New Man in a New Garden

The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  How great to be celebrating Easter together. 

This morning we’re going to look at John 20:11-18.  I don’t have a sermon for you – more of a running commentary.  Let’s read the passage:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 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.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for 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.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

John and Peter return to their homes, yet Mary Magdalene stays by the tomb, weeping.  Who was this weeping woman?  From Luke 8 we learn that Jesus had exorcised demons from Mary; she’d been transformed, and for months had traveled alongside Jesus and other followers.  She loved Jesus – He wasn’t just the Lord, but my Lord.  So, on that Sunday morning outside the empty tomb, she wept.  

Not only had her Lord died, but also someone had violated His tomb and removed the body.  More humiliation, less closure.  

With the tense John uses, Mary stood has an emphatic sense: Mary stayed right there.  But what could she hope to accomplish by waiting close by to where the body was last seen?  Why didn’t she go home like the others?  We’re not sure…

For no real reason, as she cries Mary stoops down and peers into the mouth of the tomb.  

This time, inside, she sees angels.  In that clothes poor, laundry challenged time, angels who are marked by their white garments.  

John notes where they sit, at either end of where the body used to lie.  Why are they sitting just so?  And for that matter, why does John comment on where they’re sitting?  

From the earliest days, commentators have noted the connection between the placement of these angels and the ark of the covenant.  Quick review: The ark of the covenant was a chest containing the stone tablets engraved with the Ten commandments, the staff of Aaron, a pot of manna.  The lid of the chest was called the mercy seat.  And on top of the lid at either end were the carvings of two cherubim, angels that look nothing like those cute cherubs you see around Valentine’s Day. 

Back in the day when the Israelites traversed the desert, the ark was carried about half a mile in front of them, leading the way forward, always covered with a veil.  When the tabernacle and then the temple were built, the ark was placed into the holiest place that only the high priest entered.  

But what was the point of the Ark?  Let’s listen to the words of Exodus 25: 20ff – “The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another, toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.  And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give to you.  There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will speak with you…”

Between the two angels God would meet with His people and speak to them.  The Ark was the epicenter of the presence of God.  The Ark led the people.  The Ark is where we hear what God is saying. 

So when the angels sit on either side of where Jesus had lain, there is a message: God is here!  The empty tomb/ Resurrection is what God is doing, where God is leading His people, what God is saying to those who have ears to hear.  

Before they get to any announcement (after all, angels are messengers), they’re moved by the sight of her face to ask a question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”  

Did Mary realize they were angels?  Or does she suspect that these two could be in on the theft of Jesus’ body?  

Her reply to their question is that of someone who’s been around the block a few times: she’s rather indirect.  She doesn’t accuse them of anything, but when she says “They have taken away my Lord,” there is the implication that at least two people (hey- two people like you) were involved in the theft.  Yet there’s no rebuke, just a tacit plea to direct her to where the body is, and whoever took it (wink, wink) can keep anything they found on it, please just return my Lord’s body.

V. 14 – Then something makes Mary turn around.  Now, let me stop here for a second. Perhaps you think that I’ve already read too much into this passage: the angels are mimicking the ark of the Covenant– the Presence of God?  Come awn Landry!  

Well, the plot will only thicken from here!  The Gospel of John was written some 50-60 years after the events themselves and are thus a mature reflection on all that they meant.  Everywhere within this Gospel, there are echoes of earlier parts of the biblical story, highlighting connections and demonstrating resolution.  John’s simple vocabulary contain deep layers of meaning. 

So when Mary turns around here, and in v. 16 she also “turns” – by her physical changes of direction John is communicating that there is also a deeper turning going on in her.  Keep that in mind.

Mary sees Jesus standing but doesn’t know it’s Jesus.  Standing!  Folks, try to shed your familiarity with this story and imagine that you’re reading this for the first time.  In the previous column of text, Jesus has just died, and the Roman soldiers pierce the side of the corpse to make sure…and out flows blood and water.  

And now, just one column over in the narrative, three days later, He’s standing!  

Jesus asks the same question as the angels: ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’  Now there’s the second time that question is posed to Mary, and it’s also the second time we as the readers hear it asked.  And when we recall that there is something elemental here: for the first time Resurrected Life shows up to a human being – we’re not wrong in hearing this as a universal question, posed not just to Mary but through Mary to all of us.  Why are you weeping?  Folks, what’s wrong today?  

Then He asks, ‘Whom are you seeking?’  This is not the first time that Jesus has asked this basic question when the answer is obvious to Him.  All the way back in the first chapter, He turns to a couple of men following Him around, ‘What are you seeking?’  To the toughs approaching him in the Garden –‘Who are you seeking?’  Now to Mary ‘Who are you seeking?’  

It’s a good question – and I suppose if we could get everyone in the world to go into an empty room for 24 hours equipped only with a pen and paper and honesty and answer that question – what or who are you seeking? – we’d be getting somewhere.  

