09 April 2015

Beyond Our Grasp

John 20:1-18

Resurrection of the Lord
5th April 2015

Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

With gratitude for the life, witness, ministry, and deep friendship of Lawson R. Brown.  Whenever I read John 20:17, I will think of him. Lawson died on the 8th April in Dundee, Scotland. He was 83.

 In John’s telling there’s always something more just beyond our grasp. Matthew and Luke each have their versions of the story. In Mark’s gospel there is no resurrection appearance, only an empty tomb.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in unique ways, each attempt to describe the indescribable. 

John’s version is rich in detail and imagery, and yet it’s remarkable that in his telling resurrection is always more than a fact of history, more than something that we nail down to an exact moment in time, a verifiable event. The story, the narrative, even Jesus himself are there…and not there, present yet absent, available for the eye to see but not for the hand to touch. And so this Easter morning I want to stay very close to John’s text to see what he might be up to here.

Let’s consider Mary Magdalene.  She goes to the tomb, in the dark, before first light, expecting to see one thing, namely the closed tomb where Jesus was placed, only to find something else, a stone removed.  She arrives after the fact.  She arrives after the event, and comes across the after effects of a previous occurrence, namely a stone that had been rolled away. The event itself is missing, just like the unseen hand or force or whatever that rolled the stone away and removed the body.

Then Mary goes to Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved,” most likely John.  “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb,” she says, “and we do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:2). Taken away.  Removed from.  Displacement once again. That which was once “present,” there, is now gone, removed, absent.  They always seem to be one step removed from some previous act or event.

Then Simon Peter and John arrive to see for themselves.  John looks into the empty tomb and “sees the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in” (Jn. 20:5). Linens that once wrapped a dead body lie there missing a body. This, too, is striking. Suggesting an absent body brings to mind the memory of a once-present dead body.  There’s always this play between presence and absence in the story.  Startled by what he sees, John steps back. 

Then Peter goes into the empty tomb and fills the space with his presence.  He, too, sees the burial “linens lying there,” then he discovers “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn. 20:7).  Apart.  Like Mary, they, too, arrive late, removed from some previous, mysterious act.  They discover that someone removed the body, just as Mary said.  But they also discover that someone actually removed the body!  Someone—again we have an absent, unseen hand, which has such a strong presence throughout the narrative—someone unraveled the linens from around the body, unbound the body, carefully, leaving traces of this act in what remained behind.  They saw for themselves and believed for themselves.  And, so Mary was a faithful witness—but what did she really see?

Peter and John then leave Mary behind—in her grief.  Nice job, guys! They just leave her! Every time I read this I’m struck by their thoughtlessness.

Still crying, she finds the courage to bend over and look in for herself.  And then Mary is blessed with seeing something that Peter and John either missed or were kept from seeing.  She saw a curious sight, two angels “sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet” (Jn. 20:12).  She says to the angels, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:13).  Again, a narrative loaded with absence, “taken away,” lost, once found.  She doesn’t assume that he got up and walked out of the tomb, she’s not expecting resurrection. Someone must have removed the body.  This is probably the reason why she doesn’t recognize Jesus when he does appear (from out of nowhere). She doesn’t recognize him because she wasn’t expecting to see him.  We see what we’re looking for. Jesus then echoes the same question posed by the angel, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (Jn. 10:15).  And so she begins to retell the story of Jesus’ displacement, of his misplacement, and her disorienting, unsettling experience.

Suddenly, her absent Lord utters her name—“Mary!  Mary!”  The lost is found.  But the one who has now found him never really “has” him.  You can imagine her running toward Jesus with joy and disbelief, wanting to hug him, hold him.  Wouldn’t you?  Wouldn’t you?  But then Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me” (Jn. 20:17a).  Do not grasp me.  Do not hold me here. Do not try to keep me down.  Do not try to manipulate or control or define me—or what has happened here.  “I am ascending.”  I won’t be here long.

Always beyond our grasp.

