Monday, April 9, 2007

The Objects of Holy Week: Linens and Cloths

(An Easter sermon based on John 20:1-18 & 1 Corinthians 15:19-26)

The Associated Press reported this week that archaeologists have discovered a tomb dating to Roman times on a Greek island. The tomb, which was missed by grave-robbers, still contained gold and other items. It is very unusual to find a tomb that has been undisturbed for almost 2000 years. (Read the story here.)

When I read the report of that recently discovered tomb, I thought of the famous discovery of the tomb of King Tut. It was found by English Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922. That tomb had lain undisturbed for around 3000 years. Carter and his party removed many priceless treasures from King Tut’s tomb. How exciting it must have been for Carter, after seven years of searching, to enter Tut’s tomb and to find those amazing treasures, including many made of gold. Those riches have been turned into many other riches, because whenever items from the tomb are displayed in a museum, thousands and thousands of tickets are sold and lots of money is made.

Contrast the treasures found within King Tut’s tomb with the items found inside the tomb of Jesus early on that Sunday morning all those years ago. According to John’s account, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, in response to Mary Magdalene’s announcement that the body of Jesus was missing, engaged in a foot race to the garden tomb. The Beloved Disciple won, stooped to look into the tomb, and saw the linen grave clothes that had swaddled Jesus. When Peter came to the tomb he went in and once inside he saw the wrappings that the other disciple had seen and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head; it had been folded up and set aside separately. There was no gold; there was nothing that the world would count as treasure.

Yet those linens and that cloth signified a greater treasure than anything that ever had, ever has, or ever will be found anywhere else. That is because the presence of the linens and the cloth signified the absence of the body of Jesus. And as events would unfold, it would become clear that while his body was absent from the tomb he was not absent from the world; Jesus had been unleashed upon the world through the power of the resurrection! The linens and the cloth proclaimed the truth that he was not there in the tomb, but his subsequent appearances to his followers proclaimed the truth that he is still here for the world. He has risen from the dead and he still lives with us, in us, and among us.

Jesus taught his disciples and us that if someone asks us for our coat we ought to give him the shirt off our back, too. Well, Jesus did not literally give us the shirt off his back. But those burial garments that he left behind are meant to replace the garments that we wear. In particular, we are garbed in the garments of mortality. The other day I heard PGA golfer Fred Funk talking about the effect that the advancing years are having on his game. He said that his body was “progressing in a negative way.” Most of us understand what he meant. We’re getting older, and the older we get, the closer to the time of our death we get. I heard an expert say the other day that all the studies done so far indicate that 100% of us are going to die. That reality can hang like a pall over our lives; for many people it is the source of tremendous anxiety. But is doesn’t have to be! As Paul said, the resurrected Christ is in the process of putting all of his enemies under his feet, and the last enemy he will destroy is death.

God began that process of destroying death when Jesus conquered it on that first Easter morning. Because Jesus threw off his burial garments and arose from the tomb, he gave us the opportunity to be clothed with new and eternal life. Elsewhere Paul, in gloriously spectacular words, said this about the resurrection that will be ours because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
(1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
It is because of the resurrection of Jesus that we can lay aside our clothes of mortality and put on garments of immortality.

While that will finally happen only when the end comes and our resurrection occurs, the effect of it can be known and felt here and now. It makes a difference now to know that our Lord has conquered death and that we will forever be with him. The Freshman Composition course that I took during my first quarter at Mercer University was graded on a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory basis but I was very stressed about it nonetheless. My stress level increased when the professor read my first paper to the class as an example of what he did not want! He let us rewrite that first paper and I made an “S” on it and on all my subsequent papers for him. I remember how liberated I felt when I went in to write my last paper during the final exam time. No matter what I did on that paper, I was going to pass the class. The ultimate grade had been taken care of. Interestingly, that paper was likely the best one I wrote in the course. Why? Because my anxiety had been taken away by the assuredness that I had already passed the course. Our future resurrection, which has been made sure by the resurrection of Christ, has a similar influence in our present life. Our ultimate destiny has been taken care of. That frees us up to live freely and abundantly here and now.

Here are the questions for you: have you believed? Do you believe? If not, will you believe? This much I know: you have the ability to believe. A field of study has developed recently called neurotheology, in which scientists study how the human brain processes religion and spirituality. Dr. Andrew Newberg has suggested that the fact that there is a great commonality in how the brains of adherents of different religious traditions respond during prayer and meditation may indicate that our brains are “hard-wired” to believe in a power beyond ourselves. Other scientists would suggest that such commonalities are the result of the evolutionary process. (Read more about that here.) Since, in my view, God is behind the process whatever the process is, the scientists are finding out something that St. Augustine knew 1500 years ago:
“Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning.” And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.
There is something in you and in all of us that wants to believe. You can trust in the resurrected Christ if you will take the leap of faith.

The Beloved Disciple is a model for us here. You may recall the words that the resurrected Christ spoke to Thomas who had said that unless he saw the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear mark in his side he would not believe: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). The Beloved Disciple was the first example of such a person; when he went into the tomb and saw the linens and the cloth “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:8b-9). You can believe. You have not seen the resurrected Christ but you can believe and you will be blessed if you do. You may not understand the resurrection (who really can?) but you can believe, and in believing you will find that everything will change and it will change in life-giving, hope-building, and future-assuring ways.

Jesus left the linens and cloth of his burial garments behind so that we could be clothed in new life and eternal life. All you have to do is believe. Will you?

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