So, this winter, I’ve watched a couple of dystopian TV shows. They’ve felt a little like documentaries to me, just more interesting. Like, here’s one crazy, but not entirely unbelievable, version of our future.
One of them is called The Last of Us. It imagines a world that’s been destabilized by pandemic – it’s fungal, not viral, and it’s far more devastating than covid. It doesn’t just make you sick when you get it, it turns you into a zombie. And in The Last of Us, the small bands of remaining uninfected humans are with their fear and grit, trying to find ways to survive.
I’m not necessarily recommending the show – it’s really scary and grim. But what I find compelling is that despite all that, life keeps finding a way. The Last of Us universe is a greener world than we know, as grasses, moss, and trees reclaim our urban ruins. And unlikely friendships are forged. Old griefs try to slowly heal. People fall in love when they didn’t think that was possible anymore. New creation keeps growing up out of the dirt.
At the heart of the whole show is this human vessel of new creation, a teenage girl that just might hold the hope of human healing and new life. She too has been infected by this zombie-making fungus, but unlike any other known human, she has survived. And people hope that her body might hold the key to humanity’s salvation.
There’s this one episode where Ellie – that’s her name – has made a sweet friendship with a kind of surrogate little brother she’s met. Only, he gets infected too. He knows, we know, this is the end. But not Ellie. She’s like: hold on, I can save you.
She thinks just a little bit of her blood, entering her friend’s body, can infuse him with her immunity, make him whole. And I’m on the edge of my chair, like: come on, Ellie, and your blood of salvation. Let it work.
But of course it doesn’t, and I’m about as devastated as I can get from a TV show. Why do I care so much?
I care because in a world where things fall apart, in lives that have had many reasons to shed tears, there are so many places where I long for things to be made new.
And I care so much because Ellie reminds me of Jesus, and I hope that there’s still something in the story and spirit of Jesus that can help save us all.
Friends, Easter has room for us however we got here today. Easter has room for all our fear and grief and grit. On Easter, we remember a day that began with tears and terror, with hopes unfulfilled and dreams dashed. Today’s Bible text we’ll read takes place by a tomb, where the human some thought make all things new was buried.
And yet Easter insists upon resurrection, that where death has increased, life can abound yet more and more. Easter says that the risen Jesus is among us still as a gardener, tending to the seeds and shoots of new life among us, daring us to cultivate them in hope.
On Easter, amidst all the grief and wounds and scars and fear, the Spirit of Jesus comes to us still, asking us:
Why are you crying? What are you looking for?
And calling us by name, saying friend, all can be made new. Drawing us toward the peace of hoping, believing that it’s true.
Let’s read this Easter text from the gospel of John, and let’s talk about its new creation theology of resurrection, and how we can lean into it in our times.
John 20:11-21 (Common English Bible)
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.
19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”
20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”
So there is a lot here. We could talk about anti-semitism. This line that gets repeated in John, “the Jewish authorities” has for centuries fed violent Christian anti-semitism.
But Jesus and the great majority of other people in the gospels are all Jews. There are rivalries and conflicts among the people, they get worse and worse over the years. But anyone who calls themselves a Christian owes their faith, their Bible, their Jesus to the Jewish people. So Christian anti-semitism is an affront to one’s past and an offense to God. And beyond that, hating on other faiths out of insecure anxiety about the truth or supremacy of our own is something we’ve all got to grow out of as a people, isn’t it?
We could talk about hopelessness. Jesus’ disciples are in hiding. One of their friends has ended his life in despair. The rest have watched the Roman state execute their teacher, their friend. Now they think that leaders among their own people are coming for them. And Mary, another friend of Jesus, out here, working through her own grief, just looking for a grave to tend. It’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s heart-breaking too.
We could talk about the tenderness. Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. Post-resurrection, no one does. But Jesus doesn’t give her a hard time. In fact, Isn’t it like Jesus to ask her questions, to be curious and draw her out? The tears of grief, the stunned confusion, the cry of relief – my teacher – and then when she recognizes her friend, the embrace. It’s all so tender.
We could talk about the slow spread of hope. If I was crucified by my powerful enemies and then if I came back to life and got another chance, I’d want a big and bold vindication. I’d want to come after somebody. But Jesus seems delighted for vindication to happen differently – person to person encounters where faith births hope out of the ashes of despair. It’s more humane, it’s what love looks like.
