John 20:1-18, Matthew 28:1-10
Dos and Don’ts
I’ve been telling you, on Palm Sunday, and again on Maundy Thursday, that our best strategy for being disciples is to stay close to Jesus. “Stay with me,” Jesus was asking us. But today, this Easter morning, Jesus’s message is strikingly different: “Don’t hold on to me.” - “Go!” How do we get from one to the other? Why does Jesus tell Mary not to hold on to him, to stay with him? And what do his words mean for our discipleship?
Today we’ve heard the Easter stories from two gospels - John’s gospel - the most well known version - and Matthew’s account. This phrase - “don’t hold on to me” - occurs only in John’s version, although I think the meaning of the phrase is in Matthew’s account too. At first brush, Jesus’s words sound kind of dismissive to me, as if Mary is somehow being too clingy. And I don’t know about you, but if I thought that my dearest loved one, my teacher, who I’d devoted my life to, had died, been put to death, and then suddenly they seemed to somehow be alive after all, resurrected: well, I’d be clingy. I wouldn’t want to let them out of my sight for a second. Instead, the first thing, nearly the only thing Jesus really says to Mary, aside from getting her to recognize who he is, is this “Do not hold on to me.” Jesus says that he is “ascending to God,” as if that explains everything, and while he tells Mary what not to do, he does also tell her what she should do: “Go and tell.” Go and tell the disciples what she’s seen. She does. “I have seen the Lord.” Mary is the first preacher of the resurrection news.
Still, why the “don’t hold on to me?” I’ve been trying to think about where I’ve heard this phrase in my life - it was sort of striking at my memories. “Don’t hold on to me.” When do we say that? And it struck me: My 8 year old niece Siggy says this to me all the time, whenever she is trying to do something daring, some trick she’s working out, some gymnastic maneuver, some tumbling feat, some wild antic she has a vision of in her head, and I, Aunt Beth, have visions of broken bones and the potential for head injuries, and I just want her to be safe, and so I want to hold on to her - steady her, make her more secure, make her take a bit less of risk. “Aunt Beth, don’t hold on to me,” said with a little exasperation, and a little thrill at whatever feat of daring she’s about to try. And so I try - I try to let go enough for her to be the brave and bold person she wants to be.
I can only imagine that Mary, that others, seeing Jesus, who they thought they had lost, would want to “keep” him. They failed to protect him before - but now that they have a second chance, they will protect him from harm. They won’t let him out of their sight. This time, they will stand up to his enemies, they won’t fall away, they will get it right, and they will stick to Jesus like glue. But things have changed. Now, if they want to stay with Jesus, they have to let go, because Jesus is on the move. Jesus has things to do. Jesus is going to God, and the best way to be with Jesus now will be to let him go, so that they can get to work sharing the good news of resurrection and life. It’s a big shift to make. I can only imagine how Mary must have felt, leaving Jesus at the tomb. But whatever hesitation she might have been feeling, and however much she worried, however much her impulse was to resist the “don’t hold on to me,” she does just what Jesus asks.
Matthew’s Easter story is a bit different, but I think it actually mirrors John’s gospel well. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene is accompanied by another Mary - Jesus’s mother perhaps, or one of the other women with this common name. They first find an angel, a messenger of God at the empty tomb. Matthew also starts with a “don’t” - don’t be afraid. “Don’t be afraid,” the messenger says. “You’re looking for Jesus, but he has been raised.” And, as in Matthew, the messenger doesn’t want the women to linger. They get to “come and see,” but then they have a task: “Go - quickly - and tell.” The women obey, both full of joy, but still full of fear, despite instructions. But before they can get to the disciples, they see Jesus himself. Perhaps sensing that they haven’t yet listened fully to the messenger’s “don’t,” Jesus repeats it and their task. “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell.” We don’t know if the women remained afraid or not, but we don’t hear about it again. So perhaps, from Jesus’s own mouth, they could let those words sink in. “Don’t be afraid.”
It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t want us to stay close to him once Easter hits, once the resurrection happens. It’s that we have to make sure we’re staying close to Jesus for the best reasons. Are we holding on to Jesus because of his risk-taking that makes us uncomfortable? Is it that we want Jesus to be safe - so we can be safe? Does Jesus and his way of confronting, and breaking boundaries, and making a stir scare us? Do we want to hold on, to stay close, to keep an eye on Jesus? There’s a deep connection between “Don’t hold on to me” and “don’t be afraid.” Jesus knows our default mode is to be afraid. As much as we long for new life, new life is actually pretty scary too. It is so unknown. New life changes everything. And as much as we might be ready for change, the lives we know are comfortable. Safe. “Don’t be afraid.” Again and again in the scriptures, and again right here - “don’t be afraid.”
One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, writes: “Being unafraid is an odd vocation; but it is the vocation of all those who have been baptized. We are different when baptized. The Acts account of the early church says that the Spirit of God came upon Jesus in baptism …. What the Spirit does is visit our lives … with the freedom of God, so that we are unafraid in the world, able to live differently, not needing to control, not needing to dominate, not needing to accumulate, not driven by anxiety.” The disciples, he says, were “known, named, and unafraid people,” who “turned the world upside down.” “Or better to say, they turned the world right side up.” He continues: “The truth is that frightened people will never turn the world, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized, the known and named and unafraid, to make the world whole.” (1)
“Don’t hold on to me, Aunt Beth.” Maybe I’ll never read John’s Easter account again without Siggy’s voice ringing in my ear. And oh, I want to hold on! I want my girl to be safe, and sometimes, her antics leave me full of fear! But more than I want to hold on, I want her to experience life to the full. I want her to be brave, to take big risks so that she finds great joy.
And that’s what God wants for us, too. “Don’t hold on to me,” says Jesus. Resurrection is risky stuff. And it’s active. New life means being on the move. Jesus has things to do. And as resurrection people, staying with Jesus means letting him go, so he can go ahead of us into the world, and we can follow. Don’t hold on, but don’t be afraid. Instead, come and see, and then go and tell, and go and tell, and go and tell.
A Way Other than Our Own, 60-61.