The following is an edited version of a sermon preached on Easter Sunday, 2010.
The title of this sermon, I suspect, raises two questions: What do I mean by calling Jesus the Cosmic Gardener? And what difference does it make that He knows your name? The Gospel of John 20:11-18 provides the answers.
As we pick the story up in verse 11, Jesus’ other disciples have seen the empty tomb and left, but Mary Magdalene stays behind. This Mary has often been identified with the unnamed “sinful woman,” perhaps a former prostitute, who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. In movies like The Passion of the Christ, she’s often portrayed this way, but there’s actually nothing in Scripture that connects the two women. Nor is there any evidence for The Da Vinci Code’s claim that she was Jesus’ secret wife.
All we know about her is that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, that she had then followed Him as a disciple for much of His earthly ministry, and, as this passage suggests, she was probably a woman of some wealth and standing in the community. Even though the four Gospel accounts remember some details about that morning differently, all of them record Mary Magdalene as one of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.
Why are you weeping?
A friend of mine, a pastor in New York City, is half-Jewish and half-Italian. In the last couple of years he’s taken to wearing a beard and growing out his dark curly hair, but he always keeps it in a ponytail because as soon as he lets it down everyone, from his friends to perfect strangers, start yelling, “What’s up, Jesus!”
The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about what Jesus looked like, but 20 centuries of popular art have given us a mental picture of Him with that long hair and beard, often more pasty white than the dark-skin of a Middle Easterner. So the idea that Mary didn’t recognize Him – though she would have known exactly what He looked like – strikes us as odd.
Another odd detail is when the angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It almost seems cruel, and you can imagine her getting irritated: “I don’t know, angel dudes, why do you think I’m weeping?” It’s not until Jesus asks her the exact same question, and adds, “Whom are you seeking?” that we realize both the angels and Jesus are gently inviting her to reflect on what is really going on. And they’re inviting us to reflect as well.
The first question: Why are you weeping? invites us to consider the meaning of the grief and confusion in our own lives.
Some here today are dealing with conflict or awkwardness with immediate family members, which is only exacerbated around holidays.
Some are grieving the death of friends or family members who aren’t with us on this special day. One friend of our church lost her college-age brother suddenly on Friday; for some of us it’s been years, but the grief is still real.
Others are confused about the uncertainty of their future: Will I ever get married? Will I ever have a career that I love, a community I belong to, and some financial stability as I grow old?
Still others are simply stuck in the present, exhausted and stressed by work and other responsibilities, wondering if we’ll ever be able to rest, to find health or peace.
Whom are you seeking?
The second question: Whom are you seeking? invites us to consider what we’re doing in church on a Sunday morning.
Maybe someone dragged you here, and you’re simply enduring it so you’ll feel a little less pagan, to get some divine brownie points to chase all those chocolate eggs you’ve been eating. Maybe it’ll balance out your karma – or even rack up some credits you can spend later this week.
Maybe you’re a skeptic. A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine told me a story about a guy who thought he’d captured a troll. He swore it was true, so I told everyone I could think of, until they started suggesting it was an urban legend. And sure enough, my friend called back this week to say his friend had lied. Maybe you see the resurrection of Jesus like that, and you’re just here to watch these silly Christians telling their silly old story. But ask yourself the question anyway: Why are you here?
Maybe you always go to church, and the question might not have even occurred to you. But think about it: Whom are you seeking? Is Easter simply a chance to break out the seersucker and pastels, or do you really understand and experience who Jesus is on the other side of the empty tomb? If He showed up here today, would you recognize Him?
To put the two main questions together: What do you do with your grief and confusion, and what does Jesus have to do with it?
Mary Magdalene didn’t know at first. British scholar N.T. Wright says that “When Jesus was crucified, every single disciple [including Mary] knew what it meant: We backed the wrong horse. The game is over.” People have argued for centuries that they pretended He was alive because they wanted Him to be, but that flies directly in the face of everything we know about their religion and culture. The only resurrection they expected was the resurrection of all faithful Jews at the end of history, when God would finally come to judge the world and make all things right.
