Easter Sermon on John 20 (2008)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: John 20:1-18;
Col. 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43


“Mary saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” She mistook him to be the gardener! [Sarcastically:] Way to go, Mary!

But wait a second. What is John the gospel writer doing here? He has put Mary and Jesus in a garden on the first day of the week. Are we to think of another couple in a garden at the beginning of time? In John’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims, as he dies on the cross, “It is finished!” Are we to think of something else as being finished than simply Jesus’s life? What about the finish of the old, sin-filled creation, and the beginning of the new, redeemed creation? Is this now, at the dawning of the first day of a new week, a fresh start for creation itself?

Do you remember how John’s Gospel begins? It’s that Christmas-time Gospel that tells us, “in the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.” John’s Gospel opens in the darkness of creation. Jesus, the Word, was there for the creation of light itself. Now, at the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus is there in the garden at the first light of a new week, at the first light of a new creation. He has come with forgiveness and new life so that his disciples can finally begin to live their calling.

What I’d like to suggest is that Jesus has come as a chief gardener of sorts so that we human beings might finally hearken to our vocation of caring for God’s creation, just as we were made to do. In the chronology of John’s Gospel, Jesus died on the sixth day of the old creation crying out, “It is finished!” And, after resting on the Sabbath, at the dawn of a new week, Jesus is there in the garden with Mary to call her by name, and to send her forth with new purpose. She must not cling to him — not because he is like a ghost and she cannot touch him. No, she must not cling to Jesus, because he is going to the father, and she has work to do. She must go out with the apostles and proclaim a new beginning for creation, and a fresh start for humankind in caring for God’s creation. If at first she has mistaken Jesus to be the gardener, this is the right sort of mistake to make. For she is there with the chief gardener of all of creation, in a garden on the first day of the new creation, and she is being sent out as one of his disciples. She mistook him to be the gardener. [Enthusiastically:] Way to go, Mary! That’s the right mistake to make.

Let’s pause for a moment, and consider if John really means for us to read in all of this stuff about a new creation. First and foremost, there is the rather obvious part about beginning the whole Gospel with the Jesus the Word at creation. But I want us to take a quick look, as well, at two stories of healing in John’s Gospel. The first is in John chapter 5. Jesus heals a paralyzed man, but it is on the Sabbath. So he gets in trouble with the lawyers, who confront him on his sloppy neglect of the Law. Jesus answers them, “My father is still working, and I also am working.” Do you see? What else could God’s work be but the work of creation? Healing this man on the Sabbath is the work of continuing that creation forward. For Jesus, this healing on the Sabbath is not just a matter of the law, but it is about creation theology itself. It is about the work we human beings are called to do, in helping God to care for the creation. Jesus goes on to say in John five that there will come a day when his followers will even rise out of their graves to join Jesus in his work of creation. The link between the work of creation and resurrection is made explicit.

In John chapter 9 we have the same story. Jesus heals a man born blind this time, and once again he gets in trouble for it because it is on the Sabbath. Jesus proclaims the healing as God’s work, and he even mimes God’s creation of the first man in his healing the blind man, by wiping mud on the man’s eyes and telling him to wash them off. As Jesus stoops to make some mud in the earth, it is reminiscent of God stooping down to create the first man out of the dust of the ground.

Jesus the Healer is the chief gardener, co-creator with God of all life. Jesus came to do such work of giving and caring for life, even in if it was on the Sabbath — perhaps especially on the Sabbath. For during the six-day work-week, we human beings have blown it. We have ceased doing God’s work in favor of working for ourselves. So Jesus came to do God’s work on God’s day, the Sabbath, in order that we might come to see our sin of working for ourselves instead of for God. Then, if we still haven’t recognized our falling down on the job, Jesus came to die on the sixth day of the old creation crying out, “It is finished!” And after resting on the Sabbath, at the dawn of a new week, Jesus is there in the garden with Mary. If at first she has mistaken Jesus to be the gardener, this is the right sort of mistake to make. Way to go, Mary!

There is one more important saying of Jesus in John’s Gospel around this business of work. At the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus very solemnly says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Isn’t that incredible? Jesus’ disciples will go on to do greater works than Jesus. How is that possible? It’s now 2000 years later, and are we latter-day disciples of Jesus in a position to do greater work than he?

Let’s think about it for a moment. Can’t we identify at least the potential for doing greater works? In the last hundred years alone the understanding through science of God’s creation has increased by leaps and bounds. Our halls of medicine are able to produce a sheer volume of healing that no one of Jesus’s day could ever imagine. Our fields of agriculture produce enough food to feed all the world’s people several times over — and occasionally, especially when moved by disasters, we act to get the food to people who most need it. We can predict the weather and get out of harm’s way. Our various technologies of communication have truly turned this vast globe into the proverbial global village. But, of course, as our potential for good has increased, the reality of our powers of destruction have seemingly multiplied all the more. Our potential for doing God’s work of caring for this creation has continued to fall into the sin of working for ourselves, working for own justification.

But the Good News of this day is that Jesus, on the first Easter morning, came to usher in nothing less than a new, redeemed creation. He came with forgiveness so that all those who believe might be born anew from above (John 3) and finally bear the fruit of doing God’s work, of caring for each other and for this whole creation as we were made to do. And so we have traveled that road again this holy weekend, to hear him first of all to proclaim on that sixth day of the old creation, “It is finished!” And now here we are, in the first light of a brand new week, hoping against hope to hear Jesus call our name. In this world where there is still so much darkness of death, we, like Mary, want to cling to him for our lives. But he tells you and me, as he told Mary and his disciples, “No! Don’t hold on to me! Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. This is the dawning of a new creation.”

The Risen Jesus is telling us,” I need you to go out and to tell this world that God the Creator loves his creation dearly with an unconditional love and forgiveness, a love and forgiveness which is an endless source of life. Someday, that life will be all in all. My new resurrected life,” Jesus continues, “is the first fruits of a creation come completely alive one day. And in the meantime I need you to be signs of that new life right here and now. I need you — in whatever your calling in life, as husband or wife, as parents or children, as friends, as neighbors — I need you to care for one another, as I have cared for you. I need you in whatever you do — whether it’s as scientist, as teacher, as healer, as farmer, as builder, as volunteer, as a citizen of this wealthy nation — in whatever you do, I need you to do it for God and for God’s creation. I need you especially to share your lives and your blessings with the least of my brothers and sisters in this world. In the power of my name, you can do greater works than me. I have gone to the Father, so that I can be with all of you in all places at all times, blessing you with the power of my life that you may bless others. I need you to be emissaries of God’s new creation.”

Mary Magdalene had wanted to cling to Jesus. It’s an understandable sort of mistake. But when Jesus sent her out, we read: “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” (John 20:18). Way to go, Mary!

Now, it’s our turn. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 23, 2008

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