the end in the present,
          and we read into being the stories of our own lives
          in the light of the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst.
A church like Bloomsbury, with our emphasis on social justice
          and our seeking to participate in the transformation of the world,
can find it very easy to relate to Jesus as our inspirational teacher,
          and to God as our guiding principle.
But I wonder if sometimes we are so good at following Jesus
          that we miss the fact that he is our friend and our brother.
I wonder if sometimes we are so good at worshipping God
          that we miss the loving embrace of a parent who longs to hold us close
          and to speak words of deep comfort to our troubled struggling souls.
And I wonder what it means for us to let go
          of our well-known and dearly-loved Jesus of history,
in order to encounter the mystery of the resurrected Christ in our midst
          in a new and transformatory way.
What might it mean for us to discover through mystical experience
          the presence of Christ in our community?
What would it mean for us to meet the Spirit of Christ
          in ways yet to be made known,
as our lives find their fulfilment and peaceful resolution
          in the love that draws all things to their perfect conclusion?
We already know the ending,
          so let’s live in the light of it,
          and see what a difference that makes to the story we live by.

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