Friday, 23 April 2010

4th Sunday of Easter: Confrontational Christianity?


Acts 9:36-43
Peter in Lydda and Joppa

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

John 10:22-30
Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’

When the people behind the scenes are putting together the readings for each week, the readings they give us are usually meant to be linked. However, I sometimes find myself having to look hard to see what exactly the link might be. These two readings are of that kind because at first glance there doesn’t seem to be a great deal in common. But when we begin to look closer we can see the common thread. These two narratives are both confrontation stories.

That might not seem to be the most obvious link since, whilst Jesus certainly seems to be in confrontation with a number of Jews, Peter’s story in Acts seems to be anything but confrontational. In fact it seems to be purely based around healing and putting things right, but we have to remember here that we are in the Easter period and Easter is all about living the post-resurrection life.

Easter is about Jesus having the victory over death, so what we find in Peter’s story is his confrontation with sickness and death, as if death is an enemy to be defeated. So let’s start with Peter’s story before we look briefly at the Gospel reading and draw some lessons from them.

The story in Acts is a disturbing one to our 21st century minds because it is likely that we will look at it from the perspective of someone we know who is either very ill, or who became ill and died, and ask why God didn’t or hasn’t healed that person. Certainly that was my first thought. We take on a kind of righteous indignation, a sort of, ‘Yes God, but what about so and so? Why not heal them?’

If we’re not careful this rapidly descends into a kind of argument from righteousness and guilt, that Tabitha was clearly a righteous woman who made a very great difference to people’s lives so she was worthy of being healed, and perhaps I’m not good enough to be healed, or perhaps so and so was not good enough to be healed.

All I can say is that we must not go down that route. Jesus routinely healed people who hadn’t even heard of him, and if you recall the way he healed the paralysed man who was by the pool for thirty odd years, you may remember that that was a pagan healing site. So Jesus clearly didn’t distinguish between righteous and unrighteous people, and we should never point that particular finger at him, nor at Peter.

So whilst the temptation is to immediately start asking philosophical questions of this story, we need instead simply to see what is said, because that is what we can build on. When we look closely at the story what we see is quite remarkable, and surely not an accident. The story of Peter raising Tabitha is an extremely close parallel to the story of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter.

In Mark’s account of Jesus we find the people standing around wailing and weeping, and here we find the widows standing around wailing and weeping. When Jesus arrived he put them all outside; when Peter arrived he also put them all outside. But here’s the clincher. Jesus says to the little girl, ‘get up’, except that, unusually, Mark tells us what he says in Aramaic which is ‘Talitha cum’.
In Acts we’re not told what Peter says in Aramaic, but we are told the woman’s name was Tabitha and that he said to her, ‘Get up’, so in Aramaic he would have said, ‘Tabitha cum’, only one letter different from what Mark has Jesus saying to Jairus’s daughter. Talitha cum and Tabitha cum.

Now since we know that Luke, the writer of Acts, had used Mark’s Gospel when writing his own, we must surely assume that when he was recording this account he used this wording on purpose to show just how Peter was following in Jesus’s footsteps. We must also notice, however, that he doesn’t do it in his own power.

Before raising Tabitha, he prayed, and likewise in the story preceding this a paralytic is healed at his hands with Peter saying the words, ‘Jesus Christ heals you’. Peter claims no power for himself, but instead heals in the name of Jesus. He is following his Lord and he is confronting sickness and death just as Jesus did.

But that’s not all he’s confronting. There is a hint at the end here that he is also about to confront the traditions of the Jews as well. The very last thing that Luke tells us is that Peter stayed with Simon the tanner for some time. ‘So what’, we might say, but think about it. A tanner is someone who works with animal carcasses. Peter was staying with someone defiled by his work.

