Mistaken for a Gardener

Delivered March 31, 2002 (Easter Sunday) by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
Isaiah 25:6-9
and John 20:1-18

Before we read, let’s go before the Lord and ask him to open our eyes, that we might hear with our ears as well as our hearts His word to us today. Isaiah, Chapter 25, verses 6-9. Let’s pray together.

Lord, we do thank you for the privilege of being in your presence here today. Lord we thank you as well for the joy of gathering together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, to sing your praises, to show you how much we love you in response to your love for us. We pray now that as we hear your word through the prophet Isaiah, Lord that these would be more than just words, but that you would encourage our hearts, that you would strengthen our spirits that we might be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in all that we do, for we ask it in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Here the word of the Lord:

On this mountain the Lord almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all people. A banquet of aged wine, the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. He will swallow up death forever. The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day, they will say, “surely this is our God, we trusted in him and he saved us.” This is the Lord we trusted in him, let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his holy word. And now let us rejoice in his salvation as we sing our Hymn of Joy, The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done.

The gospel of John, Chapter 20, Verses 1-18.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciples started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple out ran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there, but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached to tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had arisen from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been,one at the head, and the other at the foot. They asked the woman, “Why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

I wonder if it wasn’t the Lord’s spirit that had this little child up front here somewhere say, “thank you” after the beginning. It just struck me that that’s the way the Lord; maybe that’s what happens every time we give praise to God. We can’t hear it all the time, but maybe from heaven they say, “thank you.” Well, we heard it today.

I would like to re-read to you a verse of this text and a phrase of another. “At this she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not realize it was Jesus.” Thinking he was the gardener. I am grateful to F. Morgan Roberts of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, who I heard years and years ago at a pastor’s conference. The main idea of this sermon came from that message and through his insights I was caused to stop short and think about the verses that I highlighted for you. She saw Jesus but did not know if was Jesus, she supposed him to be the gardener. It’s amazing when you think of it because she was looking at the resurrected Christ. So the message today is quite simple, and I want us to consider the fact that God’s victory is the resurrection of Jesus to our plain, ordinary humanity. Jesus in his resurrected state was mistaken for a gardener. Now granted in Revelation we see an image of Jesus after he was ascended and glorified. There will be no mistaking that, but here we see that Jesus lived and died and was raised in a fully human way.

William Stacy Johnson who is one professor at Austin Seminary was once lecturing in a congregation on the humanity of Jesus and right in the middle of it a woman stood bolt up, and she said, “are you saying that God really became a human being? Whoever heard of such a thing? Why that’s outrageous, that can’t possibly be true. It’s too radical.” He goes on to say in his article, radical indeed, and she’s not the only one. Because for centuries after Jesus was raised, people argued over his humanity and of his divinity. Even today, people have a hard time accepting either one, but in the Christian church we who accept his divinity often have a hard time accepting his humanity or creed, which we will say in a little bit affirms that Jesus was born and suffered and died, the God man fully human, fully divine, but somehow we struggle to affirm Jesus’ humanity, but the Gospel of John doesn’t, because it says that he was mistaken for a gardener. Not just in his incarnate state, not just before his resurrection, after his resurrection as well. So what’s the point? That Jesus’ commitment to being human in both life and death and life eternal, is a theological neon sign flashing at us all, asking us a profound yet simple question. Are we content to be human and not God? Are we content to live into our humanness and all of its limitations? Well a quick answer might say, “of course” yet our behavior tells us a different story. We live in the day of high stress, of great pressure, of constant demand.

Years ago when people were looking at the technology that’s ours today and they thought, boy our lives will be so much easier, but they are not even with all of our new technology. Burn out and fatigue victimizes many inside the church and out. It’s not uncommon to meet people who were working themselves into a frenzy. Many folks say that relationships are the most important things in life and yet when you stop to think about it, and surveys reveal this, very, very few minutes are spent each day in focus relating to the people who are most important in our life. I suspect that this skewing of priorities reveals that we are not content to be human. We live and work as though everything depended on us. We deny that we have needs; we think that somehow our superhuman efforts or accomplishments will be the measure of our worth. Well some of us, perhaps all of us need to let it sink in. You’re human and that’s a good thing. You’re not God and that’s a good thing. Accept your limitations, but be affirmed by them through Jesus Christ.

