04/09/23 “Encounter in the Garden”

John 20:1-18

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…” “In the Garden” was my Grandma GreenIee’s favorite hymn, and know that it’s a favorite with many of you, too. It also could have been Mary Magdalene’s song on that dark Easter morning so long ago. Because the Easter story as told by John is all about what happened in a garden.

In the other gospels, there are two or three, or maybe even more, women making that sad pilgrimage to the garden tomb. But in John, Mary of Magdala is alone in the dark. John tells us that “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

I imagine that the early morning sky wasn’t the only thing that was still dark that day. Surely Mary’s spirit was as well. How could it not be? She had witnessed the terrifying night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. She had watched as her friend and rabbi died an excruciating, humiliating death. She had watched as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had wrapped Jesus’ lifeless form in linen cloths, along with burial spics of aloe and myrrh. And she saw where the men laid Jesus’ body in a new tomb, never used, in a garden which was located in the very place where Jesus had been crucified.

How strange and disconcerting that a place of beauty and peace co-existed with a place of pain and shame. It was to that garden that Mary was making her way that morning. She had no task to perform, no duty to fulfill. She simply needed to be there, maybe to pray, maybe to weep. Maybe she came in the hopes that her grief-stricken heart would be eased simply by being near the stone that sealed the grave of her beloved Jesus. You know that grief. You’ve made that kind of pilgrimage. You’ve sat or stood by a headstone in the cemetery, head bowed, heart aching.

But, just when it seems like the darkness around her and within her couldn’t get any deeper, it does. She arrives in the garden and finds that the stone that sealed the tomb has been removed. John’s story moves directly from there to Mary’s dash back home to tell Peter and the other disciple, but I picture her standing there for a moment, stunned. Have you ever had that experience of seeing something that is so unexpected, so…impossible that you just can’t make sense of it? I imagine Mary feeling that way, standing in front of a tomb that couldn’t possibly be open. And yet, it is.

Now Mary runs. She runs to report what she’s discovered. She runs to Peter and the other disciple and announces the terrible news. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” At least, she assumes it’s terrible news. There could only be one explanation, right? “They”—maybe the Romans, maybe the religious authorities, anyone who had been threatened by Jesus’ message—someone has stolen his body! Now, not only do the disciples not have the living Jesus with them, they don’t even have his corpse!

Peter and the other disciple run to see for themselves. This can’t possibly be, can it? But, sure enough, it is. The stone has been removed. The disciple who arrives first bends down and peers inside. From his place outside the opening, he can see that the grave clothes are there, but there’s no body inside them. Peter arrives and, in typical Peter fashion, goes inside. He, too, sees the cloths that had wrapped Jesus’ body, but he also sees the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head.

If the authorities had removed Jesus’ body, why would they have bothered to remove the cloths and leave them there? And, wouldn’t grave robbers have wanted the cloths? They were linen after all; maybe they could have sold them for a pretty penny. And even if they didn’t want them, wouldn’t they have just ripped them off the body and left them in a heap, or disposed of them later? But there they are, neatly wrapped. And, if some scholars are correct, the cloths still retained the shape of Jesus’ body, like a child’s paper mache mask after the balloon inside has been popped.

John tells us that the other disciple then went into the tomb, and he saw, and he believed. What exactly he believed, we don’t know, since John tells us that the two men didn’t yet understand the scripture about the necessity of Jesus rising from the dead. Maybe he just believed that, yep, Mary was right. The tomb is open, Jesus’ body is gone, and they don’t know where it is.

But, maybe it was the dawning of the memory of Jesus’ words. Maybe the disciple began to believe that those empty grave clothes are evidence that has done what he said he would do: that in three days he would raise up “this” temple, if it were destroyed. Maybe he remembered that Jesus had said that he had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again. Maybe in the darkness of that disciple’s confusion, the light of belief was beginning to dawn. But, at this point in John’s gospel, whatever the disciple believed, he and Peter appear strangely incurious about what they have seen. They came; they saw; they went home.

Not so, Mary. She stayed. John has ignored her while telling the story of the two men but, somehow, she has made her way back to the garden. Nothing has happened to lessen her grief. Jesus’ body is, indeed, gone. It appears that she is once again weeping in the garden alone. But, she is not alone. She has company. When she screws up her courage and looks into the tomb for herself, she sees more than grave clothes. She sees two angels. John tells us they’re angels. Did Mary know that? They ask her why she is crying, which seems like a pretty dumb question, especially for messengers of God. She’s standing at a tomb, after all—a tomb from which the body of someone she loved has disappeared! Why wouldn’t she be crying? But, she answers them anyway: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And then she turns away.

But now she has more company. It’s Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. Some commentators criticize her for this, as though it shows a lack of faith. But think for a minute. How many times have you seen someone where you don’t expect them, and you can’t place them? Did Jesus even look the same? Paul tells us that, after our earthly deaths, “we will all be changed,” and another John adds that “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Plus, Jesus first addresses Mary as “woman”—the way a stranger would address her. But, I think it’s likely that she doesn’t recognize him because her eyes are so clouded with tears, and her body is so bowed down by the weight of her grief that she can’t even look up into the face of the man before her.

