Yesterday I was walking through the back of the sanctuary. A photographer was chatting with the wedding party he was photographing. He tried all kinds of quips to help them smile for the camera. His favorite seemed to be “We’re awesome!” But then, as I walked out the far door, he tried something else: Ready! Okay. Everyone say, “Don’t touch me!”
I didn’t turn around to see what happened. But I can imagine them looking confused, surprised, or laughing out loud. It could have made an interesting photo to catch their response. Imagine, at a wedding asking the couple to say, “Don’t touch me!”
I thought, he must have read the story we read today. He used my sermon title!
This story of Mary meeting Jesus outside his own tomb has always held more questions than answers for me. And I am not sure I have answers now. But I am going to let you in on some of my questions.
Why the complexity of the whole garden drama? First, Mary comes to the garden and discovers the stone rolled away. Then Peter and John race to the garden to check out her story. Then Mary, returns to the garden tomb to look inside for herself. Three trips to the garden. Three is always significant in the Bible – a number of completeness and stability. Three rushes to the empty tomb completes the story and the emptiness is confirmed. The tomb is indeed and finally empty.
On this stable foundation, the story can go on.
I have been reading Rob Bell’s book, What Is the Bible?, on recommendation of our friend Cecile. Already I am recommending it to others! The basic insight he offers is that Jesus was Jewish. Well, duh! But it changes everything. Jesus was Jewish, the whole Bible is written by Jewish people who were shaped by a grand family narrative, a specific political and cultural context, a language completely different from our own. So, it makes a difference when we see with Jewish eyes. Many of the stories of the New Testament are written just as they are in order to remind the Jewish readers of a much more familiar Old Testament story. So often what we see when we read the Bible is boring, flat, black and white. But every Jewish person who heard these stories would see the whole picture in 3 dimensions and living color. Because they knew … the rest of the story. So, when we read something puzzling, wonder what else is going on.
Some of that grand hidden narrative is at play in this story. John begins his gospel with the same words which begin the book of Genesis, “in the beginning.” John’s whole first paragraph of chapter one takes us back to creation, the Garden of Eden, before things got broken.
The Bible opens in a garden. At the end of every day, God delights in the goodness of creation, especially the humans. God, the chief gardener, invites Adam and Eve to join in as God creates and cares for a diversity of plants and animals. But humans spoil this garden and are evicted.
The Bible ends with another garden in Revelation 22. The elder sees a vision of the return of Eden, with the Gardener again as its central focus. Everything will live in shalom. What’s broken will be mended. What’s wrong will be righted. Paradise will be restored.
Between these garden bookends is John 20, which opens in a garden. A passing detail? I think not. John is the only one of the gospels which places the tomb in a garden. Between the garden of creation and the garden of eternal shalom, lies this garden – the middle of three – completing the picture.
Perhaps this is the pivot point between the beginning garden and the final garden, where the downward spiral of decaying human character and despair may turn, may receive the seed which will grow a way out of the mire. In the middle of John’s gospel Jesus offers another gardening metaphor: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). A seed which has fallen into the ground and died, has given life. Jesus. The gardener of creation has returned and is gardening again.
Back to Genesis now. What is in the center of the garden? We know about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was eating from this tree which got Adam and Eve evicted from the garden. But there was another tree in the middle of the garden, from which they had not been restricted – the tree of life. When they were evicted, they were separated from the tree of life, and so away from the tree, they died.
The tree of life is also the centerpiece of the final garden of Revelation, with fruit in every season and with leaves to heal the nations.
What is the center piece of the garden to which Mary, Peter and John ran? In John’s narrative, it is Jesus – the one who gives the water of eternal life (John 4:14), who is the bread of life (John 6:35), who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68), who is the light of life (John 8:12). John uses that word “life,” far more than any other book of the Bible. I wonder if he isn’t pointing to Jesus as the new tree of life in the center of the garden. It makes sense, then, why John’s tomb is located in a garden. No minor detail!
So why isn’t Mary allowed to hold onto this tree of life? Why did Jesus tell Mary not to touch him, when in the very next story Jesus invited Thomas to touch him? I have never understood this! And I am not sure I understand it now.
Is there something different about Mary? Was there something Jesus knew about these two which we don’t? Is he confirming the barrier between Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden. Were human beings still prohibited? I don’t think that makes sense of the biblical story.
Jesus says that he is ascending to the Father, the source of life, the Creator. His human being is about to be fully joined to the life of God. Humanity is entering the godhead, ending all separation.
Jesus wasn’t a photographer trying to coax a smile out of Mary when he said, “Don’t touch me.” If you were following along in your Bible, you may have noticed that your version doesn’t say that. I will always remember this encounter in King James’ English. But all of the more recent translations use different words. Something like, “Don’t hold on to me,” or “don’t cling to me,” more accurate translations
Jesus’ enigmatic command, “Don’t cling to me,” has produced a myriad of interpretations. Some scholars hint that it is because of the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body. But Thomas and the others could touch him. So something else is going on here.
One might imagine Mary wanting to embrace Jesus in that garden and never let him go. If only she could bottle this garden experience and never leave this perpetual paradise. Never leave. But Jesus wants Mary to leave. Don’t hold on to me. Instead, go and tell my brothers and sisters that I am alive.
Like in the garden of Eden, we humans still have work to do. There, humans stewarded the garden and took care of life with God. Now too. Humans steward this garden and care for life as partners with God. Don’t cling to Jesus. Don’t focus on the paradise of eternal life. Instead, go tell the others that this is the beginning. This is the turning point. There is a new Garden of Eden right here. Not just for Mary, but for all.
Some believe that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were lovers. Who knows? But they were certainly good friends. She was like family, part of his disciple entourage who traveled with him and took care of him. This much we know. Like a good mother, lover, friend, she just wanted to hold onto what she thought she had lost forever. Perhaps she was trying to hold on to the past.
But this garden is producing seeds ready to be planted, to bring forth all kinds of new life. It is not just about tending the garden that is, but about watching it grow in abundance, thirty-fold, sixty-fold and a hundred-fold. That doesn’t happen by holding on. It happens by letting go – of the seeds placed in our hands.
When viewed from the vantage point of the grand biblical narrative, this garden story redeems the Eden story. In the encounter of Mary and Jesus, we see again the intimacy of human and divine relationships. Like God calling out for Adam and Eve, Jesus calls Mary by name. She is known, she is loved, she is family.
By redeeming the Eden story, this Jesus in the garden builds a bridge to the third garden. The final garden when all things will return to unity with the Creator and shalom will be for all. The first garden, the final garden and the now garden, with Jesus, as the tree of life.
Don’t hold on to the tree. Rather, go tell the brothers and sisters. The tree of life is back! The rule of death is broken. Humanity and God are completely united again in Jesus the divine human one.
For now, we all stand between those two cosmic gardens, alongside Mary in this garden, while the Gardener calls us by name, inviting us into a life beyond our comprehension.
Don’t touch me. Don’t hold on to me. Let go. I am not sure I quite have this figured out. But it may be something about coming to the garden, like coming every week to this gathering, recieving food from our gardener, and going back to tell the brothers and sisters that life is back among us! Don’t hold on. Don’t keep it for yourself. It is for all.