This is hugely important because the next thing that happens to Peter is that he confronts the laws regarding what is or isn’t unclean, and as a result realises that the good news about Jesus is meant to be taken beyond Judaism into the rest of the world, amongst the unclean Gentiles like us. So having confronted sickness and death, he is now about to confront oppressive tradition. Peter is discovering that being a disciple means making difficult decisions and standing up for what he believes in.

I’m not going to go into any detail here, but in the Gospel reading we see the same kind of thing with Jesus yet again in confrontation with the Jewish leaders. Throughout John’s Gospel we see him refer to the Jews, but we should remember that John was himself a Jew, and so he is referring here to the authorities, the powers, the ones who think they’re right and Jesus is wrong.

Over and over again we see Jesus in confrontation with them as they refuse to believe his teaching or accept that the authority with which he teaches and heals come from God. Ultimately they killed him because of it.

These two stories highlight for us the need to recognise that being a Christian is not and cannot be thought of as an easy way of life. Our lives should include confrontation, and in fact if they don’t, if we are dodging confrontation we may be avoiding some of the Gospel work we’re supposed to be doing in the name of Jesus.

That is not to say that we are supposed to be angry the whole time, and especially with each other. It’s also important that we don’t get into a whole degree of moral self-righteousness and judgementalism. No, that’s not it at all. But we are living life after Jesus confronted the powers of this world, confronted the traditions of the religious system that oppressed people, and after he confronted the powers of death.

We live in the shadow of the victories he won. In this post-resurrection time we are supposed to continue the work that was doing, confronting those things that need to be confronted. Now I’d like to add a note of caution here following a very helpful conversation during the week. There is an argument that says we should confront moral issues here, and I would want to say, ‘Be very careful.’

You see we have an idea in our own minds about what is morally right or wrong, and we often assume that we are correct, based on biblical teaching. However, we might be wrong. At the moment there are factions within the church who make sexual morality a big issue of right and wrong.

Before we hop on that bandwagon we need to remember that biblical sexual ethics do not point to any one specific clear teaching beyond this one simple rule. If you enter into a covenant relationship with someone, such as in marriage, that covenant reflects the relationship God has with us and so must be treated with utmost respect, which is why adultery is so frowned upon, because it breaks the covenant relationship, but even there forgiveness is offered.

But beyond that it becomes very grey indeed. There are at least two prostitutes who are used mightily by God; there are King David and King Solomon who had numerous wives and there is the very clear understanding, especially in the Old Testament, that all members of the household, wives, children, slaves, whoever, are the property of the husband. Our idea of the nuclear family as being blessed by God is simply not present.

In fact Jesus deliberately undermines traditional families when his own comes looking for him by looking at his followers and saying, ‘Here are my mother, my brothers and my sisters.’ So when you are thinking about whether you should confront poor moral behaviour, be very careful that what you are doing is not self-righteous judgementalism tinged with scriptural ignorance.

No, instead what we find in the lives of Jesus and Peter and the other disciples is confronting oppression, sickness, death, self-righteousness. Jesus set people free from moral issues, but he angrily confronted those things which oppress others, and we should follow in his footsteps. When we think about Pentecost shortly we have to think in terms of the Holy Spirit filling the disciples so that the work which they do is not their own work but the work of Christ.

If we want to see what it is that we’re supposed to confront, we should read the prophets, which is one of the reasons why I’m so keen on the Old Testament. Listen to these famous words from the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

When we read those verses it makes it clear to us that however good and excellent our worship may be, if we are not confronting injustice and oppression, then it is not pleasing to God. Now there are lots of good things happening in this church. There are people who are involved with Acorns hospice for children; there are those involved in Christian Aid; others work for and give to the palliative care unit in Vellore, and so on.

What we must be careful of is not to ride on their coat-tails as it were. The post-resurrection life is all about bringing more life and confronting evil when we see it, and that may be as simple as telling someone who is gossiping about someone else that you don’t want to hear them, or writing letters for Amnesty International.

So during this Easter and Pentecost season let us ask for God’s help in confronting those things which should be confronted, and in helping those who need to be helped, and for wisdom to see the difference. Amen.