He asks her the same question as the angels had: “Woman, why are you weeping?” But then he asks a second question—almost identical to the one he asked the first disciples: “Whom are you looking for?” Mary doesn’t actually answer either question. She assumes he’s the gardener—maybe the person responsible for removing Jesus’ body. Without thinking of how she could carry the corpse of a grown man, or where she would take it, or how she would explain why she has it, she bursts out, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

And then, Jesus calls her by name: “Mary.” Mary’s vision clears. She sees who is standing in front of her. She knows who he is. She shows her recognition by doing what he did for her. She calls him by name: “Rabbouni.”

John translates this Aramaic word for us as “teacher.” And, of course, Jesus is that to Mary. But that word also means “master.” It means “prince.” It means “Lord.” In her one-word response to Jesus, she shows that she recognizes him as all of these things.

Then, Jesus bestows upon her a commission. He commissions Mary—not Peter, not the so-called beloved disciple, not James or John or Andrew or Thomas or any of the other named apostles but Mary, to announce the good news of the gospel. Why did Jesus choose her? Perhaps it was because she was the one who stayed in the garden. She didn’t simply give up and go home, accepting the rolled-away stone and the empty tomb as the ending to this story. She stayed, she remained, she abided in the garden where the others left. Or, maybe it was because she demonstrated her willingness to act boldly, in spite of her misinterpretations and lack of understanding and the obvious obstacles she would face. Whatever the reason, Jesus entrusts Mary with the most important role in this story: to be the first to proclaim his good news to others.

We might expect that this good news would be that Christ the Lord is risen today! Up from the grave he arose! He lives! And that is definitely good news. But the gospel that Jesus entrusts to Mary is even better news: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The story of the incarnation—the story of God in a human body—came to an end with Jesus’ death. But the story of redemption isn’t over yet. Jesus has conquered the grave, but that’s not the entirety of the good news. The rest of the good news is that Jesus is going back to his Father, who now is not just his Father but the Father of all who believe in Jesus. The special relationship that Jesus shares with God is now the relationship we can share with God. In his death, Jesus looked sin in the face and conquered it. In his resurrection, Jesus looked death in the face and defied it. But, in his ascension, Jesus will look God’s love in the face and include every believer in it. Believers who were once merely disciples will now be part of his family—brothers and sisters in him, now and forever. Jesus sends Mary out of the garden to tell this good news.

How different are the events in this garden from the ones in another garden—the garden of Eden, where the human story began. In that garden, God created humanity in God’s own image, breathing into us God’s own breath. God gave us stewardship over all of creation and crowned us with glory and honor. The second creation story in the book of Genesis tells us that after planting a garden in Eden, God placed human beings there. It paints a beautiful picture of what life in the garden of God was like, with every tree that is pleasant to look at and good to eat, and where God would come to walk in the evening breeze. Even the garden’s name, Eden, means “delight.”

But, we know what eventually happened in that garden. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the one thing God told them not to do. As a result of their sin, they were sent out of that garden—the garden where their relationship with God flourished, the garden where the tree of life stood. The consequences of their sin would be passed along from generation to generation.

The entire Bible is the story of God trying to restore those generations to what we were intended to be. Sadly, it’s a story of repeated failure. So, finally, God took a drastic step. God came to earth in a human body—the body of Jesus—to show us what a perfectly loving relationship with God looks like and how we can have it once again. What was broken could be restored. What appeared to be worthless could be redeemed. What was lost could be found, and what was dead could be made to live again. Jesus came to enable us to reclaim life in the garden of God and, ultimately, he did it in a garden.

The Gospel of John is the only one that sets Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection in a garden. This is no accident. John wants us to see that the weeds of sin in the first garden eventually led to another garden, where our sins are forgiven. He wants us to see that where we were cut off from the tree of life in the first garden, we are restored by a Savior on a tree in another garden. Where banishment from the first garden ensured that our earthy lives would end in death, an empty tomb in another garden assures us that our lives will never end. And, where being sent out from the first garden meant only bad news for humanity, Mary’s departure from another garden means only good news for us.

John tells us that, when Mary arrived back at the place where all disciples were staying, she told them the things that Jesus had said to her. She delivered the message that she had been chosen to announce: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But that wasn’t the first thing she said as she burst through the door. Her first words were, “I have seen the Lord.”

This is exactly what Jesus in the Gospel of John wants his followers—wants all people, wants us—to experience. He wants us to see him—not just with our eyes, but with our hearts. He wants us to see him, not just as worker of miracles but as the one empowered by God to do the work of God. He wants us to see him as being one with his Father—the Son of God. He wants us to see him as Mary saw him that day in the garden.

Jesus wants us to see him—really see and believe in who he is as John describes him at the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus wants us to believe in what he has promised and secured in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension: that to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

Our gardens are beginning to show signs of new life—yellow forsythia and trees full of buds, rainbows of hyacinths and tulips, daffodils and crocuses, the shoots of perennials poking up through the soil. Even if your garden still looks pretty bare, you can envision what it will be. On this beautiful Easter Day, I hope you’ll take some time to take a walk in a garden where you can think about that first garden and God’s intentions for us. Take a walk and remember that it was in a garden that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the dead. Take a walk and remember that it was from a garden that Mary was sent to tell the good news of Jesus Christ and his promises. Take a walk in a garden where Jesus will walk with you and talk with you and tells you that you are his own. Take a walk, and then go and tell others that you have seen the Lord, for Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young