Harrowing Of Hell
March 31, 2013

Letting Go

Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn

John 20:1-18

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. 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 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. 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 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.'” 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 read a Gallup poll recently that found 86% of Americans believe in God. A Pew Research poll in turn found that 66% of Americans believe in the Resurrection. And yet a Harris poll, even in the face of these startling statics on God and Jesus found only 36% of Americans have confidence in the church. It is probably lower in Seattle, which still makes the church more credible than Congress.

There is a common mantra we have all heard, (maybe even some of us have said it) “I am spiritual, but not religious.” It is a statement that confirms these statistics. When I hear it I nod… no I don’t shake my head, I nod, because Jesus wasn’t religious either. Yes, it’s true.  That might surprise you, coming from a priest, but Jesus was not only not religious, he was a bit anti-religious, which was a stance that ultimately landed him on the cross. That was back in the day when being spiritual but not religious actually cost something.

2000 years ago in Jerusalem, religion wasn’t an option; it was everything.  Now there are still some corners of this world where this is still the case, but certainly not in this free country we live in.

But in Jesus’ day, religion certainly determined who you talked to, when you talked to them, what you ate, where you worked, how you did the work you did, who you married, where you vacationed, and even how you washed your hands and sewed your clothes. Being non-religious wasn’t an option…until Jesus showed up.

The irony of being spiritual but not religious is that it may have never become an option anywhere in the world, had it not been for Jesus.

He was the guy who kicked off the campaign. He was the poster child for religious deconstruction. After all he was the guy who knocked over the tables in the temple; he healed people on the Sabbath; he hung out with non-Jews; he even talked to women. All of which were outside the rules of the religion he was born into.

But Jesus operated under a single, simple assumption: everyone is spiritual.  Spirituality isn’t a choice; it is a fact. It is a reality. It is part of the fabric of what it means to be a human being. Spirituality isn’t a thing we chose it is a thing we are. Spirituality is regular, and it is normal, and it is everyday, just like you and me and Jesus.

He was a regular guy as we see in this morning’s Gospel. When he shows up in the garden after the Resurrection he is dressed like a gardener. I am sure he had other options, he was just resurrected from the dead after all! Maybe a crown, or a cape, or a fur hat would have been a better choice given the occasion. Or just a really nice blazer and some new shoes.

But when he showed up, he showed up as a gardener and he met Mary Magdalene. I am sure he had other options. Why not Pilate?  Showing up in Pilates office would have been a surprise, and it certainly would have given his wife cause to say, “I told you so.” Or why not Herod, who was already haunted by the ghost of John the Baptist. Or he could have gone right to Caesar’s palace, and I’m not talking about Vegas, I’m talking about Rome, the power center of the world.

But Jesus went to Mary Magdalene, as a regular guy, dressed like a gardener, because Jesus wasn’t about protocol.  He wasn’t about rules and regulations and rituals, or even power, Jesus was and is about relationships. Mary Magdalene and Jesus were friends, so he went to see her. And when she saw Jesus, it must be noted, that she didn’t all of a sudden become religious, but it certainly changed her spiritual life.

The difference between Mary Magdalene’s pre-Resurrection relationship with Jesus and her post-Resurrection relationship with Jesus is that the first was personal and material and the second was permanent and eternal.

When most people say they are spiritual but not religious, what they are saying is that they don’t go to church.  But religion is way more than church,

it is any organized collection of belief systems, cultural systems and world views that give us a narrative around which we organize our lives.

Everyone is religious.

Everyone has a meta-narrative they synchronize their lives to. The question is: what is yours? What religion do you follow? And how does your religion hamper or enhance your spiritual journey?

Now Mary Magdalene in the garden gives us a way to consider our religion,(whatever that might be) and she gives us a tool through which to assess its impact on our spiritual journey.

The analysis begins as she grabs for Jesus and he says: “Do not hold on to me.” Do not hold on. These are words that give us a clue about our religion. What we hold most tightly almost certainly tells us what we worship. It almost certainly points to the heart of our religion.

Mary grasps for Jesus her teacher, her friend, her guide.  We all seek to hold something tight, something close. A person, a thing, an idea, maybe a child, or a guru, or a long departed lover, maybe a house or a job, maybe money or status, maybe a view of government, or a belief in education, or a devotion to an alma mater, or a faith in science. All these things are fine and sometimes fun, and in some ways fundamental, and still they represent a system of belief, a powerful world perspective, a cultural point of view, which is the definition of religion.

So what religion do you follow? And if you don’t know, take a look at your hands to see what you are grasping for.

The spiritual journey is about letting go.

That is what Jesus was telling Mary to do in the garden. That is what Jesus had been telling people throughout his life in the hope of freeing them from that which bound them. But generally people don’t like being told what to do. Some people who knew Jesus really didn’t like being told what to do, which is why he ended up on the cross.

But irrespective of what we like or don’t like, believe or don’t believe, Resurrection happened, because God loves us.

Had Jesus remained in the tomb the religion of grasping would have trumped the joy of spiritual ascent.

Which is why Jesus came out and said to Mary, “Don’t hold on, because I have yet to ascend.” Letting go is the message given by the risen Christ, and the path upon which to walk our spiritual journey. For as the scripture say, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over us!” (Rom 6:9)Resurrection is the final letting go.  We are all included! God loves us that much!

And the church, well the church was put in place to assist us in the process of spiritual ascent.

The blessing of doctrines and disciplines, liturgy and prayer, service and hospitality, and music came into being as ways to free the spirit. And yet at some point along the way these things fell from acts of liberation to chores of repression. And the world came to associate the statement “I am spiritual but not religious” as code for “the church has lost its way.” For this waywardness, as a priest in the church, I apologize.

Mary Magdalene sets a better example. She lets go, and her liberation allows her to hear the authentic mission Jesus has for her. “Go, tell my brothers, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Her mission becomes our inspiration. Her task becomes the Good News of Christianity.

Resurrection is the liberating force that lifts us into being the person God created us to be.

As Mary lets go of Jesus, her relationship with him moves from personal to permanent, from material to eternal. As he ascends, she ascends. And her story can become our story if we seek to ascend with the risen Christ in a way that frees us to say with utter authenticity of meaning, I am spiritual, but not religious.