If you hold at all, hold loose

John 20:17

         Have you ever heard a sentence or saying that seemed so “right” that you’re sure it came from an authoritative place? Like, “That’s so wise, I’m sure that my grandmother was the first one to have ever thought it!” Christian people are often tempted to, and sometimes guilty of, crediting anything “wise” to the Bible. “It’s in there somewhere, I just can’t remember the chapter and verse right now.” So things like “The Lord helps those who help themselves” get into our religion even though they are exactly opposite of what we learn from the Bible.

This week’s Gospel reading (John 20:1-18) included Jesus saying to Mary, “Do not hold on to me.(v.17)” As I pondered that sentence, I thought of a “wise saying” about “holding on”, “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” To learn more, I did preachers do in the 21st century, I googled it. I found lots of pictures of young cats hanging from ropes (no surprise), and also found the same quote attributed to no fewer than 4 different American presidents and one of the heroes of the American Revolution. Though any of all of them may have used it, it was not original to even a single one. Maybe a cat thought it up.

In the story we found Mary, who dearly loved Jesus, at the end of her rope. For all she knew, he was dead. She had seen it happen, and she knew where his grave was. Like many, or any, of us whose friend has died, she could get no nearer to him than to go to the tomb. So she went, and found what appeared to her to be the scene of a grave robbing: an open tomb and no body anywhere.

She was at the end of her rope. Even the testimony of ANGELS couldn’t change her mind. So when, at last, because of the sound of the voice of the risen Jesus, speaking her name, fell on her ears, she reached toward him, she intended to “tie a knot and hang on.”

But Jesus said, to her “Do not hold on to me.”

I Have To Go

He continued talking, explaining that he couldn’t stay around, “…because I have not yet gone back up to the Father…” He had an agenda, a set of other appointments to keep.

Ever since he started out his life as a wandering preacher, he had a set of things to do. Even being betrayed, tried and executed were things on his list, as was rising from death. He had told people as much, they just couldn’t hear him.

All of these things were done in service of an even greater task, to demonstrate God’s love for the world, that no person who believed in him would perish, but would have everlasting life.

Last week in a class that I teach to future pastors I asked students ahead of time to choose a Bible story that has characters in it, then to choose one of those characters, and then to plan the structure of a sermon preached as if the student was that character.  One student chose the story of David and Goliath, and said she would tell it from the viewpoint of David. Another chose a story about the prophet Elijah, and claimed the part of Elijah. A third chose a story about Joshua, and chose the part of Joshua. We like to compare ourselves to people in the Bible, and usually choose the greater ones. I the story we just read from John 20, we’d likely see ourselves as Peter or the other disciple, the two “who believed”. Or maybe of Jesus, who “had risen”. Few of us would choose Mary, because she was the one who didn’t listen to the angels and then had to be warned away by Jesus because her agenda was to “hold on to” him..

The things we want are so immediate. We want our favorite football team to win the regional championship or the world cup. We want God to make sure that our Master’s Thesis, Doctoral Dissertation or Job Application is accepted. We want the number on our lottery ticket (or on our receipt from 7-eleven) to lead to the grand prize. All of these things are “in” time. But Christ is “above” time, and has a different set of goals.

When we are at the end of our rope, and hear Jesus call our name, and know we have been saved (as Mary did), we want everything else to stop, because nothing matters more than where we are at RIGHT NOW.  That’s why Mary reached for him, and it’s when she heard him say, to her “Do not hold on to me, I have to go.”

They Have to Know

        More than his own having to go, though, was his mission for her. She also had to go. People had to be told, “THEY” had to “KNOW”. Now, Mary had already gone to them once, we read that in verse 2, “She went running away to Simon Peter and the other disciple,whom Jesus loved, and told them….” Wasn’t that enough? Now she had to go again and tell them about the living Jesus. This was good news, but why her, why another trip, couldn’t he just send an angel or something so they could sit down for a cup of tea and some conversation?

No. Jesus mission for her was for the immediate errand, and then for her life as part of that group of disciples that grew on Pentecost and afterward to be the church of Jerusalem.

Jesus has a mission for us even when we’d rather stay. Jesus has stuff for us to say, even when we’d rather keep silent. Though he is “everyplace” and has armies of angels at his command, he sends us, to tell, to act, and to live the good news of the gospel, in the ways we treat each other, in the ways we treat strangers, and in the ways that people we don’t even know see us treating anyone and everyone we meet with and in the love of Jesus.

That seems too hard, especially when, like Mary, you find yourself at the end of your rope……and Jesus says to you, “Do not hold on to me. I have to go, and they have to know.

You Have to Grow

        The name “Mary” is found on a lot of women in the New Testament. Jesus’ mother was Mary, Lazarus’ sister was Mary, and this one, known as “the Magdalene” because of her home town, was a third. Each of them, after her own fashion, loved Jesus, and as he loved (and loves) all people, Jesus loved each of them.

Part of what it means to love someone is to want the best for him or her. Parents learn this about children. At certain ages you just wish they would ALWAYS be like this, and at other ages you can’t wait for them to “grow out of it.” Loving means living with the conditions, good or bad, that people grow through, and taking joy in seeing people develop…. Not freezing them in place like a bee in amber.

It may seem that Mary wanted to hold onto Jesus just as he was that morning by the tomb, but its more likely she wanted him as he had been some time in the past  (though she was “willing” to take him, dead or alive, as she found him that day). Jesus had been changed by crucifixion and resurrection, but there hadn’t been time for her to learn that yet. She wanted to stop herself, and stop him. That was no longer “love” but was “possession”.

Jesus did the loving thing, the hard thing. He set her free to grow.

Imagine two things, both common enough in our Taiwan context. The first you don’t see any more, but there are monuments to it at the Christian girl’s high school across the street. High class women in the Ching Dynasty in China hobbled around on bound feet. When an upper class girl was only 3 or 4 years old her parents would bind up her feet in tight wrappings to deform them and keep them small. The Scottish missionary women who founded the girl’s school across the street were part of a movement that said girls and women should be free, that the upper class cultural norms of the Ching dynasty were barbarity. If upper class families wanted their daughters educated, that school would not accept anyone with bound feet. The monuments over there were given by the Ministry of the Interior of Taiwan’s government, recognizing the school’s role in setting Taiwan’s women free. Their feet could grow, and their minds and spirits grow through the life education and example they got at a Christian school.

The other image is of a boat with an anchor. When a boat is to be kept from drifting, an anchor is cast out and grabs the land at the bottom of the water. But you don’t just stop the boat and let the anchor down. You have to know how deep the water is (let’s say, 10 meters) and let out 3 to five times that much rope from the boat to the anchor. And you have to do it while the boat is moving, otherwise the rope gets all tangled up and the anchor doesn’t hold. If you don’t let out enough line, then when the tide comes in and your boat rises, the anchor will pull away from what it’s holding onto and the boat will drift away. The art is in getting the anchor down at the right time and leaving enough length of rope or chain to hold the boat where it needs to be, but leave it free enough to go where it needs to go. .

Mary needed to keep her faith in Jesus. That was her anchor. She also needed to get some distance, so that her faith could grow, that was her “anchor rope.”

Jesus says to all of us, “Do not hold on to me, you have to grow.”


As we grow up we are constantly leaving things behind. Whether it’s the shoes that used to fit, and have been outgrown, or the earlier model of computer or smart phone that is no longer up to standards, or even the things we once believed, but which no longer “fit with” the person who we are becoming.

As it was for Mary, who was told not to hold onto the Jesus whom she had known, and lost, in the past, and not even to hold on to the Jesus who was standing in front of her, so it is also for us. Freedom from the past may be needed for us to fulfill our immediate mission in life, whatever that may be. Being anchored to that which gives life meaning, while free to drift with the movements of current and tide, is ESSENTIAL if we are to grow into the future that God has for us.

Whether you’re near or at the end of your rope, remember that it’s a rope, not a rock, that you’re on. Hold on…. Yes but let God’s Holy Spirit blow you in the direction that you need to drift, and in which you must grow.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  AMEN


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