Muhammad Ali was in his prime, and as he was about to take off on an airplane flight. The flight attendant came and reminded him to fasten his seatbelt. Well, he came back brashly, as he often did, “superman don’t need no seatbelt.” And the flight attendant quickly came back, “well superman don’t need no airplane either.” And he fastened his seatbelt. Yet that’s the way we live sometime, like we have no limits. So we can live within our limits. This is a particular temptation for pastor-types, for ministers, for those who take ministry seriously. We think sometimes that everything depends upon us, and unfortunately there are few parishioners who want to put pastors in that mold. I hope you won’t do that to your next pastor. Sometimes we hear the word self-care and we think it doesn’t apply to people in ministry. I am thankful that nobody here thinks that, but paying attention to one’s own needs is not unspiritual. It’s okay to live into our humanness.

I remember years ago the only time on a Sunday morning that I woke up and could not raise myself out of bed. I was so sick, I had a fever. I had worked on the sermon and it was ready to go and I felt like I had to get there. My wife Ellen in loving, wifely fashion not saying it in any kind of mean way at all, looked at me and said, “who do you think you are? You’re not going anywhere.” And then some flash of insight I said, “I accept my humanity.” As though I was saying something really big deal. I had vision you know, I had fantasies of coming up to the pulpit in a crutch you know, saying the gospel reading and yet she got me to think about what I am trying to tell you today. It’s okay to live within our limitations and yet pastors have no corner on this market. Anybody can fall into this hamster in a wheel, messiah complex, and the vaunted importance of our own self. I must do this or what? It won’t get done. People will think less of me. I will prove I am needy. People will see I am human. How many of us have a hard time just crying in public? We can’t cry, we don’t want anybody to see us cry. Why? Because we don’t live within the limits of our humanity.

Eldress Lindsey, age 93 made the newspapers. She was the last shaker. The Shaker’s were a splinter group of Quakers; they were a religious sect that began in England in 1706. In 1758 Ann Lee joined the society and in 1770 the members dubbed her Mother Ann, the head of the Church of God on Earth. She was a very powerful figure. She was made the head of this society. In 1774 the Shakers most of them immigrated to New York. They got their name through the intensity of their religious experience, their dancing, their quivering, and shaking. Well in 1979, only 15 Shakers were left, because they believe that you shouldn’t marry and you shouldn’t have children and so Eldress Lindsey made the newspaper. She was the last Shaker. Now I ask you, what would it be like to live knowing that you were the last of this 300-year-old society? That it all depended upon you if, the group was going to survive. And yet many times we succumb somewhere on that spectrum to that temptation. Why do we work such long hours? Why can’t we bring our working day to an end? Why can’t some of us just retire? Because we aren’t content to live within the limits of our humanity. Jesus was crucified and resurrected to our plain, ordinary humanity. In his resurrected state he was mistaken for a gardener. So if Jesus affirms a plain, non-spectacular appearance in resurrection what does that say to us?

Now it’s true according to Christian theology and our experience we know that the Scripture tells us we are already resurrected in Christ. But on this side when it all becomes a final reality, what does this tell us? It calls us to plainness. It calls us to humility. It calls us to simplicity. But then you ask the question, well what’s plain? How do you define plain? You know if you had an Amish farmer, and a Mennonite, and a Methodist and a Presbyterian get together and converse about what is plain, you would have quite a conversation. You know religious history is filled with different sects and orders that have begun over this plainness question. How many of you are wearing buttons today? Of course, most of you are wearing buttons today. Did you know that when buttons were invented, there were some believers because they use to do hooks and eyes before buttons were invented, who thought that buttons were too fancy, that they were too ostentatious, buttons. And they split because hooks and eyes were plainer and more spiritual. Well nobody has ever been able to define what is plain on the outside. And it always kills me when people define Christianity by what they do on the outside. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t run around, not that you should do all those things, but when it becomes the reality or the experience or the end of all, the finality of what Christianity is all about is way, way off the mark. Christianity is about what’s inside. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ has more to do with something that can happen inside, something new and real and powerful.

