The Third Sunday of Easter: Seed Imperishable

On plants that die—or even live—unexpectedly

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. 1 Peter 1:23, ESV

Anyone who has cared for a plant has probably lost one unexpectedly. Indeed, for many people, this may be their only experience of gardening: buy houseplant, plant dies inexplicably, repeat next spring. This pattern of plantownership is probably common enough to keep some nurseries in business.

In my household, we can never keep a succulent alive, and several beautiful potted herbs we have been given by a family friend and expert grower have withered pitifully after we brought them home. Rosemary, the sort of plant that grows happily out of a sheer rock face in the Mediterranean with no water for decades, begins shriveling up the moment we bring it home.

Sometimes, mercifully, plants take the opposite course and undergo an unexpected resurrection. Two clumps of rhubarb I planted last spring in a weedy area spent the summer withering down to nothing, so I was pleased to find tiny heart-shaped leaves poking up from the ground last month. Though my Chicago Hardy fig tree froze back nearly to the ground in an early cold snap, it came surging back in March, and I have hope of fruit on its new wood. A packet of okra seeds we purchased in 2013 has yielded several vigorous seedlings, much to my chagrin, as okra is a large plant and I don’t care for its fruits.

These moments of revival have a significance to the Christian imagination that is almost too obvious to point out, and to which I have already dedicated some attention in these essays. Less obvious, however, is the significance of sustained life—of a tree sending its roots yet deeper into the soil, or ancient forests that have never been disturbed. The reading for today, however, proposes something like this with its image of a seed “imperishable,” or, in older translations, “incorruptible.” For St. Peter, though “all flesh is as grass” and that grass is the image of impermeability, there yet remains in the church a seed that does not decay, a plant which never fails to rise from the roots.

Study of ecology lead the founders of permaculture, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, to imagine a permanent agriculture, a garden like an old-growth forest that just keeps growing richer and healthier and more biodiverse. A garden not requiring the annual death and resurrection of tillage and replanting and weeding and watering, but one dominated by ancient trees that yield their fruit almost without care and certainly without constant replacement. If not exactly immortal, an old-growth forest has a very long lifespan indeed, and Holmgren and Mollison dreamed that our gardens could work the same way.

If the resurrected Christ depicted in such tantalizing glimpses in the Gospels is like anything we can imagine, he might be like an ancient oak in a virgin grove, a form of life so large and generous and spreading and ancient we can never comprehend it. His body, still marked by nail and spear, nonetheless has capacities we can only guess at. It has passed beyond death and in a real sense beyond life, life as we understand it, into a form of being before which we can only be amazed.

Just so does St. Peter imagine a church no longer subject to the withering and dying of annual grasses, but one constant in its health and growth, enduring forever, growing deeper and broader under the permanent word of the Lord. If the Lord is an annual gardener now, husbanding the wheat and the tares alike, in that last day his work becomes more like forestry, tending a garden no longer subject to the disruptions of sin and death. Planted in seed imperishable, we will go on perennially, old-growth forests of souls.