|Lectionary||1st Reading||Psalm||2nd Reading||Gospel|
Jeremiah 31: 1 - 6
118: 1 - 2, 14 - 24
Acts 10: 34 - 43
John 20: 1 - 18
SECTION ONE: NOTES ON THE READINGS
Note: The Lectionary gives a choice of either Jeremiah 31:1-6 or Colossians 3:1-4, to accompany Acts 10:34-43, in addition to the Psalm and Gospel. Brief notes on both Jeremiah and Colossians are given here but only one should be chosen. The Lectionary also gives a choice for the Gospel reading between John 20:1-18 and Matthew 28:1-10. The Sermon Outline here is based on John 20, so notes for that passage only are given.
Jeremiah 31:1-6: The context of Jeremiah 31 is God’s word of consolation and encouragement to a people in exile. However terrible the present situation, and however clear it is that God’s people, Israel, have failed to keep God’s Covenant, God assures them that He continues to love them with ‘everlasting love’ and ‘unfailing kindness’ (v.2). Whilst they can see no hope in their current situation, a remnant will survive and thrive with joy and dancing (v.4). As Christians, we see these promises us ultimately fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection on the first Easter Sunday. Later in chapter 31 (verses 31-34), God speaks of this promise as a ‘new covenant’ (or ‘new testament’). Just as the Old Covenants (with Noah, Abraham and Moses) involved promises between God, people and the land and creatures (see Genesis 9:10-17), so this new covenant – fulfilled in Jesus – also includes all creation. Verse 5 speaks of vineyards being replanted on barren hills and bearing good fruit. The message of Easter is good news for all creation.
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24: This is Psalm of praise to God our Saviour. It really needs to be shouted or sung loudly, rather than mumbled or chanted. The repeated emphasis is on what “the Lord has done” and on the salvation that God brings. The Psalmist could not have known how fitting these words are on Easter Sunday, as we rejoice in how God turned “the stone the builders rejected” into the “cornerstone” on which our faith is built (v.22). Truly, “let us rejoice today and be glad” (v.24).
Acts 10:34-43: Peter speaks these words in Cornelius’ house, just after God has given him a vision of unclean animals now declared clean. For Peter, this was a second conversion. His first was to leave his life of fishing and follow Jesus. Now he realises that he must also leave his prejudices and recognise that “God does not show favouritism” (v.34) but welcomes people of any ethnic and religious background as followers of Jesus. Peter gives his eyewitness account of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection (vv.37-42) and challenges his audience to accept the forgiveness Jesus offers (v.43). This is a great passage to use in an evangelistic context, but it also has a challenge to those who have been Christians for years. In v.36, Peter speaks of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” Do we really recognise that Jesus is ‘Lord of all’? Peter had to accept the uncomfortable news that Jesus was for Gentiles too. We may need to face that Jesus is Lord of our lifestyles, our politics, our finances and – as Lord of creation – Jesus cares about how we treat this planet, the world that God created, sustains, redeems, and calls us to join in caring for.
Colossians 3:1-4: This short reading encourages Christians to see ourselves as ‘raised with Christ’ (v.1) and that therefore our focus should be where Christ is, in heaven at God’s right hand. Verse 2 says “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things”. This could be, and sometimes has been, used as an excuse to avoid caring or acting on environmental (‘earthly’) concerns. It seems to encourage a dualism between material / physical (unimportant or even bad) and spiritual (important and good). However, that is a grave misunderstanding and contradicts the whole Easter message. Jesus rose and ascended with a material, physical body and retains that in heaven. When he appears again (v.4), we will appear with him in glorified physical bodies. The biblical worldview sees the separation of earth and heaven as caused by sin and evil, which have been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, something that will be completed when Christ appears again. When he returns, earth and heaven will be reunited in one ‘new creation’ – a reality that will be both physical and spiritual and will incorporate elements of this current creation redeemed and restored. Therefore, by keeping our minds fixed on Jesus, we do not seek to escape from this world but rather our view of it is transformed. We have hope, because one day all that is broken and damaged will be restored, and therefore we are motivated to care for creation now, as a witness to the glory and power of our Risen Lord.
John 20:1-18: See below for sermon outline, which is based on this passage. If we imagine this passage as a film, or acted out as a play, there are four key scenes:
- Scene 1: The empty tomb: Mary confused and upset.
- Scene 2: The race to get there: John beats Peter; belief without understanding
- Scene 3: Mary, the angels, and the ‘gardener’ – tears turn to joy
- Scene 4: Mary shares the good news: the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection
The bible is very clear about the confusion and misunderstanding that Peter, John (who is clearly ‘the other disciple’ in v.3ff) and initially Mary all experienced. This is no sanitised version, but a raw and truthful account where John, the author, does not come out as a hero. Instead, astonishingly in a 1st century cultural context, it is a woman whom God chooses to reveal the resurrection to first, and moreover a woman with a troubled background (Luke 8:2). Just as Peter discovered in Acts 10, the message of Easter subverts and transforms our expectations of who God can use and how big the Gospel is.
SECTION TWO: SERMON OUTLINE “THINKING HE WAS THE GARDENER”
In the northern hemisphere, Easter coincides with Spring-time, and signs of new life in the natural world. Popular culture has turned Easter into a pagan Spring festival of eggs and baby chicks, rabbits and flowers … though I’m not sure where all the chocolate came from! That may seem a long way from the feast of the Risen Christ, the true meaning of Easter. However, as our Gospel reading shows us, the Easter links to nature imagery – flowers, eggs, rabbits – may be more significant than we realise.
