Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.
I Have See The Lord: John 20:11-18
We should know that something important is going to happen in this story because it takes place in a garden. In the Bible, really important things take place in gardens. In Genesis, creation took place in a garden. In the Song of Songs, two people fell in love in a garden. I wonder what is going to happen in this garden, the garden near where Jesus was crucified... the garden where his friends laid his body to rest. The garden where one of them, Mary Magdalene returned to pay her respects. I think something important is going to happen in this garden. I think we're going to see some new life here at the tomb, a place where we least expect it.
The story says that while it was still early enough to be dark outside, Mary Magdalene traveled to Jesus' tomb. Unlike the version of this story from Luke that we heard on Easter, Mary went alone. Like the account in Luke, she saw that the stone covering the tomb had been moved. In this story, however, she assumes that Jesus' body has been stolen. She ran and got two of the most trusted disciples in the book of John, Peter and the unnamed disciple, the one most frequently called "the one whom Jesus loved." These two returned with her to the garden. They saw that Jesus' grave clothes had been left behind. It is not clear what they believed happened as the Gospel says that they didn't know about the Resurrection yet. The beloved disciple believed something, but doesn't say what. Whatever they believed, it wasn't enough to keep them in the garden. They left, going into hiding with the other disciples. Mary stayed. She stood in the garden and wept.
She looked into the tomb and she saw two angels. It is a tomb in a garden and maybe Mary remembered that amazing things happen in gardens, including the appearance of messengers of the Divine. She doesn't appear to think seeing angels is strange or, maybe her grief is too strong for her to recognize what is happening. She treats them as though they are just regular people. They asked why she was weeping and she was honest. She told them she cried because she was sure that someone had taken Jesus' body and she had no idea where to find him. Then, this other guy showed up. Maybe she didn't remember that amazing things happen in gardens because she had no idea who he was. Had she remembered what kind of stuff happens in gardens, she might have figured out who he was sooner. But, she was just to sad. She just figured he was the gardener. Maybe he had moved Jesus' body while he was trimming the hedges. She asked him, begged him really, to tell her where Jesus' body was so she could move it somewhere safe. Then, this man did something she did not expect. It turns out that he wasn't a gardener. He said her name. "Mary." In that moment everything changed.
I'm telling you, something special always happens in a garden. God once said, "Let's make humankind in our image," and people showed up to take care of a garden. This time, Jesus said Mary and a mourning woman regain her joy in a garden. Once she heard him say her name, Mary knew that Jesus was alive and she knew that all hope was no longer lost. It was though new life had appeared in this garden, a garden that had once been a holding place for death. She called out "teacher." She might have even wanted to hug him. But Jesus said to her that she should could not cling to him. He couldn't would remain in the garden, at least not like he is right now. His work was not yet complete. His calling was not to stay in the garden or even stay in the same kind of existence as the rest of creation. He had a next step in this improbable journey of incarnation. He needed to ascend to God.. return to Word from which he had been formed.
What in the world does that mean? What does it mean for Jesus to ascend to God? Here's what I've learned this week. At least once scholar I read explained that the book of John understands Jesus to be the ultimate connection between creation and God. The whole point of Jesus' life as an incarnation of God is to build and rebuild a connection between God and humanity. In fact, our whole notion of the Trinity, a God who is three in one and one in three, is rooted, in part, in this concept of Jesus as human/divine connection. This same scholar, Karoline Lewis, points us back to the beginning of the Gospel of John to explain. In the beginning of the Gospel, John shares an interpretation of the creation story from Genesis. John even starts with the same first phrase as Genesis, "In the beginning," in order to be very clear that the story of Jesus that he is going to tell is a story best understood on the same cosmic scale as that first garden story in the whole Bible.
As John describes creation, there is God and something called the Word of God. The Word is both with God and is God. Now, you may ask what precisely that means. John isn't exactly clear. He doesn't explain how a thing can be really two things while still kinda being one thing. The thing is, John isn't interested in math. John is trying describe a relationship. This Gospel should be read more like poetry. It explains a relationship or a feeling. So we do best to pay attention to the feeling, not the numbers. The feeling is connectedness... liveliness. The author of John said that all of creation came into being through the Word. And, then, most importantly, the Word became flesh. There's your new life. And, Jesus is that Word. Jesus is both God and human, called the Incarnation. In becoming human, Jesus ultimately takes on life under the same terms as it was created by the Word, identifying so completely with humanity that he will die a death that mirrors the death that all of us humans face. Jesus, as the Word, has the power to reconnect people with the ultimate reality of God. Those who hear the Word become children of God. This Word brings life. The Word can return to us as Christ, one who lived as a human but lives on as Spirit.
Mary heard a word, her name, and the richness of her life was restored. In fact, Karoline Smith argues that she's given a whole new life upon hearing this word from Jesus. As I said, when she called him "teacher," she was also proclaiming herself to be a student, a disciple. We would do well to remember that Teacher is the first title given to Jesus by his disciples. Throughout John, disciples are understood to do one thing: be willing to tell others what Jesus has taught them. We can see that Mary has new life as a disciple because Jesus' needed Mary to be a disciple, to go tell the others what he had shared with her. He needed her to tell them that their hope in the future lies not simply in the Resurrection, but in the on-going relationship with God that they have been offered through Jesus' own ministry. Jesus' Ascension is the sign of that on-going relationship. Jesus must return to God. All of the rest of us are invited to return to God, too... to return to the intimacy with God, renewing a relationship that looks more like the early relationships between God and humanity as described in the creation stories of Genesis, the very first garden. Jesus needed Mary to tell the disciples about this possibility of renewed relationship with God. He needed her to live into her new life as a disciple, to preach of the resurrection, and of the opportunity for Ascension. She ran out of the garden, not in fear and not into hiding, but back to the other disciples. She said to them, "I have seen the Lord" and told them the things Jesus had shared with her.
All of this talk of incarnation, resurrection, and ascension can seem awfully heady and disconnected from our actual lives. Maybe we're like Peter and the beloved disciple, not sure exactly what to believe. I have one short story about a different garden that helps me sort out what I believe. Because when I see this garden, I can say that I've seen the Lord at work. But this garden's not in Bible. It's down in Westbrook. After hearing a sermon from Rev. Kelli Whitman asking about ways to serve their neighbors, two members of Prides Corner Congregational UCC asked if they could build a garden on the church property and donate the produce to the local food pantry. Making use of the passion and dedication of the congregation and a grant from the United Church of Christ Neighbors In Need program, over the course of several months, the congregation turned part of their property into a fruitful, healthy garden. It is a multi-generational project, with everyone from Sunday school kids to the most senior members of the church working together to plant, weed, harvest, and deliver food to their local food pantry.
Kids with dirty knees. Grownups with arms full of tomatoes. A garden filled with rich earth and clean water. Hungry bellies filled with fresh vegetables. This just might be what returning to a relationship with God can look like. At the very least, this is a group of people who know what to do when they hear the Word of God. They build relationship with one another and serve their community. Like Mary who runs and tells the disciples where she saw the Lord, their work together in service to their community has become their testimony. New life. Rich relationships. Healthy food. See, I told you that good things happen in gardens.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing this sermon:
Barbara Lundblad: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2807
David Tresemer and Laura-Lea Canon's preface to The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, translation from Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup, trans. from English by Joseph Rowe (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2002)
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4571
Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=738
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
An article about Westbrook's garden: http://www.ucc.org/maine-garden-neighbors-in-need-09242013
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.