By Clint Wilson
The late philosopher and the most famous atheist of the 20th century, Antony Flew, once offered a parable of what he saw as the trouble with how we talk about God:
Two explorers came upon a clearing in the woods, in which they found flowers and weeds. “Some gardener must tend this plot,” said one explorer. But the other replied, “No, there is no gardener.” So they pitched camp and set a watch. No gardener appeared. “Perhaps,” said the believer, “he is an invisible gardener.” So they built a barbed-wire fence, electrified it, and patrolled with bloodhounds. But no cries suggested that an intruder had been shocked, and the bloodhounds smelled nothing.
However, the believer was not convinced: “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At this point, his companion despaired, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”
That is a good question.
I’m not a gardener, but I know when I’ve seen one. I can tell by the life that springs forth from their hands. Of course, the Bible pictures God as a cosmic gardener—from the genesis of the garden, where God formed and tilled the cosmos, cultivating life and fathering-forth humanity, to the pages of our gospel today, God is seen as a gardener. And the radical claim of Easter is that the gardener comes once again to our gardens and weeds out death.
You see, it is no mistake that John has Mary mistaking Jesus at the tomb for a gardener. John writes, “Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him…’”
At Easter, the Gardener calls each of us, like Mary from the tomb, so that we might grow, like a plant around the trellis of his Cross, emerging out of the ground towards the life-giving Son.
In other words, the Easter tomb has become God’s flowering pot — God tilled it, God sprung out of it, and God calls us likewise into the new growth of resurrection life.
Now it is possible that some of us might be thinking: “Well, this all sounds very nice…and…spiritual, doesn’t it?! But we’re stuck at home, unable to get on with the business of real life, those things that make the world turn — with filing paperwork, and sending our kids to school, and paying bills, and going to doctor appointments.” What does the cross and empty tomb have to say to being quarantined, and the wake of death that is leading so many back into the tomb?
This begs the question: What does Easter, the resurrection, have to do with the real world? How is our gardener different from having no gardener at all, and what are the fruits of his labor? Simply put, the fruit of our gardener is physical and relational, social and spiritual, and it makes all the difference in the world.
Our gardener grows physical fruit. The reason we will one day all be resurrected, not held by our final tomb, is because Jesus — God in the flesh — was himself resurrected. He is the first fruits in which we all will share in our own resurrection bodies. He is not only ruling as Lord of all, he is curating, cultivating, growing, pruning, fertilizing, and nourishing us for the harvest (that we likewise will share in with our bodies!!!).
And so even while our bodies are wasting away, we can be confident that through the Son, we are being nourished by his light, we are being cleansed by his blood, our hearts are being tilled open by the plow of the cross. His Gospel is being planted deep within so that we can break forth in new growth beyond the tombs that hold us into the light of a new day.
Why? Because if God’s answer to death is not every bit as physical as death itself, and if his new life is not every bit as physical as life itself, then it is not really an answer to the problem of death.
You see, a Jesus whose physical body remains in the ground gives me and you no hope for a physically broken world, no hope against death, no hope against bodily viruses, and the virus of sin.
But the Church today, along w/ thousands of eyewitnesses in the early Church, and millions of Christians down through the ages, can stand with hope because Jesus has been resurrected in his body. And this is key: nobody died in the early church because Jesus was “Lord of their heart,” but rather, because he had gone to the furthest boundaries of the impact of sin, he had gone to the deepest place of death and darkness, and had disarmed and overcome it. Without this teaching, early Christians could not have confidently given their lives in death, because they wouldn’t have possessed confidence that where they were going, Christ had already been, and had robbed death of its power. His fruit is physical.
His fruit is also relational and social. Even as many of us are quarantined, we must remember that the work of this gardener, Jesus, sprung forth in the first century into a group of life-filled people — the Church — who gave their lives away to helping others walk out of their own tombs, their own places of death. The very fact that women are listed as the primary witnesses in our Gospel account today is a testimony to this. Think about it. In a culture where women could not testify in court, in a world where their testimony was actually valued less than that of a slave and a criminal — in this world — the Early Church proudly heralded them as the first — not the second or third — but the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, as the authoritative sources and guarantors of the traditions about Jesus. If you were making up a story, this is not how you would plan it out, because women had been buried in the ground of cultural inferiority. But the early Church boldly were clearing the weeds of women being sub-par humans, to being active participants in salvation plan of God.
Also, when unwanted infants were exposed to the elements, Christians stepped into save and raise such children precisely because they believed their gardener cared even for the lilies tossed out into the streets of men. A child does not escape death with a metaphor, but rather with the hope of a physical life.
Additionally, when women were left in divorce in a culture where that was a death sentence, Christians rallied secular fourth century courts to demand that such women receive their dowry back as a means of survival. No other ancient religion influenced the courts in this way in the ancient world! And whereas money donated to the temples of secular and pagan gods was squandered on feast and drink, the bishops in Christian churches were required to educate orphans, and give aid to poor widows, and purchase food and firewood for the destitute. The previous examples were all drawn from David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. The fruit of our gardener, Jesus, is physical, but it is also social, and relational. As social and relational needs arise in the wake of coronavirus, we must remember our call — empowered by the hope of the resurrection, we can make a difference.
Finally, his fruit is spiritual. Our gardener Jesus has tilled open our hearts with the Cross so that he can drop in the seed of his gospel, his good news, that he is Lord of all, even over our addictions, and our failures, and our anger, and the various other spiritual maladies that keep us from the growth he intends for us. By his Holy Spirit that is poured out like water into the soil of our hearts, we are able to walk in the hope of a new life. We do not have remain buried alive in the ground by our struggles. There is the freedom to grow into new life through the Son that draws us heavenward.
I’m not a gardener, but I know when I’ve seen one. The irony of the atheist Anthony Flew is that he came to believe in God (as a theist…) shortly before his death, for the reason that the garden of creation was simply too complex and too full of marks of a cosmic gardener.
Ultimately, the hope of our gardener, Jesus, is this: to grow forth into the grace of our God who has done something in the past which makes all the difference for our present lives and for our future, and the future of our children. We — and they — do not need to fear death, either physically or relationally, or socially or spiritually.
The gardener calls each of us this day, like Mary from the tomb, so that we might grow, like a plant around the trellis of his Cross, emerging out of the ground towards the life-giving Son.
The Rev. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church, Harrods Creek, Kentucky.