J.R.W.Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP, 1990.
P.W.Walaskay, Acts, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Election Special: View from the Vicarage - Whose Power?

And so another General Election is upon us, as well as the local elections. But the real question that I think we have to ask ourselves is how do we make decisions about who to vote for. Who do we want to be ‘in power’ and why? For me, the biggest question mark remains over that phrase ‘in power’, because as Christians our context must surely lie in these very familiar words:

“For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours...”
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory...”

Who’s ‘in power’ in our prayers?

So how should we feel about voting for an earthly political party to be ‘in power’?

I think that before we look at our potential local and national government, (because it would be very easy to stand in judgement), we should perhaps begin by looking at ourselves since politicians are just flawed human beings like the rest of us. It’s likely that all of us pray this prayer at least weekly and possibly daily, but I wonder how much we mean it, for this is a ‘giving-up’ prayer. It says that all this thing called power that humans seem to want actually belongs solely to God, not to us, and to pray this prayer means that we are giving up our claim on the object of our desire: power. What makes this so difficult for us is that it goes against our instincts. I’ve just been watching a programme about a monkey sanctuary and the difficulties which the keepers go through when they occasionally have to introduce a new animal to a pre-existing and stable group. What maintains the stability of the existing group is the power of the dominant male, keeping unruly behaviour in check, and if a new male is introduced it can often require a power-struggle in order to establish a new order, or re-establish the old one. We cannot deny our shared common heritage with the other higher primates, and so this struggle to establish a power base and hold on to it is second nature to much of humanity (even if we don’t acknowledge it to ourselves), and whilst this may seem like a very male dominated argument, it’s worth noting that the alpha male is usually accompanied by the alpha female (and in fact in some species it is the alpha female who chooses who will be the alpha male!), so women should not think themselves to be unaffected by this drive for power. Yet to pray this prayer is to lay aside those claims; to declare that all power is God’s.

Now this is all very well, but surely there have to be leaders, people in positions of power? I’m not sure I agree, although I hasten to add that I am not an anarchist! What I would say is that there are positions of authority that need to be filled. ‘Surely’, you might say, ‘we are dealing in semantics now?’ I would beg to disagree; there is a significant difference between power and authority. Power belongs to God alone, as we have prayed many times in the Lord’s Prayer, but God does give authority to some. However there needs to be a recognition that it is God’s power that some are given authority to wield, and I use the word ‘wield’ rather than ‘use’ on purpose. When someone thinks they have power, they are under an illusion. They may have been given authority but they have no real power. The difficulty is that those with authority often don’t seem to have the humility to realise that they merely have authority rather than real power. However when you meet someone who has been given authority and wields it in a Godly and humble power you rapidly become aware of the shallowness of the search for power. I will never forget meeting the St. Albans Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), whom I had to see every month for nigh on a year and a half whilst going through the discernment process for priesthood. The contrast between him and some of the power-wielding businessmen and scientists I had dealt with in industry was very distinct. They liked their power and some seemed addicted to it and extremely protective of what they had, but Michael was different, and even now it’s not easy to describe. He was a very gentle man who laughed easily, and in fact was quite capable of giggling. He was also wonderfully fallible and had no problems with laughing at himself. What marked him out was the way he wielded the gentle and holy authority that seemed to flow from him in such a loving way. There was a sort of holy confidence about him. I looked up to him, not because he was powerful, but because God had trusted him with authority, and I suspect that was because he had given up his claims to power. He was a servant.

So we have no power really; none of us, whatever illusions our jobs or roles in society may have spun for us. But there are some, who recognise that the power is God’s, that God will trust with authority. They don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be servants and to know where power really comes from, and that it is not theirs and that it should not be pursued. So when you are voting in the national and local election, as well as sorting through the political manifestos, ask yourself whether you are looking at someone trusted with divine authority to lead from a servant heart, or someone who wants power. And while you’re at it, ask it of yourself too!

