The Common Good
July-August 2003

Do Not Cling to Me

by Rowan Williams | July-August 2003

Following Jesus assures us of many things, but not that we're always right.

In the resurrection story told in the gospel of John, Mary Magdalene wants Jesus back as she remembers him; failing that, she wants his corpse in a definite place, she wants a grave she can tend. Jesus appears to her—in one of the most devastatingly moving moments of the whole Bible—and her first instinct is to think that yes, he is back as she remembers, yes, she has hold of him after all. He has not disappeared, he has not been taken away to an unknown destination.

But Jesus warns Mary: He is being taken to a destination more unknown than she could imagine—to the Father. From now on, there will be no truthful way of speaking or thinking about him except as the one who lives alongside the source of all things. These simple, abrupt words already contain all the mysteries we celebrate when we say the creeds, when we break the bread of Holy Communion. They tell us that Jesus gives exactly what God gives—life, glory, forgiveness, transfiguration. Through death he has passed into the heart of reality; he has returned where he came from. At the very beginning of John's gospel, we read of the Word of God living "nearest to the Father's heart" from all eternity. He comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus and shows the glory, the radiant, solid life, of God pouring out in love. The fullest showing of that love is in his free acceptance of suffering and death. If we are able to accept that this death sets us free once and for all, the glory of the divine life is shared with us. From his place next to the Father's heart, Jesus sends out the gift of the Spirit of Truth, which allows us a share in his own closeness to the Father.

This means we cannot have Jesus just on our terms. After the resurrection, with its demonstration that Jesus' life is as indestructible as God's life, we can't simply go back to the Jesus who is humanly familiar; and—obviously—we can't have Jesus as a warm memory, a dear departed whose grave we can visit. He is alive and ahead of us. Christian faith does not look back to a great teacher and example but forward to where Jesus leads, to that ultimate being-at-home with God that he has brought to life in the history of our world.

So: "Do not cling to me," he says to Mary and to us; instead, go and bring others along on the journey. Easter always forces us to ask where and how we might want to cling, where and how we might turn away from the task and the journey. This can happen in many ways. I want to point to one way in particular, because it has some resonance with where we are at the moment in our national and international life.

There is a clinging to Jesus that shows itself in the longing to be utterly sure of our rightness. We want him where we can see him and manage him, so that we know exactly where to turn to be told that everything is all right and that he is on our side. We do it in religious conflicts, we do it in moral debates, and we do it in politics. We want to stand still and be reassured, rather than moving faithfully with Jesus along a path into new life whose turnings we don't know in advance. To have an absolute reassurance of our rightness somehow stands in the way of following Jesus to God. It offers us an image of ourselves that pleases and consoles, instead of the deeper and harder assurance of the gospel—that whether or not we have a satisfying image of ourselves, we have the promise of forgiveness and of a future.

But the temptations go deep. For months now, we have witnessed a profound and disturbing moral argument raging backwards and forwards in this country over the rightness of the war against Iraq. You'll have noticed the way that some opponents of the war insisted that the motives of those in power must be personally corrupt, greedy, dishonest, and bloodthirsty—as if the question could be settled simply by deciding on the wickedness of individuals.

Equally, though, some defenders of the war have accused its critics of being unable to tell good from evil, of colluding with monstrous cruelty, and of being indifferent to the suffering of nations. On one side, people seem to see equivalence between Saddam Hussein and the coalition leaders; on the other, equivalence between Saddam Hussein and a grandmother from Surrey, a Conservative voter, who finds herself, much to her amazement, at the anti-war march in February.

"Imperialists!" "Butchers!" cries one side, "Blood for oil!"

"Appeasers!" shouts the other, "Useful idiots!"

This is not simply about how we conduct controversies (though it has some relevance to that, to the barbarous superficiality of some of our public arguments). It is about that odd and not very pleasant tendency in our hearts to ignore the mixture of motives and the uncertainties of understanding that lie behind our own decisions, to deny the elements of chance and hidden prejudice, temperament, and feeling that make up our minds, even on the most profound matters. We fear that if we admit this sort of mixture in ourselves we fail to distance ourselves clearly enough from what we believe to be evil.

