“Faith is Eventful”
John 20:1-18 – Easter Sunday
Open Table UCC – April 4, 2021
by Josh Noah
John 20:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I remember the day my oldest child, Joey, was born. I remember the way that it affected me. I remember waiting around all day for the phone call from the doctor, telling us when to come in for our scheduled induction. I remember waiting and waiting and waiting. I remember how nervous I was in the days leading up to that date. The nights I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking to myself, “I’m about to be a father!”
And then it happened. There he was, laying on his mother’s chest, his little wrinkled, red body wrapped in a blanket. I remember the feeling I had in that moment. No longer was it an anxiety-driven thought of “I am a father!” No. Something had changed. Something within me was different because the presence of this new life touched me, affected me in a way that I had never been affected before. I suddenly saw the world differently. The world looked differently now that I was seeing it through a father’s eyes. As time went on, I noticed that my perspective of the world continued to change – there were feelings that I didn’t have before – fears that were once irrational were now felt very real. Joy was found in things that didn’t give me joy before. Whenever I was away from my child – after I went back to my job teaching – the presence of his absence was often more powerful the presence of the students in my classroom. And I learned just how much a human could accomplish on very little sleep. I was now beginning to live my life differently. It was no longer my life – it was now our family’s life. All of my decisions were now influenced by the reality of this new life. Not only was Joey born that day, but gradually I was being re-born – re-born into a new creation called a parent. I didn’t get it all right at first. (I still get a lot of wrong.) There were things that could only be learned by actually “living” as parents. Despite all the books, all the advice, and all the doctors’ visits, you can only learn to become a parent by actually doing the work of being a parent.
And one of the first things I had to do in order to become a parent, was to let go of that moment of Joey’s birth, those feelings and emotions, and live into my new life as a parent, especially as my child continued to grow and change. There is still a part of me that longs for that moment – that longs to hold that little newborn child in my arms, to experience the feeling of seeing your child for the first time. But if I just keep holding on to the memory, the moment, the experience of Joey’s birth, of Joey the baby, then I will never become the parent that Joey the kid needs, Joey the teenager needs, or eventually Joey the young adult needs. I have to be willing to let go and dive into each new experience, each new way of life – no matter how scary it is, no matter how much I do or don’t know about being a parent at each stage of my child’s life. I have to let go in order to believe, in order to know, in order to grow as a parent.
So much in our lives is about letting go. Every change in our life requires us to let go of something that once was, or what we thought it was, in order for us to be transformed into or grow into something that is or that will be. Yet we often fail at letting go or at least we do not let go without a fight. We cling to certain things with such strong vigor because we remember the way that thing or that experience made us feel. The way it gave us comfort. The way it gave us stability. The way it gave us reassurance. The way it touched our lives. But if we truly believe in that thing or that experience, then we will live our lives differently.
Philosophers tell us we experience moments or things or persons on three levels. The objective level, the subjective level, and the eventful level. Let’s take for example, the experience of the American flag. We can experience this object on three levels. The first level is objective. At the objective level, all we see is simply a piece of fabric with three colors arranged in a pattern. Objectively, this cloth of patterned colors has no effect on our life. But at the next level, the subjective level, the presence of the flag actually touches us, affects us in a certain way, we feel something when we see it. At the subjective level, the flag has meaning to many of us often because we grew up in the country that the flag represents. And for others, the flag represents a long history of oppression of people of color. But even the subjective level is nothing more than a feeling, an emotion that varies from person to person – a feeling that we can get from other moments in our nation’s history or other symbols for the country. But if this flag, this symbol, this object, is to change us, then we have to experience it on the third level – the eventful level. At the eventful level, the flag can represent values like justice, freedom, and equality. As a result, so many have offered their courage and sacrifice to make sure those values, those principles that the flag are supposed to stand for are experienced. The eventful experience of the flag causes you to change your way of life. Not just what you see about America, but how you live in America. At the eventful level, you are even willing to die for that experience – because it’s not just something you feel, it’s something you live and want to give your life to. It’s something you are willing to sacrifice for. Otherwise, it’s just a good feeling, an emotion, and most people are not consciously willing to die for a good feeling.
