Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14, 2008 - Encounter with the Gardener

It was a glorious Easter this year. From the spectacular sunrise over the Atlantic at the 6 a.m. Community Sunrise Service, to the festive atmosphere at two well-attended services in our Sanctuary, it was a day to remember.

I decided to preach on a line from John’s Easter story to which I’ve never paid much attention before: “Supposing him to be the gardener, [Mary] said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’” (John 20:15b).

It’s always struck me as odd that Mary Magdalene, who knew Jesus well, would mistake him for a gardener. Some commentators have speculated that maybe it was still dark enough to make it hard to pick out the details of another’s face. Others have wondered whether Jesus’ resurrection body was sufficiently different from the body he’d walked around in previously that maybe it was hard to make the connection.

And why a gardener, anyway? Sure, it was a garden tomb in which his body had been laid, but that doesn’t explain why John includes this otherwise insignificant detail.

In the sermon, I present the idea that maybe John is subtly trying to make a theological connection between Jesus the gardener and the story of another gardener: God, who set Adam and Eve up in the Garden of Eden, then later barred them from it on account of their disobedience.

From the sermon:

“We’ll never know what was in John’s mind, of course, but it’s certainly worth pondering. Maybe the man Mary looks up and sees, through tear-filled eyes, is the gardener, after all. As our Christian faith teaches, Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, being – as the Nicene Creed puts it – ‘of one substance with the Father.’ That means it would not be inaccurate to say that the man who calls Mary by name, and whom she embraces, is the very same one who – most reluctantly – expelled Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. He is also the very same one who, by his death on the cross, has opened the way back to paradise, one day, for those who believe in him, through the forgiveness of sins.

The image of Jesus Christ as the gardener is one that occurs elsewhere in the scriptures. In a famous passage from 1 Corinthians we often read at funerals, the Apostle Paul poses the question, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”

The answer he gives comes right out of the garden. It’s like a seed planted in the ground, he explains. The seed must crack open and die to its seed-nature, before it takes on the form the gardener truly intends for it:

“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” [1 Corinthians 15:42-44]

Paul even goes on, in that passage, to speak of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden:

“The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” [15:47-50]

The ‘man of heaven’ – the counterpart to our ‘man of dust’ – is, of course, the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. When she first glimpsed him, Mary supposed him to be the gardener. She couldn’t have known, in that moment of confusion, how right she was.

If this is true – that Jesus Christ has taken over where God, the planter of the Garden of Eden, left off – then it has something to say to you and me about the sort of impatience we often fall into, as we look around at the mess and incompleteness of the world in which we live. There are weeds among us. There is blight. There are infestations of wriggling insects. From time to time there arises, on the horizon, a dark and seething plague of locusts, that threatens to devour the seedbeds we’ve so carefully tended.

Have faith, says the gardener. Have patience. The seeds are planted. The sun will shine. The soft, spring rains will fall. The growth will come, in the fullness of time.

It’s a sure thing. As sure as the stone rolled away from the doorway of the tomb.”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

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