Formations 04.16.2017: In Graves and Gardens

John 20:1-2, 11-18

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener (Rembrandt, detail).

As I’ve been asking who needs to hear my story of Easter joy, I’ve come up against another question—what story of Easter joy do I need to hear? And what I hear reminds me of a ghost story I first heard as a seventh grader.

Just outside of the sanctuary I grew up worshipping in are a garden and a tomb filled in with concrete and rebar. George Ward, a former mayor of Birmingham and the first owner of the property on which the church stands, prepared a crypt for himself on the edge of the mountain. It’s still there, underneath the garden we call Prayer Point.

Older kids would show us the crypt that could still be seen by those willing to jump over the fence and walk down the concrete stairs on the edge of the mountain. And they told us he still haunted the grounds because a later county law kept him from being buried in that place he had chosen. If you turn around at dawn, they said, George Ward will be there, standing over your shoulder.

Now I recognize I’m coming close to heresy, but to be fair this ghost story prompts me to pay attention to parts of John’s story that I’ve too often passed over. In particular, John describes Christ’s tomb: “There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid” (19:41).

On Friday the garden was present and on Sunday the crucifix was too. The journey from Friday to Sunday, at least as John tells it, isn’t accompanied by a great change in scenery. Rather, John marks the resurrection by the details he focuses on.

On Sunday morning, Mary sees a gardener and asks him for help, but when he says her name she recognizes him as her own teacher. It doesn’t take much—only hearing her name—for Mary to experience the joy of resurrection.

Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ has always struck me as a complete turn from missing to seeing completely. But today it seems simpler. After all, gardeners and teachers aren’t all too different. One tends to the growth of plants and the other tends to the growth of people. Mary seeks help in one who tends to life. When she hears her name, she recognizes that this same person tends to her life as well.

It doesn’t take much for Mary to experience the joy of resurrection, just her name. At this, the details of resurrection, planted in the story from the beginning, become clear.

John’s story changes everything. Sure, it is a simple story told through the whispers from the cracks we often overlook: the tomb in the garden, the gardener working there, and a woman’s name. But this week it is the story I need to hear. What story of Easter do you need to hear?


• How can something as simple as a name communicate joy and resurrection?
• In what simple words and acts do you experience and proclaim resurrection?
• Where in your life do you need joy? In what places might you find it?
• Who in your life needs to experience joy? How might you bring joy to them?

Reference Shelf

Burying Jesus

D’, vv. 38-40, tells of the actions of two of Jesus’ friends on his behalf. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus (12:42-43), secures permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body away (v. 38). Nicodemus (3:1; 7:50) brings a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes (v. 39). Together they bind the body of Jesus in linen cloths with the spices, “as is the burial custom of the Jews” (v. 40; cf. 2 Chr 16:14; Josephus, Antiquities 17.8.3 §199). His death is a catalyst for these two hesitant men to move to a more public expression of their devotion to Jesus.

E’, vv. 41-42, recounts Jesus’ burial. The two men, Joseph and Nicodemus, lay Jesus’ body in a new tomb where no one has ever been laid, in a garden near he spot of his crucifixion (vv. 41-42; almost certainly that marked in the Church of the Holy Selpulcher: Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.26; Bordeaux Pilgrim; Cyril of Alexandria, Catechetical Lectures 13:39; 14:5, 22; 18). This act keeps Jesus from being buried in the place away from the city provided by the Jews for criminals (Josephus, Antiquities 5.1.14 §44). His burial in this manner displays the honor shown to the crucified king of the Jews.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 255.

Jesus Teaching

Despite the limitations and difficulties, the record of the first century does permit some generalizations. One of the primary functions of a Jewish religious leader (in Jesus’ day, the scribe or Rabbi) was to preserve, interpret, and transmit the religious tradition from one generation to the next through teaching. Apparently Jesus was seen as fulfilling this role in his public ministry. He was addressed as teacher (Matt 8:19; Mark 9:17; Luke 20:28) and he employed the term with reference to himself (Mark 14:14). In fact, the record indicates a tripartite ministry—Jesus went about teaching, preaching, and healing (Matt 4:23; 9:35). In keeping with the expectations of a religious teacher, he taught in the Temple (Mark 12:35; Luke 19:47) and in the synagogues (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:15). Mark, perhaps, summarizes the centrality of communication through teaching for Jesus’ ministry when he wrote “ . . . as his custom was, he taught them “ (Mark 10:1).

Jesus’ extensive use of Parables and the numerous records of his conversational encounters with those who came to him indicate the informal, personal nature of his teaching. As would have been in keeping with his Jewish heritage, his teaching was neither formal nor speculative. But, as skillful a teacher as Jesus may have been, the unique element of his teaching seems to have been associated with the authority compellingly apparent to those who heard him (Matt 7:29; Mark 1:22). In the final analysis, the exceptional quality of Jesus’ teaching may not have been a function of method, but of an interpretation with carried the unmistakable imprimatur of religious truth.

Richard C. McMillan, “Education in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: MU Press, 1995), 234.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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  1. This was the story I needed to hear today. Thank you, Bill. It’s a pleasure to read something written by someone who has clearly thought a great deal about it.