The Risen Jesus is not an idol

Noli me tangere  -  Do not hold onto me!

Bishop Michael Hough

Linton, Easter 2018.


In John's account of the first Easter morning, we see Mary Magdalene leaning into the tomb, weeping continuously in the deepest of personal sorrow and pain.  As she complains to the angels sitting in the empty tomb, someone has taken her Lord away from the grave and she cannot find him - even though she is searching.  Just then Jesus appears, although she does not recognise that it is her Lord, the very Lord for whom she is searching.  After a brief exchange of words, Mary suddenly realizes it is Jesus but before she can respond he makes that famous utterance - noli me tangere... do not hold onto me.  Libraries of books and theses have been written on the meaning of these three mysterious Latin words and yet there is still no unanimous agreement on what John meant when he included them in his account of that morning of the resurrection.  Despite those difficulties, the words themselves do offer us a genuine Easter challenge for the months ahead.


How did Jesus explain why he said those words?


Jesus only adds to our confusion when he tells Mary I have not yet ascended to my Father.  That too is odd and equally it is difficult to interpret.   Some scholars think the phrase is meant to indicate the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension, a very short period of time in John's thinking and Jesus has too little time left to be engaging in personal matters and reunions of any kind.  There is work to be done! 


Perhaps more interesting are those who see it as a warning to Mary not to place too much of her time and energy being attached to his physical presence.  She has lost Jesus once before and she thinks if she can hold onto him again the situation will remain "as things were", just like the good old days when she was with him in Jerusalem and the surrounding districts. 


The hard reality Jesus is driving home to her is how he will soon be gone and Mary and the other disciples will need faith alone to sustain them.  They will no longer be able to meet up with the physical Jesus when they are struggling and in need but will need to deal with the ongoing feeling of an apparently absent Lord.  We all know that feeling - if Jesus was truly my Lord then he would prove it by healing my husband Fred, or bring an end to the war in Syria, or stopping child abuse, or whatever.  What Mary was experiencing was the dark night of the soul, an inability to find Jesus as her Lord and Saviour when the world turned sour. 


This is the first challenge given to us through the mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ from the grave.  It is not difficult for people to look around our world today, to observe all of the evil, horror, brutality and godlessness of humanity.  While we sit here today celebrating Easter and eating our chocolate eggs, our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are suffering and dying needlessly, at the hands of evil men.  Where is Christ in all of this?  Where is the new life of Easter, the joy of the resurrection, the light shining in the darkness for those people?   What will Easter on Naru look like to the refugees?  What hope does the Risen Christ bring them.


That is what Jesus is offering to Mary.  If Christ is risen, he is risen and living around us, among us and his Easter life is offered to the world through the lives and witness of men and women of faith.  If we cannot see Christ calling out to us in the suffering of others, and hear him beseeching us to come to him in the screams and pain of people suffering and dying, then for us Christ is not Risen and our alleluias remain empty.


But why "don't hold onto me Mary"?


What we see in this powerful episode in the Garden is John taking up one of the key themes we find running throughout much of the New Testament.  Mary welcomes that first Easter morning as a woman who is searching for her Lord.


Jesus had been sent to a people searching for their Messiah, waiting and anticipating the day when God would pour out divine salvation on the peoples of the world.  Jesus is the answer to these hopes.  Those who were aware of their sinfulness, their need, the weaknesses and their limitations found Jesus when they searched with open minds and humble hearts.  This is why the first disciples were uneducated fishermen, men soon joined by sinners and sundry community outcasts.   In a world where power, politics and religious purity established status, they were at the bottom of the community.  They well knew their need of something more than they could achieve through their own efforts and the absurdity of placing trust in what the world could offer them.  In their search for meaning, for purpose and for direction in life they found Jesus of Nazareth, the man sent by God to be the Lord and Saviour of all humankind.


And so this "searching" for Jesus is a fundamental part of our Easter message - we need to be searching for Jesus the Risen Christ who is alive to us and living for us still.  Mary Magdalene was searching for her Lord but she could not find him anywhere.  Why not?  Because she was searching in the wrong place.  She was looking for him in the cemetery.  But he was not dead, he had been raised and was alive.  In that brief exchange so much of our Christian existence and mission can be understood.   If we search for Christ in the wrong places we will not find him, will not find the true and living Christ of God.


This was not just a problem for Mary.  In Luke's Gospel we read of a similar way of thinking and acting on the part of Peter.  He too was confused... Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.  


There is the rub.  We might think we are searching for the Lord but what we are doing is looking for a Jesus who is no longer as we thought he was and should be.  Not only that, we could be looking for him in all of the wrong places, limiting our search to the churches rather than the gutters and the refugee camps, to just in the Bible and not also in the lived experiences of men and women.  We hope to find Christ alive in like-minded fellow pilgrims and fail to see him present in those who hate us, who have wronged us and who think and act in very different ways.  Mary looked for Jesus in the place for the dead when he was alive and out and about among the living.