So we could talk about a lot. But I want to focus on what seems like a little thing, the little mistaken identity moment when Mary thinks Jesus is the tomb’s gardener.
“Thinking he was the gardener….”It’s a funny little moment, but I think it’s not so much a mistake as a clue. It’s a clue to the story John wants to tell about Jesus and new creation.
From the beginning of the gospel of John, he’s been telling us that Jesus is here for just this, to renew all creation.
The first chapter of John is a remix of the Bible’s creation story. It starts with the same words,
“In the beginning…”
In the creation story, we read that amidst a watery chaos, God spoke order and beauty and life into being. John tells us that in Jesus, this Word of God has become flesh. The invisible God materializes as a human being, the poor son of a carpenter on the Eastern edge of a mighty empire.
And John says this same person is light and truth and grace. Jesus is a human life giving expression to all the creative goodness of God.
And then throughout John, we see Jesus doing these oddly provocative and beautiful things John calls signs. They’re rooted in Jesus’ Jewish tradition – stuff about wine and shepherds and bread from heaven and new life made out of the muddy dirt. But in each sign what’s happening is that God is empowering Jesus to make new creation possible. To say and do things that transform our ordinary, earthy experience for the good.
And it all comes to a climax in these final two chapters of resurrection. Jesus appears as a gardener, tending to the birth and growth of peace and joy and possibility in his friends, encouraging them to do the same throughout creation. To make the whole earth green with hope and love and life.
Pastor Ivy gave this great sermon earlier this year on this same text. She taught us a word drawn from the First Nations Potawatomi people, the word puhpowee. It’s a word for the power that makes mushrooms burst forth from the ground. It’s a word for “the unseen energies that animate everything.” It’s qi. It’s spirit. Life force.
Mary discovers, as Ivy taught us, that God’s puhpowee is at work in Jesus now, who has sprung to life from his tomb. And as Jesus commissions his friends to peace amidst distress, and to love and feed others on his behalf, Jesus says
this force can be in you as well.
He breathes his Spirit onto his people, shares his puhpowee force with us all so that we too can live resurrection life.
Friends, we are alive in a moment when we could use the vitality and peace of God in us, aren’t we? Where would we love to see this greening, this renewal, of creation?
Is there enough help for all our anxiety and depression?
Sex and dating is a hot mess right now, isn’t it?
And will climate change ruin everything, for all of us?
Heavy questions, aren’t they? I expect you could add more of your own.
Is a hopeful disposition about life reasonable?
Is God still making creation new or not?
What can grow from all the ashes of our age?
Everything, Jesus says. Everything.
On the way into Jerusalem, just a few days before his death, Jesus tells his own little puhpowee eco-story. He says:
I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
This is the way of wheat. Seeds don’t bear fruit unless they are buried in the ground, shed their coat, and then in a miracle of biochemistry… puhpowee, burst forth as something new.
It’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection life. Betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated, terrorized, crucified, yet he is risen – scarred but very much alive, and bringing delight and peace, restoration and purpose in every one of his encounters.
It has also been our experience and certainly the experience of our ancestors – those in our own lineage and our ancestors in the Way of Jesus as well. We have hit the end of our rope, absolutely run out of resources or next steps, rock bottom all around, and life has found us.
Maybe it hasn’t happened to you recently. But you’re here and alive because it happened for your ancestors, and the Way of Jesus persists 2,000 years later because again and again, those that came before us in the faith have found the dying but risen Jesus come through for them.
I’ve been thinking lately about one of the times this happened for me. It was one of the saddest and loneliest times of my life. I was 14 years old. I had very few friends. I was sitting with some significant trauma that had come my way but that I hadn’t managed to tell a single soul.
I was kind of brilliant but I was bombing my high school classes, not doing any of the work. I was sad and scared and no one knew it.
But one day, in this high school chorus I was in, with like a hundred other kids in my school, the choir director called on me to lead the little solo that was part of our warm ups. How did she do this? Get high school kids to sing on the spot solos in front of nearly a hundred of their peers?
I have no idea, but you didn’t say no to Ms. Sunny Prior, you just did it. So I sang.
I was so nervous, and I know a lot of people speed things up when they’re nervous, but I slowed way down.
I was almost done. People were repeating after me. One more.
And then silence. Ms. Prior started getting this energy in her face, everyone was looking at her now, and she burst out –
that Steven Watson, listen to that boy sing!
