Paula Northwood April 12, 2020, Easter
Scripture: John 20:1–18
Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor, wrote a recent story about Steve Kaminski, who was whisked into an ambulance near his home on New York’s Upper East Side a few weeks ago. He never saw his family again. Kaminski died days later of COVID-19. Because of fears of contagion, no visitors, including his family, were allowed to see him at Mt. Sinai Hospital before he died. “It seemed so surreal,” said Kaminski’s daughter-in-law. “How could someone pass so quickly and with no family present?” Mitzi Moulds, Kaminski’s companion of 30 years, was quarantined herself, having also contracted coronavirus. She worried Kaminski would wake up and think she’d abandoned him. It’s a sad, heartbreaking story. But there’s a difference between dying alone and dying lonely. Dying alone is not necessarily dying without love.
This article sparked a conversation in my home. What if this happened to us? What if one of us gets COVID-19? What if we can’t say good-bye? What if we can’t be present when one of us leaves this earth?
My spouse, Andrea, looked at me and said, “If this happens, please know that I am always with you. I will be right there with you in your heart, and I will not leave you. We have to approach this spiritually. I mean, we will just have to communicate spiritually, and be present to each other in that way.”
From our scriptures we know that Mary Magdalene was present at the death of Jesus, although not very close, at least not close enough to touch. From our specific text this morning we find Mary going to the tomb to at least touch Jesus in death, but she finds that his body has been taken away.
In verse 14 we read that Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus asked her, “Why are you crying?” She thought he was the gardener and said, “Tell me where they have taken him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” There was something in the way he said her name that she recognized him and responded, “Rabbi!” Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me.”
In our current context of physical distancing, the phrase that caught my eye is “Do not cling to me.” It is also translated: “Do not touch me”; “Do not hold on to me”; or “Stop holding onto me.” The text doesn’t say “Stay six feet away,” but you can understand how this takes on new meaning. Keeping our distance is saving lives. Jesus is offering the same advice.
We know that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were quite close. There are all kinds of theories about her relationship with Jesus, from disciple to lover to wife. We may never know what their relationship was, but Mary going to the tomb, and her weeping, seem to be clear indications of her love for him. With the shock of a public and horrifying execution, who could blame her for wanting to hug him?
For many years, scholars thought that Jesus was asking her not to touch him because Mary, as a female, was unclean, and Jesus as Christ was pure. Another thought was that Jesus was there as a ghost, so there really wasn’t anything to cling to. But a more accurate translation would be that Jesus is asking Mary to move beyond clinging to his physical presence to a deeper spiritual expansion of herself. He is inviting her to a deeper understanding of their relationship and its tragic ending. Mary was still looking for a tangible corpse, not an intangible energy. She didn’t fully realize where she was stuck. Mary still wanted to hang on to the body of Jesus, to worship the martyr, her teacher, rather than embrace the invitation to her own fullness of life. And he reminds her that he is there with her, in her heart.
In her book The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault describes this time much like a mother bird pushing her fledglings out of the nest saying, “You know how to do this now.” Jesus is gently saying, “You do not need me in the same way; you’ve got this.”
We have another example of this clinging and Jesus’ similar response in the next chapter when Jesus appears to the disciples and has a conversation with Peter. He asks Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter answers with growing frustration, “Yes, I love you!” What we don’t see in the English translation are the different Greek verbs used for word “love.” When Jesus asks Peter, he is using the verb agape. Agape love, if you remember, is selfless and unconditional love. But Peter responds using the verb eros. Eros love is passionate or romantic love. In this case, maybe brotherly love. Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him with a non-clinging, selfless kind of love that puts his faith into action. And Peter responds with a clinging, emotional “I love you, man”—maybe with a hero-worship, infatuation kind of love. I can see him slugging Jesus on the shoulder: “Yeah, I love you, bro.” Jesus also adds these three words “Feed my sheep.” Jesus wants Peter to see that he doesn’t want his hero worship; Jesus wants selfless action. In other words, how we love others with agape love (selfless love) will demonstrate how much we love God.
For both Mary and Peter, Jesus is providing one last teaching about the deep, mutual indwelling of selfless love that is at the heart of the Jesus path. Jesus’ example of selfless love is the opposite of a clinging love.
How incredibly simple! Jesus is teaching his followers and us about how to let go of the immature, hero-worshipping and clinging love to develop a mature, selfless and direct relationship with the Divine Mystery. Jesus’ whole mission was to invite people to see things anew. He prodded, pushed and shocked people into dying to their own egos, or small selves, so that they could live fully and abundantly into the larger Self that is indivisible and part of the Divine Mystery.
Think about how Jesus lived his life. He radically and abundantly squandered everything he had and was, and we are invited to do this, too! Once you see this, it’s everywhere in his teaching: Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t make yourself better than you are! Don’t worry! Don’t be afraid! The message is: Share freely with everyone! Give yourself away through loving acts! His abundance and generosity, bordering on extravagance, was so overwhelming, people have a hard time believing it is true. It is so hard to love with reckless abandon!
But Jesus’s whole ministry was based on the truth that love is the strongest power in the world—stronger than greed, stronger than fear, stronger than hatred, stronger than division, stronger than violence, stronger than a virus and even stronger than death. We are seeing examples of this truth every day: Medical staff show up to care for the sick. It would take too long to list everyone who is working to make it possible to survive this pandemic. But there are many generous people sharing their care and resources so that others have food and supplies. They are embodying what it means to live “a resurrected life.”
This morning is a resurrection moment. This is the moment when we again can enter this mystery of God’s unfathomable love, override our own fears and shadows and emerge as participants in resurrection, in new life, not only through faith but through our own lived experience. We arrive at the tomb, looking for our beloved.
Robert Bly gives this version of our search in the book Kabir: Ecstatic Poems:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms,
Not in synagogues, nor cathedrals:
Not in masses, nor kirtans, not on legs winding around your neck,
nor in eating vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly-
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
When Jesus crossed the threshold into the world beyond, he said, “I must leave you now but, lo, I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth.” I am the breath inside your breath. Do not cling to me but enter the fullness of your life now! Live a resurrected life in love now! May it be so. Amen.
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus (Boston: Shambhala Publications), 131.
Robert Bly, Kabir: Ecstatic Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 45.