The problem with living at only the subjective level – the level of feelings – is that you quickly discover that you can obtain those same feelings from other places, other people, other moments, other objects. Some people find those subjective experiences in fleeting relationships or affairs. Some find them in drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. Some find them in religious rituals that they prefer. Because eventually, the feelings of those subjective experiences start to wain – so you either try to increase the “amount” of your experiences or you do other – riskier – things in order to get “better” experiences. This is the way that addictions work – you keep trying to get the same “feeling” over and over again, and when it doesn’t happen you try more of the same drug or different drugs, you engage in your religious rituals more, in order to obtain the same feelings. You begin to believe that the experience, the feeling itself is life – and you just hold on to that experience, that sacred object, that perfect person, that mountaintop moment as long as you can – gripping it tightly because it feels like your entire life depends upon it. We just don’t want to let go of that moment, that object, or that person, because if that moment, that experience ends, we are not sure what we will do with our lives. And so, we struggle with letting go.
Mary Magdalene is struggling with letting go. She comes to the tomb on that first Easter morning weeping. She weeps for many reasons. Her Rabbi, her teacher, the person she just spent the last few years dedicating her life to, has been executed. She never thought that it would happen, but it did. No more would she learn from his wisdom. No more would she hear the gentle sound of his voice consoling her. No more would she see his presence near her. No more would she feel the way that she felt when Jesus was alive. Because when Jesus was alive, she felt alive. And she was willing to do anything for him – even followed him to the cross at the risk of her own life. All the men ran away – but the women were braver than the men. The women truly believed in Jesus. And even though Jesus is gone now, at least she can come to his grave, and be near his body. At least she could feel a little bit of what she once felt before by being at the tomb. The problem is… the tomb is empty.
It’s worse than she thought. Not only is Jesus no longer present in terms of being alive, but the presence of his physical body is gone as well. Someone must have taken it. Grave robbers. Someone who wanted to make sure that Jesus was forgotten forever. Now there is nothing left of Jesus, and the experience is catastrophic for Mary Magdalene. Already having to work through the reality that Jesus is no longer alive, she now has to deal with the fact that someone has taken his body as well. In her distress she runs to tell the Disciples, and Peter and the Beloved Disciple run quickly to the tomb. Yet even when the two disciples get there, they too are not sure what has happened. The Beloved Disciple “saw and believed” but what he “believed” the text never says – perhaps he believed that Jesus resurrected. Or perhaps he believed that Mary was right about someone moving his body. Either way, the text does tell us that they did not yet understand that Jesus must rise from the dead.
Regardless, the reality of Jesus’ total absence has become such an overwhelming presence for Mary that she fails to notice the presence of two angels sitting in the tomb. Everywhere else in the scriptures, whenever an angel appears, people always react with fear. But Mary, so overwhelmed by Jesus’ absence, barely notices them, quickly responds to their one question, and turns away from them. And to make things worse, she’s so caught up in Jesus’ absence that she doesn’t even recognize Jesus’ presence until he calls her by name.
Yet when she does, when she finally recognizes Jesus, when she objectively experiences that this figure is actually the body of Jesus, now alive, she responds by grabbing onto him, embracing Jesus tightly. The strong feelings of her subjective experience are so powerful that she does not want to let him go. She’s lost Jesus once already. And now that she has him, she’s not going to let this feeling go. She’s going to hold on to this subjective experience as long as she can.
But then Jesus says something shocking. He says to Mary, “Do not hold on to me.” A better translation of the Greek would be, “Do not keep holding on to me.” Why would Jesus say that? Why would Jesus be so inconsiderate to a grieving woman who just got a second chance to be with the person she loved most? Why would Jesus tell a grieving woman to let go of him, especially after Mary believed that she would never hear him say her name again? Sounds like Jesus isn’t doing too well in the pastoral care department.
Or maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows what’s best for her. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows that this subjective experience, this feeling that Mary has in this moment, will eventually fade. And that unless she moves forward into a deeper level of experience with Jesus – an eventful level of experience, one where she will risk everything for Jesus, she will never be transformed. And if she is not transformed, she will never truly have faith in what she has seen and felt.
