I wonder how many of you have seen what many regard as British comic actor Peter Sellers’ greatest movie. Being There was produced less than a year before his death in 1980. It tells the story of a guileless, simple-minded man named Chance. As the film opens, Chance’s entire world has been the protected environment of the townhouse of a wealthy man, where he spent his time doing nothing but watching television and tending the garden. When his employer dies, Chance is forced to leave the only environment he has known. He wanders out into the streets of Washington, D.C., dressed in one of his benefactor’s expensive tailored suits. I will not go into all the details of the story, except to say that, through a series of coincidences and confusions, Chance the gardener is transformed into Chauncey Gardiner. His simplistic and meaningless utterances are taken to be arcane statements of profound insight. People assume he is speaking in enigmatic metaphors, when in reality all he is talking about is flowers and gardens. He becomes the most sought-after guest at every socialite soirée. He is a media celebrity. And before the film reaches its conclusion he is being touted as the next likely candidate for the presidency.
I can’t imagine that the story’s author had today’s gospel reading in mind when he wrote Being There. Yet I cannot escape the correspondence between the two. In Being There, a gardener is mistaken for a savior. This morning we have been presented with the Savior being mistaken for a gardener.
All Mary saw was the gardener
You can’t blame Mary, really. Less than forty-eight hours before, she had been one of those standing by, watching helplessly as Jesus hung dying on the cross, as he gasped for his last breath, as the javelin was thrust into his side. She had been there as Jesus’ body was laid in the sepulcher and as the huge round stone was rolled across the entryway. She had also been the first to arrive at the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid to rest. The other gospels indicate that she did not come alone. There were other women with her: Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Joanna, and others unnamed as well. They had brought with them spices to complete the hasty anointing that had been given to Jesus at the time of his death. Mark tells us that they were in a quandary about how they would manage to move the stone away from the opening. Perhaps the soldiers whom Pilate had placed on a security guard might be willing to give a helping hand.
As it turned out, however, there was no need. The stone had already been rolled away. John doesn’t mention it explicitly (although he does imply it and the other gospels do tell us so) that they went into the tomb and were confronted by the horrifying reality that the body had been removed. Mary did not stop to think twice. She raced back to where the disciples were staying and breathlessly announced to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Moments later John and Peter were there, peering inside the tomb—and they too witnessed what Mary and the other women had seen. The tomb was empty. All that was left of Jesus were his grave cloths.
Peter and John went back, as quickly as they had come, to tell the other disciples. Which left Mary alone, standing outside the tomb, sobbing and trembling in grief and bewilderment. Then something (and John doesn’t tell us what) something prompted Mary to take one more look inside the sepulcher. There she saw two angels. Or was it one angel, or a young man, or two men, in white in dazzling white clothes? At this point the various gospel accounts don’t entirely coincide. I can imagine that the shock and amazement of it all would have made it impossible to recall the precise details even hours after the event, much less decades.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” For some reason (and again John does not tell us why) Mary turns around to look behind her. Did she hear a footfall? Did she sense the presence of another? We do not know. What we do know is that she saw Jesus, but she did not recognize him for who he was.
Perhaps it was her tears. Perhaps there was still a little of the early morning mist in the air. Or alternatively perhaps the sun was glaring into her eyes. Frankly, I’m not sure it was any of these things. Again and again after his resurrection people were unable to recognize Jesus: not only Mary, but think of Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus or the disciples in the upper room. I think the real reason was that there was a little bit of Thomas in each of them, as there is in us. Resurrections just don’t happen. It never occurred to them that this really could be Jesus.
I think that there is something of a parable in Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus, in her mistaking him for the gardener. How many times has Jesus come to me and I have not recognized him? We are accustomed to talking about Jesus coming to us the marginalized, about recognizing him in the face of the poor—and there is a truth in that. But I am thinking about something different. I am thinking about those times when God has done something powerful and we ascribe it to coincidence or simply ignore it. We are much more comfortable in a world of mechanical regularity, where things are predictable, explainable—in a world where God does not intervene in power. But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that is not the world in which we dwell. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” the Scriptures tell us, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
God the gardener
The resurrection of Jesus turns our world with all its naturalistic presuppositions on its head. The man who stood in Mary’s presence was Jesus. Yet, stop for a moment and think. Was there not a sense in which Mary was right? Was he not also the gardener? Take a moment to look at the Renaissance paintings of this scene by Fra Angelico, van Oostsanen, Lavinia Fontana and Rembrandt. What they all have in common is that they depict Jesus with a spade in his hand (and in some cases with a gardener’s broad-brimmed hat!). The one Mary saw was indeed the Gardener (with a capital “G”) returning to his garden. “She did not mistake in taking him for a gardener,” declared Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Winchester, in his Easter sermon of 1620.
Though she might seem to err in some sense, yet in some other she was in the right. For in a sense, and a good sense, Christ may well be said to be a gardener, and indeed is one. A gardener he is then. The first, the fairest garden that ever was, Paradise. He was the gardener, it was of his planting. So, a gardener.
“No wonder at the empty tomb, Christ came to Mary Magdalene as the gardener,” reflects contemporary theologian Vigen Guroian. “For he is the Master Gardener, and we, we are his apprentices as well as the subjects of his heavenly husbandry.”
The Old Testament prophets looked with anticipation to the day when God would return to his garden:
The Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. (Jeremiah 31:12)
They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hosea 14:7)
In the final chapter of the Bible John the Seer is given a vision of the world that is to come:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1,2)
As Mary turned around from the empty tomb and looked up, the figure she saw was indeed the Gardener returning to his garden—and his work is in the soil of our hearts, yours and mine, planting the seed of his word in its furrows, pruning away the unfruitful branches, producing within us the luxuriant fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Christ the second AdamWhat Mary was the first to witness was the new creation irrupting into the old. The garden that had become a wilderness was beginning to bloom again. But before we leave this passage this morning I would like to take us one step farther. It has to do with the fact that the one whom God entrusted to till and to tend the original garden was Adam. So when Mary turned from the sepulcher the one she set her eyes upon was the second Adam: humanity fully transformed, you and I as we will one day be, victorious over sin, evil and death.
For the time being we groan, as Paul says, with the whole of creation. In the Spirit’s power we wrestle with the sin that has become so deeply implanted within us. We wait eagerly for the day when Christ’s redemption will be fully revealed.
Yet at Easter especially we recognize that by God’s grace, by Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we are at the same time in some mysterious sense partakers in the new Adam. Yes, we continue to sin. Yes we stumble and fall, sometimes spectacularly. Yet we are the gardeners, called and empowered to mediate the beauty of God, to be agents of his shalom, in a world corrupted by sin and death.
Our Christian communities ought to be places where loveliness of Christ is evident in our lives and relationships. Right now in our front lawn there are snowdrops and crocuses blooming. Passers by walking their dogs or pushing their strollers stop to admire them. That is how it is to be with us—that people may see the difference in our daily lives, in the quality of our relationships, in the undying hope that is within us. That is how it was with our earliest forebears. Luke tells us that they enjoyed the favor of all the people (Acts 2:47). Tertullian, writing at the end of the second century, observed how the pagans would say of their Christian counterparts, “Look how they love one another … and how they are ready to die for each other…”
As we stand with Mary, may it be with a profound wonder and joy that the Gardener has returned to his garden. And may it be with a willingness to let him do his work in us and through us. “For we are to God the sweet fragrance of Christ…” (2 Corinthians 2:15)