He was always hard to get a hold of-Jesus. I wonder if he tried to climb out of the manger. It probably shouldn't have surprised us that the grave couldn't hold him either. Even death couldn't keep that good man down.
We don't know much about his childhood, but even when Jesus was 12 and visited the temple in Jerusalem with his parents, he slipped through their fingers and they had to go search for him. And, then, when you expected him to be in the temple, he might just as surely be out in the desert praying or on a hillside teaching or hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners on the wrong side of town. It was always hard to figure where he might turn up next.
All Easter does is make it that way for all eternity. Christ is on the loose now. There is no pinning him down, no getting a handle on him, no holding him back. He's like a firefly on a warm summer night. Lightning bugs, we used to call them growing up in New York. They're harmless little things that sort of blink in the black night air-a mating ritual really. But what did you do? You tried to catch them, didn't you? You couldn't just let them be, could you? Couldn't just watch for where they would light up next and enjoy them. You had to grab them, didn't you? Had to imprison them in a glass jar with a tin top with holes punched into it. Mason jars worked best, of course. (I always liked that.) But what did you gain by capturing a firefly? In no time, it would die in captivity. It couldn't do you any good as long as you tried to control it and hold onto it.
Same with Jesus. Look at what happens at the garden tomb on Easter morn. Mary has gone to pay her respects to her Lord. She has brought burial spices and her own fragrant heart. She loved him to death all through his life, and now she will love him in death after his life. Love doesn't end at the grave. But when she arrives, something has happened. Something disorienting. The stone is rolled away, and there are angels sitting by the open tomb. She doesn't know them as angels. They have taken the form of human beings who tell her the good news. She still doesn't get it though, and so she turns to ask the gardener where they have laid him.
"Mary," he says, calling her name. "Rabboni," she answers. It's an old, seldom-used title meaning teacher. It might have been her affectionate pet name for him. Maybe it was playful, like calling him "preacher boy" or something solemn like "Most Holy Master". We don't know, but we know she throws her arms around his neck and hugs him tightly as if to say, "I don't know if I'm awake or dreaming, I don't know if it's real or all in my mind, but either way, I've got you right where I want you and I'm not letting you go this time."
Now, if I were Jesus-and we should all be very glad I am not-I think I would have done what Mary wanted. Whatever Mary wanted. He was finally held in the arms of love and not nailed down by hands of hate. Why would he want to break away from that? But he wants to love and be loved by every Mary for the rest of eternity, not just for a few fleeting moments more on earth. "Don't hold me," he says, which seems to spoil the end of the movie. If they had shown this ending to focus groups, it would never have made it. All through his life Mary may have wanted to hold onto him like that. Maybe once in a while, she got to linger in her hug because he let her. Maybe they even danced, but then the powers that be cut in. They stole him from her and from the rest of the world that Mary knew needed what only he could give. She couldn't protect him. They hung him on a cross and they stuffed him in a grave. No telling how he got out of there. Mary had seen him get Lazarus out of the grave, but this was something else altogether. It was God that got Lazarus out really, and it was the same God that got Jesus out, too. If the grave couldn't hold Jesus, then nothing could. This should be great news for Mary, but then he tells her that she can't hold him.
So what is at stake here for us in Jesus telling Mary not to hold him the way she wanted? Something very fundamental really. Something so important that you can't really understand Easter unless you get this. Every time we think we have hold of Jesus, he won't stay long because he has places he wants to take us, people he wants us to meet. Jesus is free of the grave and roaming at large in the world now. He will not be confined again. He is on the loose, and we have to track him like a firefly, watch for his flickering light. But he's not just on the loose from us, avoiding intimacy, a God afraid of commitment. He is on the loose in order to loose us from every grave we find ourselves in. He wants us to live faces forward. It is the business of the resurrected Christ to call us out of the false securities that can become graves for us.
Good Friday morning 2002 brought bad news for the Ross Avenue Baptist Church in old East Dallas. The lovely building caught fire, and the beautiful Greek-revival architecture with the stained glass dome is now a burned-out shell. But church members have gotten used to the idea over the years that they need to die to the past if they are to live again as a church. Their current pastor, Eddie Sanchez, leads a church that's changing with the neighborhood. They may not be the church they once were, but they are worshipping the risen Lord even this morning, because they have discovered that Christ is neither shut up in a garden grave nor buried in the ashes of their old building's more glorious past. That church is still a community of resurrection people, even though many of them no longer speak English as a first language.
Christ is still on the loose in East Dallas. And this is the thing we have to keep before us today. We are not here for a history lesson on what exactly happened that Sunday morning at the tomb. You will not believe in the resurrection of Jesus any more than Mary would have if the same thing does not happen to you that happened to her. Because Christ is free from the grave, he is free to free you from the grave and to meet you unexpectedly along the ordinary paths of your life. Fear is one of those graves Christ wants to free you from.
The disciples were all huddled up in fear after the death of Jesus. And even Mary Magdalene must have clutched her courage and held it tight as she walked to the tomb that morning. But this is where Easter has to become personal for each of us. If Christ is going to free us from the grave of fear, we have to let go of it ourselves. We have to die to it first. If we are intent on holding onto our fear, Christ will not be able to lead us to a future of hope.
Craig Barnes is a Presbyterian minister who teaches in seminary now. But when he was a pastor in Washington, D.C., he was talking with a couple in pre-marital counseling. They were desperately in love. Plans were coming together beautifully. And then, all of a sudden, the groom-to-be blurted out, "I just have to say that I am so scared of this!" His fiancÃ©e got a horrified look on her face, and he tried to explain that what he was afraid of was not marrying her, but losing her. "When my mother died, the grief was just overwhelming, and I love you even more. I just don't know how I can ever survive if something happens to you." Dr. Barnes wisely reminded him that 100 percent of all marriages come to an end, some prematurely through divorce or early death, but all, eventually, one way or another. The best scenario, he told them, is that they will grow more in love over the course of their lifetime together, and then it will hurt even more when the end comes. Cheery fellow, Dr. Barnes, eh? Here's his point: You can either go through life fearing that any day you will lose the one you love, in which case you will not be living at all. You'll be slowly dying, or you can die to the notion that you will be able to hold onto your beloved forever, to keep him or her safe, in which case you are free to seize the day and embrace the love as a gift from the life giver.
Dead people don't scare. This is why we try our best to drown you in the baptistry. We're trying to scare the living hell out of you so that you're free to live a resurrected life. Christ is on the loose, calling you to hope and not fear every day of your life.
"I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God," Jesus said. His odd way of talking challenges us to have our own personal Easters with a God who raises the dead. The same God and Father who pulled Jesus out of that grave is able to do just that for each of us. The Bible speaks of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It's not being unnecessarily wordy or redundant. It is saying that each of them had their own experience with this one God. And so must we. So when Jesus says he is going to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God, he is talking out of both sides of his mouth. From one side he is telling us that the same God that got him out of the grave will do that for us. And from the other side, he is telling us that we have to experience our own resurrections. Because Christ is still on the loose in the world through the resurrecting spirit, he can be doing resurrections on any and all of us anywhere, any time, without any of us having to wait our turn at the cemetery.
John Bunyan is an important yet forgotten Baptist. He was imprisoned in England in the 17th century by the king's forces for refusing to sign a document affirming the Anglican statement of faith. While in prison, he wrote the classic allegory, "The Pilgrim's Progress." Many of us think that the journey of faith is only about getting to the point where Christ converts your soul and raises you from the death of unbelief. Bunyan knew what all Christians eventually learn, though, that despair and discouragement are graves that Christians must be delivered from, too. In one beautiful passage, Christian and his traveling companion Hopeful are awaiting certain death in Doubting Castle. They are praying through the night when all at once Christian sees the Easter light break forth in his heart: "What a fool am I thus to lie in a stinking dungeon when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle." And so it did for Christian and Hopeful as they escape the grave of despair by the key of the risen Christ.
And so may you and I this day. Good news, Easter girl, Easter boy, Christ is on the loose! No telling what he is up to next, but know this for sure: He not only knows Mary's name; he knows your name, too.
Let us pray.
Our resurrection God, we give you thanks that you have raised Jesus from the dead and that your power is still at work in the world ready to raise us too, both now and on the last day. Give us grace that leads to faith. Bring us life through the power of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.