Easter Day Sermon. Noli Me Tangere!

(Noli Me Tangere, Paulo Veronese, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble.)

John 20:17 (King James Version)

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 

but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 
 “Noli me tangere” – “touch me not”.  It has been a popular subject for artists, and many early examples show Mary Magdelene stretching out to touch Jesus whilst Jesus performs a very impressive side-stepping swerve manoeuvre with an accompanying “BACK OFF!” hand gesture.
It seems harsh, doesn’t it, for Jesus to behave like this towards Mary Magdalene of all people.  She had seen him cruelly crucified; she thought she had lost the only one who helped her make sense of life; she was in the depths of grief over a man she had loved and lost.  And here he is standing before her, close to the tomb where she thought his cold, dead body lay – and she reaches out to touch him to check that he is real, that this is not a dream or a mirage.  Perhaps her tears are making the world a bit blurry and she cannot entirely trust what she sees; perhaps she worries that her lack of sleep and her stress and anxiety and worry have made her prone to hallucination; perhaps, having lost him for ever, she just wants the reassurance of feeling his warm, human, compassionate, solid presence.  Whatever, it matters not, she instinctively reaches out her hand to touch…
Maybe it reminds us of our childhood and those dusty old-fashioned museums where every single exhibit, that was not encased in glass and barrier-ed off with rope, had a sign on it that declared “Do not touch!”  Museums are different now!  Kids of today are positively encouraged to touch exhibits and engage with them.
I recently went on a 25th anniversary reunion of the people I trained for the Ministry with.  We went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. They have a fabulous geological display of fantastic crystal and rock samples – huge slabs.  One is moon rock.  It is on a plinth – and you are positively encouraged to touch it.  It is fantastic! 
But that is not my memory of childhood – and I suspect it isn’t yours either!
 It seems at odds to hear Jesus saying this to Mary Magdalene, doesn’t it?
Where there is a mystery, there are people willing to explain it!
The internet is a fabulous place – but not a place for the unwary!  All of the following I have found from the keyboards of preachers and christian apologists from around the world.
  1. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he is still a bit sore after the crucifixion.
  2. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he has just risen from the dead and left his grave-clothes folded in the tomb and he is naked.  Any touching would be impure and inappropriate at this point.
  3. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he now has a resurrection body that is different to an ordinary body and can’t be touched.
This is not an OUCH! do not touch!

This is not an OOOH THAT’S EMBARASSING! do not touch!

This is not an IT’LL BE A BIT WEIRD! do not touch!
This is Mary!  Not long before this she was kneeling, wiping her tears from his feet with her hair and anointing him with perfume.  Jesus is not afraid of physical intimacy with Mary.  
This is Jesus! The same Jesus who later on INVITES or CHALLENGES Thomas to touch.
So, there must be something else here.  Of course there is!
It may not surprise you to hear that the King James Version is perhaps not the best translation of these words.  Scholars would encourage us to hear this nowadays not like a forbidding command, like DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS! – “don’t touch!” – but as “Don’t cling onto me.”  It’s not a one off gesture – but an ongoing gesture – don’t keep holding onto me – don’t cling onto me.
Jesus saith unto her, don’t stay here clinging onto me; 
for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 
but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Mary has work to do – Jesus wants her to go and tell the disciples – the first evangelist was a woman, the first witnesses were women.  The men won’t believe her and will have to come and check for themselves – but still that is her task – to go and tell the good news.  In one way it is a bit like the disciples on top of the mount of transfiguration.  “Shall we build shelters and stay up here in your presence longer?”  No, says Jesus – don’t cling to this place, don’t cling to this moment, don’t cling to me here – we need to go back down the mountain to a hungry and thirsty world.
If anything it reminds me of those moments at nursery or the primary school gate at the start of a new intake – toddlers clinging to a parent’s leg, parent desperately trying to persuade them that they need to let go – that there is a world beyond the clinging relationship they have now – parent will still be there – parents will assure toddlers that they will always be there – but don’t cling on – you’re growing up, there is more to discover.
But I think it is more than Jesus telling Mary she has a job to do.
It’s also about Jesus wanting Mary to see that what she has so far experienced of Jesus has only been a tiny taster of what is to come – there is MORE.  Jesus wants her to grow and expand and spread her wings and discover everything she needs to discover. So far she has only experienced the earthly Jesus – and great as that has been, Jesus is telling her that he is going to ASCEND!  The Spirit will be poured out – there is so much more to come.  CLINGING on to this limited experience of Jesus – wanting to stay there – wanting it all to be as it was before – that will stop you really being set free.  And all that is condensed into “Don’t cling onto me now, Mary”
I imagine that Mary and the risen Jesus DID embrace – of course they did!!  This isn’t about not touching.  And she understood, even if the King James Version didn’t!
But all of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
We might be clinging on to a Sunday School faith that reassures us but doesn’t really help us deal with the complicated issues and decisions that confront us in our adult lives;
We might be clinging on to an expression of our faith that moulded church life in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, but doesn’t see to resonate in 2018;
We might be clinging on to attitudes that were once seen as embodying christian principles, but now have been shown to be oppressive and damaging to human life;
All of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
and Jesus is ALWAYS telling us NOT TO CLING ON!
There is ALWAYS more truth and light for us to discover if we will only do as Jesus commanded Mary – “go to my brethren and tell them!” – or as Jesus told the disciples on the mount of transfiguration “we’re going down the mountain and heading for Jerusalem.”
There is MORE to come!
Analogies are never perfect – so take it as it is – but at this moment, it is almost as if Jesus is telling Mary that what she knows of him is a bit like this party-popper.  What she has seen so far is something new and exciting – full of potential.  Wrapped up in this human life – walking, talking, touching, living, breathing is something explosive that will change the world.  She knows that – she has felt that – and she wants to hang on to that – she wants to keep the party popper.
But Jesus says – there is MORE!  Go and tell the disciples – for in a few days time I am going to pull that string and you have no idea what will be unleashed!  Just wait and see what happens at Pentecost!  What you are clinging onto now is just the beginning.
so – don’t cling to me – GO! – run and tell everyone!
(set off popper)   AMEN!

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