Stop Clinging and Start Living (a sermon from John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43)
Regardless of what you or I or any Christian believes about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection or what a resurrected state of existence might look like, I think the real message of Easter has to do with what it means to trust in and be faithful to the reality and power of Christ in our lives today. Easter is not simply about God raising a human being from the dead, which I personally don’t think is that big of a deal for God to do. I think the big deal of Easter is what it says to you and me right now. And what it says is that the faith, hope, and love of Jesus, the goodness and grace of Jesus, the compassion and comfort of Jesus, the courage and prophetic critique and challenge of Jesus is present right now and accessible right now.
I love this image in John’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene clinging to Jesus once she realizes it is Jesus. It calls to mind all the ways I try to keep Jesus in my little box and all the ways I cling to the same old tired and worn ways of thinking and reacting to life. If we could see with a deeper sense of what constitutes the reality and truth of things we would be liberated to live in the power of Christ, the power of love that is available to all of us. We would be free to dream, and we would find the courage and faith to break out of old negative habits and patterns that have us trapped. Surely, the message of Easter compels us to imagine new categories, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing life.
If we would allow the power of resurrection, the power of love to impact our lives now then we would be able to stop clinging to the failures and regrets of our past.
One of the beautiful images in the resurrection stories is the way Jesus comes to his disciples. Several of the stories mention the fear of the disciples when they hear the message that he is alive or when he first appears to them. Why would they be afraid? Well, consider what resurrection signified. It meant that God had vindicated Jesus and appointed him lord and judge, as the passage we read in Acts points out. Now think about their final dealings with Jesus. They had deserted and denied him. We highlight Peter’s denial because it is given special emphasis in the tradition and because he was so outspoken about his willingness to die with Jesus, but they all abandoned Jesus. They all failed Jesus and fled.
So when Jesus appears to them who has been appointed Lord and judge we can expect them to fearful. But what does Jesus say? How does he greet them? “Peace be with you.” That is so Jesus! He doesn’t come as their judge, but as their friend. Like the father in the parable of Luke 15 who runs to embrace his returning son, Jesus has already forgiven them. Jesus has no interest at all in dwelling on their past failures and fears. He wants them to be filled with courage and hope so they might proclaim and share the good news of the kingdom of God.
I can’t relate to someone who says, “I have no regrets.” Maybe they don’t, but my first thoughts are: I bet they have lots of regrets they have pushed down in the unconscious because they are too painful. I bet they have repressed them. I can think of many situations where I would respond differently today. There are confrontations that I would handle much differently. I would respond differently in any number of situations with my wife and family, my church family, with friends and colleagues. I would hope I would respond more positively and more wisely and I believe I would because I’m in a different place today. So while I have many regrets, I refuse to dwell on them or cling to them, to give them any time or attention because of the power of forgiveness, because of the power of love and life that draws me into the vision and passion of Christ. So these regrets over past failures and mistakes and poor decisions do not define me or deflate me or disillusion me, because I choose to live in the power of Christ’s love right now which brings healing and hope. I can let these regrets go. Maybe some of you here today need to let go of your past failures and regrets that are hindering you from thriving in the present.
Jesus greets the disciples who failed him, who forsook him with forgiveness and peace. And he expects them to pass his peace on. He doesn’t want them wallowing in guilt. He wants them to proclaim the good news and live in the joy of forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, as I say often always flows in two directions at once. Anytime I refuse to forgive someone who has hurt and offended me I block the flow of God’s grace into my life. And that’s when I become bitter and angry and resentful and selfish. But when the power of resurrection flows through us we are able to let go and break free from the resentments and petty jealousies and bitterness that hold us down.
God would have us embody the gratitude and generosity and grace of Christ right now. God would have us live with vibrancy and vitality, to be conduits of God’s grace, and we can’t do that if we are still clinging to our failures and regrets or to our anger and lack of forgiveness. The living Christ is saying to you and me: stop clinging and start living.
Some of us may be clinging to our dogmatism and certitudes that foster exceptionalism and elitism. Some of us may be of the notion that God takes our side and favors us over other religious groups or those who do not profess faith. Some of us may be clinging to a message of exclusion that leaves many people out in the cold and no place for them at the table.
Philip Newell tells about one of the teachers he has worked closely with over the years, a rabbi whose name is Nahum. Several summers ago he and Philip were teaching separate classes at a Conference in New Mexico. One morning Philip’s group was reflecting on this passage that is our Gospel reading today from John’s Gospel. As Philip reflected on the passage with his group, he kept thinking of Nahum and felt like he had to speak to him about the story. He wanted to make a theological comment about how Christianity has tried to “hold on to” Jesus and make him exclusively ours.
When Philip found Nahum after class in the lunch line they proceeded to find a picnic table where Philip began to share his observation with him. But as he shared with his Jewish rabbi friend, he began to weep. Instead of being just a theological observation, it became a confession to his Jewish friend how we Christians have tried to make Jesus an exclusive Christian possession, when in reality he belongs to all of us. Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died as a faithful Jew. He was not a Christian. Christianity came later. Philip asks, “How can we both love him and, at the same time, not clutch him possessively? How can we cherish the gift of his teachings and not claim them solely as ours?
