Now 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’s body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “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. He asked her, “Woman, 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”). (John 20:11-16)
Two weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’s first appearance to humankind at the very beginning of time. Last week, we looked at his second on that first Christmas morning. Today, we examine the third.
You’ve probably read the above passage dozens, maybe hundreds of times. And if you’re like me, you’ve likely always thought of the fact that Mary mistook Jesus as “the gardener” as some odd but insignificant detail of Scripture.
But no word of Scripture is placed there by accident, and as renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright recently revealed to me, this detail is no exception. It appears that John is pointing to something quite remarkable indeed.
To see it, we must first go back to Genesis where God created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden to work and “fill the earth.” Sin did not yet exist, but work did, making their work of gardening worship in its purest sense.
But of course, just a few verses later, sin does enter the world. Work is still worship, but it is now also arduous. Sin has also ushered in the necessity for Jesus to come that first Christmas Day and sacrifice his life three decades later.
But everything begins to change on Easter. The resurrection resets the world as Jesus inaugurates the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. And in his first appearance to humanity, Jesus reveals himself to Mary looking like a gardener. Why? Here’s what Wright says in his book Surprised by Hope: “In the new creation, the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed as John hints in his resurrection story, where Mary supposes Jesus is the gardener. The resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation,” and I would argue, work itself.
By appearing as a gardener, Jesus is deliberately pointing us back to Adam and Eve, the world’s first gardeners and workers. He’s showing us that our work as citizens of his coming Kingdom is not just about “saving souls” or helping more people gain entrance to the Kingdom (as important as that work is). Jesus is showing us that it is time to garden again, working to till the earth—to “fill the earth” with signposts to the Kingdom that began to spring to life that first Easter morning.