This leads to a further darkening of our minds, as we try to make out that the effects of the war are exactly what would confirm our initial judgments. The war is a great victory: All the problems will disappear very soon, and reports of regional discontent are much exaggerated. Or it is a catastrophe: We are on the edge of social and political collapse in the Middle East and the demise of international law. This is indeed a clinging, gripping tightly onto whatever perspective we are comfortable with and allowing no time to wait for a fuller discernment to be born. The truth is that we don't yet see clearly. And even if we did, that would not settle the moral rights and wrongs of the conflict's origins.

We cling to what makes us feel most safely distant from evil. The would-be peacemaker is often passionate in treating every kind of force as equally terrible, so that there is a single clear enemy over there to confront—all those with blood on their hands, American general as much as Iraqi executioner. The apologist for war is offended and threatened by the suggestion that the motives and methods of modern war are unlikely to be completely shaped by moral considerations, and that fighting evil can involve us in imitating some of its methods, even in the best of causes. Both are afraid of acknowledging that they have something in common with what they are resisting. That acknowledgement need not lead to despair or passivity; it ought to lead to some kind of adult admission that, even in pursuing good ends, our flawed humanity creates new difficulties. We can only face the possible cost, pray, and trust that God can make use of what we decide and do.

Perhaps when Jesus tells us not to cling to him, one of the many things he says is, "Do not use me, do not use any vision of what is true or good, to keep yourself from recognizing the real and potential evil within you. Don't cling; follow. Take the next step, putting your feet in the gap I have cleared, conscious of how you may make mistakes, but trusting that I can restore you and lead you further, that I can deal with the residues of evil in your heart and in every heart."

MARY MAGDALENE TRIES to cling to a Jesus from the past, her past; her first outburst of joy comes from a conviction that the impossible has happened—that history has been reversed. It hasn't. The crucifixion has happened, and both Jesus' friends and his enemies have made irrevocable decisions in the course of the events around it. Judas, Peter, and Pilate will not wake up and find it was all a bad dream. Now they have to decide what to do with their sin and compromise, the past that will not go away, the evil and the mistaken good, the fear and the running away. They, with Magdalene, have to learn that the risen Jesus promises a transformation never yet imagined or expected, the possibility of reconciliation, and of sharing Jesus' intimacy with God. He is ascending to "my Father and your Father." At that moment, neither Mary nor anyone else could know what that would mean. She is called on to go with Jesus so as to discover what it is, and to echo that call in her witness to the apostles, summoning them—and so summoning us—to God's heart.

On that journey, we must lay aside what one of the desert fathers called the heavy burden of self-justification. I must give up a Jesus who simply assures me of my own image of myself as good and right. From now on, my justification is not that I am proved to have been right all along; it is that Jesus has promised, irrespective of my success or failure, to be there. He assures me not of my innocence but of my forgiveness and my hope. He was raised to life, says St. Paul, for our justification; he was raised so that we may know that his promise to be with us is never defeated by our failures.

We struggle with the dilemmas of our age. We do our best to test and challenge our own convictions, to bring them to the truth. But we know too that they will be shadowed with our own secret needs and frailties, that they will not simply be a clear witness to truth and goodness. We accept that, even as we work for good ends, we shall find ourselves wandering or compromised. We make our decisions about right and wrong, good and evil, as prayerfully and carefully as we can, and try to find the courage to take the consequences of those decisions. But we resolve not to see in each other absolute good or evil; we recognize that the denial of evil in ourselves does not help the cause of good.

So we follow Jesus, justified by his gift of love alone. We pray and trust that he will, bit by bit, deliver us from evil, inside as well as outside. We turn our eyes away from the seductive image of a righteous, settled soul with nothing more to learn or to repent. We keep our eyes on Jesus and follow his gaze—towards the heart of God. We stop clinging, stop demanding that God will serve our need to be in the right. We make our mistakes and we own them. We are justified by faith, as we resolve to follow the risen Jesus into the unknown depths of God's life. If we can begin to live out such a faith in the resurrection, we shall, with Mary, prompt others to come and ponder the empty tomb and take the first steps on Jesus' path.

Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury when this article appeared. It was adapted from his Easter sermon at Canterbury Cathedral on April 20, 2003. Copyright Rowan Williams, 2003.

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