In the Garden

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 20:1-16

Today all over the globe Christians by the hundreds of millions are gathering for worship and greeting one another with the words, “Christ is risen!” This is our witness to the world.

Somewhere in the western Pacific, a group of believers gathered and watched the sun peak over the rim of the eastern horizon and held the first Easter sunrise service of 2008. Hour by hour as the world has rolled onward into each successive time zone, Christians have come together by the millions, by the tens of millions, by the hundreds of millions in order to greet one another this morning with the news: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” This is what it all hinges upon. It’s the only reason why the church exists today, 2000 years later, in all its manifold forms and varieties. This is the common faith that unites all believing Christians. Christ is risen!

If he is not risen, if Jesus Christ is still dead and buried, then I would like to say that we have no business even believing in him, let alone worshiping him. “If Christ has not been raised from the dead we are of all men most to be pitied,” said the apostle. I, for one, agree with him. If Christ has not been raised, then the New Testament is just a fairy tale. If it somehow came out that the Easter story was false, that, for example, Jesus’ resurrection was simply a metaphor for some sort of spiritual awakening that happened in the hearts of his disciples (to choose a common liberal interpretation), then I’m with Paul. I’m outta here! Then let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

The other thing I would say about those who want to spiritualize the resurrection story is that this is not the faith that wrote the New Testament. It’s not the faith that produced the early church and its martyrs. It’s not the faith that enabled men and women to go into the arena and meet the lions with a smile on their faces and a song of praise on their lips. Here’s a fine statement by the great Roman Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown.

There can be no question that the evangelists themselves thought that Jesus’ body did not remain in the grave, but was raised to glory. . . . There is not an iota of New Testament evidence that any Christian thought the body was still in the grave corrupting. Was the body that was placed in the tomb raised into glory so that it no longer remained rotting in the earth? That question I answer affirmatively according to the biblical evidence.

John’s Story

Let’s listen again to that biblical evidence, in this case, from the Easter account in the Gospel of John.

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. . . .

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb . . . she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him “Teacher.”

John 20:1, 11-16

In the Gospel of John the very first witness to the resurrection is Mary Magdalene. Who was she? The only clear biblical knowledge we have of her background is that she was a woman from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. How’s that for a choice for the first New Testament witness to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? If you were going to make up a story or invent a myth, would you choose as your number one witness: first, a woman (whose testimony was illegal in that culture); and second, a woman with a history of severe mental illness? How likely is that?

But Mary Magdalene was a woman who loved Jesus deeply. She wasn’t married to him; let’s clear that modern fantasy up. Mary calls Jesus “Lord,” not “husband.” But Mary Magdalene loved Jesus as only one delivered from the cruelest kind of bondage could love. Mary’s love made her braver than all the men who followed Jesus. She faithfully stood at the foot of the cross and watched him die. She was part of the group that hurriedly laid Jesus in the tomb on Friday afternoon.

And now she goes to the garden early on Sunday morning, with some other women, to finish the preparation of Jesus’ dead body. Mary Magdalene was the last person to leave the cross and the first to visit the tomb, and because of her great faith and great love, she is the first person to see the risen Lord.

Mary’s Encounter

Here’s how it happened. Very early on Easter morning, Mary and the other women arrived in the garden to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Mary must have immediately run by herself back to Jerusalem to look for help, while the other women, lingering at the tomb, were the first to hear from the angels the incredible news, “He is not here. He is risen. Come and see the place where he lay.” As the other women left the garden Mary, having found Peter and John in the city and told them that Jesus’ body had been stolen, comes back with them. They arrive and see the empty tomb, with the grave clothes still lying on the slab. What we understand from that detail is that Jesus did not gradually come back to life, like a person being resuscitated in a hospital. The resurrection happened instantaneously and gloriously, as Jesus’ body was suddenly transformed, passing not only through the walls of the tomb but even through his burial shroud. Thus Jesus becomes the firstborn of the new creation. John says that when he went into the tomb and saw the grave clothes lying there, he believed.

So Peter and John go back to the city, still not fully comprehending what has happened. But Mary remains in the garden. She finally works up the courage to stoop down and peer into the tomb for herself, where she sees two angels and pauses in confusion and grief. Then Mary turns around.

John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher known as the “Golden Mouth,” says in a sermon on this beautiful story that what made Mary turn was the look on the angels’ faces as Christ appeared behind her. That’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? The awe that came over the angels’ shining countenances when they beheld the risen Lord prompted Mary to turn. She sees Jesus standing there, but still doesn’t recognize him. “Sir,” she says (supposing him to be the gardener), “if you’ve moved his body please tell me where it is so I can care for it.” And then comes the wonderful moment when Jesus speaks her name – “Mariam” – and Mary recognizes her Master, and falls at his feet. Jesus once said, “My sheep know my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” Mary Magdalene in the garden shows just how true that is.

Commissioned as Witnesses

That isn’t the end of the Easter story. As Mary responds in faith and love and wonder to the risen Lord Jesus Christ he issues instructions to her. “I have a job for you, Mary. I want you to go tell my brothers that you’ve seen me.” In other words, Mary Magdalene becomes a witness commissioned by the risen Christ to tell others that he is alive and still at work in the world. This is how the gospel works. It’s the consistent pattern of New Testament teaching. This is the apostolic witness: Jesus died for our sins, he rose again, we have seen him, and we are witnesses to these things. That’s Mary’s story, it’s Peter’s, and John’s, and Paul’s story.

And it’s our story, too – not just that he rose (as important as that is), but that we have met him, that we’ve seen him, and we are witnesses to him. We do not see him with our eyes, but even so, nevertheless we love him. We meet him in his word, we hear him in our heart as he speaks our name, we recognize his voice, the voice of the Lord, and we lay hold of him by faith. Then we, too, become witnesses. Amidst all the convoluted arguments and against all the skeptical stances that modern folk take, we proclaim one solid fact: Christ is risen.

This is our testimony in a world made bleak with despair and hopelessness. J. B. Lightfoot, the 19th century New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham, contrasted the common tomb inscriptions in the ancient world with the messages that the early Christians left in the catacombs. The Roman catacombs were a network of tunnels that the Christians excavated as cemeteries to bury their dead. Etched into the walls you can still see the symbols of hope these first believers used at their funerals: a shepherd’s crook, pointing to Jesus, the Good Shepherd; a man carrying a lamb in his arms; the fish, ichthus in Greek, an acronym for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. This is what Bishop Lightfoot wrote:

On the one hand, [referring to the pagan tomb inscriptions] there is the dreary gloom of despair, the effect of which is only heightened by the pomp of outward splendor from which it issues: marble sarcophagi and temple tombs. On the other [in the catacombs] there is the exalting psalms of hope, shining the more brightly in all ill-written, ill-spelled records amidst the darkness of subterranean caverns.

There is the difference Jesus’ resurrection makes. Have you met him? Have you heard him call your name? Have you responded? Then be a witness!