Jesus, Gardener of a New Creation

Mary. Jesus. And a conversation in a garden. Eve. The Serpent. And a conversation in a garden. We are supposed to make some connections. That's pretty plain.

I love the story John 20 tells. John is always taking us back to Genesis. And here he takes us right back to our origin story, right back to the Garden.

Mary Magdalene is for John the New Eve. She is, you will remember, the woman who loves much because she has been *forgiven* much.

She loves much because Jesus had broken all the chains of her past, and had taken fear of the future from her heart because perfect love casts out fear.

And all of the sudden Love is gone, stolen away in the night by a violent church; tried and sentenced by a violent state; the only innocent human beaten within an inch of life, and pinned up for three hours of suffocating misery. And now even the body Mary lovingly prepared for burial is gone.

But in the rising light of morning, in the Garden, at her lowest point, there is an encounter.

Here in John’s gospel Mary, the New Eve, encounters not the Snake but the Gardener; not the voice of deception but embodied Truth; not the slithering destroyer who kills but the one who in the beginning breathed all things into existence.

By the Spirit, the Son of the Father’s love is breathing oxygen once more, and by the Spirit he exhales a New Creation. He exhales the air of the Resurrection, and his divine and human breath is making all things new.

When we breath the air he exhales, we forgive, and we remember the poor, and we love our enemies.

This New Creation starts at the moment of his death (Matthew 27:51–52). There is an earthquake, and the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom, and the saints, their bones reduced to ashes by the slow grind of time, emerge from their tombs and are seen walking about Jerusalem. They are not ghosts. They are bodies. Resurrected persons.

Jesus is not raised from death alone. He brings Eve and Adam, he brings humanity, up from the grave with him. His sacrifice for the sins of the whole world begins reversing death at Golgotha and there is no moment of the world since in which Resurrection is not at work around us like leaven in bread.

If Mary is the New Eve, Jesus is, of course, the New Adam. And Mary mistakes him for the gardener, probably because when she encounters him he has his hands in the soil, as he so often does, caring for and healing the creation.

And the scars on the mud-covered tilling wrists of Jesus tell the difficult, glorious story: Jesus the man from Nazareth, born under a cloud of rumors, to the woman everyone knows was unmarried when she conceived him — this one who used to get sawdust under his fingernails and in his hair making tables with Joseph — is now forever the God with wounds, not resuscitated but raised to a new kind of never-ending embodied life.

And, yes, you have to have a body to have scars. You have to have a body to bear scars.

How extraordinary: Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardner. Apparently you can miss Christ’s magnificence because his posture is so down to earth, his bearing is so humble.

God himself has become man in Jesus — God himself has died in Jesus — and Christ’s infinite, overflowing, indestructible life can almost be overlooked. His resurrected life looks utterly normal.

He’s not floating three inches above the grass; he’s not glowing with ghostly energy; he’s not distant or detached or disinterested in the world.

God looks at home in the garden. He looks like he works the soil. He looks like a servant.

Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality that makes you less interested in this world — that makes you less interested in mud and flowers and sunrises and gardening, and of knowing the people others despise or ignore, of knowing and calling them by name…any spirituality that makes you less interested in this world or in all its people — has nothing to do with Resurrection.

God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else. God is not interested in throwing out our humanity. God *becomes* human, forever.

The Resurrection means this world that God made matters. The Resurrection means the race of humans matters to God. God is one of us.

Did I say already that I love John 20?

I love how love runs to the tomb in the person of John — “the other disciple” whom Jesus loved — and how love in the person of John *immediately* believes.

John tells us that they “did not yet know the scriptures” that Jesus would rise from death, and yet love believes without seeing.

Love believes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). Love trusts. Love hopes. When we trust someone whom we love we believe in them. And though there’s something fascinating and beautiful there, I don’t have time today to flesh that out.

So back to the New Eve of our gospel.

Mary is crying. I imagine her collapsed on the ground in sorrow, lost because the Beloved is dead, in shock because even his body is now gone. Then Jesus the Teacher speaks her name and perhaps it is the *way* he says her name that turns her around in astonishment.

The world still lives with Mary’s tears. The world has yet to recognize the Master in the guise of the Gardener. And the world is still chaotic and dark, not a place that is at all trustworthy.

There’s the little girl that gets accidentally run over in the driveway. There’s the dozens killed while worshipping last week in Egypt.

As we were singing, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my Coptic brothers and sisters when murder and hatred showed up in their sacred space, as they worshipped our Lord. I tried to imagine those last moments of terror before the end.

And there are rumors of war. There’s our nation’s pesky role in the world’s violence. There’s the mother who’s been told her battle with cancer is coming to a close and cancer is winning.

And so many of us have lost — or are losing — so many dears ones these past few months.