3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-6
The Conversion of Saul

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’

Saul intrigues me. How could a man who was so anti-Christian become possibly the most important believer, after renaming himself as Paul, in the early church, certainly from the perspective of gentiles (non-Jews) like us? Let’s consider first what has taken place up to this point. Saul came on the scene a couple of chapters earlier in the story of Acts when he appears as a bystander at the stoning of the deacon, Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

All that Luke (the writer of Acts) tells us is that Saul approved of Stephen being killed. After that Luke records how Stephen’s martyrdom was like a trigger that set off an avalanche of persecution against the early church, and Saul led much of this. He gets letters of recommendation from the high priest in Jerusalem that would give him permission to go into the synagogues in Damascus and drag any new Christians off in chains for trial in Jerusalem.

Why, then, was he so ardent in his persecution? What was it that had Saul so fired up by the early Christians that he felt that he had to pursue any believers? I suspect there are many potential answers to this question, but for me the key seems to be Saul’s personality. When we read the kind of things he writes in his letters we rapidly come to the conclusion that Saul was a passionate man who was utterly convinced that he was on the right track and that others were not.

I don’t think this is a personality trait that he ever entirely shed. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that this may even be the ‘Thorn in the Flesh’ that he referred to. People have long wondered what this so called thorn might be, and in this modern age I have heard insinuated that he had some kind of sexual flaw. But I don’t think it was that at all.

My thought is that Saul’s passion found its way out in terms of having a kind of righteous indignation that sometimes meant he lost his temper and drove others away. For example at the beginning of his ministry we find that Saul worked closely alongside a disciple called Barnabas, a nickname that meant ‘Son of encouragement’. When you read around the story you get the impression that Barnabas was a real nice guy.

The other disciples loved him and he seemed to be the kind of person that could always say the right thing at the right time to help people who were struggling. Every congregation has people like that and I can testify to just how much of a difference they can make when you’re not sure if you’re doing the right thing.

But when we read Acts 15 we find that Saul, by then renamed Paul, has a huge row with Barnabas. Apparently Barnabas had wanted to take another believer, John Mark, along with them. John Mark, however, had let them both down on an earlier missionary journey. Barnabas, perhaps typically of his encouraging nature, wanted to give John Mark another chance. Paul, however, did not.

They disagreed so violently that eventually they fell out and Paul took another believer, Silas, with him and went his own way. Barnabas took John Mark with him to a different destination. So we can see in this that Saul (or Paul) was a man who, when he believed he was in the right, could not give up. There are other places in his letters that also suggest the same kind of thing but there isn’t time to go into those here.

Now, armed with that slice of background, let’s turn back to Saul persecuting the church, and I think we can get some indication of why he was such a passionate persecuter. Saul was a pharisee, a Jew that was passionate about Torah, the Jewish Law. He believed fervently that the Torah was the way of righteousness for a Jew, and indeed refers to himself in a later letter as having been an excellent pharisee.

Now look at what the early church was called. They didn’t call themselves Christians at that point, they were called followers of the Way. Now to a passionate pharisee like Saul, the Torah was the way, and for any Jew to instead refer to following Jesus as being a follower of the Way, as in ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life - no one comes to the Father except by me’ was like a red rag to a bull.

You can imagine his internal anger overflowing. ‘How dare they! How dare these Jews declare that following a man who was crucified was the way to God rather than the law!’ It’s a remarkable turn around as later in his life he turned away from the Jews and took the message to the gentiles.

But at last we have an explanation as to why Saul could have been so merciless in his persecution of the church. He was convinced that he was right, and passionate in his beliefs that they were wrong, and he considered them a threat to what he thought was the right way for Jews, and so he tried to wipe them out and stop this threat to Judaism.