So Jesus tells Mary to let go of him, and to go and tell the other disciples what she has seen and experienced. And so Mary let’s go of Jesus in order to have faith in Jesus. Mary let’s go of Jesus so that she can transform from the broken woman she was into the apostle to the apostles that Jesus calls her to be.
How many of you have had a powerful religious experience? How many of you have had that moment where you felt the presence of the divine, the presence of God, and it touched you, affected you in some way that you can’t even explain? Perhaps you wept. Perhaps you felt great joy. It could have happened anywhere – during worship, on a retreat, while staring at a sunset over the mountains, while sitting at a dying loved-one’s beside. How many of you tried to recreate that experience? Did everything you could to try and have that experience again? And when you did recreate that experience, was it actually the same as the first time? Was it just as powerful? Did it move you or touch you or affect you in the same way? How many of you didn’t feel anything at all? How many of you instead, began to feel more of God’s absence than God’s presence?
That’s because many of you were taught (intentionally or subconsciously) that religious experiences should happen on a subjective level, but not any further. You were taught that religious experiences – even religion in general – is meant to be about your feelings, about how you feel. Often we are taught that religion should always make you feel good about yourself, always be comforting, and always enable you to believe that you are a good person. That when you come to church, you – just like any customer shopping for any product in any store – should expect and be given what you want – because the customer is always right. (Not Jesus, the customer.) It’s an idea that is reinforced by proclaimers of the prosperity gospel – such as Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar – who tell us over and over again that we can have everything we ever wanted, as long as we just have faith in Jesus. And for most of us, the religious product we expect is a subjective moment of escape, a subjective moment of peace or comfort, a subjective feeling of warmth and goodness. And we want these religious products because we live every day of our lives in a world filled with chaos and suffering and pain. So why can’t the church-store just give us the opioid gospel pain-killer that we want? That’s what I’m paying for after all.
The problem with this idea about religion is three-fold: One, it’s not biblical – despite what many “bible believing Christians” may think, Jesus never tells us that following him will be easy, will make us feel good, or will make our lives better. In fact, he says to the Disciples, that those who wish to follow him must, “take up their cross and follow” him. Two, when you stop having those good subjective feelings, you either go shopping somewhere else for those experiences – like another church that will “sell” you the religious product you want – or you discover that you can get those same subjective feelings from places outside the Church – like in nature, a music concert, a club, or a group of friends. The “subjective feelings” of the Church can easily be found in other places within our society. Don’t believe me? – ask anyone under 40. Three, because you can find those subjective feelings elsewhere outside the Church, you risk dropping religion altogether, because your beliefs about God or your religion is no longer giving you the subjective feelings that you expect. As a result, you’ve turned God into an object that makes you feel good instead of transforming your life for the good of God’s work in the world.
That’s because faith is not just about seeing things objectively. Faith is not just about feeling things subjectively. Faith ultimately has to be eventful. Because faith is not about WHAT you believe, but HOW you believe it. Faith is about living your life differently. Otherwise, what we have is not faith. What we have are just warm feelings that we THINK are faith. Feelings that we hold onto for dear life, hoping that they won’t go away – because if they do – like Mary Magdalene – we’ll believe that God is absent even in the midst of God’s presence.
And whenever anyone threatens those feelings, or those objects, traditions, persons, or moments connected to those feelings, our reaction is often anger, sadness, despair, and sometimes, even violence. We fight so hard to hold on to those objects, those traditions, those persons, or those moments because we have not grown enough, not matured enough in our faith to experience it at the eventful level. We have not matured enough to be willing to risk everything for our faith, to give up everything for our faith, to change our entire lives for our faith, to die for our faith. We have not grown enough to realize that faith is not just warm feelings or an intellectual exercise. And the irony is, the irony that is expressed in our text today, is that in order to truly have faith in Jesus, in order to be transformed and experience faith in Jesus on the eventful level, Mary has to let go of Jesus. Mary has to let go of Jesus to have faith in Jesus. And so do we.