So what brought Mary to the tomb that morning? It wasn’t the expectation that He would really rise, as He said He would. More likely, it was her personal attachment to Jesus the man, a sadly deluded teacher who nevertheless had loved her well.
What does it take to break the spell? One word, there in verse 16: “Mary.”
It’s easy to miss how huge this is, but it’s one of the few times in any of the Gospels where Jesus addresses someone by name. And it’s the first clue for Mary that this was the same Jesus she had watched die three days before.
Theologians often quote John chapter 10 in reference to this scene, where Jesus says He is the Good Shepherd who “calls His own sheep by name.” The only part that doesn’t quite fit is where He says, “the sheep follow Him, because they know His voice.” Mary didn’t recognize His voice at first, because she wasn’t expecting Him. And I think it’s a beautiful picture of the gospel that Jesus knows our names, even when we don’t have the sense to recognize Him. He must recognize you before you can recognize Him.
Beloved, Jesus knows you.
Not yet ascended to the Father
But if that’s all this passage taught us, that Jesus knows our names and wants us to love Him, then we might be content with a very common but impoverished picture of Christianity: It’s the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection simply invites us into a personal relationship with God, so that when we die we will leave this earth and go to be with Him in heaven forever. But this passage, and the entire New Testament, actually teaches something infinitely bigger. If that’s what you’ve always thought, whether you believe it or not, it is my great privilege to blow the doors off that misunderstanding today.
And here’s where Jesus lights the fuse, in the first part of verse 17: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’”
What is He talking about? You might think there’s something spooky about His resurrected body, like a new magnolia blossom that’s so pure and tender you can’t touch it without turning it brown. But according to the other Gospels, Mary is most likely clinging to His feet — real feet, with real nail marks still visible. Now, there was definitely something uniquely cool about His resurrected body — He could appear and disappear at will — but it was still a human body, with teeth and bones and muscle and skin.
The key is His reference to ascending. This wasn’t something the early Christians made up to account for why Jesus isn’t physically present any more; it was the next essential step in His whole mission, which was to be vindicated and enthroned as the Triune King of the Universe. That’s why the earliest Christians professed their faith with three simple words: not “Jesus is risen,” but “Jesus is Lord.”
If you’re struggling to understand the distinction, Jesus’ next words may help. In the second half of verse 17 He says: “but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
What He’s getting at, which Mary doesn’t understand, is that His perfect, resurrected body is only the beginning of The Final Resurrection, when He will return and raise up the bodies of his brothers and sisters who are united to Him by faith.
Very simply: Jesus’ resurrected body means you, Christian, will have a resurrected body, too. And not just a new body, but a new world. This is not only bigger than “having a personal relationship with God,” it actually contradicts the idea that heaven is where we finally get rid of our bodies. Remember the Apostle’s Creed? We didn’t say, “I believe in the evacuation of the dead,” we said, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” Living with God apart from our bodies is at best a temporary state; and the whole Bible consistently teaches that the end of all things will be heaven coming down to earth — God’s world and our world no longer separated by sin.
The simple picture that captures all of this is Mary’s mistake. She thought Jesus was a gardener. Whether she was blinded by the darkness or by the tears filling her eyes, Wright says it was exactly “the right mistake to make.” Because Jesus really is The Gardener, the Cosmic Gardener who planted the one perfect seed of His own body, and raised it up, in order to sprout a whole planet full of real bodies, just like His.
And it’s no accident that all this happened in springtime. This winter went on for so long; for weeks I’ve been desperately looking for signs of spring. And what are the most delightful signs of spring? Flowers! Especially those little purple crocuses that poke out of the ground when it’s still cold, or the tall yellow jonquils that finally open their trumpet buds.
Jesus’ resurrection is like those first flowers of spring. It’s not “life stinks, so here’s a little spiritual hope to cling to.” No! It’s the beginning of the Final Cosmic Spring in the history of the world. And all who believe are now experiencing the “budding” of resurrected life – even while we wait expectantly for the whole field of flowers to arrive.
