The New Creation: In the Garden
The New Creation: In the Garden
April 22, 2018
The Gospel of John begins not with a Christmas story but with words that invoke the story of creation, itself: “In the beginning was the Word…” The Book of Genesis begins with similar words: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Everything was chaotic—formless and void. (In Hebrew, everything was “tohu wabohu” which, quite frankly, is just fun to say.) There was chaos. Then, there was the creative activity of God which brought order out of that chaos. (The “wind from God” phrase—the “ruah Elohim”— can literally be translated as “the breath of God.”) In an orderly way, God brings the world and all that is in it to life, including human beings. And with each act of creation, God rejoices.
As I’ve suggested to you before, these words were written late in the nation’s life when the people were in exile. The words were meant to say to people, “So…I know that everything feel chaotic. I know that it seems like the chaos is going to win. However, let me remind you, God has always brought order out of chaos. The chaos never wins. Order will come out of this chaos, too.”
(Of course, these words really have nothing to say to us, right because nothing feels all that chaotic now, right? It’s just too bad that Scripture just doesn’t speak to our modern lives…)
As the Bible is won’t to do, just after this creation story, we get another creation story. This one is not meant to compete with the story of the days. Rather, if the first story was meant to speak to the question, “Where is God in the midst of chaos?” then the second story was meant to speak to a different question: “If God created this world, then why is it so messed up?”
(Again, since everything feels just fine in our world (right?), we will all just have to imagine what it would be like to exist in a world in which everything is so broken that we wonder whether the Creator was broken, too?)
The second creation story is the story of the Garden of Eden. It is the story of Adam and Eve and the fall. God scoops up dust and breaths into it and creates “Adam,” which was more of a title than a common name—“dirt man” or “earthling” might do. This dirt man gets to live in an amazing paradise—Eden—a beautiful garden that God has planted. God gives Adam full reign over the garden with one rule: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eventually, God realizes that the dirt man is lonely so God makes him a partner—Eve. Adam and Eve live in paradise together. They are so innocent and naive and carefree that they are utterly naked and don’t even care.
One day, though, something happens. If you hate snakes, what unfolds is the story of how everything that’s wrong with the world is a snakes fault. If you’ve suspected all along that women are the root of all evil and are just looking for a way to ground your prejudice, then join the centuries of folks who have focused their wrath on Eve. The story supports either of these positions: snakes are punished and have to crawl around on their bellies and women are punished by making child birth hurt a lot more than it should. (Oh, and by the way, men are punished, too and have to work for everything rather than just live in the garden. The men who want to justify mistreating women seem to skip that part.)
No one is innocent anymore. Right away, they improvise clothes out of leaves. In fact, their shame is what tips God off that they’ve broken the one rule and eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, this is the heart of the meaning of the story. The story is not anti-snake or anti-women or even anti-man. Rather, it is a statement about the nature of human beings. We could have everything provided, too, and just have one forbidden thing, one rule to live with. And what do we know we would do? We would break the rule! Or maybe, if we were having a good day, we would fight off temptation long enough to break it another day…
We are all broken, or just one choice away from being reminded of how broken we’ve been all along. At the same time, this is not all the story suggests. Rather, the writer says that we are capable of knowing when we are wrong. We can feel shame (except for the most pathological among us.). And, we aspire to know what is right and what is wrong, to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to be moral agents in the world. Some scholars suggest that the story isn’t so much about a fall as it is about human beings growing into the precarious position in which we all live: knowing that there is a right and a wrong but not always being able to foresee the choices that will bring what is right to life—and in the meantime, caught up in the struggle to provide and thrive for another day.
Back to the Gospel of John… So, John’s Gospel suggests at the outset that there is a new creation unfolding. In a form that would have made any reader recall the first creation story, John says that this time, God didn’t just create the world, God became part of it: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. You would think bringing order out of chaos or making fish and birds and human beings would be enough. However, God so loves the world that one day, God looks and says, “I’m in!”
Here’s the really interesting thing though… at the end of the Gospel of John, the writer invokes the second creation story. As we’ve acknowledged, all the Gospels tell the story of Jesus death and resurrection but they all tell the story a little differently. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, in John’s Gospel, alone, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate, the Roman governor, for Jesus’ body. Pilate grants the request. Joseph takes the body to place it in a tomb that he had just had cut out of stone. And where is that tomb? Say it with me now…in a garden. (Don’t for one second think this setting is an accident!)
With the garden as a loaded setting, who arrives first in the garden? A woman! This woman is not the root of all evil. Rather, in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is the faithful woman. She is Jesus’ beloved follower. She is the person who made it not only all the way to the cross but all the way to the empty tomb.
This time, what is tempting is not the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil but simple, bleak despair. She has seen so much horror and felt so much terror that her heart is broken. The darkness that is inside of her had to nearly match the darkness of the predawn hour when she made her way to the tomb. And, yet, she went anyway. Sometimes, when it seems like all hope is lost, other faithful people just keep going, too.
When she arrives at the tomb, she sees the stone rolled away. Does she see this and think that Jesus has risen, that death has been vanquished, that Jesus has gone up to heaven? No, having been through a dozen brutal things what she sees is the next brutal thing. She assumes that the body has been stolen. She assumes the worst.
(This is so human, right? Sometimes, all I have to do is imagine the worst, much less go through it, and I will lose hope! After all she’s been through, we get it…)
Mary runs to tell the boys. Two of the disciples race to the tomb and turn the focus of the moment to themselves: who got there first; who looked in first. This fits perfectly with their response through the whole end of Jesus’ life: rule one is, “Save your own skin!” (And again, before we get all judgmental, we’d best take look in the mirror.) If you read the text carefully, you will hear John telling you that they all believed but that what they believed was that the body had been stolen. The two disciples shake their heads and go home. Mary stays.
This is when things get even more interesting. Mary stands sobbing outside of the tomb. Even though her heart is broken and her hopes seem dashed, she is curious. She can’t help but look into the tomb. Through her tears, she sees two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary answers: “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” Then, Jesus appears but Mary does not know that this is Jesus. Instead, she thinks he’s the gardener.
Again, remember that in the story of the Garden of Eden, God is the gardener. Mary is not wrong here. She just doesn’t understand how profound her insight is! Instead, thinking that this is the man who might have been in cahoots to steal the body, she screws up her courage and stands her ground and speaks up: “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”
Pause and take this moment in. This woman, who had been horribly mistreated in a man’s world, who had been taught to yield to any man’s wishes, who had been taught most of all to be silent and defer, stands her ground. She is able to do this, in part, because Jesus, himself, had respected her and treated her as a whole person, just as he had taught any number of people who had been told that they were “less than” that they were, in fact, better than that. Mary does what Jesus taught all of us to do. In the face of what’s wrong, she doesn’t hate and attack nor does she defer and concede. Rather, she gathers her dignity and self-respect and speaks the truth to power. Jesus speaks a single word back, “Mary!” and Mary’s universe is transformed. The Word is made flesh, again.
When those whom we have looked down upon become the people we look up to, when those in power are confronted not with power but with the truth, when that truth is spoken not with hate but with dignity and respect, then, we should trust that God is fully present. In Christ, all things are being made new!