But then, in what was another resurrection appearance, he met Jesus face to face in an encounter that made him blind for a time, perhaps an indicator of his inability to truly ‘see’ the truth about who Jesus was. Yet once he grasped the truth we see him become a changed man, in a sense. I say ‘in a sense’ because we see Saul become just as ardent a crusader for Christ as he was for Torah.

Except that he no longer persecutes, and we gradually begin to see a new kind of humility about him, which is highlighted by the change he takes in his name. The name Saul means one that has been asked for or prayed for, in that sense of we asked for someone and this is who God sent. Anyone who had that name may have a degree of a sense of having been sent by God as an answer to someone else’s prayer.

You can see why, in an act of humility he took a new name, Paul, meaning small or humble. It’s as if he recognised the need to be aware that he might be wrong. He had been so wrong about Christ, that perhaps he could be wrong about other things too. And I think we see that old nature of self-righteousness and the new nature of humility at war within him for some time.

What then does this passage say to us? Firstly it is a guard against self-righteousness. We can be angry, and sure that we’re correct, to the extent that we hurt other people, but we might be wrong. How much damage will we have done before there is a space for Christ to change our minds? I’ve done this myself on several occasions, this inner conviction that I’m doing exactly the right thing, and so and so is in the wrong. And on several occasions I have been chastised by God

But there is also a huge message of hope here. Saul changed, and it took him the rest of his life for that change to take effect, but God continued to use his natural gifts of passion for the good of the church. We’re here today because of St. Paul going to the gentiles. We might look at his temper and his anger and wonder why God chose him rather than gentle Barnabas, but when tuned in properly, that flame of passion was what made him so effective.

So let us accept ourselves as we are for it is the gifts we have, with all their flaws, that the Lord can use for the sake of others who have yet to hear. Amen.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Second Sunday of Easter: "Peace be with you" Really?

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

There’s something rather interesting about this short passage from John’s Gospel. Twice in short order it has Jesus saying, ‘Peace be with you’ and I wonder why. Wasn’t once enough? No, I suspect not because the two ‘Peace be with you’‘s seem to me to refer to two different things. The first one is what you might call reactive whereas the second is preparatory. Let me see if I can explain what I think is going on.

John makes it clear that the disciples are a pretty terrified bunch, and probably with good reason. They are in a state of fear, confusion and hope, all mixed together. The fear side is pretty understandable. A few days earlier their leader had been crucified. They had all staked the last three years of their lives on him.

He was a Rabbi, a religious teacher, who had chosen them, a bunch of ordinary men, to be his disciples. This in itself was nigh on miraculous because they were a motley bunch of men from different backgrounds, none of whom would have been classified as bright enough to study under any Rabbi. Yet he had chosen them.

Over the last three years he had trained them and educated them in the ways of the kingdom of heaven, and they had come to recognise him as the One whom God had anointed as the Saviour. At this point in time it’s not clear whether they were still under the misapprehension that he was some kind of political messiah sent to free them from the fetters of Roman occupation, although Peter’s recognition of him as God’s Son suggests that they were able to understand that he was something beyond what the people of Judah had been expecting.

However the religious authorities had decided that he was a threat to their power and to the uneasy status quo with the Romans, and so had executed him. The reason for the disciples fear, therefore, was that the next move by the authorities was likely to have been to round up all the followers and execute them too. The disciples were therefore behind locked doors in fear of their lives. So that accounts for the fear.

The hope and confusion stems from what happened in the verse before today’s reading began, which was that Mary Magdalene had come to report to them that Jesus had risen from the dead and that she had seen him. That was a cause for hope, but also for confusion. Why had Jesus appeared first to her and not to one of them? Was it just the delusions of a woman struck with grief at the loss of her closest friend and mentor?

So they were in a pretty rough state. Those of you, and I expect it’s most of us, who have lost someone close to us, or even sat with them as they were dying, will know that the first few days after their death is a period that could be likened to insanity. Nothing makes sense and every nerve is on edge. Imagine that being compounded by witnessing the loved one being publicly and slowly executed by crucifixion and we might get somewhere towards the very fragile mental and emotional state of the disciples.

That is why I say that the first thing Jesus says to them is reacting to that mental state. Someone who they saw executed appears in a locked room, and I suspect we can barely imagine the effect that would have on them in the state they were in. So he tries to calm them down, offers them his peace, and then proves it is him by showing them his wounds. Now they are filled with joy.

But then he says ‘Peace be with you’ again. Now was this reacting to their over-excited state at having him amongst them again? Possibly, but I suspect that instead he was preparing the ground for what he was going to say next: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’

Now why would they need to receive peace before hearing those words? Think for a moment about what Jesus has just told them. In the same way that the Father sent him, now he is sending them. Why would that be a cause of needing to be put at peace? Well think about the implications of what Jesus has just said.

The Father sent him and what happened? He was continually misunderstood and eventually crucified by the very people he came to save. Now what is he saying to the disciples? ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ Considering what they have recently witnessed in terms of his public torture and execution, does that sound like good news?

The Father sent him and now he was sending them. What kind of long term plans had they had for their lives? Children? Old age in the company of friends? ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ You might imagine their brains going ‘click, click, click...’ as they realised that the future suddenly looked rather shorter than perhaps they had hoped for.

And with the exception of the apostle John they were indeed all executed for what they believed. As the Father had sent Jesus, and it had resulted in his death, so he was sending them, and the same future awaited almost all of them. It’s no wonder that he said ‘Peace be with you’, before breaking the news to them.

But note that he didn’t leave them with that jolly note. John tells, in a different way from Luke writing Acts, of how Jesus then breathed the Holy Spirit on them. And that’s the important point that holds it all together. If he had just left them with that worrying note that they were being sent by him in the same way that the Father had sent he himself, then they would probably have been in quite a state, but he then breathed into them the Holy Spirit - the One who enables us.

This is key to the whole narrative, because I believe that the Lord says the same thing to each of us. ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ This is the resurrection life. Too often we get to Easter day and then we forget what comes next, but here is the great commissioning of Jesus, sending the disciples out to continue what he has started, and to live with the consequences as he did.

So, are we prepared to be sent out as disciples? Are we willing to lay down our claims to what we want? This is where those with a great deal of influence and possessions can take a big gulp and wonder whether they’re up to the task because of how much it may cost them. And this is why the Holy Spirit was breathed on to us, to help us with the difficulties that will come.

‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Do we want that, with all the implications? In our own strength it would be madness. Thank God he sent the Holy Spirit, and for more on that, watch this space. Amen

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Easter Sunday - A Tale of Three Gardens


Acts 10:34-43
Gentiles Hear the Good News
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

John 20:1,11-18
The Resurrection of Jesus
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘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 in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 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.

Can you remember the first time you ever stood barefoot on grass in the early morning dew? The green stems feel soft and almost tickly between your toes. The cool, damp wetness of the earth smears its loving tendrils of moisture across your feet with its gentle embrace which reminds you how much you belong to that place.

It is a joy which can move you almost to tears, and when you see someone you love, you want to hold them and hug them and remind them just how special they are. So let me tell you about three gardens, and in the midst of that I will explain why it is so very important that Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was the gardener.

A long time ago, back in the mythological mists of time, there was a garden where walked the first person, Adam. The word Adam means literally ‘Of the Earth’. Adam was made of the same stuff that the earth was made of, which is true of all humans, and is something we are reminded of every time we attend a funeral. All of the elements that go into making us come from the earth.

The real miracle is that we are so full of life when we are made of the same stuff as rocks and seas and mud. Why are we alive? Because the Lord God breathed his Spirit into us. Now I don’t know whether there ever was a real Adam, but I don’t think that’s what the story in Genesis is trying to say. Instead, just by the name, Adam, earth-person, mud-man, what is conveyed is something of this understanding that we are alive because we are breathed into by God.

