Easter Sermon on John 20 (1996)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: John 20:1-18;
Acts 10; Col. 3:1-4


Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.'” — NRS John 20:17a

Can you imagine that? Here’s her beloved Lord, whom she thought dead, standing before her, and he says, “Don’t touch me. Don’t hold onto me.” What’s going on here? Grace, I think, grace is going on here. John’s whole manner of telling these resurrection stories is so grace-full. Jesus is busy ascending to his Father, but he takes time to help his followers ascend, too. He realizes we may be a bit slower. We haven’t been raised from the dead yet, and we do not get what’s happening yet. We might not be quite ready yet to embrace this wonderful and amazing life that is standing before us. ‘Mary, don’t embrace me yet — not until you’re ready to really embrace this life that’s standing before you. I don’t think you realize.’ And, of course, we don’t. We don’t quite realize how amazing this life is.

As I said, John’s whole manner of telling these resurrection stories seems to bear the grace of letting us catch on at our own slow pace. It begins with that almost ‘Alphonse and Gaston’ routine of Peter and the beloved disciple. Mary had gone first to the tomb and ran back to tell them that the stone had been rolled away. Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb, and apparently the beloved disciple was a little younger. Because he got there first. But he doesn’t go in yet–perhaps out of deference to the older Peter. He just looks in and sees. Peter finally chugs up, puffing no doubt, and goes in. He sees a little more. Finally, the beloved disciple goes in and he sees a little more. In fact, he believes. Do you get the idea? It’s a gradual process, our ability to see and really believe, our readiness to really embrace the life of our Risen Lord.

So along comes Mary, and it isn’t just an empty tomb to look at anymore. Jesus is standing right there. But she doesn’t recognize him! He’s standing there talking to her, and she’s not ready yet to embrace the idea of his being alive. When he calls her name, she finally recognizes him. But is she ready yet? Is she ready yet to truly be embraced by this amazing and wonderful life? “Don’t hold onto me,” says Jesus.

Do you remember John’s story that comes next? Jesus appears to all of his disciples–all except Thomas, that is. And when the other ten disciples tell Thomas, he isn’t ready yet. He refuses to believe–until Jesus comes one more time, and this time says, ‘Touch me. Thomas, touch my hands and my side. It’s really me. See and believe. And blessed are those who don’t see like you do and yet believe.’

Isn’t there so much grace here? Jesus not only died for us to show us how we live for death. He not only was raised again to call us to truly live for life instead of death. But he also waits for us to get it! He graciously waits for us to be ready to truly embrace this wonderful and amazing life that he came to bring us. Now, that’s grace!

And, heaven knows we’ve needed it. Peter and the beloved disciple needed it. Mary needed it Thomas needed it. Peter still needed it even years later, as we read in our first lesson today. He has gone to the home of a Gentile soldier named Cornelius and had another “Aha!” moment: “Aha! I finally get it. God shows no partiality!” Even years after the resurrection Peter was still learning about this new life Jesus came to give him. And so have we needed the graceful patience of Jesus, because we’ve continued to live for death, too, haven’t we? There’s been some pretty big hints that we haven’t been ready yet. There have been some not-so-subtle hints like the centuries of bloodshed and warfare done in Christ’s name, beginning with the Crusades. And if that seems to far distant, there’s the story from last Sunday’s New York Times about a church in Georgia that wanted to exhume the body of a tiny infant, whose father happened to be black, and their church cemetery had always been all-white. They wanted this family of their congregation to dig up their dead grandchild and move her to another burial place. An official of this church’s denomination called it “an embarrassment to the gospel of Christ.” Like I said, some not-so-subtle hints that we who claim Christ’s name might not quite be ready yet to embrace his life.

The encouraging thing, I suppose, is that we are beginning to more readily see the deadliness of such ways. Are we ready yet? Are we ready to embrace that living Christ, that amazing and wonderful life of Christ?

I’d like to retell one of my favorite stories, by Christian counselor Dennis Linn, about how his mind was changed about God. (1) He describes how his image of God was like stern old Uncle George, that Good Old Uncle George was the sort of person that people respected the old fashioned way [raising arm and fist to indicate ‘respect’ by brute force]. Then he tells this story of how his mind was changed:

One day Hilda came to me crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”Since at the time my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George, I thought “God will probably send your son to hell.” But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad that my … training had taught me … to [instead] ask …, “What do you think?”

“Well,” Hilda replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Although I tended to agree with her, I didn’t want to say, “Right on, Hilda! Your son would probably be sent to hell.” I was again grateful for my theological training which taught me a second strategy: when you don’t know how to solve a theological problem, then let God solve it. So I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. Your son has just arrived at the judgment seat of God. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”

A few minutes later Hilda squeezed my hand. She described to me the entire judgment scene. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.

I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.

Are we ready to be embraced by that kind of love, a love that will as surely give us new life? Are we ready to completely give up the idea of a God who wants anybody dead, a God who wants anybody to suffer? Or are we ready to embrace a God who loves us so much that God came to suffer and die for us, to stand up to death, to conquer death, so that we might truly live for life, so that we might finally stop living for death?

But even if we’re not quite ready yet, the grace doesn’t even end there. Jesus not only died for us to show us how we live for death. He not only was raised again to call us to truly live for life instead of death. But he also waits for us to get it! He graciously waits for us to be ready to truly embrace this wonderful and amazing life that he came to bring us. He comes to us again today in the sharing of bread and wine, to offer us the power of his life. And he’ll keep coming to us again and again and again, until we are finally ready to live 100% for life, standing with him against all the powers of death that remain in this world. He’ll keep coming again and again and again until there are no more powers of death left in this world, until our dinner of bread and wine will become a feast of victory to sing and shout together, “The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdoms of our Lord, and he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!”

Are you ready to embrace the life? Are you ready to be embraced by this life? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 7, 1996

1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.

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