V. 15 – She mistakes Him for the gardener!  Why?  Because they’re in a garden.  

In a garden.  Hmm…  Hey, wait a minute: A woman is having a conversation in a garden and afterwards the world will be transformed.  Doesn’t this all feel a little familiar?  

And that sparks another thought and now we recall how this chapter began.  Scan over that first verse.  Still dark: Darkness was over the face of the earth.  The old week, crowned by a great death of a Representative Man, is over.  Now it’s the first day of a new week.  And in this new week the Representative Man has come to life – a life beyond death – and stepped out into a garden.  A new week.  New life.  New world.  

Let me say it clearly: this all sounds like an echo of Genesis 1.  John is suggesting… God is beginning a new Creation.  

Let me quote a commentator on this passage:

Mary’s intuitive guess, that he must be the gardener, was wrong at one level and right, deeply right, at another. This is the new creation. Jesus is the beginning of it. Remember Pilate: ‘Here’s the man!’ Here he is: the new Adam, the gardener, charged with bringing the chaos of God’s creation into new order, into flower, into fruitfulness. He has come to uproot the thorns and thistles and replace them with blossoms and harvests. – Tom Wright

The Spirit is telling us: With this Resurrection God is beginning to make all things new.  Jesus’ Resurrected body is the firstfruits of the New Creation!  The rest of the Creation will be of the same kind, will bear His character.    

Mary responds to Jesus’ question, whom are you seeking, with a little more directness than in her reply to the angels.  But still, she’s not there to start a fight, to be high and mighty, to blame him.  Just tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away. No harm, no foul, you did what you did – just let me have the body.  

And then – don’t you love this?  Jesus replies with one word, Mary.  What’s in that word?  What’s in a name?  In that word, there’s familiarity, warmth, lack of reserve, appreciation for past relatedness, assurance of continued relationship in days to come.  

The illustration is not original to me: In the German language (as with others) there are two ways of saying you: Sie or du.  You always begin by saying sie, because that’s the more formal expression.  You also begin with calling people by their surnames: Mr. Landry.  But then there’s a little event, when two people decide, we’re done with sie, now we’re going with du.  And first names from now on.  We’re friends going forward.  We got a future together!  

Saying Mary was something like that.  

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who calls persons by name.  The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name (John 11).  And Jesus is the firstfruits of the New Creation.  And because the Good Shepherd is the firstfruits of the New Creation, we can say that at its core this New Creation is warm and personal.

Last week we took communion, and as we distributed the elements, we said, “The body of Christ broken for you… Well, Tom, when Tom gave me the juice, he said, 
The blood of Christ shed for you, Colin – and attaching that name.  Man, that was powerful.  My eyes got a little misty.

As we already pointed out, John says that Mary turned at Jesus calling her by name.  I imagine that, as part of the middle eastern culture back then, but also as part of Mary’s street-smartness -so she wouldn’t at all appear demanding or threatening, before this moment Mary wasn’t meeting the gardener’s eyes, perhaps even her head was turned to some distant tree.  

But at Mary, she turns.  Please forgive a lengthy quote from another commentator:

In the one or two seconds this turn took, I imagine the world shifting ever so slightly on its axis and… history, too, moved almost imperceptibly from B.C. to A.D.  A second before this turn there is a woman in the deepest human despair in the agonizing presence of unconquerable death; a second after the beginning of this turn there is a woman in the deepest possible human elation – in the presence of the death-conquering Central Figure of history.  The rush that must have come over this woman in her two-second turn is unimaginable.  She is the first person, ever, to experience the personal presence of the Risen Lord.  When she turned to him at this moment, human history took a turn to a responsible hope for the [overcoming] of death and, so, to the conquest of meaninglessness.  Frederick Dale Bruner

Jesus the Resurrected One is the firstfruits of the New Creation.  Because He is the Living One, and the New Creation is stamped with His character, we know that death can’t stick around.  

Through Jesus, we legitimately believe that death is not ultimate…indeed its heretofore crushing horror need not be feared.  And if death will not win and bring everything, including me, to an end, if there’s a future, then what is thought and done and said and planned today really matters.

Jesus has already gone down and come out of death.  He knows the path out of death.  He’sthe way out of death.  He’ll meet us at our death and lead us out into life.  And it will all be so personal.  

I remember that when my dad died one of the particular griefs that hit me was the loneliness of his dying.  He was giving a presentation at work and started to topple and said something like ‘let me get my legs under me,’ and then collapsed, maybe dead by the time he hit the ground.  How embarrassing and exposed to be taken by surprise in front of everyone, to show your weakness, to show that you’re finally not able to stay standing.  And this, in front of colleagues, ok not quite strangers, but people who had never been in your home, never seen photos of you as a kid, never met your children, you’d never wept before them, indeed never showed your real face to them.  

Loneliness at death is a great tragedy.  You read during COVID of elderly people sick with the virus, dying alone in hospitals with their families watching via Zoom.  Or as I read in a newspaper in the spring of 2020, their children visiting them on their deathbed like this: “Ms Mills looked out at her mother from behind an N95 respirator mask, and a second mask atop that, and safety goggles.  Wearing two pairs of blue hospital gloves, she grabbed her mother’s hand.”

