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Garden Glory and the Good News of Easter

April 6, 2013

I was recently relaxing, reading the great theological work Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, when I came across these words:

Alice … found herself in a long, low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof.

There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.

Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass; there was nothing on it except a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first thought was that it might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but, alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!

Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway …

Lewis Carroll was actually Charles Dodgson, an Anglican clergyperson. And I think that he has picked up here on the universal human condition – the yearning we have for the garden, for life and light.

The Gospel story this Easter Sunday is about entering in.

It takes place in a Garden, the garden in which Jesus had been laid. The verses immediately before, John 19:41-42, say: “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”

It begins in darkness … chaos … death …

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

Mary rested on the Sabbath, and then came as soon as she possibly could to prepare Jesus’ body. Tombs in that society were closed up by a large round stone rolled into a groove. Mary found that this stone had been removed from the tomb.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’

She did not say: “The Lord’s body is gone. Isn’t it wonderful: he must be risen!” She and the other disciples had no predisposition to believe this.

When Peter and John go into the tomb, they find a very unusual sight:

Simon Peter saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.

If Jesus’ grave had been raided by grave robbers, why would they leave these behind? (And, of course, if the authorities removed Jesus’ body, why not produce it again once the claim that he was Resurrected began to spread?)

Also, although I don’t want to push it too far, the Greek may describe the clothes looking crumpled up in place as if the body had evaporated (literally “in their folds”). At the very least, it describes the clothes in an orderly, not a strewn, state.

Seeing this is enough to convince John that something supernatural has happened. But nothing comes of it. There is no sense of purpose, no fire in the heart to share that the Lord is risen. The passage just continues: “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

Mary, however, stays behind.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

Mary, too, doesn’t know what to do.

As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;

She is overcome with her grief. It’s like she can’t believe he’s not there. And when she looks in:

she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

Eugene Peterson, in this memoir, The Pastor, writes:

eugene-petersonThe ark of the covenant [was] placed in the tabernacle to center Israel’s act of worship. When the temple was constructed, it was placed within it, and appears to have been destroyed along with that temple in 586 B.C. The ark, placed at the heart of the wilderness tabernacle, was a visible focus for the worship of God. It was a rectangular coffinlike box, four feet two inches long and thirty inches wide and high, covered with gold. The center was designated the mercy seat. It was flanked by cherubim with outstretched wings. But the mercy seat was not a seat at all. It was empty space, a void, an emptiness framed by the angel wings that marked the presence of the enthroned God Yahweh. The focus and function of the ark was the empty space marked off by the cherubim – nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to handle. But it was not mere emptiness, but rather an emptiness that is fullness, “the fullness of him who fills all in all”; “I AM that I AM.”

… At our first Easter Sunday worship … the story of the empty tomb was our text. After the benediction, three of our young college youth were huddled in conversation. They called me over, and said, “Pastor, we think we might be onto something. That empty tomb – could that be an echo of the empty mercy seat of the ark? That the two angels in ‘dazzling clothes’ who gave witness at the empty tomb of Jesus might be an allusion to the two cherubim marking the emptiness that is fullness at the ark?” I had never thought of that before. I was intrigued and told them so. Forty-five years later I am still thinking about it.

I always find it fascinating when we see recurrence’s like this happening. We’ll see another one coming up right away.

The angels said to her:

‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’

Note that Mary still calls Jesus “my Lord.” Her devotion to him continues, but she has no hope of experiencing continuing fellowship with him.

When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

We see the same lack of recognition in the next chapter of John, when it says of those who were spending time having breakfast with Jesus: “None of the disciples dared ask who it was. They knew it was the Lord.”  We also see this with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Something in Jesus’ appearance has been changed, been transformed, it appears.

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’

Why indeed? If she had have found his dead body, THAT would have been the true cause to weep for us all! The great irony, of course, is that her living Lord is in front of her!

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’

This is the language of love. What if this person had answered, “OK – here’s the body” …? What could Mary possibly have done? She had no tomb to produce out of thin air. She couldn’t carry the body by herself. But love doesn’t think of such things. She just wanted her Lord’s body to be cared for.

Note that it says that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. Here’s that other recurrence I said was coming. Remember that John has pointed out that the tomb is in a Garden. Now we have mention of a gardener. Where have we seen garden and gardener before? Eden and Adam – the first Garden and the first gardener; the story of Creation, and of Paradise and life lost – of losing God, whom to know is eternal life. Humankind is still in this state (Mary has lost Jesus). We have lost life, and think that God has, too. But Mary does not find dead “God in a box,” but IS FOUND by God seeking her. The Good Shepherd, who has laid down his life to keep us safe forever, is seeking his lost sheep (remember God’s poignant “Where are you?” in the Eden story).  God is seeking us, and finds us through Our Lord. We’ve also seen just before this the Garden of Gethsemane, in which Jesus, the second Adam, unlike the first, said: “Not my will but your will be done.” And now, as a result, Day One of New Creation has come, with life in and through Jesus: Resurrection taking place not at the end of time, as Mary and others would have believed, but NOW, bringing the end of time into the present, the new age breaking in now, eternal life beginning now.

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).

Jesus calls her by name, and it is then that she recognizes him. Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, is doing what he said in John chapter 10. He is calling his sheep by name, and his sheep knows his voice. He has this relationship of intimacy with each of us. Jesus laid down his life for each of us. If you were the only one who needed saving, Jesus would have willingly died for you.

John Vannorsdall writes:

The deaf have a sign for Jesus: the middle finger of each hand is placed into the palm of the other. Jesus, the one with wounded hands. And when they touch the place, they remember. They hear the name in their own flesh.

When Jesus meets the disciples just after this passage, he says, “Peace be with you,” and shows the nail marks, the emblems of his love, expressing what God says in Isaiah 49:15-16: “I will never forget you, my people. I have carved you on the palms of my hands.”

Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’

Literally, the words are, “Do not keep holding on to me.” We don’t know how long Mary was holding onto Jesus – it may have been minutes or more.

But Mary had a mission to carry out:

‘go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary had a message of love to share for ALL. Jesus says, “Go tell ‘my brothers,’” and speaks of “my God and your God.” She is to share words of relationship, forgiveness, life, healing to those who had denied and forsaken him.

Note Jesus’ words, “I am ascending …” Jesus desires to draw us up with him – this is why he came, so that we might know and love him, in Eden restored, forever.

Mary now runs with purpose – for she has Good News to share – as the apostle to the apostles.

Well, it’s a beautiful story! I started this sermon with a “fairy tale.” Is this just another?

Today’s Epistle reminds us that the answer is “NO!” St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, was written in 55 A.D., probably around the same time that the first Gospel was written. It gives us a wonderful window into the fundamental beliefs of the first Christians. 

As we heard today, St. Paul says:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Paul’s word for “Peter”], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Paul says he received this as being of “first importance.” From whom did he receive it? Well, in chapters 1 and 2 of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written as early as 49 A.D., Paul is playing down his contact with the other apostles, to emphasize that he was not dependent on them for the Gospel he was proclaiming. And in the midst of his argument, he writes about his seeing James, Jesus’ brother, and spending 15 days with the apostle Peter! So Paul didn’t just receive this message about the Resurrection appearances of Jesus from someone who didn’t really know the Christian message! He received it from those who knew what happened, because they were eyewitnesses.

Our Easter hope is not built upon “once upon a time” but fact.

So today, like Mary, John, and Peter, perhaps you’ve come to the Garden with soul-weariness, darkness, confusion, grief, despair.

Perhaps, like Mary, you’re frantically seeking for something to anchor you in the midst of life’s storms, but think it will be at best a dead Jesus – perhaps the Jesus of your childhood – to whom you can offer your allegiance and keep his memory alive. But the Good News is you won’t find this Jesus. If you could, you and everyone would have reason to weep. You won’t find him, because he isn’t in the grave anymore.

We meet Jesus in the present – not the past – not: if only Jesus hadn’t died / I was younger in a more innocent time / I was healthier … Our living Lord is with us;  he’s calling each of us by name in the intimacy of our hearts, inviting us to receive his new life within – his creative, transformative power, to live in a relationship of love with him for ever.

And because he is alive, we have a mission, a purpose: to RUN to share with others this Good News that we have a living Lord of love. As the poet Wendell Berry said: we are to “practice resurrection.”

This past week, I read the following Theoblogger Challenge Question on the website Patheos: “Why I Need The Resurrection … in 100 Words or Less.”

Kara Root wrote: 

I need the Resurrection
because my sister is sick
and can’t afford insurance,
because I’ve told a weeping Haitian mom,

“No, I can’t take your son home with me.”
because I’ve been rushed off a Jerusalem street
so a robot could blow up a bag that could’ve blown up us.
because I’ve exploded
in rage
and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.
because evil is pervasive
and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
Death loses.
Hope triumphs.
And Life and Love
Prevail.

If I were to answer “Why I need the Resurrection” I think I might share the following:

Yesterday, feeling the effects of Holy Week, like I’m “running on fumes,” I received a phone call from a woman in the deepest distress, facing great financial and health challenges, who was holding onto the last fragment of faith that in doing so she might somehow find hope. I need Resurrection life. I need a live Saviour to whom, with her, to turn. I need Good News of hope, of life, to share. No “once upon a time.” God not just as a concept, but REAL! I need God’s power, God’s life within, to share, to know, to live.

And the glorious Good News of Easter is that for all eternity, this is indeed whom I have – whom you have, whom we all have. 

Christ is risen, and is with us always! Thanks be to God. Alleluia!

(This is adapted from the sermon at our 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. Services on Easter Day. If you’d like to look more deeply into who Jesus is, including investigating the historical roots of Christianity, you will find several helpful books on display in the Book Nook outside my office. I would also be delighted if you’d like to contact me via this blog, email [pastorfergus@gmail.com], or phone [403-256-1428].)

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