The Garden: Where Jesus Knows Your Name
Easter 2021 | Dan McCoig
20 Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
Seeing is believing.
We have five empirical senses. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Our culture tends to favor sight, however, above the other senses.
But sometimes we don’t believe what we see or we ascribe a meaning to what we see that differs from the meaning others may ascribe to it. Social scientists tell us sometimes we see what we want to see and don’t see what we don’t want to see, which is conditioned by the life experiences that have contributed to the person we are.
Today’s lesson is John’s account of the first Easter. It is a “seeing is believing story”.
John’s gospel was written much later than Mark, Matthew, and Luke — a full generation later, in fact. And, John’s gospel is quite different from Mark, Matthew, and Luke in many ways. For example, Jesus tells very few parables in John; Jesus provides very few moral teachings in John. Instead, what John presents are dramatic narratives of Jesus interacting with a diverse host of people and engaging in extended dialogues and discourses on one subject or another.
In our lesson for today, we meet several significant characters from Jesus’ inner circle. I want us to focus on two of them — Mary Magdalene and John, the beloved disciple. Mary is the first disciple to arrive at Jesus’ tomb early on that first Easter Sunday. She is surprised and distressed by what she finds. The stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. Jesus’ grave has been robbed, she concludes. Mary is overcome with tears.
John, the beloved, arrives at Jesus’ tomb after Mary. He sees the same rolled away stone. He sees the same empty tomb. But, he is overcome not with tears but with joy. What he believes has happened, although he doesn’t quite understand, is this — God has raised Jesus from the dead. John, the gospel writer, tell us that John, beloved disciple, believed.
When I read John’s gospel, I try to imagine his thought process in telling Jesus’ story. At the end of his gospel John tells his readers why he has written his gospel. He has written his gospel so that those who read it — that’s you and me — may come to trust Jesus as their savior and live more fully than they could possibly imagine. John calls this life abundant life, eternal life.
But John doesn’t give us a window into his writerly decisions. We have to do a little digging to discern them. For example, why not just give us John’s experience of the empty tomb and his unbridled trust that God raised Jesus from the dead because the love of God in Jesus can’t be kept down, won’t stay in a tomb; God’s love will be raised and let loose in the world; God’s love in Jesus will have the final say, not the religious leadership, not Rome, not death, not anything. Now, that’s an ending and John provides it. That’s why we have gathered this Easter morning whether physically or virtually.
But, John also gives us Mary’s story. Mary is confused. She is not sure what has happened and goes to a dark place. For her, thieves have stolen Jesus’ body. Ultimately, Mary owns her not knowing and her misunderstanding — she mistakens the risen Lord for a gardener — and her tears. She says “I don’t know”, “I don’t understand”, and cries. Mary’s stark and painful honesty is difficult to witness but refreshing.
Mary’s response to the empty tomb is different than John’s because Mary is not John. And John’s response to the empty tomb is different from Mary’s because John is not Mary. The early Jesus movement was filled with followers like Mary and followers like John. Today’s Jesus movement is filled with followers like Mary and followers like John.
I believe Mary was traumatized by Jesus’ crucifixion in ways I can’t begin to understand. I believe Mary felt the daily burdens of Roman imperialism and the occupation of her homeland. I believe Mary weathered the hostile stares and wounding slurs and ostracism that came from her community for deciding to follow Jesus.
All of these things contributed to Mary’s initial and visceral reaction to the empty tomb. They affected her uniquely. Anxiety and despair distort how we see what we see. Painful experiences shape how we interpret events and the conclusions we draw about them.
Mary didn’t love Jesus any less than John. She loved him differently. And Jesus certainly didn’t love John any more than Mary. Jesus loved him the way he needed to be loved. But Mary carried things John knew nothing about and we can know nothing about.
Mary represents every follower of Jesus burdened by whatever it is they are carrying around — fear, doubts, anxiety, despair, hurt, worry, loneliness . . . I’ve had all of these feels during the pandemic and still do. These things made it challenging to see the empty tomb the way John the beloved saw the empty tomb. They make it difficult for us to see the empty tomb the way John the beloved saw the empty tomb.
How is that John saw what Mary saw but drew a very different conclusion? And how is it that Mary came to see the empty tomb differently than she did initially?
First, there is seeing and there is seeing. There is physical seeing — what our eyes tell us is there. And then there is a seeing that involves our intuition and imagination, our mind and our heart. Some writers call this second sight or seeing with the eyes of faith.
John saw with second sight, his eyes of faith. To do so involved remembering Jesus’ teaching, recalling his encounters with and experiences of Jesus, which may have been more intimate and intense given that John is referred to as the beloved. John remembered how Jesus gathered the ignored and violated and vulnerable. John remembered how Jesus displayed God’s power through compassion and empathy.
Mary would see with this second sight, her eyes of faith, as well when she heard Jesus speak her name as he had before. When Mary heard the risen Lord speak her name her not knowing and her misunderstanding and her tears were gathered up by the same love she knew and experienced in Jesus’ presence before his death and now experienced after his death. Hearing her name helped her to remember.
For John the gospel writer, belief is a trusting relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Easter morning is a perfect time to revisit what it is, or better yet, who it is we trust with our lives.
Belief requires a double vision of sorts. There is what we see with our eyes that is physically in front of us. But there is also what we see with our second sight, our eyes of faith. With such sight, the child in the manger is the eternal Word of God. The bread and wine on the table is the body of Christ broken for the world, the blood of Christ poured out for the world. The neighbor who needs us, the neighbor we help, is Christ himself. An empty tomb is the power of God’s love over all things, even death. The family member, friend, or stranger beside us is a bearer of God’s image. Every person we encounter is a child of God. When we see them we get a glimpse of God and when they see us they get a glimpse of God. The world, human and nonhuman alike, is infused with the divine; it is a sacrament.
Do you know the hymn, “In the Garden”? Among a certain generation it is a favorite. Listen to what author Marilynne Robinson has to say about it. She writes:
For a long time, until just a decade ago, at most, I disliked this hymn, in part because to this day I have never heard it sung well. Maybe it can’t be sung well. The lyrics are uneven, and the tune is bland and grossly sentimental. But I have come to a place in my life where the thought of people moved by the imagination of joyful companionship with Christ is so precise that every fault becomes a virtue. I wish I could hear again every faltering soprano who has ever raised this song to heaven. God bless them all.
Writer Thomas Long observes: “The Mary of this old hymn claims ‘And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever know’ — but in John, because of Mary’s witness, everyone gets to know it.” Everyone.
Happy Easter, friends. Amen.