Sermons

Sun, Apr 16, 2017

Clinging and letting go

Sermon for Easter Day
Series:Sermons

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”––

it’s an adage usually attributed to Mark Twain…

and while it’s the sort of thing that I can imagine him saying…

we don’t really know…

but we won’t worry about the facts.

In any case, it’s an adage that well and truly applies to the Gospel stories…

and, in particular, the whole Easter story––

from Good Friday through to Easter Day.

While we can be fairly certain that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate…

all of the Gospel writers exercised considerable creativity in telling that story.

This year, for Good Friday, we heard John’s version of the suffering and death of Jesus.

And some noted how poor old Pilate was trapped and manipulated by the Jerusalem religious establishment.

In the other Gospels, however, we get quite a different picture.

Especially in Matthew’s version…

you get the sense that it’s actually Pilate who is manipulating the crowd…

in order to get what he wants.

And, given what we know about the historical Pontius Pilate…

that’s entirely more feasible.

But the author of John’s Gospel wants to lay the blame for the death of Jesus…

squarely on the Jerusalem religious establishment…

and crafts his story accordingly.

Furthermore, many of the details of the Good Friday stories…

are shaped by the Old Testament––

a number of elements, for example, are drawn from Psalm twenty-two…

such as the cry of dereliction––

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”––

which we hear in the other three Gospels…

but not in John’s.

In fact, John’s version is almost slightly sanitised and serene––

Jesus is much more in control…

and almost slightly ‘other-worldly’;

we don’t, actually, get as great a sense of the physical…

emotional…

or spiritual suffering of Jesus.

That, clearly, fits with this author’s particular theology.

But it reinforces the point made by the renowned New Testament scholar––

John Dominic Crossan––

that, “The details of Jesus’ death were not fact remembered and history recorded”…

but “prayer recollected and psalm historicized”.

The stories of Good Friday are as much inspired and shaped by the particular author’s theology…

as they are by any historical facts.

But the same can be said of the stories of Easter Day.

So many of the details are symbolic…

and theologically inspired––

the miraculous rolling away of the stone…

the neatly folded grave-clothes…

and the angelic messengers.

And that’s before we get to the specific elements that are unique to each Gospel writer.

And yet, despite that, nowhere do we get a clear enunciation of a theology of Easter.

Nowhere do the Gospel writers offer us an interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

At best we get just a few hints––

often in the material that’s unique to each author.

And, in that respect, the author of John’s Gospel is no exception––

and we see that especially in his story of Mary Magdalene in the garden.

 

Unlike in the other Gospels, here, Mary comes to the tomb alone…

clearly, simply to grieve…

because Jesus’ body has already been embalmed by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

And she comes in darkness––

symbolising, in this Gospel, a darkness of perception.

And she weeps and keeps on weeping.

Upon being repeatedly asked why she is weeping…

she complains that Jesus has been taken away…

and she doesn’t know where.

As with the other stories that we have seen from John’s Gospel recently…

this story is symbolic.

It’s meant to teach us something about ourselves…

and about God.

And the characters that we meet in it are meant to be typical or representative…

characters with whom we’re meant to identify…

characters in whom we see ourselves and our experience.

Here Mary Magdalene is us––

all of us––

in our experience of grief and loss…

searching for answers…

trying to make sense.

And yet…

more than that…

in the apparent absence of Jesus––

also, here, a representative figure––

it’s our story of searching for God in the midst of human suffering.

So, in the end, this is a story of the human quest for meaning––

indeed, the archetypal spiritual journey.

 

And when Jesus does appear…

Mary doesn’t recognise him.

She doesn’t recognise him even when he speaks to her.

She only recognises him when he says her name.

Of course, we could say that resurrection––

as all of the New Testament writers understand it––

isn’t a simple resuscitation of a corpse;

that it involves some form of transformation;

and that’s why Mary didn’t recognise him.

But that’s missing the point of John’s symbolism.

Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus––

and, by extension, God––

because she’s not expecting to find him there.

And…

even more than that…

he doesn’t come to her in the manner that she was expecting.

When she does recognise him…

clearly she seeks to embrace him…

and to hold on…

lest he slip away from her again…

leading Jesus to remark, literally, “Do not cling to me”.

Theologically…

then…

this story is suggesting that the God who is with us––

the God whom we encounter in our suffering and loss…

indeed, in our human existence––

does not necessarily come to us in a form or a manner that we would expect.

But, more than that…

this story is asserting that the God of the resurrection is an elusive God––

not controlled by our expectations…

not confined by our beliefs…

not constrained by our need for certainty.

So often we want a God who can be controlled...

a God who is manageable and predictable…

a God who is on our side...

who does what we want and when we want it.

We want a God who blesses our decisions and plans...

confirms our beliefs...

reinforces our values...

upholds our principles...

preserves our way of life...

meets our needs…

and maintains the status quo.

In short, we want a God who is safe.

But the God of the resurrection is one who is not safe;

a God who cannot be controlled, confined, or constrained.

If, in a manner of speaking, Good Friday was our attempt to pin God down…

Easter Day shows that to be a failure.

 

In a sense…

for the author of John’s Gospel…

the foundational death and resurrection of the Easter story…

involves our conceptualisation of God…

and our relationship to God.

For the author…

it’s not about clinging to what has been…

and to former ways of seeking and relating…

but allowing God to be God––

trusting in the God whom we cannot see…

who is above and beyond…

who is not at our beck-and-call…

who cannot be defined or confined;

it’s in not trying to cling to our concepts and experiences of God that we…

in effect…

become children of God…

and that the God of Jesus becomes our God.

It’s only when we surrender our attempts to cling to our concepts of God––

and, more importantly, surrender our efforts to confine others to those concepts as well––

that we are free to experience the living…

and life-giving…

God.

If the God of the resurrection can’t be controlled, confined, or constrained…

then neither does God control, confine, or constrain.

And if we truly grasped that…

then perhaps we would, indeed, experience new…

abundant…

transformed…

resurrected life.

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