When Mary Magdalene firsts sees the Risen Christ, she fails to recognise him “thinking he was the gardener.” We can easily overlook this reference to a gardener, seeing it as incidental and irrelevant, but in John’s Gospel nothing is there by accident. John carefully chooses words not just to describe what actually happened but to convey a deeper meaning.
In one sense, John’s Gospel begins with a garden – the Garden of Eden. John 1 starts with the phrase “In the beginning”, echoing Genesis 1. The story of creation, of a diverse and complex world created ‘very good’ by God, is deliberately brought to mind. But John immediately turns the spotlight onto Jesus: the Word who spoke everything into existence, the Light that has shone throughout history, the Life that flows through creation. Jesus is presented as Creator: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). A few verses later, Jesus is described as the Word becoming “flesh” (1:14), a surprising and significant choice of word. Jesus was born as a male, Jewish baby, so the obvious term would have been ‘anthropos’ meaning ‘man’ or ‘human’, but instead John uses ‘sarx’ or ‘flesh’ – the same word used for the flesh of any animal. John is intentionally telling us that the incarnation was not only God becoming human but was the Creator becoming a creature. In being born into the world, Jesus identified with all of creaturely life.
Throughout John’s Gospel, the creation and gardening theme keeps recurring. The most famous bible verse of all, John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”, and the word for world is kosmosin Greek, then as now including the whole created order. Jesus did not only come to save souls. He came to repair the damage wrought by sin and selfishness throughout the whole created order. The very next verse says, “God did not send his Son into the world [kosmos again] to condemn the world, but to save the world [kosmos] through him.” John’s Jesus is a cosmic Christ, who made the whole world, who continues to bring light and life, and who identified with creation in order that he might save the whole created order through his death and resurrection.
That makes Easter much bigger than we often allow it to be. We say and sing our ‘Hallelujahs!’ We rejoice that Jesus’ resurrection means death no longer holds fear, but is the gateway to eternal life for those who believe. But, do we see the bigger picture? Easter is about hope not just for individuals who trust in Jesus, but for our wounded and polluted planet. Jesus’ death and resurrection plant the seeds of hope in the gardens of our hearts, and also in the very fabric of the world – the garden of God’s creation. Do you think it’s simply coincidence or dramatic effect when the Gospels record earthquakes and an eclipse accompanying the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ? No, these were earth-shattering and earth-shaping events, when the seeds of what St Paul calls creation’s “liberation from bondage to despair” (Romans 8:19-21) were sown.
Returning to gardening, do you remember how God took the first human, Adam (who had himself been created from the dust of the earth), and placed him in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it”? Gardening was the first great commission – the first job description in the Bible – a call for human beings to reflect God’s image by carefully serving and preserving the ‘very goodness’ of creation. Adam was called to be a gardener because God is the great gardener, planting our world with abundance, diversity and beauty.
Yet, humans – the sons and daughters of Adam – have repeatedly failed to tend and care for the garden of God’s creation. We have turned the green fingers God gave us into grabbing fists that exploit, over-consume and destroy the variety and richness of God’s world. That is the context into which God sends Jesus, who – according to John 1:49-51 is both Son of God and Son of Man. Jesus brings together the glory and power of God – the creator and sustainer of the universe – with mortal humanity. Jesus refers to himself as ‘Son of Man’ at least 12 times in John’s Gospel, and of course that phrase can be translated as ‘Son of Adam’. As St Paul writes in Romans 5, Jesus is the new Adam, the second Adam. Just as death came into the created order through the disobedience of the first Adam, so life for all creation comes through the obedience of Jesus, the second Adam.
So, when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus in the garden where he had been buried, there is a whole back story of biblical symbolism and meaning. She fails to recognise him at first, “thinking he was the gardener” (20:15), which in a very profound sense of course he was! Jesus was the second Adam, and whereas the first Adam had failed to fulfil his calling to tend and keep the garden of Eden, Jesus modelled good relationships with God, neighbour and nature. Whereas Israel had been a vine that failed to produce good fruit and had gone wild, Jesus enabled his followers to bear much fruit. Whereas the first Adam had been ejected from the garden leading to toil and thorns, Jesus as the second Adam turned thorns into a crown and turned a burial garden into a resurrection of hope for all that had been damaged by the Fall.
Whereas we live in a world where human activity often works against nature, damaging and destroying it, Jesus was the Carpenter – a craftsman, an artist, a user of tools and technology to fashion items of beauty and usefulness from nature’s raw materials. He thus redefines our relationship with nature. Because of Christ’s saving work on the cross, restoring all the relationships broken in Eden – with God, each other and creation – we can now envision the possibility of a transformed relationship between humanity and nature.
In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul states: “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). The ‘children of God’ are those who have received Christ’s offer of adoption into God’s family – sinners forgiven by grace. Creation is waiting for God’s people – the Church – to recover the vocation they were given and lost in Eden, to take Godly leadership within the community of creation, to tend and serve within the garden of creation.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
He is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
SECTION THREE: ADDITIONAL MATERIALS
- Brian Zahnd: ‘Mistaken as the gardener’ https://brianzahnd.com/2018/03/mistaken-as-the-gardener/
- Kathleen Rushton: ‘Jesus, the resurrected gardener’ https://hail.to/tui-motu-interislands-magazine/article/w8FmEYN
Revd Dr Dave Bookless
Rev Dr Dave Bookless is an Anglican Priest in London Diocese, UK, and works as Director of Theology for A Rocha International. He has written numerous books, chapters and articles on creation care and lectured in over 40 countries across 6 continents. He loves running, Indian food, birdwatching, mountains and islands