And so Adam walks in the cool of the day hand in hand with the Lord God in the garden of Eden, and they are talking. Adam is telling God about his day, about the plants he has tended, the animals he has named, perhaps asking God what the point of the duck-billed platypus was, and with God smiling and saying, ‘Just because Adam, just because...’ Why are they having this conversation? Because the Lord God put Adam in the Garden to tend it. Adam was the first gardener.

All the writer of Genesis is trying to tell us is that this is how it could have been; should have been. But we all know the rest of the story. Adam complained that he was lonely, so God put him to sleep and split him into two, with the male half retaining the name Adam, dirt-man, and the female half being called Eve, meaning Life. The human pair were together earth and life, and together they were to tend the earth in partnership.

But instead they disobeyed God, the relationship between them and God was broken and they were expelled from the beauty of the garden. They went from being gardeners who tended and loved to being farmers who had to work hard an unyielding land to produce crops. Again, I don’t know whether there was an original Adam and Eve, but I do know the truth of the feeling that something has been lost, that somehow, something is missing.

For we can no longer walk in the cool of the morning in bare feet, hand in hand with the Lord God, with us both having that sense of overwhelming joy at the dew between our toes; with the Lord feeling the joy of what he had created, and with you or I feeling that we are a part of this land and connected to it. Adam was no longer a gardener. He had been given a gift and he lost it. This was the first garden.

And now the scene switches. It’s another garden; a rich man’s garden belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, and there is a tomb in this garden. Joseph had given up his own tomb for Jesus only something is not as it should be. The heavy circular stone that had been across the door of the tomb has been rolled aside and in front of the tomb a man is gingerly stepping on to the grass, feeling the joy of the cool damp grass between his toes again, perhaps remembering doing this with Adam.

When he sees Mary of Magdalene in tears, Jesus rushes to give her comfort, except through the wave after wave of grief and tears she doesn’t recognise him, perhaps because her mind cannot process what she is seeing, and so instead she mistakes him for the gardener - except she wasn’t mistaken! We so often miss this point, but you have heard me say many times that John wrote a Gospel that has layer after layer to it, and every detail is there for a reason.

Jesus, the gardener? Yes! Exactly! Listen to this, just one example from 1 Corinthians 15:45:
The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
And then in verse 49
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

Jesus, the Son of God, is the second Adam, the second gardener. He came and set right all that Adam had done wrong. Where Adam said no to God and yes to himself, Jesus, many times but especially in the Garden of Gethsemane, (and note another garden), said, ‘Not my will be done, but your will.’ And so Mary thought he was the gardener, and John the writer says, ‘Yes, exactly, he is the gardener, because he is the new Adam, and this one did it properly.’

Jesus, in ways we cannot begin to explore now, corrected the relationship between God and humanity. He said yes where Adam had said no. The second Adam, the second gardener, was in right relationship with God. And though he was in very nature God, he was born as one of us, uniting both heaven and earth in himself and making it right between us and God.

And so let me tell you about a third garden, and this one you can read about in Revelation 22. This garden is in the centre of a city, a city conceived but not yet built, although we carry it with yearning in our hearts. It bears the name Jerusalem, but not this Jerusalem, it is a new Jerusalem. And in the centre of the garden there is another tree, and we are commanded that we must eat of its fruit, instead of the tree in Eden that we should not eat from.

And the fruit of this tree is for healing, and the light which shines throughout the new city shines from God himself, and because of the work of the gardener, the second Adam, Jesus, we have been given the right to someday go and live there. And we dirt-men and dirt-women, will know that we truly belong there. And when we feel the new dew between our toes on the soft grass of heaven’s new garden we will know how much we belong because Christ bought us a place there with his life.

This is no fairy tale. One day, someday, that will be our new home, as brothers and sisters of the gardener, of the second Adam. That will be eventual home. But not yet. Because there are others who need to be told, others who need to be brought. In this meantime, this in-between time, we have work to do. Amen