I read of a man, who struggled with alcohol, he could not conquer it. And his family suffered so deeply. He met Jesus Christ, he came to faith and his life was transformed. He talked to his old drinking buddies who made fun of him and they said, “You don’t believe all that stuff now do you?” And he said, “Yes I do.” He says, “You mean that you believe that Jesus actually took water and changed it into wine?” He says, “I don’t know about that, but He took wine and changed it into groceries and he changed it into furniture and he changed it into peace in my home.” That’s what _______ is all about.

So I would like to ask an Easter questionnaire on plainness. Is Jesus making you the kind of person who internally can say yes to the following questions?

Can I live without pretense? Can I just be me and not have to impress anybody? Can I be real enough to tell other people something about myself, not connected to my job or what I do? Can I live without pretense?
When asked a question that you can’t answer, can you without any discomfort say, I don’t know?
Here’s a good one. An internal, this is what Jesus can do in your life. Can I live without whining or complaining? Now there’s a sign of inner plainness.
Can I speak the truth with kindness and candor?
Can I ask forgiveness when I have failed or when others fail me? Can I accept their humanity as well?
Can I live without demanding recognition? In other words, can I be a plain, ordinary human person?
Now for those of you today who are with us as guests, I want you to allow me a moment to come at this from just a slightly different angle because I know that in a congregation this size, there are those who are still struggling to understand what this day is about, who have not yet believed. We see it in the text. There were all kinds of a line in which the first people who encountered the resurrection didn’t know what to believe. Perhaps you are here today because you have graciously supported other family members, while I just wouldn’t be faithful if I didn’t appeal to you in this way. The reason that we gather today is to celebrate Christ’s victory of sin and death.

We were out to dinner with the Baugh’s the other night and Dottie shared something that her grandson speaking out of the mouth’s of babes said, he goes, “Grandma, guess what?” He was talking about Easter. He says, “Did you know that Jesus came out of a tube?” “Did you know he came out of the tube?” I got to thinking about that and I thought you know what, that’s pretty good because every single person in this world has tubed it, we have sinned, we have offended the Almighty and because of that we are separated from God and we see the results or the symptoms of this separation every day in our self life, in our broken relationships that we see all around us and the Bible’s definition of ultimate separation death, is eternal separation from God. But there is hope and I found it in a BC cartoon in Saturday’s paper. Three panels. First panel, two cave women are sitting there on the hill. One’s reading a book. “Oh my goodness it says here that Jesus descended into hell.” The other one says, “You’re kidding.” Next panel. “Oh no, not to stay”. Third panel. “He just dropped in to cancel our reservations.” There’s a reservation I would like to have canceled, wouldn’t you? And you know what, you can use his credit card. It’s called, Master’s Charge. I am not just playing synonyms and little play on words, that’s exactly what it says in the Bible, that when Abraham believed, it was credited to him as righteousness. That’s what we celebrate today. On the cross Jesus took our sins, he rose from the dead to affirm his victory over death and sin and now to any who will believe he will raise us from the dead as well and give us eternal life. How does this happen? It says it right in Romans, Chapter 10. Plain, very plain. “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

When did Mary recognize Jesus? Not when she saw angels, not when she saw empty tombs and folded linens. She recognized Jesus when she heard him call her name. And what that tells us today is that Christ wants to have a personal relationship with you today. He’s calling your name and he says, “I want to know you. I want you to be my brother or sister, and God our Father. And I want you to forget about the past, because she clung to it. She called him by his old reference. She says, “Don’t’ cling, it’s not the way it use to be. It’s a whole new day. I can give you a purposeful future.” And that’s what He did. And she went and told the disciples what Jesus had said to her. That’s what the Scripture is teaching today. You can have a brand new start, forget the past. The new has come by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, because he alone can allow us the maximum humanness this side of eternity. And so for all of us, the message today is let’s burn our charter member perfectionist cards, let’s admit our need for God and for each other and for the need to ask for help when necessary. Stop going it on your own. Be content to be human, really human through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord Jesus, we do thank you and bless you and praise you for your great grace, and we pray that this day would be a birthday for many who hear this message. And Lord for those of us who believe, help us to continue to walk in your resurrection power. Thank you for being with us, present today and forever. We ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.