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Green Shoots of New Life in the Easter Garden: Easter Sunday

April 12, 2020
Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

God, unlimited by mortal fear or the tomb’s cold grip:
in the lingering dark give us grace to know your life triumphant,
your love undimmed,
and your grace affirmed
in the face of Jesus Christ,
the firstborn from the dead. Amen.

If we were to describe things right now, “fear” and the feeling of being “entombed” would be accurate starting points. There is fear ‘out there’ in the world, on our screens, and inside ourselves, while we’re constricted by the “cold grip” of our homes, unable to embrace, eat with, and just be with our loved ones, including our church.

And for some people, especially those that are particularly lonely, or in hospital or long-term care facilities, fear and that sense of entombment are combined.

How does the our present circumstance shed light (or shadow) on our reading of the Easter gospel story? We might jokingly observe how everyone in the story is abiding by physical distancing.

– Peter and the unnamed disciple run at different speeds, so they’re keeping distance between them. And then they enter the tomb at different times; they don’t squeeze through together.

– Mary Magdalene stands and weeps just outside the tomb, and looks, rather than goes in. And later, Jesus warns her not to cling to him.

– Even the angels in the tomb space themselves out, one where Jesus’ head had been lying, and the other where the feet had been.

But beyond those stir-crazy ruminations, what does the Easter gospel really have to say to us, and to us at this particular time?

Firstly, we might see some of our own feelings in Mary Magdalene. She’s in grief. And we too grieve, our distance from family and friends. From our impoverished celebration of Easter. But not only that, Mary draws conclusions and finger points. She says it three times: “They have taken my Lord…” How often is that our response, to turn our surprise, confusion, or grief inside ourselves, and project it outward, at others? “They,” someone, has done something, and messed it up for the rest of us.

And consider, too, how Mary’s tears — her attachment to her own preconceived ideas (that there was a dead body there for her to embrace, or venerate, or anoint) blind her from recognizing that something new and amazing, beyond her expectations, had happened? (In the story, she’s physically blinded by her tears, so unable to recognize Jesus, mistaking him for the gardener. But more importantly, that description points to that deeper, more spiritual truth about our ideas shielding us from God’s much bigger surprises.)

So, from this we might find encouragement to not cling to our resentment that Easter this year isn’t quite like most years. Instead, we can be curious and open about what new life God might be planning to bring forward after this time of being entombed. We’re already seeing signs of this: the reduction in air pollution; animal activity being more apparent in urban areas; the Church discovering technology, and Christians rediscovering the place of personal and family devotions at home. No, I am not saying we should be thankful for the destruction of this new virus. What I am saying is that God calls us to new life and new possibilities, especially after those times when we think all hope is lost. “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.”

But what else about that intense interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene? What’s your reaction to their conversation? Why that initial confusion, especially considering her closeness to Jesus (only four other followers are mentioned in the gospels more than her)? I mentioned one idea: that her tears blinded her to who Jesus really was. It made sense for her to assume that the other person there, so early in the morning, was a gardener starting the work day.

There, too, might be the possibility that the resurrection body of Jesus had some qualities that, for whatever reason, imbued Jesus with some sort of visible change. You get this sense from some of the other stories of the resurrection appearance. He’s not initially recognized while walking with two followers on the way to Emmaus. Or disciples really want to ask Jesus “who are you?” but they resist it, because deep down they know it’s him. (But something’s up that still raises the question.) J.R.R. Tolkien picks up elements of this in The Lord of the Rings [SPOILER WARNING], following Gandalf’s resurrection. Some of the daily Bible readings we’ll get into over the next week will deal with the difference between the regular physical body and the resurrection body.

But beyond all that, maybe the evangelist is telling us something important here, by describing this scene of Mary thinking Jesus is the gardener. Maybe it’s a theological truth. How does the reading start? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” It’s first thing in the morning on the first day of the week. We’re in a garden. This is a recapitulation of the creation story, isn’t it?! Jesus, the Word, was present at the creation of the world, and here he is, both the gardener and the representative this new creation. God is doing something new here.

GOD IS DOING SOMETHING NEW. That’s the Easter message. When all seems lost, God surprises us by bringing victory, literally, out of the jaws of death. And this new thing is described as happening in a garden. Our gardens are coming to life at this time of year, in spite of the occasional cold, and snow. And the new life that Easter’s all about is available to us, too, in spite of the challenges we’re facing in our society right now.

These challenges aren’t artificial, or illusory. They’re real — as real as the nails and spear that pierced Jesus’ flesh. Loneliness, fear, misinformation, death and disease, burnout, hunger, unemployment — we can’t gloss these over with false optimism and piety. But they don’t have to be the end of the story. Jesus did battle with them on the cross on Friday and among the dead on Saturday. But, “early on the first day,” Jesus rose, inspired faith in his followers, and sent them out into the world to till the garden as new shoots sprang up.

So, even in our struggles, Easter is here. Jesus is asking us a question. It’s the same question he asked Mary Magdalene: “For whom are you looking?” Who are you looking for? This is the question Jesus asked way back at the beginning of the Gospel, when two of John the Baptizer’s disciples sidled up to him. It’s a question about discipleship. Are we willing to be surprised? Are we willing to give up our preconceptions? Are we willing to join in the work of the new creation? Are we willing to follow Jesus, through sickness and health, to tend the green sprouts of new life, leaving behind the tomb, and instead, walking with God, in the garden?

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter