Easter Sunday reflections: Back to the Garden April 1, 2018
The Garden of Eden –
As people enter the sanctuary – palms and fig trees, potted exotic plants such as orchids etc, tropical plants, small fruit, berry or nut trees/bushes if anyone has one… Artificial is fine, but real ones are better
Every people have stories about how the world began. In ancient times the Hebrew people would sit with their children and grandchildren and tell the stories of their ancestors. One such story was the story of First Man and First Woman, who were created to keep the Creator company. The Creator had already made stars and sun and moon and fish and lizards and lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) but She wanted someone to talk to. And so the First Man, Adam, and the First Woman, Eve, were created, and walked with God in the evenings in a beautiful garden. That garden contained all the food they needed to eat. God said, “You can help yourself to anything you want, except for the fruit of those two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But Adam and Eve were very new to the world, and just like children who will do exactly what their parents warned them NOT to do, they were tempted by a slithery snake to eat the fruit. Because of that, they had to leave the garden and make their way in the world outside. Because of their disobedience, violence and greed and hardship and suffering came into the world, and life was very hard for human beings.
A long time later – thousands and thousands of years later! – when a man named Paul told that story he said, “It was a human being who chose to do something wrong and ended up tossed out of the garden so people could no longer walk with God and be God’s best friends; it took a very special human being named Jesus to put it right. This man gave up his life so that other men, women and children could go back to being God’s best friends. Their disobedience was forgiven, and they could walk with God again.” That’s how Paul understood the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.
Hymn or Chorus: Alleluia, Praise to God # 59 More Voices
The Gardens of Babylon – hanging baskets of flowers hung from the arches in the sanctuary (low down) to represent the famous hanging gardens, or plants on a terraced shelf or ladder…
A long time ago, between the time of First Man and First Woman and the time of Jesus, Jesus’ ancestors, the Israelites, were conquered by a nation called Babylonia, and most of the people, especially the rulers and rich people, were taken away to live in the great city of Babylon (which, funnily enough, is very near where the Bible suggests the Garden of Eden would have been). Ancient Babylon was famous for its gardens. Called the Hanging Gardens, they were probably built on great terraces or shelves coming down an artificial mountain. It’s said they were built for a Babylonian Queen who missed the lush greenery of her homeland, which was a lot more like this part of BC than like the dry land of Iraq where Babylonia was located.
The Israelites lived in exile in Babylon for decades, until Babylon itself was conquered and a Persian king sent most of the people back to their homeland. But at the time of Jesus, many people felt they were still in exile. They felt that they had lost sight of what God wanted for them. They had forgotten how to be a light to the nations. Some people thought they could fix this by rebelling against their new conquerors, the Romans. Some people thought the best way to get closer to God was to set strict rules about what you could or couldn’t do, especially laws about not associating with people of a different race, religion or culture. But Jesus taught something different.
He reminded the people that being a light to the nations meant a way of peace-making and sharing, of generosity and inclusivity, of welcoming people, healing people, and introducing people to the love of God by loving them ourselves. He even told us to love our enemies! He said the most important commandment was “love one another as I, Jesus, have loved you.” He said whoever had seen him, had seen God, and that God had sent him so that the people would have a blessed and eternal life.
Hymn: I Can Feel You Near Me, God #48 More Voices
The Garden of Gethsemane – small trees or shrubs, LED candles to represent the night, soldiers’ weapons –near hallway entry to sanctuary
Not everyone wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. We heard last week that the religious leaders had him arrested. They ran the temple and had built their lives around the old way of doing things – sacrifices and rules and laws. They were also very afraid of the Romans, and were worried that Jesus would stir up the people and bring the armies of Rome down on their heads. They felt it was better that one person die than the potential that many would be killed. So they accused Jesus of speaking against God so that his own people would betray him, and they accused him of wanting to lead a revolution, so that the Romans would put him to death. It was in a Garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was arrested, and the soldiers were lead there by one of his closest friend’s Judas, who betrayed him with a kiss. He was arrested, tried, tortured, crucified and died. His body was laid to rest in a tomb in a garden near the hill where his cross had stood.
The Garden Tomb – the communion table with the communion cloth on it but with the cloth folded up to show that it is empty inside, and folded old sheets inside (stained) to represent Jesus’ wrappings; surround the communion table with flowers, but allow path for me to reach communion trays from behind and front.
The fourth Garden is where Jesus’ tomb was located. Hear the story of Easter morning from the Gospel according to John:
John 20:1-18 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. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
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.
Sung Response to Scripture:
Dawn begins with heavy hearts.
Women choking back their tears,
See the stone’s been rolled away,
And his body – disappeared!
Sorrow flees, all joy restored:
Faithful Mary sees her Lord!
Anthem: Let All Creation Sing
Return to the Garden
And so, we come full circle, from a garden at the beginning of Hebrew oral tradition to a garden at the beginning of what will become the faith we know as Christianity. What went wrong in one garden is put right in another, and our relationship with God is mended. As the apostle Paul wrote; 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
This is the faith that gave those first disciples their courage to spread the news of Jesus’ resurrection and the forgiveness they had experienced through the living Christ. Believe me, they would have felt the need to be forgiven! They had almost all run away from Jesus, hidden in fear and shock, lost in grief and doubt – all but a few who stood by him: the disciple whom Jesus loved, the women who travelled with him, his mother, and Mary Magdalene. In the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ all of that went away, and they became empowered by the Holy Spirit to share that amazing experience with others.
This is the faith of Paul, who at first sided with his fellow Pharisees against Jesus’s followers and stood by as one of them was stoned to death – this is the faith that completely turned him around so that he became the foremost messenger of the Good News in the Gentile world. He was so influential that many believe he changed Christianity from what Jesus had intended – yet he himself was changed by the resurrected Christ, and on that he built everything he said and did.
This is the faith of those who still face ostracism, danger, torture and even death in places all around the world. We have heard and seen it on the news: people shot or beheaded or enslaved because they are Christian and will not deny it. We know personally someone who has had to flee their homeland because they converted to Christianity. I have friends who check the news in their home countries with trepidation to see if there has been a bombing or assassination in a church or community where their fellow Christians worship. And yet, this faith is stronger than the fear, stronger than the threat of death, stronger even the evil that stands behind the threat, the evil that has always stood behind oppression and injustice, violence and horror, terror and torture.
The difficulty we wrestle with at Easter is that 2000 years ago the early Christians declared victory through Christ over evil itself – and yet it still exists. How can this be? The early Christians, especially the disciples of Jesus, understood themselves to be living in the first hours of a new age. Like a baby that is new born, there is still much growing and maturing to take place until its life comes to its fulfilment. This age in which evil is vanquished has been born, and is still growing. 2000 years may seem like a long time, and yet, the Spirit is slowly, inexorably moving, accomplishing the work that was begun in Jesus. When all is said and done, the world is a kinder place for most people than it once was. It is less violent, it is less savage, it is less exclusive, less built on boundaries and more built on commonalities.
It is for us to be bearers of that Easter message that has so transformed lives and societies though the centuries. It is for us to continue to witness to a power that is stronger than all else in this world – the power of Divine Love, divine self-giving. It is for us to model our lives on the cross and the empty tomb – on this way of dying to what denies life and rising to new life in Christ. It is for us to live our lives as people who have been returned to the Garden: the place where we walk with God, are befriended by God, and where God’s will and our will are one. Hear the call of Easter, friends. Amen