What part of your religion are you holding onto so tightly that it’s keeping you from truly having faith? What feelings or moments have such a tight grip on your faith you can’t mature? And how do you know if you’re holding on to something too tightly? How do you know if you’re not letting go?
You’re often holding on to subjective feelings if your current faith is based upon:
Asking God to fix your problems instead of being present with you as you bear your problems.
Wanting worship to make you feel good or “get you through the week” instead of helping you learn how to change your life in order to grow in your faith.
Avoiding and hiding the deeper, uglier issues going on with you, instead of being vulnerable within a community of other believers so that the messy work of grace can help you begin to heal.
Using religion as an anesthetic to your pain and suffering instead of accepting faith as a way of life that helps you push through the experience of that pain.
Making sure you say all the right words, have all the right beliefs, say all the right prayers, and/or associate with all the right people who exude all the right behaviors.
Maintaining or not upsetting the status quo instead of becoming the counter-cultural Disciple Jesus calls you to be.
Reinforcing your current way of life so that you can continue living the way you’ve always lived without any experience of guilt.
Getting your needs met instead of meeting Jesus’ need for you to build the Beloved Community in the here and now.
And so as the Church, if we truly believ in the resurrection, if we actually have faith in Jesus Christ, we have to experience resurrection on all three levels. On the Objective level, we have to hear the Good News proclaimed – since we were not present to see the actual resurrection like Mary Magdalene. On the Subjective level – we have to feel the power of the resurrection, to understand that the resurrection has a deep spiritual meaning to us that should cause us to see the world differently, and to see our role in the world differently as Christians. And while most of us can get there, and most of us are happy at that level, we cannot stay there – we cannot stay at the level of subjective feelings if we want to claim that we truly have faith. We can’t just stay at the tomb, holding on to Jesus.
Jesus tells us “Do not hold on to me!” We have to let go of Jesus to believe in Jesus. We have to let go of Jesus in order to have the Eventful experience of transforming HOW we relate to the world, not just WHAT we believe about the world. We can’t just feel our faith, we have to live our faith – otherwise we have no faith. And to live your faith means that your life HAS to change! That’s what “repent” means in scripture. It’s doesn’t mean “say you’re sorry” or “feel bad about what you’ve done” – Repent means “to turn around” “to change your life.” Otherwise you have not been transformed by Jesus. Faith is not just a mental exercise. Faith is an existential action. Faith forces you to undergo the messy work of becoming a different person. It doesn’t matter if you can say all the right prayers, know all the right creeds, recite the entire bible, or explain all the right theology – if none of that ever causes you to change who you are, to change HOW you relate to the world – you simply do not have faith that matters. But someone who does do the brave and vulnerable work of changing their life, of living their faith, even when they don’t have it all figured out, even when they still have doubts and struggles – like Mary Magdalene – that person has faith that can change the world!
This is what Peter Rollins is saying in our Words for Reflection today:
“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However… I affirm [the resurrection] when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.” (Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God)
If faith was all about subjective feelings and experiences, then Jesus would have allowed Mary to keep holding on to him. But Jesus knows that Mary has to let go of him, in order to be transformed into what Jesus is calling her to be – the apostle to the apostles. The first person to proclaim the Gospel. The first person to tell others that Jesus is alive. Mary wasn’t a trained theologian with years of experience leading a congregation. She had no experience being an evangelist, or an apostle, or a missionary, etc. She was a woman of her time, which meant she had almost no rights or respect within her society, who simply wanted to be close to Jesus. But to be close to Jesus, to truly believe in the resurrection, to have faith in Jesus, she has to let go of Jesus. To be close TO Jesus, she had to run FROM Jesus to others. She had to take what she objectively saw, along with what she subjectively felt, and be eventfully transformed, be resurrected into this new life for which she had no prior preparation or training. The question is, are you willing to make the same choice?
Seeing Jesus is not faith. Feeling Jesus is not faith. Letting go of Jesus, changing your life, and living the calling of God that Jesus gives you, THAT is faith. That is what it means to experience, to live, to believe in the resurrection. AMEN.