Do Not Cling to Me: The Resurrection Changes Everything
Easter Sunday; John 20:1-18
There’s a modern-day parable called the monkey trap. The idea is that a hunter discovers the perfect way to catch a monkey. He puts a small piece of bait inside a jar that’s secured to the ground. To get the treat that’s in the jar, the monkey would have to reach in and grab onto it. But when the monkey would grab the bait, its fist would make it so it couldn’t pull its hand out. It would be stuck. All the monkey would have to do to get unstuck is let go of the bait. But the monkey doesn’t wanna do that. And because of its stubborn unwillingness to let go, it’s stuck. And if keeps holding on, it’ll be captured by the hunter.
The story doesn’t actually describe a real hunting method (at least to my knowledge). But it does reflect an important spiritual lesson that things we hold onto can harm us. Even if they’re good things in themselves. At the very least, things we cling to can prevent us from moving forward, stagnate our growth. And at its worst, holding onto things can destroy us like the monkey’s unwillingness to let go of the bait caused it to be captured by the hunter.
Today is Easter Sunday, the most celebratory day of the Christian year. Today is the center of our tradition, the cornerstone of our faith, the reason we come to church at all. Every Sunday is a little Easter. And this Sunday is the reason we have every Sunday. Today is the day we celebrate Christ’s conquering death and rising to resurrection life. Today is the day that changed everything.
Just three days before, Jesus had been crucified. Accused by his own people’s religious leaders, arrested, and executed on a Roman cross. The religious and political powers of the day joined together in crucifying the Son of God. The light of the world snuffed out by darkness. The savior of the world tortured and killed. The king of heaven seemingly defeated by earthly power.
There’s so much to say about the Resurrection. How the death of God brings life to the world. How the Resurrection of Jesus Christ opens the door for the resurrection of us all. How the events of that first Easter morning transformed the world. How the Resurrection still changes everything.
There’s so much that can be said about Easter. And every year there’s something new that strikes me about this tremendous world-changing event. This year one thing that strikes me is a small detail we might miss in Johns’ Gospel. Something curious Jesus tells Mary Magdalene: do not hold onto me for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Some wonder if this means Jesus’ resurrected body had not yet solidified into physical form. Or that Jesus was some sort of ghost or vision. But all four Gospels make the case that Jesus’s resurrected body was not a ghost but was solid and physical. Some resurrection accounts describe him eating food. And next week’s story of “Doubting Thomas” includes Thomas actually touching Jesus’ physical wounds. So what does Jesus mean when he tells Mary not to hold onto him? Or as some translations say, “Do not cling to me.”
Well it may not have been a literal instruction to not hug him. Rather, his statement “Do not hold onto me” or “Do not cling to me” could have been describing an important spiritual lesson. Like the one the monkey trap parable tries to teach. An instruction not to cling to the way things were. Not to cling to what used to be. His statement is an invitation to let go of the past and to move forward into whatever God brings next.
Jesus may have known that Mary seeing him would have inspired hope that things could get back to normal, to the way they’d been the past three years when they followed Jesus around Galilee and Judea. Here Jesus is telling Mary that things will not go back to the way they used to be. So do not cling to him in his physical form, but be ready to move beyond the need for his personally incarnate presence because he is eventually ascending to the Father.
“Do not cling to me” means don’t expect things to go back to the way they were. Because the Resurrection changes everything. Do not cling to me is his instruction to let go of her former way of knowing him. To not cling to what the past three years of following him have been like. To not need to depend on him being around all the time, physically present in his human body. He’ll still be present with her of course, but in a new and transformed way.
“Do not hold onto me” is Jesus’ statement that it’s time to leave behind the past because the Resurrection has changed everything. Do not hold onto me is Jesus’ warning that there’s a whole world awaiting her. A world for Mary and Peter and the rest of the disciples where they won’t be disciples following a teacher, but will be apostles sent out by their teacher. Now they will be the leaders. Now they will preach and heal and travel. Now they will have people following them. Now they will discern God’s will and follow the Spirit’s lead. Now they will change the world. Do not cling to the way things used to be, because the Resurrection changes everything!
But we may want to hold onto our former way of knowing Jesus too. We may want to cling to the idea that we need to do enough good to earn God’s love. We may want to cling to the idea that we need to believe strongly enough to prove ourselves. We may want to cling to the idea that we understand what it takes to earn God’s approval. We may want to cling to the idea that we get it, that we understand the mystery, that we can grasp the unknowable ways of God.
The death and Resurrection of Christ shatters the illusion that we can do it ourselves, understand it ourselves, or earn it ourselves. The Resurrection teaches us to not cling to our own works or will power. To not cling to our old understanding of who Jesus is. To not cling to our old understanding of the way the world works. To not cling to our old understanding of how death works! Because the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus changes everything!
Even in our lives, in much smaller ways. Jesus encourages us not to cling to our old ways of understanding things or of relating to him or each other. Like when a child leaves home for college, we might hear Jesus saying “Do not hold onto the former ways, now everything is being transformed.” Or when a new adventure calls you to move, or a new job or relationship suddenly arrives, or when tragedy strikes and your life is forever changed. When it seems our life is experiencing its own moments of death and resurrection. At those times Jesus calls us to not cling to the former ways, but to trust in whatever new thing is arising.
Because both on the cosmic level and on the level of our own personal lives, the pattern of death and resurrection changes everything. As Mary learned on that first Easter morning, Jesus was calling her and all the disciples to leave behind the former things and move into the exciting future God had in store for them. For us too, may the good news of Christ’s rising from the dead inspire the same enthusiasm for the future in us. Following Christ’s call to be his hands and feet in the world. To bear good fruit and manifest the kingdom with our lives. To share the good news of God’s grace and love with the world. The good news of Christ’s rising from the dead. Thanks be to God—for Christ is Risen!