Easter Sermon on John 20 (2002)

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


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.

What does it mean to ascend to the Father? I think it’s what St. Paul is talking about in our second lesson today, when he speaks about setting our minds on things above. This doesn’t mean we aren’t to think about things of this life or this earth. It means that we need to begin to think about life and this world from a heavenly perspective, from God’s perspective. In Jesus, we are able to begin to think of our lives from God’s way of thinking. He’s ascending to the Father, and he’s way ahead of us. He realizes we may be a bit slower to think things from a heavenly perspective. And so 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 ‘Laurel and Hardy’ 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, in better shape, because he got there first. But he doesn’t go in yet — perhaps out of deference to the older Peter. He just looks in, glancing at the empty linens. Peter finally chugs up, puffing no doubt, and goes in. He sees a little more — the cloth that went around Jesus’ head. Finally, the beloved disciple goes in and has real insight. In fact, he believes. He believes that Jesus has risen. 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.

And poor Mary. She is so focused on death, on finding a dead body, that she misses what is right before her eyes — first two angels and then Jesus. She sees them with her eyes but not her understanding, because she’s so focused on death. And that’s the real difference between our usual ways of thinking and God’s way of thinking, right there. We, like Mary, are usually so focused on death that we miss God’s true power of life. Mary sees Jesus’ living body 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 by 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.

Isn’t there so much grace here? Jesus understands that the disciples aren’t quite ready to embrace this much power of life yet. He knows that they have held onto their idols of false gods of death for so long, that they can’t give them up overnight. They aren’t ready to embrace such a God of life yet. So he also waits for them to get it! Now, that’s grace!

What do I mean by holding onto false gods of death? Our first lesson is a prime example. The Book of Acts contains stories of the apostles after the resurrection. And Peter still has an “Aha!” moment about who God is. He has gone to the home of a Gentile soldier named Cornelius and says: “Aha! I finally get it. God shows no partiality!” He has still continued to follow the false gods who lead us into making distinctions between people, some who are in and some who are out, some who will be rewarded by God with life and some who will be punished with death. Well, the true God doesn’t make such distinctions. He knows that we all play these idolatrous games of insiders and outsiders which leads to death. We are so focused on death, on making sure that we aren’t among the dead corpses left behind at the end. God knows that we are all about death, when it comes down to it, but God shows no partiality. God forgives us all. God invites every one of us in Christ Jesus to fully embrace life and to quit playing those games of judgmentalism.

And so have we continued to need the graceful patience of Jesus, because we’ve continued to live for death? There’s been some pretty big hints that we haven’t been ready yet. We probably have even taken some steps backwards from ascending with Jesus to the Father. There have been some not-so-subtle hints like the centuries of bloodshed and warfare done in Christ’s name, beginning with the Crusades. But I want to focus on something much more subtle this morning.

Are we ready to embrace the living Christ, for instance, when we continue to insist on a God who eternally punishes people to damnation. Easter is about celebrating a God of life. Do we continue to believe in a God who wields death and punishment? The gospel-writer St. John also wrote a letter to his church in which he sums up the Easter gospel this way: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Are we ready to embrace a God who is wholly and completely light? Are we ready to embrace a God who is solely about life and never death?

I’d like to tell one of my favorite stories, by Christian counselor Dennis Linn, about how his mind was changed about God. (1) Pastor Dennis basically has an “Aha!” moment very similar to Peter’s. He describes how his image of God bore some of that darkness and death. His image of God was like his stern old Uncle George than the God who graciously gives us forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ. Then, he tells this story of how his mind was finally 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? 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 end there. Jesus 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!” Come to the victory table and receive a foretaste of this feast to come.

Are we ready yet to embrace such life? Are we ready yet to be embraced by such a power of life?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, March 31, 2002


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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