This past Sunday, we started our traditional worship services with a reading from John 20. This chapter tells the story of the resurrection, and it starts with a woman. Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb and finds it empty. She runs to get some of the disciples. They hurry back with her and see that Jesus is not where he was buried.
The Gospel writer tells us that one of the disciples “saw and believed.” And then, they went home.
But Mary did not go home. Mary stayed at the tomb, weeping. And because she stayed, she became the first person to see the risen Christ. Because she stayed, she became the first person to preach the resurrection.
(Woman preachers. It’s in the Bible.)
Earlier this year, we talked about the fact that the word “radical” means “root.” In this season of Easter, we will be guided by the themes of radical witness and radical transformation.
Mary is the first witness to the resurrection, both in that she witnesses Jesus come back to life and that she becomes a witness to others by sharing what she has seen and heard. Mary became a witness because Mary stayed back, weeping and looking into the tomb.
The prayer we used earlier in the service was written by Amy Aspey, and it invites all of us to look into the tombs of our hearts. Just as that empty tomb was a space of grief for Mary, our own hearts and lives can at times seem full of brokenness. We push our fears and losses back into a dark corner and seal the tomb.
But even as a tomb is a place of death, it is also a place of resurrection. Who knows why the disciples left so quickly after looking into the tomb. Perhaps they couldn’t grasp what they saw—or didn’t see.
But Mary didn’t understand either, and yet she stayed—and playwright Norman Allen says she was “unafraid of her grief.” She stayed in that place of death, waiting, though she did not know what for.
I recently started a garden for the first time. It has been an exercise in patience and trust. The first thing I planted was two rows of sugar snap peas. I built my trellis, carefully sowed the seeds at the exact soil depth and spacing that I had been instructed, watered them, and went on my way.
The next day, I hurried outside to check on my crop. Nothing. Why didn’t I have vegetables yet?! I was promised peas!
Now, I was not so naïve as to have actually expected my garden to burst into fruit overnight. But I was not prepared for what the waiting would feel like, either. Day after day, I checked on the peas. A week went by; then ten days.
There were tiny green sprouts all over the beds, but I couldn’t tell the sugar snap peas from the weeds. I realized I didn’t even know what I was looking for. It would be some time before I could see clearly enough what had been planted on purpose that I could finally do weeding with confidence.
Mary was waiting…for something. But she didn’t know what she was waiting for. And, in fact, when it came, she did not recognize it at first.
This is an image in the Gospel of John that I love: Mary sees Jesus and mistakes him for the gardener. How perfect. The risen Christ does not come in the form of a beatific vision, bursting onto the scene in a cloud of fire and brimstone.
In the resurrection, Jesus looks like a gardener. Today, he might be wearing a floppy hat, dirty jeans, and a pair of Crocs. We might find him bent over a bed of flowers, doing the simple but hard work of coaxing life out of the dirt.
Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. And a gardener knows the patience that I am just now learning when it comes to sowing seeds.
What’s more, a gardener knows what the Bible says about the life cycle of a seed. 1 Corinthians 15:36 says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”
As I placed each of those sugar snap peas in the ground, I effectively sealed them in a tomb. I buried them so that they might have new life.
The resurrection really is that earthy and gritty—and maybe that’s why Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener. That passage in 1 Corinthians that talks about the seed dying is not simply using flowery metaphors. It is talking about the bodily resurrection.
We don’t tend to recite creeds here at Roots Revival, but most Christian affirmations of faith include a line like this: “We believe in the resurrection of the body.” We’ve talked about that here before. The resurrection is not just a spiritual event—it is a bodily one. Jesus does not come back as an apparition, but as a gardener, dirt and Crocs and all.
And that “resurrection of the body” we talk about in the creed? We aren’t just talking about Jesus’ body. We’re talking about our bodies. We believe that at the last day, we will all participate in the bodily resurrection. The seeds of our bodies will die and be buried, and from them will come new life.
But we don’t have to wait for the last day to experience resurrection. There are tombs all around us in need of the hope for new life. There are tombs in our hearts and tombs in our society, and we must stand at those tombs and mourn.
Yesterday was Earth Day. Although that was a day to celebrate the created order, it is also a day to grieve the destruction we have caused in it. And the passage we heard from Revelation makes it clear that when God says he will make all things new, he isn’t just talking about our hearts or even our bodies—he is talking about the entire creation.
But the tombs of environmental ruin are not separate from other tombs in our world. Writer Carl Safina says in his book The View from Lazy Point that we cannot separate our desire for social justice from our desire for environmental justice. If we care about child welfare, we should also care about global warming. Either we serve justice, or we don’t.
To paraphrase, either we seek resurrection wherever there is death, or we don’t. Whether the tomb is one of mass extinction or poverty or family dysfunction or spiritual dryness, we are called to stay by that tomb and weep. But we are also called to bear witness to the resurrection that is promised to us in every place of grief and loss and death.
In addition to the vegetable garden out back, I have a flowerbed in front of my house. The pansies in it are going crazy right now. Some of them have even started spreading their seed beyond where I planted them, and so tiny flowers are popping up all around.
One little plant has really impressed me—it is growing out of a pile of bricks in a corner of the garden. It is incredible to see such a tiny, fragile plant pushing rocks out of its way to reach the sun.
All around us right now, there are signs of the resurrection that has already happened and the resurrection that is to come. The roots of growing seeds can push bricks aside just as God rolled away the stone that had sealed the tomb.
Wherever we sow seeds of compassion and justice, graves can become places of new life for all people and even the whole creation. And the seed of new life that is in each of us can roll away the stones over the tombs in our hearts as well.
Easter is not just a day; it is a season. And so for the next several weeks, I invite you to witness to radical resurrection. I’d like to point out that just as the word “radical” means “root,” a synonym for “resurrection” is “revival.”
God is making all things new, and when we here at Roots Revival see and share the good news of that radical resurrection, tombs will be opened and new life will burst forth. May it be so in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell