“Holding on & Letting go” Colchester Federated Church, April 17, 2022, (John 20:1-18) Easter Sunday

On this Easter Sunday, we find ourselves beside Mary Magdalene early in the morning on the first day of the week while it is still dark.  The Gospel according to John sets the scene by focusing on Mary going to the tomb only to find that the stone placed in front of that new tomb had already been rolled away.  Mary is so alarmed that she doesn’t even go inside.  Instead, she runs to find Peter and John.  Mary is anguished, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”[1]  As if Jesus’ death by crucifixion wasn’t painful enough, now it seemed that someone had desecrated the place of Jesus’ burial. 

Peter enters the tomb and finds it empty.  Yet Peter notices that the linen cloths that had covered Jesus’ wounded body and the face cloth are lying separately.  John enters the tomb, sees the scene before him, and immediately believes.  Remember that John is talking about himself here—he is the beloved disciple, he immediately sees and believes.  Though curiously, Peter and John just leave.  They go back to the place where they are staying, leaving Mary Magdalene once again alone at the empty tomb of their teacher and friend.

As Mary stands outside near the tomb weeping, she bends down to look inside.  Mary Magdalene sees two angels who question why she’s crying.  She turns around to see Jesus standing there (who also questions why she’s crying).  But she mistakes Jesus for the gardener.  Mary says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”[2]  Think about this act of devotion.  Mary desired for Jesus to be honored in death.  We do this.  We bring flowers to the graves of our loved ones.  We pick out the monuments placed above graves.  We scatter ashes of those we love in places that mattered to them.  Our Easter story begins with a grieving woman doing what many of us do for those we love—honoring their transition from life to death to eternal life.

It’s only when Jesus says her name, “Mary” that she knows him for who he is, that she knows that there is something more here than a memory.  We can wonder about why this was so.  But grief has a way of making us not think clearly.  We go through stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Though grief is not linear, and Mary Magdalene had just been at the foot of the cross to witness Jesus take his last breath days before.  Not weeks, not months, just days before.

Jesus gently instructs Mary, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father.  Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”[3]  Mary does exactly as instructed.  She becomes the first disciple to announce the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ, “I’ve seen the Lord.”[4] 

Those simple words, “I’ve seen the Lord”—begin a new chapter in this story.  Because death did not get the final word.  Violence did not get the final word.  Suffering and grief did not get the final word.  Not in God’s story.  Love and compassion, truth and hope win out.  The Easter story is a unique and transformative event.  So much so that the Christian Church eventually gathered to worship God every Sunday.  Because Jesus rose from death early in the morning, on the first day of the week—Sunday. 

The words Jesus spoke to Mary remain true.  She was not able to hold onto him to keep him there with her alone in the garden outside that empty tomb.  Jesus had yet more work to do, more appearances to make, more lives to transform from an encounter with the Risen Christ.  Those resurrection appearances turned the disciples from flight and abandonment, from hiding out because of fear from persecution, to witnesses and compassionate neighbors spreading the love of God for all people.  We may have different theological understandings of the miracle of Resurrection.  But something amazing had to have happened to empower the disciples to go forth to love and serve God and their neighbors, especially after the painful events that had occurred on the days that we now call Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

It ends up that sometimes in life we are invited to hold on.  Other times, we are invited to let go.  Life may just be a balance between holding on and letting go.  The disciples had to release the pain of Good Friday in order to embrace the miracle of Resurrection on Easter. 

Host and founder of the Global Innovation Show Aidan McCullen shared a wonderful example of how only that which can change can continue.  If we turn to nature, we know that some invertebrates (animals that don’t have a backbone or spine) will undergo a process of shedding their exoskeletons in order to grow.  Anthropods (invertebrates that have exoskeletons) like spiders, caterpillars, lobsters, and crabs fall into this category of shedding off parts of their bodies in order to grow.  If we’ve ever walked along the beach and found an empty crab shell it’s not necessarily a sign that the crab who once inhabited that shell has died.  The crab molt is a sign that the crab has shed its old shell in order to grow a new one.  During this time in its life cycle, the crab is vulnerable because its suit of armor is off.  The crab hides from predators because it can take about a week for that crab’s new shell to harden.  But here’s the amazing thing—if someone would try to prevent the crab from shedding that old shell in order to grow a new shell, that crab would die.  Because the crab has outgrown that too-small-shell and needs to let that old shell go in order to not just stay alive, but keep growing.[5]

We are not meant to be walking around the world in ill-fitting shells that are too small for us.  We are not meant to hold onto the pain of the past to such a degree that we are not moving forward into the promising future that God has yet in store for us.  Jesus told Mary Magdalene, “Don’t hold on to me.”  That wasn’t a rebuke as much as it was a gentle and persistent invitation that it was time to let go of the pain of Good Friday in order to embrace the transformation and new light of Easter morning. 

Death was not the final word in Jesus’ story.  Life is often a balance between holding on and letting go.  Easter Sunday remains an invitation to remember that Jesus came that we might have life, so that we could live life to the fullest.  Sometimes we are invited to hold on.  Other times we are invited to let go.  Following Jesus is about accepting the gift of new life.  Happy Easter.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 20:2, CEB.
[2] John 20:15.
[3] John 20:17.
[4] John 20:18.
[5] Aidan McCullen, “Only That Which Can Change Can Continue — Crab Curves” on The Innovation Show, 30 December, 2021, https://theinnovationshow.io/only-that-which-can-change-can-continue-crab-curves/

Photo by Redaviqui Davilli on Unsplash