I am sure my face lit up red in embarrassment. But it meant the world to me.
She saw me and called out what I didn’t know was there in me. I auditioned for a second choir with her the next year. And then I joined a third and fourth choir, higher and higher levels, and tried out and got the lead in the school musical.
On the one hand, extracurricular activity – who cares? But it was much more than that. I was getting attention for this thing I enjoyed and was good at, and making friends and feeling more confident and connected. And these then ended up being the same years that I started to find a more personally meaningful faith in God.
In ways I can’t explain, that was connected to the singing too. I wouldn’t have had any of these high-faluting words for it at the time, but it was like I was finding hope, faith that there was beauty, that there was goodness, that Creator God and loving Jesus hadn’t passed me by.
Sunny Prior was part of saving me.
It was a puhpowee, resurrection moment in my story – life bursting forth out of death. It saved me.
In John, the resurrection means that the new creation work of Jesus continues. It means that the Spirit of God we come to know through Jesus can breathe resurrection power into our lives and times still. It means that the Spirit of Jesus is still gardening among us, inviting us to welcome new life and partner with God in making it so.
That’s my story. That’s the story of our resurrection faith. And that’s what I’m counting on still.
Friends, this Easter season, I want to encourage you to look out for signs of resurrection, and I want to encourage you to get out a hoe and start gardening.
Here’s what I mean.
Look for signs of resurrection.
The other week, I was telling my pastor about what most discourages me. And I talked, my grief and anger was coming through. Like Mary:
they have taken my Lord – where is he?
I was going over my disappointments, asking:
what is happening here? Why isn’t God coming through?
And my pastor listened and talked with me, but eventually he said:
can I share a perspective?
And I said,
And he said:
actually, I think what you’re seeing is resurrection.
And he pointed out that in these people and areas where I felt God’s absence, I was actually seeing more signs of life than were true a year ago, significantly more. I just was frustrated by how much more I wanted. I was frustrated by the slow spread of hope.
And he reminded me: what’s one thing we know about the risen Jesus? It’s that he rose with scars. He shows his friends his wounded, healing, still scarred hands and side.
And isn’t all resurrection like that, he suggested. New life bursts forth – a gift from God – but the scars of our wounds remain.
And that has changed me. It’s given me a new set of lenses I can put on when I look at the death-scarred discouragements of my own life or our larger world.
With these lenses of resurrection faith, I can ask, where is God making new life possible?
Where are the beginnings of resurrection, even if it’s marked by scars?
It’s encouraged me to look for signs of resurrection, look for possibilities of new creation life everywhere, even in the bleakest places.
Because as Ilio Delio says, resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future,but it is the power of the new being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow.
Friends, in your greatest discouragements and disappointments, don’t try to put a happy face on things. Be real with yourself and be real with God. But do ask… are there seeds or even first shoots of resurrection here. Where are the signs of new life?
You’ll usually be able to see them. If you can’t, friends can help you. But it will make faith real to you – to hope and believe and bear witness to new life in all the ashiest places of death.
So join Mary in looking for signs of resurrection. And then also, join the risen Christ, and get out a hoe and start tending to the renewal of creation yourself.
This is where our guest speaker Randy Woodley left us a few weeks back. He’s like, you want to learn from indigenous wisdom, you want a more holistic faith, you should garden.
So maybe that’s it. Plan a tree. Grow some tomatoes. Or maybe it’s more too.
You’ll notice Mary gave Jesus a big embrace, and then Jesus was like:
don’t cling to me, go tell the rest of the friends too. Be a recipient, but also be an agent of new life.
Bear witness to the resurrection you’ve experienced. Go tell the story.
Ilio Delio again:
We who say “yes” to the dying and rising of Jesus Christ say “yes” to our earth, our lives as the stuff out of which the New Creation can emerge.
You go be the gardener too. There’s a cynical, pessimistic world that needs some unguarded, unmeasured, uncynical love, hope, and encouragement. Each of you is unique as a child of God – unique gifts, unique opportunities, unique calls. But each of you needs to let your light shine. Love deep, sew wide, encourage big!
And just you wait and see what God grows through that.
Now is the moment of resurrection. Now is the beginning of a new earth. Live by the power of love alone. Act as if you were now free. Begin to trust in this freedom to do new things. Because Christ is risen, and God is making all things new.