Christ has risen from the dead.  And He is the firstfruits of the new creation which has begun.  And so, even now, at the bottom of everything, at the end of our days, there is not sterility and death, but personality and relationship and warmth and Life.  I am sure that when my dad collapsed at Lockheed Martin in Littleton Colorado, as co-workers were bravely conducting CPR, in some coordinates of another continuum, my dad turned as he heard the Gardener say “Clovis.”  And if my dad were ever lonely before, from that moment on he’s been with.  

Some of us might not make it to next Easter.  But when you breathe your last, just after you’re stunned by your death, you’ll hear your name, and it’ll be the voice of the Resurrected Lord.  

Have you heard that great African American funeral sermon-poem that begins:

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband–weep no more;
Grief-stricken son–weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter –weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Mary spontaneously replies to His address with Rabboni.  You wonder why there are these few times where the Gospel writers give us the original Aramaic word and then the translation.  It’s so that we’re brought right there in the moment: that was the exact noise that came out of her. Rabboni.  Come into this scene, God is saying to us readers.  By the time John writes this Mary is long dead.  This account is for the Church.  This is for you!

Teacher!  Brothers and sisters, don’t miss this.  She knew Him and loved Him and had been weeping for Him and now was overjoyed for Him… her Teacher.  The Lord had been her instructor, introducing concepts, telling stories with truth, providing warnings.  

I’m emphasizing that because sometimes biblical teaching is looked down upon.  I just want the experience or the surge of emotions – don’t trouble me with all the intellectual ideas, the academic concepts.  Or, I just like the aesthetics of worship and ritual.  

But our love for the Lord grows in direct proportion as we’re taught of Him by His Spirit out of His word.  Whenever our death happens, let’s meet the Lord and hear Him say our name and in that moment before our eyes flashes a lifetime of study and lessons and sermons and times alone with our bible and spiritual reading and bursts of insight and stretching our brain and seeking out answers so that we know the Lord!

In v. 17 Do not cling to me.  Evidently in her elation Mary had grabbed ahold of Jesus. 

But He says, I am not yet ascended to my Father.  That’s the next step, we know from other passages in John’s Gospel: Go to the Father, send out the Holy Spirit, by which greater deeds will be done.  

I used to work for a lumber supply in South Carolina.  Sometimes I’d do deliveries with a fellow named Ray.  We’d go and deliver the materials, then Ray would look at the project the customers were working on and they’d chat a little bit.  Then Ray would say Let me go, I got work to do.    

I think that’s the sense of Jesus’ Do not cling to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father.  

Then He gives Mary a message for the Apostles, who will become the foundation of His worldwide Church.  

Go to my brothers – Think about that!  The ones who had shown themselves so weak, scattered like sheep, who had denied Him.  In the new creation there are not sinners, full stop, but sinners who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.  And now they’re not known as sinners, but brothers of the Lord.   

Yes, My brothers – Amazing – in all the Gospel we haven’t seen this kind of language before this.  This is new Creation, new covenant language.  The 2nd Adam comes out of the Tomb, the New Creation begins.  And the themes are Forgiveness.  Restoration.  And all this to brothers.     

Do you feel far away from Jesus?  That sense of distance isn’t coming from Him!  

I am ascending – He’s on the move.  There’s work to be done.  Tell the Brothers that I’m on the move, there’s work to do, and Mary, just as I’m already commissioning you to this task, so I’ll be commissioning them to their task.  

And even until today the Resurrected Lord is working and employing us in His work.  Lasting work of New Creation.  Planting eternal seed.  Watering seed.  Harvesting.  Lasting and meaningful.  Remember at the end of that great Resurrection chapter:

But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God!

With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.  – 1 Corinthians 15:58

To my Father and your Father, to my God and your God  – Jesus tells the disciples that He’s going to God, but He names God in this drawn-out way so that they understand they’re now a part of, no on the inside of, this relationship between God the Father and God the Son.     

You, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us…I in them and you in me – John 17: 21… 23

What does the Resurrection mean?  God is here.  And He tells us that we’re part of His future.  We’re justified.  God is for us.  He is glad to be known as our Father.  God is with us.  The Spirit of God strives to move us further into the knowledge of God as Abba, Father. 

Yes, brothers and sisters, we’re not home yet.  The New Creation is not complete and New Creation work yet to do.  There’s still plenty of pain and puzzlement in front of us.  According to God’s promise we still await a new heavens and new earth.  And new bodies to dwell therein.  But with the Resurrection, the corner has been turned.  And there’s a lot going well even right at this moment:   

Everything is already yours as a gift—Paul, Apollos, Peter, [all the teachers and what’s being taught] the world, life, death, the present, the future—all of it is yours, and you are privileged to be in union with Christ, who is in union with God. – 1 Corinthians 3:22ff


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