Sunday, April 20, 2014
Text: John 20: 1-18
This year Earth Day heralded Easter Day. The conjoined celebrations may help us pay closer attention to the holiness of the earth, the earthiness of Easter. The resurrection story from John’s Gospel announces this very earthy theme—with its setting in a garden and its image of Jesus as the gardener.
You’ll recall that last Sunday’s Gospel story was also set in a garden. It focused on Jesus’s agonizing prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and his arrest there. Jesus’s body was, a day later, buried in a garden tomb. So it is to that garden Mary Magdalene returns on the first day of the week.
Because Jesus reappears as a new creation on “the first day,” the story puts us in mind of the first day of creation. The resurrection garden may remind us of yet another garden–called Eden. Our Hebrew Bible reading today, part of the very first story in the Bible, teaches us that our purpose is to care for the earth’s garden. Genesis 2:15 says, “God put people in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.”
If you think I’m giving you some kind of peculiarly modern, left-wing, hippy-dippy environmentalist take on Easter, then you may not be familiar with early Christian artistic renderings of Jesus. The book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire[i] provides overwhelming evidence that the early Christians portrayed Christ in a garden, not on a cross. In fact, depicting Jesus on the cross would have been abhorrent in the first centuries of the church. The most ancient strain of Christianity joyously affirmed the earth and worked for justice and compassion. They would not have recognized a Christianity glorifying the crucifixion or longing for a paradise after death. In fact, it was not until the 10th century that churches began to depict Jesus on a cross—a shift connected to an increasingly militant church that launched the Crusades and began to sacralize violence with the Crusader’s cross, that incited soldiers with vengeance for Christ’s suffering, and that promised a post-death paradise to soldiers who died for their religion.
The authors of Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, at first didn’t believe what art historians had been asserting—that Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early church art. Until they made their own 5-year search. Which revealed that in the catacombs and in the oldest art of the oldest churches in Rome and Istanbul, in monasteries in northeast Turkey, and in the Ravenna mosaics and elsewhere—there were no images of Jesus on the cross (xii). But there were depictions of Jesus as a child, Jesus as a youthful shepherd, a healer of the sick, a teacher (xi). Most typical and startling—to the writers of Saving Paradise—were the images of Jesus tending a verdant garden paradise in a world marked by familiar rivers which identified the garden as existing in the here and now. “Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries” (XIV). Church walls were covered with pastoral landscapes, orchards, sparkling rivers filled with fish, lush meadows, sheep, birds, flowers, vines.
So how did the cross become the symbol for the Church of Jesus? Some believe that Christianity abandoned its vocation of loving and caring for the earth and her people when it adjusted its theology to justify war and domination. Initially Christian converts had to foreswear participation in warfare. But by the time Christianity became the religion of the empire—an empire maintained through violence and which sometimes even forced conversions to Christianity at sword point—the Church had to swap its emphasis on acts of charity, love of neighbor, and spiritual practices for a set of beliefs that needed to be defended and promoted and used to justify oppression and violence.
If we could recover our love and responsibility for creation, perhaps we could renounce Empire and return to an Eden with a commitment to compassion. Perhaps we should become gardeners again.
Imagine, if you can, that a great head gardener hired us to care for our little planet. What kind of performance review do you think 21st Century humanity would receive? What would the head gardener say about the BP oil spill into our Gulf waters, or the tar sands oil chugging alongside our fresh water supply?
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut gives humanity this severe evaluation in Good Friday language: “The crucified Planet Earth, should it find a voice and a sense of irony, might now well say of our abuse of it, ‘Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.’ The irony would be that we know what we are doing. When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice perhaps floating up from the floor of the Grand Canyon, ‘It is finished.’”
When we harm our planet, we are continuing to crucify the Christ. When we care for our planet, we are gardening in the God’s garden.
An earthy Easter celebration might be a way for us to see the centrality of earth care as a deep and ancient Christian commitment and spiritual practice. To follow Jesus—to the garden and then to the cross and then to the garden that is Eden—is to help Christ tend the garden.
In John’s resurrection story, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. But maybe she is NOT mistaken. Resurrection, according to this story about a Gardener in a Garden, is a possibility for all creation.
Consider this: the writer of John’s Gospel could have selected a different metaphor for the risen Jesus. In fact, there are far more obvious images of Jesus if the writer’s intention had been to impress hearers with the magical power of the Christ. Hollywood would have presented the resurrected Jesus exploding out of the tomb—or dashing out in spandex and a cape like the original Superman exiting a phone booth. If I had written the resurrection story to convince people of Jesus’s power in my life, I’d have said that Mary mistook him for . . . I’m not sure for what but something more dramatic than the humble gardener. Put yourself in the writer’s position. You have been transformed by the risen Christ—and you want to impress your readers with the way Jesus is continuing to live on in your life and in your community. You experience his love as enduring, his lessons continuing, his connection to the Divine still compelling. Wouldn’t you at least say his countenance was glowing with an unearthly light? His garments radiant? His voice thunderous? I mean, why tell this death-defying story with such an ordinary-looking hero?
Maybe because the Easter message is not about the creation of a Superhero. It’s not about the ability of one man to defy death. It’s a story about humanity’s divine capacity to transcend death. To go beyond what we know for sure.
To admit there is much we don’t know about death, about life, or about God preserves mystery. Easter is deeper than a set of facts and more mysterious than a simplistic metaphor about a butterfly emerging from its cocoon or about the dead seed bringing forth new life. Those are beautiful metaphors rooted in the natural world.
But resurrection is more than a biological process.
We are yearning for spiritual meaning, purpose, connection. We are dying for resurrection in our hearts and spirits. Yes, even we progressives, we jaded former church folks who have stumbled back into a church setting but this time with our doubts and rationalizations displayed on us like merit badges—we, too, hunger for transcendence. It’s in the Jesus Story and with the Jesus community that I find ways to experience the spiritual dimensions of life.
After all, even the highly rational ones will miss something that’s potentially life altering if Jesus is simply an archetype and not a flesh-and-blood human being who walked this earth and lived and died. And then . . . and then . . . and then we don’t know for sure. Resurrection and recognition happened “while it was still dark”—says today’s story. Resurrection happened in the murky pre-dawn of day about which so much is uncertain. But life-changing, world-altering stories sprang up like wildflowers in spring, and those stories said the one some called Rabbi, or Lord, or Son of Man, or Son of God—this crucified Nazarene—was somehow seen/experienced again by his followers. This experience was so stunningly inexplicable that a defeated sect, the dispirited disciples, became revitalized because they not only retold these stories but lived into the Resurrection Story.
And that story acts upon our imaginations to revive us, to recreate us in his image, to resurrect us and all creation together.
We as a faith community, people who faith into the future, do not have evidence for our hope, nor can we even name exactly what it is for which we hope. We simply try to enter the stories. And remain humbly uncertain.Poet Mary Oliver cautions me, even on Easter, with these words:
Let me keep my distance, always,
from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
Don’t curb your Easter enthusiasm! But a good dose of uncertainty might keep us appropriately humble before the biggest mystery of life: death. Here’s the good news: We can belt out an “alleluia” with faith only the size of a mustard seed. We can practice resurrection hope simply by saying “Look!” when we peer into darkness, and laughing in astonishment in the garden, and bowing with humility if we catch a glimpse of the elusive gardener.
PRAYER God, let us sing alleluia to celebrate any joyful thing. Let us not hold back gladness or gratitude until we figure out the gift. Let us appreciate the darkness for that which might yet be revealed in it. Easter in us, O God, and in our earth. Amen
[i] Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).