It’s a remarkable text, John’s gospel. He’s making an historical claim: the actual facticity of Jesus’ resurrection.  It happened.  It occurred.  That’s worth commemorating. And yet that event is always a disappointment to the historian because what happened is not subject to historical analysis.  However, John never said he was an historian. At the beginning of his gospel he doesn’t say, “I, John, an historian, here recount this story.” He’s a gospel writer, the sharer of good news.  What we are doing here today is claiming, celebrating, giving thanks to God for a theological claim that is true every Sunday, every day. 

Resurrection, the resurrected Jesus is always beyond our reach and Jesus remains the ever-elusive one whose presence is known even in his absence.  It’s the unresolved tension of presence and absence in John’s account that points the way toward something else that’s absolutely essential, crucial, here, something that should give us a clue about whose been at work here all along: The unseen hand of Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, is written all over this story.  How do we know?

Go back into that empty space.  Not the empty tomb, but the space between the two angels in the tomb, “one at the end and the other at the feet” (Jn. 20:12).  John’s gospel is the only one with this version of what happened—and nothing in John’s gospel is there by mistake.  God is, literally, in the details. 

John never says this explicitly, but any Jew reading this would immediately think of a similar image: the mercy seat of Yahweh, the ark of the covenant, the dwelling place of Yahweh. Which was flanked with what? Two cherubim, two angels.[1]  This is remarkable.  The two cherubim that flank the ark defined a space, an empty space, where Yahweh dwelt, present between the cherubim, yet never portrayed.  Present and absent at the same time.  The theological claim here is this, “If you want to see the God of Judah, this is where he is and is not: to ‘see’ him is to look into the gap between the holy images.”[2]  God is the one invisibly enthroned, non-representable.  Yahweh has always been understood as one who is non-possessable, mystery, difficult to recognize, impossible to “nail down,” indeterminate, always beyond our understanding, beyond our grasp, and yet, somehow, here, present, real, now. 

This is the God who raised Jesus from the grave.  This is all God’s doing.  It has God’s “fingerprint” all over it.  The Resurrected Lord is the embodiment of God’s redemptive love in the world, a strong love that cannot—will not—be bound or contained or grasped by us or the world or even the Church!  That’s the good news!

Therefore, we must resist absorbing Jesus into our visions or images of him, making him do or say the things that only reinforce our beliefs or ideologies or attitudes or opinions.  If you think you have Jesus all figured out––he’s not the Risen Lord.

And, again, we need to remember that John’s gospel was never meant to be what we might call historical non-fiction.  Neither was it was it written with the scholarly demands of the historian in mind. 

John had only one audience in mind: you and me.  In other words: the Church.  He had you and me in mind.  And John wanted his community then, and every community of the Nazarene, to know that “Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified is not confined in the past”—the past is the place of the dead—“and that his non-confinement is more than just some sort of survival in the minds or memories of Christian believers.”[3]  John isn’t saying that Jesus “lives” in our memories.  That was never, ever the claim of the early church. Ever. Instead, they claimed—and I claim here today—that what God did in and through Jesus continues unabated in and through this same Jesus. Today. “Do not hold me here,” Jesus said to Mary. We can also imagine Jesus saying the same to the Church.  “Do not hold me—there, in the past, or here, in the present.”  For he’s always beyond our grasp, always ahead of us, calling us forward into God’s future.  And so, we could say that Jesus has “unfinished business” to do in the world through us—through you and me.[4]

The good news that we proclaim to the world today is this: the absent-present-One, the present-absent-One is here with us.  Christ is risen! The absent-present-One, the present-absent-One is here within us, within our hearts, and also here, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine, and yet not localized here in the elements, but there and there and there in you and you and you and here and here and here

The Resurrected One, the Lord of Life, is here.  And if he’s the one you’re looking for today, then listen carefully, for you will hear him calling your name.

Image: Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Resurrection (Noli me tangere/ Do not touch me), c.1306-07, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.

[1] See 2 Samuel 6:2 & Isaiah 37:16.
[2] Rowan Williams, “Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne,” On Christian Theology (Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 183-196.  I’m grateful for this absolutely brilliant essay on the image of the empty throne in John’s gospel.  I came across this piece more than ten years ago and have been waiting for an Easter when it seemed “right” to use it.
[3] Williams, 188.
[4] Williams, 192.

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