New beginnings — Resurrection and Baptism

Scripture: John 10: 1-18

New beginnings: Gardens

Easter is a season of new beginnings.  The Bible begins in a garden – the Garden of Eden. It also ends in a garden, where the river of life flows through the city of God, with fruit trees on either side [Revelation 22]. In Christian doctrine, the Resurrection opens up a new world. Like the first Creation, this new world begins in a garden.

New beginnings: Resurrection

Of the four descriptions of the first Easter, it is no wonder that John’s is the most popular. John tells the story in a poetic and almost dream-like way, although the bones of the story are much the same as in the other Gospels. In John’s version, Mary Magdalene was the first person to visit the tomb where some disciples laid Jesus after he died. Mary was surprised to find that someone had rolled the stone away.

Mary went to tell Peter and another disciple. They ran to the tomb but the body was missing. Then they left Mary Magdalene and went home.After that, Mary was the first person to experience the Risen Christ. First, she saw two men in white. In tears, she asked them where they had taken the body. Then she turned round and saw someone whom she did not recognize. She asked the same question. “If you know where they have taken him, please tell me.” The person called her name and she recognized him as Jesus. Then she went to tell the other disciples what she had experienced.

The Gospel writer John repeatedly emphasized that Jesus was and is divine. He even tells us that he wrote the book so that the reader would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God [John 20:31].

At first, Mary thought that the person she had seen was a gardener. I suppose that the Gospel writer conceived that particular gardener as one of the many images of God. These include Father, shepherd, and judge, but also gardener. So when Mary had a vision of a gardener, she saw the face of God.

New beginnings: Springtime

Easter happens in springtime. at the time of the Jewish Passover, when Jesus was in Jerusalem and ate his Last Supper with his disciples. In ancient Israel, Passover celebrated to the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. It was also the time for planting the spring barley crop. All around us this morning, we see signs of spring – the grass greening up, the first flowers, tree buds swelling, fields and gardens being readied for planting. When I kept sheep, this was lambing season. These signs of renewed life merge Easter with older symbols of fertility – eggs and bunnies. But the overarching Christian symbol of Resurrection is a new beginning: the promise of eternal, spiritual life that supercedes our finite life on this planet.

New Beginnings: Baptism

Easter! What an ideal day to have a baptism! A new life; a new follower of Jesus Christ. In the early tradition, Easter was not just an ideal day. It was the ideal day. Candidates for baptism back then had a long and rigorous period of training before they were baptized. Baptism was a very big deal. No pouring water on the forehead. It was total immersion, fully naked, held under the water till you almost drowned. It symbolized death to the old life and the new beginning of life in Christ.

Mary Magdalene is central to the Resurrection story

Mary Magdalene has a central role in all four Gospels at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This icon of Mary Magdalene was painted (the technical term is ‘written’) by Michelle Normandin.  Icons are stylized images that are used and revered as devotional objects, especially by the Eastern Church. This one shows Mary Magdalene holding a red egg. This comes from an early legend.  Mary went to the Roman Emperor to proclaim Jesus’ Resurrection. She held out an egg and said that Christ changing from earthly to spiritual form is like an egg changing to a chick. The Emperor laughed. He said that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. At once, the egg turned red as a sign from God.

We are like that legendary Roman Emperor. Of all the Gospel stories about Jesus, the Resurrection must surely be the hardest for 21st century Canadians to swallow. It flies in the face of everything logical in our scientific world. We can hardly help asking questions like, “Was it really Jesus in the flesh?” “Why didn’t Mary recognize him?” “Was it just a vision?” The New Testament writers lived in a different world. They did not ask, “How could that possibly have happened?” They realized, “Only God could have done this amazing thing.”

Icons.  New beginnings in prayer

An icon of Mary Magdalene might help us answer this question. “Exactly what does the Resurrection of Jesus mean to each of us here in church at St George’s today?” The icon makes a sort of parallel with the Resurrected Jesus that Mary encountered in the garden. She did not recognize him because he was now a spiritual being. An icon, such as the one of Mary Magdalene, takes us to different reality. There we can allow the spiritual to intrude for a moment upon our modern and intellectual 21st century way of thinking. Praying through – not praying to – her icon allows us to enter St. John’s dreamlike account of that first Easter morning – maybe even a vision of the Risen Christ through Mary’s eyes.

The Resurrection through Mary’s eyes

“After Peter and the other disciple left me, I was in tears because someone had taken Jesus’ body away. I looked inside the tomb once more. Through my tears I saw two figures dressed in white. They were standing where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Now I look back, I suppose that they must have been angels. They asked me why I was crying. So I told them, “Someone has taken away Jesus’ body but I don’t know where they’ve taken it. I need to go and anoint him properly for his burial.” They just seemed to stare right through me.  It gave me the sensation that there was something or someone behind me.

“So I looked round. There was someone, but I didn’t recognize who it was at first. I thought maybe it was a gardener. He said the same thing to me, “Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” So I told him that I was looking for Jesus’ body. Then he said my name, “Mary,” and I recognized who it was. I ran to put my arms around him, but he told me not to, because he had not yet ascended to be with God. Then he told me to go and tell the other disciples what had happened and what I had seen. I have never forgotten what happened that morning. It changed my life for ever.”

New beginnings, new life

I wonder what kind of faith Julia will grow up to have as she begins her journey with Jesus this morning. It isn’t easy. In today’s secular world it isn’t even very popular to try. Her parents and family will promise to raise her to know the main aspects of Christian faith. But more than faith statements, or doctrine, we pray that they will love her and promise to help her show love and respect other people and to care for all of God’s Creation. We pray that God will bless her along life’s journey, and will be with her to help her steer a right course as she confronts life’s challenges.

As we listen to the Easter story we can’t help but be perplexed because the words of Scripture are so far from our own experience and world-view. I do not believe that there is only one way to interpret the Resurrection. Some people believe that it all happened just as John recorded. Others look for a paranormal explanation of Mary Magdalene’s experience. Still others see it in entirely mythic terms. They find their faith by seeking its underlying truth, not by focussing on the literal words. So this morning, I ask you to set aside your rational, post-Enlightenment ways of thinking. Simply let the Resurrection story wash over you and permeate you, rather than trying to pick it apart. Go to the garden, and hear the gardener call your name, in the same way that he called Mary Magdalene long ago, and calls Julia by name this morning.