The Gardener

John 20:1-18:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He 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. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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. They 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But 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.

“They have taken him out of the tomb! And we do not know where they have laid him.” This is the cry of one who does not know that resurrection is at hand. It is Mary’s first reaction – and why not? It’s logical, isn’t it? If you go to the cemetery one day and Uncle Jerry’s grave has been dug out, his coffin opened, and his body missing, you wouldn’t suddenly be like, “Oh, great, he’s been resurrected! Hallelujah!” No, more likely you’d be thinking, “Man… I knew we shouldn’t have buried him with that Rolex!” Of course, clearly, if the dead body is not where you left it, somebody must have moved it! Dead bodies don’t just get up and move themselves. So Mary goes running back to the disciples, to all of Jesus’ friends, and she tells them that someone has taken Jesus’ body. And, of course, being men, they have to go and see for themselves.

So Peter and “the other disciple” set off toward the tomb. Now, much has been made about this race between Peter and “the other disciple”. You know, the other disciple gets there first, but Peter goes inside the tomb first, but the other disciple “believes” – let me tell you, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is what they find in the tomb. And what they find are Jesus’ grave clothes, just lying there. The head linen neatly rolled up and placed off to the side by itself. Imagine if you came to Uncle Jerry’s opened grave and saw all of his clothes neatly folded up inside the coffin – including the coveted Rolex. All of the sudden, we know something else has happened here. What kind of grave robbers take the time to undress a body? Now, knowing what happened to Jesus, you might get a bit suspicious – is Uncle Jerry running around somewhere alive and well? And naked?

But seriously, the clothes are an important clue to what is going on here. Remember a few weeks ago when we heard the story of Lazarus? He came out of the tomb at Jesus’ command – still wrapped in grave clothes. He came out of the tomb still dead, and needed someone to unwrap him in order to come back to life. But Jesus is already unwrapped; the clothes are lying on the floor – this is no mere theft. This is no revival. What has actually happened here?

The disciples aren’t sure. They go on home, confident that Mary was telling the truth – the body, indeed, is gone. “The other disciple” is said to have “believed”, but we aren’t entirely sure what that means. He does not necessarily believe that Jesus has been resurrected – “belief” in John has more to do with truly seeing Jesus as the source of everlasting life and as the point of connection with the Father, and less to do with simple statements of faith (Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried – the third day he rose from the grave). At this point, all we can really be sure of is that Jesus has left death behind. His body has disappeared. He is no longer dead.

Mary stays. Of course she stays. She stays and she weeps. Her Lord, her friend – is gone. She is devastated. How could he be gone? Just like that – gone. So many of us know that pain. It is so unbearable for Mary that, even when she looks into the tomb and sees the two angels sitting there where Jesus had been, one at his head and the other at his feet, ascending and descending on the Son of Man as Jesus himself had predicted earlier in the Gospel of John as a sign of his glory revealed, her mind is still on one thing. “They have taken him… I don’t know where he is…” She does not recognize the significance of the angels. She doesn’t see the signs. Mary is so pre-occupied, in fact, with finding the old Jesus, with hanging on to the old, the way things used to be, that she doesn’t even recognize the resurrected Christ when she sees him. She supposes him to be the gardener.

The gardener. How perfect! How apt a title for the God of resurrection! You know, my wife and I are in our first house, which we bought back in June. We’ve lived in apartments our entire adult lives up until now, and we never really took the time to pay attention to the day-by-day advance of Spring. At least, I never did. I know what happens – I learned about the seasons in Kindergarten. My grandmother had a garden; my parents have a garden. But for some reason, I never watched too closely, until now. We have these bushes – I don’t even know what they’re called; I am not a savvy gardener – out in our front yard that were kind of ugly looking when we first moved in in June. They had passed their bloom, I suppose, and so the flowers looked kind of rotten. Slowly, they died, over the course of the Fall and into the Winter. And I thought they would just kind of disintegrate, I guess – the dead flower stalks. Or else, come Spring, they would take on new life. I thought that’s what would happen. But it didn’t. They just stayed there throughout the Winter and into the Spring, and I had these dead flowers out in my front yard. And I still would, if I hadn’t decided to cut them back. What I didn’t realize was that the dead flowers were dead for good. They weren’t coming back. I could get rid of them, but those particular flowers – the old flowers from last Spring – they were gone. Lost to the ravages of time. Instead, about six weeks ago or so, I saw new shoots springing forth from the base of the bush. New buds appearing, bright green and full of life. And I knew that they, too, would soon become beautiful flowers. New flowers, different from the old ones but just as bright and beautiful. Perhaps, with proper care, even more so.

Now, I know what I am describing is an everyday (or rather, every-year) occurrence, and I’m sure it is old news to everybody. We all know that many plants “die” in the winter and “come back to life” in the Spring. As a matter of fact, I’m starting to learn the difference between “annual” and “perennial” plants. But armed with this knowledge, and having accepted it for the way things are for so many years, I wonder how many of us ever take the time to truly marvel at how wondrous and magnificent and beautiful this Creation really is. That resurrection is not just something that happened 2000 years ago to a poor, unorthodox, Palestinian Jew, but rather something that takes place all the time, if only we have the eyes to see it. It is an old life dying, and the corpse being cut back or removed in order to allow the new life to spring forth.

So many of us, like Mary, have not yet comprehended this. We are still desperately seeking for the old Jesus, the old relationship, the old career, the old self that we once were when we were happy, before life happened, and we began to die. And as I said two weeks ago, sometimes God calls us back to life – sometimes, what we need is a revival! Sometimes, the bones can live again – but! If there are no bones left to be found; if the body is gone and we do not know where it is; if the dead thing in our lives is completely dead, or it needs to stay dead; if there is no hope of getting it back, of things returning to the way they once were – then it is time to stop looking. It is time to look forward instead of backward, and to discover a new hope – the hope that comes with resurrection.

Sometimes, in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of death and destruction – after all, Good Friday was only two days ago – it can be difficult to see the path of resurrection. There will be a time of transition. There will be a Holy Saturday, where Jesus is still dead, and he is not coming back. There will be a moment at the tomb, when we learn that the body is gone for good, and all we can do is break down crying and ask “where did it go?” And that time is necessary. And it is unavoidable. But – it. is. temporary. Because we will meet the Gardener. And the Gardener will see to it that we find our resurrection story.

Once again, Mary is asked why she is crying, and once again she asks where the body is. She still does not recognize Jesus, because remember, she is looking for the old Jesus – the Jesus that died and is no more. She is encountering the resurrected Jesus, and it is only when he calls her by name that she is able to recognize him! Only when she is truly known is she able to see the resurrection and the life available to her.

Have you seen the Gardener? Have you seen the evidence of resurrection? Have you experienced it? We are all at different points in our life. Some of us are still in Good Friday, watching our lives fall apart before our eyes. Some of us exist in Holy Saturday, having experienced such death and destruction, such personal disruption, that we are unable to see the way forward. And some of us know the joy of Easter Sunday! Of turning to find the resurrected Jesus; of being called by name and knowing that even though things will never be the same, it will all be ok because death, in the end, has been conquered! But no matter where we are on our personal journeys, today is a reminder. It is a reminder that we are Easter people! And we believe in the power of resurrection not just because we see it in the budding of the bushes and the trees and in everyday life all around us, but specifically because we have been witnesses to the Gardener, the resurrected Jesus, who knows us and calls us by name! We have seen that death does not ever have the last word, whether we are revived like Lazarus or given new life in the resurrected Jesus! And, like Mary, we have been commanded to go forth and tell all the people this incredibly good news. Amen.