“Holding Pattern”

Jn 20

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

My father served in the Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War, and he remained an officer in the Marine reserves for many years after that.

Later in his life, my father became involved in a renewal movement within the Episcopal Church. The movement was particularly effective in getting people to open up about their personal thoughts and feelings. Participants in group meetings and retreats bonded emotionally, and they often greeted each other with hugs.

Now Marines of my father’s generation weren’t known for being warm and fuzzy! I remember being amazed the first time my father actually hugged me—I must have been forty at the time!

This change in behavior stemmed from my father’s deepening faith. Because he had become closer to God, he felt free to express his love for his fellow Christians in new ways.

In fact, my father was only rediscovering the ancient community of the Church. Emotional bonding was central to the church from the beginning: early Christians exchanged “the Kiss of Peace” during their worship to show that they were all equal members of the Body of Christ.

And so we can imagine that Mary Magdalene wanted to extend the same sign of fellowship when she saw Jesus outside his tomb on the first Easter Day.

At first, though, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. She mistakenly believes that he’s the local gardener. When Mary realizes that the stranger is actually Christ, risen from the dead, her instinctive reaction is to reach out and embrace him.

At this point that the story takes another unexpected twist. Jesus says to Mary, “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.’”

“Do not hold onto me.” In the context of the story, we see that Jesus appeared in what theologians call his “resurrection body.” Jesus didn’t simply spring back to life. When he was raised from the dead by God, he assumed a spiritual form. So at the time Mary saw him, he was in a kind of transition phase between physical existence in this world and his final destination in the realm of Heaven.

Now this idea of a resurrection body is admittedly imprecise. We don’t have scientific language to describe Jesus as he appeared to the disciples.

For me, though, the strange dialogue in today’s Gospel is proof that something extraordinary happened on Easter morning. Mary Magdalene wasn’t just seeing what she wanted to see. She wasn’t having a fantasy of her long-lost teacher and friend. Before her in the garden was a real person – a person whom she hadn’t imagined in her wildest dreams she would ever see again.

“Do not hold onto me.” Much of religion is about holding. As St. Paul said, we should “hold fast to that which is good.” Not only do we bond with fellow Christians, but we also commit ourselves to eternal truths, such as the belief that God loves us or that we should help those in need.

So, when Mary Magdalene reached out to touch the Risen Christ, she was, at the same time, reaching out to God. She was grasping for spiritual support; she wanted to embrace the Holy Spirit.

But while this gesture of Mary’s faith is moving, Christ’s brisk refusal is important too. His words remind us that we can’t always cling to the divine.

God can’t be manipulated by our desires to satisfy our every whim. The divine can be elusive.

And so, as Mary Magdalene discovered, God can surprise us. Think of periods in your life when you didn’t seem to be going anywhere. When your daily routine was dull and predictable. When no work or leisure options appealed to you.

You might have prayed then for something new and different—and you might have been disappointed. But then something happened to break you out of your doldrums. God surprised you.

My father retired early from business. Although he had planned on teaching, he never found a job in education that he liked. So while he played a lot of golf and was active in his church, my father still felt time weighing on his hands.

Then, in his 70’s, he found himself the manager of a church-run soup kitchen that was attached to a homeless shelter. This was a surprise career choice for my father, whose political views had rarely included much interest in what he would call, “welfare!”

But he blossomed in his new role of caretaker to individuals and families who had many needs and few prospects. He used his marketing skills to convince local businesses to give the kitchen bulk donations of food.

In the process, my father learned two lessons. First, that sometimes, we need to reach out and take chances if we are going to find the work God wants us to do.

Yet, at the same time, we have to be open to God’s call to us. Leaving the cemetery, Mary Magdalene went on to join a revived community of Christ’s followers. New life is always possible.

I can’t let our Easter celebration pass by without mentioning my own new life. When my wife Mary died in 2008, I assumed I would be single for the rest of my life. Yet today, I find myself preparing for an autumn wedding with a wonderful woman named Dana.

I didn’t think I would be so lucky—so blessed. I was on my own for some time, and I was very unsure where God might be leading me. I knew I couldn’t simply pray for an end to the loneliness I felt and expect that God would immediately answer me.

And yet—now my time of solitude has ended. So I have been given a gift from the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who always wants to lead us to new life in his Son.

Now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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