When we live in denial of real life struggles — and denial can be simply tuning out the darkness with false enthusiasm — it’s hard for the world to receive our very good news that all of this death is not the end; that the death of Jesus means that death is now everywhere in retreat, even if we cannot always see that.

It’s also harder for us to engage suffering strangers and acquaintances with authentic compassion, mercy, and empathy when we refuse to stay with Jesus at the crosses or tombs of life.

It’s hard to be patient in our own sufferings, or endure the anguish of those closest to us — to see our troubles as a participation in Christ’s hardships — when we expect every day to be Easter.

When we live in denial, it’s hard to sustain honest community, to engender churches where folks who doubt and struggle with faith and obedience are as welcome as those who are certain and assured.

It’s hard to keep it real when you are living Easter in denial; in denial that others — others in the pew next to yours — are living Holy Saturday or even — Christ, have mercy — gutting out a personal Good Friday.

And so we STAY with Mary’s tears…

We ponder the pall that’s been cast over the whole creation. And we ponder every vigil, every wake, every funeral, every unexpected, sudden goodbye.

We ponder billions who lived and then were gone, often with no record of having ever been here, and with them the whole world that that is lost *inside* every person any time any human dies.

Yet in this time before Christ returns — as we endure our personal and corporate seasons of trial and torture, dying and burying; in this time before Christ’s kingdom comes here on earth as it is in heaven (and that is precisely how Jesus teaches us to pray) — we do not wait as those without hope.

We wait in a tension between the darkness of Holy Saturday and the bright promise of Easter.

Some days we have faith and on other days we must rely on the faith of others, on the faith of the gathered church.

Thanks be to God we are not saved alone but accompanied in this journey by the body of Christ.

And as we stare this present darkness down TOGETHER we have a message to deliver.

But before we do that we have to leave the Garden.

Mary wants to stay in the Garden — who would not want to remain with the Beloved she thought lost, now somehow alive again — but the gospel is not lived in the Garden.

The gospel is lived in a Good Friday world. The gospel is lived in this present darkness that looks and feels a lot like Holy Saturday, where God seems…absent.

Jesus “goes away” and sends Mary away too because Resurrection belongs outside the Garden, in the world of car bombings and sexual abuse and petty theft, in the world where principalities seek to separate everyone from everyone.

Resurrection belongs in the basement with a family grieving the death of their young daughter by her own hand (I gave last rites in such an awful setting on Wednesday night). And what they need to hear and see is Resurrection. They need reminders of the Resurrection.

Resurrection needs leg and hands and hearts and voices of witness.

I don’t know where God is calling YOU to be a witness. But WE together are his witnesses that he is indeed alive. And we must depart the Garden and go where HE is calling US to bring the New Creation, to breath out into the world the air of the Resurrection.

Jesus does not “live on” in my heart. Jesus lives on in the flesh at the right hand of the Father.

Jesus simply is Resurrection and Life. And we are members of Christ. And are as such seated with Christ in heaven. We therefore bear Resurrection Life everywhere we go.

And we have places to go and people to see and our mission is Resurrection.

The Resurrection is something that is already at work in the world and one day there will not be anywhere or (we trust and pray) anyone that’s not transfigured by life without end.

Humans are not ghosts in machines that go back to being disembodied spirits, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation. The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.

We do not “live on” as wind in the trees, or in the hearts and fading memories of our loved ones but we live on by the Resurrection.

We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers — laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones — will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids. All made alive again forever — somehow — redeemed by the humble power of triune Love.

God keeps all the information (genetics) and all the mystery (the essence of every human soul) about us, and he knows how to raise us from death. That is a real hope. That is real love.

In Jesus, God became vulnerable to us. God drew near to us — drew close enough to feel the kiss of Judas, to hear Peter’s denial, to bear our mocking, rejecting ‘crucify him!,’ to endure Pilate’s horrific death sentence. He takes upon himself the sin of the whole world.

And for Christ’s vulnerability and identification with us unto death, the Spirit raises him forever — and us with Christ — and seats us in place by the Father.

Earlier I said that John immediately believed and I want to point out that love not only believes (not only trusts) but that love is observant: love knows the Beloved.

And I like to think that there was something about the *way* the clothes were folded that told John that no one else but Jesus left the grave clothes in exactly the way Jesus did.

And he trusted. And so we trust.

“And now, O Lord, we shout against death forever.”

God did not make death and God has no partnership with it (Wisdom 1:13). God does not delight in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:23). Death is the final enemy of God and the final enemy of man (1 Corinthians 15:26), and we are permitted to hate it with a perfect contempt.

We oppose death with all that we are in Christ, who tells us he is Resurrection and Life, the one who in fact has defeated death and the grave, who asks us:

“Do you believe this?”

And we are the ones that respond, “Yes, Lord; we believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John‬ ‭11:27‬).



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Kenneth Tanner

Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)