In the passage in Acts that Lisa read earlier, that text begins with Peter saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” To fear God, in this context, does not mean “be afraid of” God, but rather it means to give reverence or respect to God. This is how “fear” is used in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible. We could actually paraphrase this to read, “anyone who fears God by doing what is right is acceptable to Gold.” Regardless of what one believes intellectually, mentally, conceptually about God, one respects God, one honors God when one does what is good, just, fair, and right. This is how we honor God, by honoring the creation and working for peace and restorative justice – that is, justice that restores relationships, restores freedoms, restores rights, restores equity and equality. When we do what is compassionate and loving and good, when we care for the creation and each other, we are fearing God, honoring God, respecting God.
Peter didn’t come to this on his own. He needed some help. It took Peter seeing a vision three times before he got it. Sometimes for us it takes a while. It was a vision of all kinds of unclean animals. Peter was told to eat in direct violation of the purity laws of his tradition, the laws of clean and unclean. Peter realized though it wasn’t just about dietary laws, it was about more. He tells the Gentile Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Why? Because everyone is a child of God that’s why.
Later in the book of Acts Paul tells the philosophers and intellectuals at Athens that we are all the offspring of God and that in God we all, each one, move, live, and have our existence. And in our Gospel text today, the risen Christ tells Mary to go tell the others that he is returning to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Jesus, himself, has no exclusive claim on God. The God of Jesus is also the God of creation, the God of all the earth, and the God of you and me.
This should serve as a corrective to the view that only one who believes certain things about Jesus or is in the right group can be made whole and be acceptable to God. We are all God’s children and God is pleased with anyone, regardless of what they believe, who does what is good and right and loving and just. God doesn’t show partiality. God’s grace and gifts, God’s presence and power is not limited to Christians.
The cosmic Christ can take many different forms and can come to us in many different ways. We can’t hold the Christ down and claim the Christ to be exclusively ours. I believe the living Christ would urge us to let go and stop clinging to our narrowness, our prejudices, and our claims that we alone have the truth. The living Christ is saying, “Stop clinging and start living.”
Lastly, some of us may be clinging to grief. Grief is the most natural thing in the world. If we do not grieve our losses then there is a good chance we are not emotionally healthy. Much has been written about what constitutes a healthy grief and the process we go through, and it is not my intention to revisit that here. There are lots of good material available. And some losses are so painful that we will feel the pain the rest of our lives. Healthy grief work does not eliminate all the pain, but it helps us cope and go on and find some measure of peace and joy in our present lives and relationships. But sometimes, we can get stuck in our grief and it can be stifling and smothering. One way out is by sharing with a caring, loving community who can help bear our grief.
I mentioned Philip Newell earlier. Philip has written several books on Celtic Christianity and at one time he was the warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland. Iona is a kind of “thin” place, sacred place, and one of his responsibilities was to lead guests on a pilgrimage around the Island. One pilgrimage included a couple named Larry and Bunny from Texas. They had been married for over half a century and were still very much in love. During dinner together the first evening a conversation arouse about death. A question posed was: If you could choose, how would you like to die? Bunny, who was the first to respond, said she would like to die in her sleep. That night Bunny died in her sleep.
When Philip found Larry the next morning he was sobbing with grief. His whole being was shaking with the shock of loss. But amid his tears he told Philip that he should continue teaching with the group that day. He also said that he wanted to remain with them on pilgrimage for the rest of the week. That, he said, would be want Bunny would want. Well, this ran completely counter to all of Philip’s pastoral instincts. Philip thought he should immediately return home to be with his family in Texas. But later that day Larry spoke to his children and grandchildren. And they agreed with Larry that he should stay on pilgrimage and when he returned they would all grieve together.
Philip said that Larry did not hide his grief from the group, but vulnerably and beautifully opened his grief to the community on pilgrimage together, making that pilgrimage the most memorable ever. Larry showed the group his brokenness and allowed his fellow pilgrims to share in his brokenness and to share their own brokenness too.
Award winning poet Mary Oliver writes: To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.
What do you and I need to let go of today? What is it that we need to stop clinging too, so that we can start living in the power of love, which is the power of Christ’s resurrection? Do we need to stop clinging to negative attitudes and habits: resentment, bitterness, guilt, or regret? Do we need to stop holding on to our exceptionalism and feelings of superiority? And even though we feel the pain of some losses the rest or our lives, do we need to move on from debilitating grief? Could the living Christ be saying to us today: Stop clinging and start living? There is so much to live for.
If you will look at a map of Palestine you will notice two bodies of water connected by a single river. The river Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon in the highlands into the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake. It is not a large lake, but it is a fresh, clear lake teeming with fish and its shores are a paradise of orchards, fields, and gardens. Then the water flows out as the river Jordan meanders down to another body of water, the Dead Sea. What a contrast! It’s called the Dead Sea because nothing can live there. Its shores are a desert wasteland. There is no life in the water or around the water. When I was on pilgrimage in Israel several years ago we spent an afternoon there. We got in the water. And guess what? We floated. The water is so salty you can’t sink. It is too deadly for fish and unfit for irrigation. The water of the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, but unlike the Sea of Galilee it doesn’t flow out again. It just sits there and stagnates.
It is not enough to just stop clinging – to our regrets and resentments, our exclusive claim to have God on our side, and our debilitating grief. We do need to stop clinging, but we also need to start living, we must open our lives to the living water of God’s love and grace and allow the life and love of God to flow through us so that our lives become a blessing to others. So that our lives can be a source of life to others. Life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse. So let’s stop clinging and let’s start living by the power of Christ’s love and live. Let’s be an Easter people.
Our good God, may the faith, hope, and love that Jesus embodied live on in us. May the power of new life surge through us breaking the chains that would bind us to our past failures and old ways of thinking and living. May the life of Christ restore us and heal us and free us to be a blessing to all those around us.