16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.'”
18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.
In the four Gospels, the accounts of the Resurrection all have three emotions in common: doubt, surprise, and joy. In each of the Gospels, we see people who have doubts about what they have seen. In each account, we see someone who is surprised to find Jesus alive among them. And in all of the Gospels, those people are overjoyed to find Jesus alive, to see that the resurrection is a literal fact. Yes, that is certainly something about which to be joyful.
In the Gospel of John, after Mary Magdalene has shown Peter and John that the tomb is empty, she lingers after the men have gone away. And then she meets a Man whom she does not yet recognize as her Lord Jesus. As we see in today’s verses, when He reveals Himself, she is excited and calls Him “Teacher.” Jesus’ words reveal her next reaction: she clings to Him, most likely falling at His feet and grasping His ankles as she worships Him. But why would Jesus tell her NOT to cling to Him?
Jesus explains to Mary, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” Although He had been raised from the dead and in so doing had defeated death, He as yet had not resumed His initial glory, His personal sovereignty as King of kings. Was Jesus then not worthy of worship? No, we can be certain that Jesus has always been and always will be worthy of worship. Why then shouldn’t Mary cling to the risen Lord?
If you were to ask ten Christians what the “gospel” is, you would likely get at least eight people who would tell you about Jesus’ life and His role as God among us. They would probably tell you about how His coming had been foretold, talk about many of the miracles, and they might vaguely explain that He lived a sinless life and yet He died for our sins. Of the ten Christians you first asked, you would also find one person who would talk about Jesus as a great teacher and prophet who fought against legalism and taught love for our fellow man. That person would never mention the Crucifixion (except perhaps as unjust persecution), nor would the words “sin” or “hell” or “condemnation” ever come up.
And then the tenth person (or perhaps the twentieth) might answer as Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 15:1-5
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand,
2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
You see, for Paul and the other apostles, the gospel–the “good news”–is not that Jesus lived, but that He DIED and ROSE AGAIN. That is the best news we could ever get, that Someone else has died in our place and defeated death and sin forever more. Those other nine people are clinging to the Teacher, the Master, the miracle-working Lord, the baptized and blessed Son of Man. But Jesus tells Mary to let go of that, to leave behind the teaching and the miracles, to focus instead on the Cross and what came after. The signs and wonders of Jesus’ life were but a prelude to the Crucifixion and Resurrection–which is why the written Gospel accounts spend more time on those last few days than on any other part of Jesus’ life.
So, do we cling just a bit too much to the pre-Crucifixion Teacher and Lord? Or do we rightly turn our eyes on the ascended King of kings? Do we focus on Emmanuel, born of a virgin and raised in lowly circumstances? Or do we pay more attention to His death on the Cross?
I’m not saying that Jesus’ life was not important, but I will repeat what Jesus said to Mary: Don’t cling to it. Don’t cling to Him and try to hold Him down. Don’t cling to His ankles and worship the Man and forget to worship God. Don’t cling to His words at the expense of His ultimate deed: death on the Cross for our sin. Don’t cling to the risen Lord walking among us, but release Him to His glory and worship Him there.
Tomorrow is Resurrection Sunday, the day when we celebrate our risen Lord Jesus. We will hear or read one or more of the Gospel accounts, and we quite likely will read about Mary again. We may hear a pastor reminding us of how Jesus defeated death and how He calls us now to repentance and faith. Cling to that faith. Cling to that repentance. Cling to the good news that Jesus has risen from the grave and ascended to the right hand of God. Cling to the truth of the Scriptures, testified to by numerous men and women. Don’t cling to Jesus the Man who walked among us, but cling to Jesus the Son of God who now reigns in heaven. Cling to the hope of our own resurrection through Him. Our Savior Himself is telling us not to cling to the body that still bears the marks of our sin on His nail-scarred hands and pierced side, but to cling instead to the ascended Lord, the one true and living God, whom we are to worship forever in Spirit and in truth.
Dear Jesus, now that You reign in Your kingdom, we know that You are Lord and Savior. We worship You, for You are worthy of our praise. Reign in our lives, dear Lord, and be forever our Christ–God the Father’s Anointed Son, the Lamb of God who was slain for us and rose again. May Your good news–the gospel of peace with God–be ever-present in our hearts this day and every day. Amen.