Saturday, April 10, 2010

Easter 2C

One of the delights of autumn, as the days get cooler and we get the first rains, is venturing outside to check on what, against all odds, has survived the summer.  At this time of year I find myself filled with new energy - ‘right’, I told myself the other day, ‘this year I’m going to rip out everything along the side fence and plant whatever it is that grows in the middle of the Simpson desert’.  I guess I like gardening, though for me it’s more about an occasional blitz - getting out there for an afternoon of pulling weeds and mowing and chopping stuff back and covering up the most unsightly bits with mulch - more about keeping some sort of semblance of order than about understanding the rhythm of the seasons and the vagaries of soil and water and the needs of growing things.  I have the greatest of respect for people who can tell you exactly what that plant is and what it needs to do well - a sort of sensitivity and empathy with living things that I can kind of recognise but don’t actually have myself.  The garden itself seems to represent a sort of meeting place between what is natural and what is human, a sort of symbiosis in which we are led to reflect on our own place in creation - as creatures who are also God’s co-creative partners.

The Bible, of course, starts in a garden, in chapter two of Genesis, the second explanation of creation that begins not from a cosmic but from a human perspective.  And God places the first human creatures in a garden, a place of harmony and cooperation where they are given the work of tending and nurturing.  In spite of my own frantic efforts to control the chaos in the backyard of the rectory I recognise this as a gentle image, a daily labour that is renewing rather than exhausting.  The human creatures know their limitations, and the garden responds to their care.  In Eden there would be no drought, no destructive hail or flood.  The humans would not be forced off their land by jealous rivals, and neither do they drive away the animals that hunt for their own food on the land they share.  There is light and dark in this garden, but the light is given for work, the darkness for rest.  It’s an image of completion and wholeness, what Jesus calls ‘shalom’.

I’m not sure that we really know what goes wrong in the idyllic garden of our human developmental infancy.  Behind the allegorical story-line of Genesis there lies the suggestion of limitations that any parent could tell you were bound to be tested, prohibitions that were bound to excite curiosity.  It’s the story of the fall from obedience into wilfulness, the fall from simplicity into complexity, perhaps even the necessary developmental step from trusting responsiveness into imperfect but self-directed responsibility.  But be it as it may - and the mythic stories of Genesis are wonderfully amenable to being interpreted at many different levels - on eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil the first human beings find themselves expelled from the garden of their infancy, filled with the human burden of facts and uncertainty, mistrust and self-doubt - and the necessity of earning a living.

We recognise in the story something of the wonderfully ambivalent blessing of our human-ness.  Our human capacity for love and creativity and unbounded curiousity - the impulse that drives us to probe the secrets of the solar system or painstakingly map the structure of the human genome, as well as our capacity for destructiveness and despair, our fear of death and failure, our capacity for self-delusion and betrayal even of those whom we most love.  Made in the image of our creator, gifted with ingenuity, with the ability to reflect even on the mystery of our own existence, we baffle ourselves by our inability to live up to the promise of our divine origin.  The story of Adam and Eve is the story of our own lives.  The story is trying to tell us something about our own disordered world, and the muddled and contradictory state of our own hearts.  St Paul expresses it wonderfully, when he says: ‘I don’t understand my own actions - I do not what I want, but what I hate!  I don’t do the good that I want to do, but the evil I hate - in my inmost self I delight in the Law of God, but in my actions it is as though I am at war with myself’. [1] We all eat from the tree of knowledge that doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom - presuming to be like God, we attain only the knowledge that is capable of destroying us - we learn that there is such a thing as evil, but we struggle to choose the good.  And this is the garden that we now live in.

The man and woman hide.  They hear the sound of God strolling in the garden in the
cool of the evening, and they hide.  With the knowledge that defines us as human even as we struggle to assimilate it comes shame and guilt, and perhaps the beginnings of conscience.  But God calls out, ‘where are you?’.  Presumably God knows where they are, what they have done, but God asks them - even with the primal goodness of creation undone, with the undercurrents of the world’s first experience of shame, humiliation, corrosive self-knowledge and nakedness swirling in the air, even as human beings shrink away from its consequences God reaches out for relationship.  What have you done?  Who told you you were naked?

Ever since - so Scripture tells us and our own hearts confirm - ever since we have been trying to find a way back to the garden.  The whole sweep of Scripture - from Abraham and Sarah hearing God’s call to leave their home on a vague promise of descendants as numerous as the stars of the desert night, to the prophets insisting on justice as the ineradicable sign of God’s people, to the uncompromising call of John the Baptist to a people living under foreign occupation to repent and prepare for God’s new story - through all of this what we are actually hearing is the story of a people trying to find their way home.

And so it should be no surprise that the first light of resurrection takes us back to the very beginning, back to a man and a woman in a garden.  Mary, blinded by her tears, thinks Jesus is the gardener and so, in a sense, he always has been.  Because resurrection is Eden restored, the healing of humanity’s primal developmental wound and the dawning of a new creation.  John’s picture of the scene that first Easter morning is as simple and profound as that.  The angels this time not to guard and turn away but to welcome and to invite us in.  The rumour of the second secret tree in the garden of Eden turns out to have been true all along.  The tree of life, the cross, is a reality, the spinning of the earth is reversed, our alienation from God and from our own best selves is undone, resurrection is the restoration of shalom and the completion of creation.  That’s actually all packed in to John chapter 20, verses one to eight.  The gospel that begins with a sonorous recitation of the Word who is with God in the act of creation, a big-picture re-run of Genesis, chapter one, sketches out in its original final chapter a picture of Eden restored.

Except - we’re too fearful, too self-preoccupied and too ashamed to go in.  This is after the women have spread the word, ‘we have seen the Lord’.  This is after the heart-stopping ambiguous good news of resurrection.  And the men and women who loved Jesus are hiding, overwhelmed by the knowledge of their own failure, their own moral cowardice, fresh out of excuses or plans, naked again, just like in Eden.  And in the evening on that first day, just like in Eden, the one they are hiding from comes and stands in the middle of them.  Just like in Eden, the risen one reaches out for relationship with human beings in the middle of the brokenness and alienation that they haven’t yet realised has been defeated by resurrection.

Scholars call this the Gospel of John’s Pentecost story - Luke makes us wait 40 days for his flashy pyrotechnic version of the coming of the Holy Spirit, John envisages it as happening on that first day.  Jesus breathes on his friends, implanting in them the breath of the Holy Spirit, bringing them to new life exactly as the Creator breathes new life into the original creatures of earth.  And Jesus gives them a new story, a new identity, he sends them and us out with a purpose that defines us, and he gives us a sign by which we can be recognised and identified with him - not the sign of the wounded hands and feet but the sign of forgiveness.  It’s an ‘opt-in’ sign, a badge that we can wear if we want to be identified with the one who forgives his executioners as they are hammering spikes through his wrists and ankles.  If you forgive someone’s sins, they are gone for good.  If you don’t forgive them, what are you going to do with them?  How are you going to be most free?  Forgiveness is the tattoo that defines us as Jesus’  followers, forgiveness identifies us as people oriented not to the scars of the past but openness to restored relationship.

Forgiveness and commitment to relationship are the prerequisites for us to re-enter the garden of creation, that place of shalom in which human flourishing is dependent not on competition but on the ethics of mutual care, and in which we define ourselves not by the divisions between us but by the relationships that connect us.  I don’t think it’s the same garden we started out in, we can never go back to the garden of our infancy but it’s the garden of resurrection, the garden in which all that looked like it had died last summer has put out new shoots.


[1]Rom 7.15-24