Saturday, April 11, 2020

Can We Have An Easter Without Touching?

John 20:11-18
Resurrection of the Lord
April 12, 2020
William G. Carter

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

My friends, what a wonderful privilege it is to celebrate Easter with you! This is the day of resurrection. We proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive. This is the Christian song of triumph. The grave could not hold our Lord. The anger and hatred that nailed Jesus to the cross are canceled. Hope punctures our helplessness. We greet you with the words, “Happy Easter,” because Christ is risen.   

But what unusual circumstances these are! When the season of Lent began six and a half weeks ago, few of us expected that we wouldn’t be together today. An unseen virus has swept viciously across the globe. Good health dictates that we must be cautious, restraining ourselves in awkward and uncomfortable ways. This is not the way we thought we would mark this day.  

Some have drawn connections between our circumstances and those of the first Easter. Today the churches are empty, and the tomb of Jesus was empty. Today most people are in their homes; the scriptures tell us it was that way for the first circle of Christ followers. There were mixed feelings in the air, conflicting reports about what was going on; some would say then as now. And for many, there is a measure of fear.

But none of this, then or now, can shut down Easter. Easter reveals the power of God, in the raising of Jesus from the dead.  The Messiah of God who taught of God’s dominion over all life is teaching again. The Great Physician who healed people of their dis-ease, both physical and emotional, is still healing. The Prophet who spoke truth to power is still unmasking everything that is false. The One who referred to himself as the Bread of Life cannot be bound by death. He continues to offer us life, the abundant life of God’s eternity.

This is the truth about Easter. Fear and worry cannot shut it down. And if we read the Gospel accounts, we see that fear and worry are always the context into which the Easter story is told. There are frightened disciples, hiding behind locked doors, afraid to go outside. There are frightened religious leaders, fearful of the disruption of everything they thought they could count on. There are frightened public officials who want to rush through the situation and do what is expedient for themselves.

And there is Mary Magdalene, who provides a singular face for what it means to encounter the Risen Christ. The Gospel of John keeps the focus on Mary alone. None of the other women who went to the tomb are mentioned in John’s book. Other Easter accounts name the others, but today we hear only of Mary Magdalene.

She goes to the tomb of her beloved friend before the sun comes up. We don’t know why, and we don’t really need a reason. According to the account, she stood with his mother and watched him die. She was there at the foot of the cross. She saw the soldiers humiliate him. She heard the onlookers make fun of him. She watched him take it, take it all, and then she heard him entrust his own mother to one of his friends. Then she heard him breathe out the words, “It is finished.”

Now, it’s a couple of days later, and she visits his tomb. To her shock and dismay, she sees the stone has been moved. So she runs into the city, finds Simon Peter and another, and says, “Someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where he is.” The two men run off to check it out, see the scene, and then they head back to their homes. There is nothing they can do.

Mary has trailed behind them, back to the graveside. As the two men stumble back into town, she stands alone and cannot hold back the tears. They had humiliated him on the cross. Now grave robbers have humiliated him again. That’s all she can conclude. Bending down to look into the grave, she sees two angels and they ask why she weeps. There is no comfort in that. Through scalded eyes, she stammers out, “They have taken away my Lord.” And the tears are real. 

Sensing someone there, she turns and sees the gardener. At least she thinks that’s who it is. Apparently, he heard the angels, too, for he asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She wonders if he might have taken away the body. Then the unknown gardener speaks her name: “Mary!” His voice punctures her fog. She recognizes who it is and gives him a big, old hug. 

He says, “Stop it! Don’t touch me!” It’s a shocking thing for him to say. This year, it’s the one word that I hear him say. Don’t hold on to me.  

Wow. Do you suppose we can have an Easter without touching?

Touch is important. It is one of the most naturally human things we can do. Mary Magdalene appropriately did what any friend would do. She extended her arms to the beloved one she thought she had lost. Here he is, back again somehow. She reaches toward him with a genuine gesture of love – and he shuts her down. Don’t do that. It’s curious, in a way even stranger than the truth of his resurrection.