But that still does not help us understand noli me tangere!

One good way of seeking to understand John's thinking is to cast our minds back to the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top.  Remember how Peter suggested to Jesus that they build three tents up there and Jesus, Moses and Elijah could live in them.  That too was an odd suggestion but it does show Peter's thinking.  In the transfiguring of Jesus, Peter understood for the very first time the meaning of the incarnation.  He became aware of the power and the glory of God at the very core of the identity of Jesus.  He was a man, the son of a carpenter from Nazareth but he was also the Son of God, the Heaven-sent-Messiah.  Having been given that experience, Peter wanted to lock that Jesus away in a tent on the hilltop with James and John sitting with him as he soaked up the joy of that moment.  Jesus, however, had other ideas.  There was work to be done at the bottom of the mountain and Jesus had not been sent just for the enlightenment and blessing of just a few.  He was a Saviour for all the world and needed to unleash the Rule of God for those who lived in the darkness and pain in the worlds at the bottom of the mountain.


The image John offers of Mary is one of a faithful follower of the Lord who is searching in vain to find the one she worships and adores.  When Jesus reveals himself to her he makes it very clear she is not to hold onto him.  She is not to be like Peter and seek to keep Jesus as her own personal Saviour, as a Messiah of her own.  Don't hold on to me Mary, don't lock me away as a saviour of your own making, as a messiah of your own wishing and praying.  I must return to my Father that I may be the Messiah for all.  Jesus was telling her it was impossible to "hold onto" him, to lock him away in the shrine in her heart and her life as though he was like a statue or a holy picture, someone to whom she could turn when she was in need.  Trying to hold onto Jesus is like trying to hold onto oil.  He just slips through our fingers and he is gone.  We never own Jesus and can never turn him into an idol.


In this way John is telling his readers how the Risen Christ is like the Holy Spirit in this regard.  He had spoken of the Holy Spirit as being like the wind, He comes and no one knows from where he came and no one knows where he is going next.  You cannot hold onto the wind. So, says John here, Mary cannot hold onto Jesus, cannot keep him to herself, cannot lock him up in her own memories, experiences, hopes, joys and fears. Jesus must be about his Father's business, not Mary's and therefore he is always new, always calling his followers in new directions, offering ever changing challenges and demands.  He is not the Jesus she remembers, the Jesus who wandered around with her and the other disciples;  is not the same Jesus to whom she had attached herself years earlier.   What he demands of her a new understanding, a new level of faith commitment and the acceptance of a new set of demands and responsibilities if she is to remain a disciple.


What does that tell us of Easter 2018


Easter according to this narrative of John's Gospel comes as something of a shock.  It shows us two of the great challenges of Christian discipleship.   The first shock is the way it is possible for a faithful and loving believer to be searching for a Jesus who is no longer a reality, who is no longer in the places in which we are searching.  He was there but has moved on leaving us clinging onto memories alone and those memories cannot sustain us in the hurly burly of life.


"Look for Jesus where he is" is what John is telling us.  And where is Jesus?  "He has gone before us into Jerusalem", he is "out there", already in the world continuing the mission his Father had given to him.  Even before we begin to search for Jesus, he is already calling to us, inviting us to collaborate in the world being enlightened by the Light of the world.   The Risen Christ is not going to be where we want to lock him away and use at our convenience.  That was Mary's problem.  She was looking at Jesus from her own unenlightened perspective.  She expected Jesus to be there in the place of the dead and so she searched in vain.


This is where the second point comes in.  The danger of religion is that it can so easily become static, locked away in the kind of spiritual thinking and acting we learned from our parents, from Sunday School and from our early adult years as believers.  It worked back then and we like to continue on without transformation.  We forget how we have changed, how the world has changed and how our life in the world has changed.  What we are reluctant to open to transformation is the way we engage with Christ in these things.  We end up following the behaviour of Mary and continue to search for the Lord in the wrong places, in places that are dead.  But search we must.  We need to go to where the Risen and Living Christ is already at work, in the lives of men and women in the world.  When we find him in our faith communities and in our personal times of prayer, he will be calling us beyond that moment, beyond an encounter on top of the mountain and follow him out into the world that others may share the joy and peace we have discovered in him.  He remains ahead of us, leading us beyond and the danger is that we will be wandering around the "graveyard" while he is at work in "Jerusalem".


Noli me tangere is a Latin phrase worth remembering.  Jesus is never going to be limited by our own limitations but is ever new, is alive and at work in an ever-changing world.  In proclaiming that Jesus is Risen Alleluia, what we are doing is proclaiming the way the saving works of our Heavenly Father continue.  They continue in the Living Christ and the Living Christ is working in us, with us and through us - at least, in those who find him, with those who continue their search for him and through all those whose faith is ever being transformed by the true Easter Light.





Posted 29 March 2018 in Blog
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