Scripture: John 24:16-17 (NRSV)
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.'"
This week, the stakes are high as we preachers get ready to welcome the largest crowds of the year into our sanctuaries to celebrate Easter. As always, the text tells the story of Jesus, crucified, his body laid in a borrowed tomb, rising from the dead on the third day, and surprising the heck out of his followers in the process.
For those coming to church on Sunday, though, there's little surprise. Worship will begin with the traditional hymn, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" (1708), though more avant-garde worship leaders might opt for "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" (1817). The service will progress through the well-worn scriptures and a sermon about the women going to the grave before sunrise, the impetuous men running ahead, everyone finding the tomb empty, and Mary Magdalene's encounter with the "gardener," followed by her faithful announcement to the disciples that she has "seen the Lord." After the final "Amen," families will depart for egg hunts and ham dinners with Aunt Gertrude. Many won't be back in church again until it is time to hear the comfortable story of a baby in a manger.
There's something else in the familiar story, though, tucked in between Mary's confusion and her faithfulness. Jesus calls her by name and, in a moment of clarity, she sees him for the teacher she has known so well. I imagine Mary Magdalene reaching out to embrace Jesus, only to be brought up short by his next words. "Do not hold on to me," he tells her, before going on to a few more clauses that could only be at home in John's gospel.
"Do not hold on to me," Jesus says, though he could have just as easily told her, "That's not quite who I am anymore," or "You need to find a fresh way to think about me." That's the challenge of Easter preaching: communicating that, even some two millennia later, we still need to let go of the sepia-toned Jesus of our childhood Sunday school lessons, finding that there's still something in the resurrected Christ to surprise and inspire us all.
Help us let go, Holy God, of the predictable Jesus of the past. Open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, and our lives to the surprising Jesus who is not what we expect and who is more than we can imagine. Help us embody the mystery and the challenge that is resurrection. Amen.
Director of Spiritual Care at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, NY. He also serves as pastor of the King Street United Church of Christ in Danbury, CT.