Do you have any idea how huge this is?
One last thing may help you to see. The reason Jesus asked Mary not to cling to Him was because He was giving her a job: “go and tell my brothers.” That word “brothers” doesn’t just mean the male disciples, but all the men and women who followed Him. And wrapped up in that job wasn’t simply to “tell” that Jesus had risen, but at least three things: To believe it; to look for it; and to build on it.
The fact that Mary went and told the disciples exactly what He had said is proof that she did believe. What’s more, it’s proof that she had abandoned all previous notions that He was just a good man, or simply a gardener. She believed He was in fact the Cosmic Gardener of the world. Mary’s response is a sweet picture of what we call repentance, burying our self-willed doubts and sins at the foot of Good Friday’s cross, trusting that His death has killed them once and for all.
Maybe you still find all of this a little far-fetched, and maybe you’ve even read the Bible and decided that the variations in the Gospel accounts mean it can’t be true. To that I’ll simply say that you’re not the first person in 2,000 years to notice. And the fact that they all agree in the main details, and that no one tried to match them up exactly, is actually good reason to believe they’re authentic. A few weeks ago three people in our church went through a traumatic experience together. It all happened in the space of a few minutes, but they all remembered it slightly differently. The Gospels are a lot like that. Even more, unless Jesus physically rose from the dead, you simply cannot explain the emergence and endurance of the Christian church through centuries of bitter persecution. Oh, beloved, it happened. Believe it!
Look for it.
Look for the flowers of God’s Cosmic Spring budding even today amid the ruins of this broken world. Have you seen them? I have.
I’ve seen a woman who hadn’t seen her brother in almost 20 years because she thought he was dead, but he was alive and well in our church – and not only alive now, but he’s going to live forever, because the power of the resurrected Jesus continues to make him new.
I’ve seen men and women, ghetto playas and silver-spooners alike, chained to a life of self-destruction, slowly yielding to the power of the Spirit and the life-giving wisdom of the Word – not only leaving old ways behind, but re-tasking their bodies and their resources to love others.
I’ve seen children in our area, born into poverty and unspeakable pain, destined only for prison or an early death, who because of the resurrection life in believers at Bright Futures, are graduating from high school and going to college, and are already an immeasurable blessing to our church.
I’ve seen comfortable families with beloved children spend tens of thousands of dollars, crossing oceans and cultures to make orphans their sons and daughters, heirs to all they have and all they ever will be.
I’ve seen a Church, divided for centuries along the lines of race and class, begin to reflect the glorious variety that Jesus promised to bring, from every race, tribe, language, and people group. And in case you miss my point: You, my beloved black, brown, and yellow brothers and sisters, are the Signs of Spring in this all-too-white church!
All these things are evidence that Jesus is risen. And everything that is still wrong cries out that He must come again.
Build on It
So What’s left to do now? Build on it.
Every week we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ disciples may have prayed that before His resurrection, but they couldn’t have understood its power until after He had risen.
In the traditional Christian calendar, the time leading up to Easter was a season of renovation, for clearing away the flimsy foundations of wood, hay, and straw, to make room for building anew after Easter. Regardless of dates and calendars, we have the privilege every day, even multiple times every day, of bundling up the foolish rubble of our lives, laying it at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and running straight to the empty tomb, where Jesus gives us resurrection energy to live for Him.
What renovations do you need to make?
• Stop working so much. Or for some, maybe work a little more.
• Get help to stop that habit that’s harming your body.
• Distance yourself from that unhealthy relationship.
• Find a counselor to start healing that pain you can’t explain.
And what starts do you long to rebuild into your life?
• Watch more sunrises.
• Read that book you’ve been wanting to read, perhaps even the Bible!
• Volunteer with that ministry you think is great.
• Pursue reconciliation with that person you used to love.
• Start coming to church.
Whatever it is, here’s the bottom line: The only way you can do any of this is because the Cosmic Gardener – Jesus – is risen. He is risen indeed!
Walter Henegar is the pastor of Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church.