Jesus knew the power of touch. When he healed, he frequently did so with his hands. One of the big moments in the Gospel of John was the healing of a man who had been born without his sight. You may recall what Jesus did. He spat on the ground and stirred up some mud as a salve. He stuck his thumbs in it and spread it all over the man’s unseeing eyes. Then he said, “Wash in the pool of Siloam.” The man did what he was told and then he could see (9:1-7). Like other healers of his day, Jesus healed through the power of his touch.

And yet, on other occasions he healed without touching at all. In Capernaum, a royal official begged Jesus to help his son, who was at the point of death. “Come down,” he said, “before my little boy dies.” Jesus said, “Go, and your son will live.” The man trusted what the Lord said. On his way home, his excited servants met him to announce the boy had recovered (4:46-54). 

Or there was the day Jesus saw an invalid by the so-called miracle pool of Beth-zatha. There was a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well? Stand up and walk!” That’s exactly what happened. Jesus could heal with his voice. There was no touch involved as far as we know. Jesus could heal with the power of his Word (5:1-9).

But what are we to make of what he says to Mary Magdalene? Our scripture lesson puts it, “Don’t hold on to me.” In the original language, the verb tense suggests, “Stop hanging on to me.” Or “stop clinging to me.” However we hear it, his words sound abrupt and insensitive. Yet they point us to a deeper truth. He is risen.

Mary thinks Jesus is back, that God has resuscitated him, just as Jesus resuscitated his good friend Lazarus. But this is resurrection, which is so much more than resuscitation. As someone notes, “The risen Jesus is not restored to the normal life that he possessed before death; he possesses eternal life and is in God’s presence.”[1] By the grace of God, Jesus is more thoroughly alive even than he was before. Mary can’t hang on to the former way that she knew the Lord; now she must relate to him in a different way. 

This is what the Gospel of John wants us to see and trust. In this Gospel, we hear Jesus say repeatedly, “When I am lifted up,” and it refers to three things: lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up into heaven. In chapter 12, for instance, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” The Gospel writer clarifies it by adding, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die (12:32-33).” And John also he uses the same verb to signify resurrection and ascension.

Jesus must return to the Father in heaven. He must do this so he can become more than the friend of Mary. Now he will offer himself as the friend of all. While he can still become very real to specific people in specific situations, he is not bound to one place or one time. He is eternal, and he is with God. Now he is available to everybody.

On this very odd Easter in the middle of a pandemic, this is a helpful Gospel word. This is our big day. We want to worship in a crowded church. We want our voices to resonate with a well-tuned choir. We want to see the flowers, admire the new Easter outfits, welcome back the exiles, and for some of us, offer plenty of handshakes and hugs. For health reasons, we cannot do this.

Yet it is still Easter, and maybe this Easter we can discern a truth that has been with us all along. Jesus Christ is lifted up: cross, resurrection, and now ascension. Each of us can turn toward him, for he is accessible to all. In the same way, he is not bound to the first century in a far-off land. The Savior can find every one of us. 

In the power of his presence, we don’t have to be afraid of anything. We don’t have to be afraid of a health pandemic. Sure, it’s a good idea to wash our hands and keep to the social distancing for a while; that’s just good sense and a way to love our neighbors. But in this season of social distancing, Christ is alive, and he can find us.

As he said at the Last Supper, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate – my Holy Spirit – will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (16:7).” This is the new reality that Easter makes possible. All of us can have a living relationship with the Risen Christ, through the presence of his Spirit. Through that Spirit, we are also present with one another.

So we celebrate today. Though we are in separate locations, there is something powerful that binds us together, something unseen, something that continues to reveal the grace and truth of God. Across town, or across the miles, we are knit together in the love of Jesus.  

Please know that I hold you in my heart during this time of separation, for it is Christ who holds us all in his heart. I miss you and cannot wait until we are together in worship again. I pray our Lord will reveal himself to you this day. I pray he will keep you and your loved ones safe. And I am especially grateful that he will always hold on to all who belong to him. 

For here is the Good News: though we are apart, there is nothing in life or death that shall ever separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. He is lifted up. Happy Easter!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970) p. 1013


  1. Thank you Bill for allowing me to walk through the garden, to see others there and to remind me that Jesus does not need physical touching to be with me. Now we have space and time to quietly rediscover this blessing. He is risen indeed!

  2. Very real explanation of His message, If I am lifted up I will draw all people to me.