Rev Julian Duckworth
| Reading: John 20:1-2, 11-18
Text: John 20:15-16
Jesus said to Mary, “Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” She, supposing him to be the gardener, said, “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, “Rabboni! (my Teacher)”
Doctrine: Arcana Caelestia no. 5962
“Those in heaven still have changing states. They go through what can be called their morning, midday, and evening times. It is morning for them when they feel the presence of the Lord and they have the sense of good. It is midday when they are strongly in the light of truth and everything is clear to them. They are in their evening when they are more remote from good and truth, and at these times it seems to them that the Lord is hidden from them. When it is like this, they feel troubled, and turn back to the Lord, and soon the dawn comes and the morning. These changes happen because, like people, angels and spirits are created beings.”
You and I will have had the strange experience of seeing someone somewhere who looks very much like someone we know. We’re almost tempted to go over and see if it really is our friend. Then we look again and we begin to see that no it isn’t them after all; there’s a general similarity but there are some slight differences. This is someone else. It was a good thing I didn’t call out…how embarrassing that would be.
Scattered around the Bible there are quite a few cases of what we can call mistaken identities. Most of them are in the gospels and most of these happen after the resurrection. But let’s start with the Psalms. Here, quite often, the speaker complains to God… “God has forgotten and he hides his face.” “My heart said, “I will seek your face, Lord. Do not hide your face from me.” And this one, “How long, Lord, how long will you hide your face from me?”
This idea of God hiding his face matters. God never plays games with us – Now you see me, now you don’t. God is not like that. But we have our ups and downs and sometimes we feel close to God and sometimes we feel we are far from him, and we think that God is hiding himself from us. Quite a lot of people seem to think that if you get the idea of God, you’re all set up from then on, you are home and dry. The reality is not like that. It is only the beginning. We will keep moving close to God and then away from God or feel we’ve lost it, and the point is for us to always keep choosing to come back to God again. That strengthens us and does us good, even if it is hard for us to cope with.
The reading from our church teaching maps it out well and it is helpful for us to see that this coming and going and coming back is always how it is. We should not feel bad about ourselves, it happens even to angels as well as people. You see, it can only be God himself who stays exactly where he is and how he is.
So, let’s have a quick look at how this goes on in the gospels. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth where he grew up. Everybody would know who he is. He speaks beautifully with great wisdom. And the listeners begin to bristle at this. “Who is this? Where does he get such wisdom from? Isn’t he the carpenter?” Well, yes he is but really, no he isn’t just the carpenter although it is true that the Lord works on us very much like a carpenter who turns a piece of wood into a beautiful sculpture.
After the resurrection these miss-takes come thick and fast. The disciples are fishing and catch nothing and Jesus appears to them on the shore and they suppose he is a ghost. All they know is that Jesus had died. On the road to Emmaus two disciples walk sadly and Jesus joins them and asks them why they are sad. And they think he is a stranger, and reply, “Are you the only person who doesn’t know what happened, that the Lord was killed?” And later, he reveals to them who he is, and they marvel, but Jesus immediately vanishes.
Then we come to Mary (Mary Magdalene) out of whom Jesus had cast many evil spirits and you wonder what kind of life Mary Magdalene had led before finding Jesus. She had come to love Jesus in her own special way, so she was grief-stricken when Jesus was crucified and she watched him on the cross and then went to the garden where they had put him in the tomb. She saw the open tomb and how it was empty, and then she saw a man she supposed was the park gardener. She went to him and asked him where the body of Jesus is, and that she would take the body away herself.
And then the magic moment. This man says, “Mary.” And suddenly she gets it and realises. “Rabboni!” (My Teacher!) Try and imagine her discovery. She may have wanted to hold him for evermore, never to ever let him go away from her again. But Jesus tells her she must not cling to him because he has not ascended to heaven. “Go and tell the disciples you have seen the risen Lord.”
Mary thought this man must be the gardener. She couldn’t see. She could only try and put two and two together. But just as those in the synagogue said Jesus is the local carpenter and those who stood at the cross and said, “He saved others, himself he cannot save!” there is always a truth in the way they put things. Jesus is our Carpenter. Jesus could not save himself. And Jesus is our Gardener.
You have only got to think about the parable of the Sower to start to make the connection. Seeds thrown here and there in the garden of our mind where some immediately get eaten by the birds, some grow high and then fall over because the sun scorches them and they haven’t any soil, some get choked by so many weeds which are really the cares of the world, and some grow as they should and produce their crops because they are in good ground.
And the whole Bible almost begins with a garden scene – the Garden of Eden. God made man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend it. He is allowed to eat of all the fruit trees except just one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is forbidden, but this of course is the tree from which Adam and Eve would soon eat and begin their self-awareness and be turned out of the garden.
So, we are like a garden and the Lord can be called its Gardener. Mary was right, even though she only supposed in her despair that this man can only be the garden keeper. People seem to love being in a garden. If I ask people where they enjoy being the most, you can bet the first answer will be ‘in a garden because it’s just so lovely.’ Nobody says ‘in the laundry’ or ‘in the bank’ or ‘in the supermarket’ and I am still waiting for someone to say ‘being in church’. But being in a garden seems to resonate with most people as a lovely place to be in, especially if it is your own garden. The space, the air, the growth, the sunshine, the layout, and all the variety. No wonder!
I know people who do their thinking (or maybe their praying) out there in the garden because the setting helps. I knew a lovely lady who quietly died bending over some plant or weed. And let’s face it, Easter is so well pictured by growth and beauty and newness. The flowers open – the tomb opened. The plants rise – Jesus rose.
Jesus once made much use of gardening. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He even talked about pruning. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit is taken away, and every branch that does bear fruit is pruned (cut back) so that it will bear more fruit. And while it looks like Jesus is giving us a gardening tip, he is of course talking about the garden inside us and its care. His work on it and our work on it. It is always both, the two of us together. Easter and the Resurrection is always meant to take us by surprise and be a sudden unexpected new thing for us to feel joy about. Who of us doesn’t go out into the garden and cry out that the row of seeds we planted are all beginning to come up? Each time it is like a miracle because we suddenly see it for real. Things in life can plague us or make us feel terribly sad, and then we come across a beautiful touch of someone’s tender loving care.
Easter on one level is telling us that the love of God cannot ever be killed off. It is indelibly permanent and will always be what it is. God holds all creation, including ourselves in his hands. It will always bounce back and come into view somewhere we don’t expect it. It is there to lift us up as we sit and look at the half-filled glass and wonder if it is half-full or only half-empty. Its abiding message is for us to be part of it, not only to hope about it but to decide for it so that we are absolutely sure about one thing for certain in our life. And we will be given so much evidence as we go with that decision. Amen