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John 20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples went back to their homes.

My words this morning will focus on three verses of John 20 that we heard earlier this morning, 5 through 7: “5And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”

Someone, not to be identified, has left a few friendly notes in the church office. They simply say, “Hi Mathew!” with a smiley face attached. They make my day whenever I see them. What that signature touch of the smiley face says about the person who leaves it is all good.

Today’s Bible account of Jesus’ resurrection also includes a small signature touch that says more than meets the eye at first. And again, its all good. That signature touch is in the form of two pieces of fabric: the linen burial cloth that covered Jesus’ body, and the smaller cloth that covered his head. The cloths, and the way they were left in that empty tomb, are not just minor details. John the Gospel writer spends quite a few words on the fact that the grave cloths were left behind, and on the way they were left behind —which is significant for reasons I shall explain—and that the cloth covering Jesus’ head and face was separate from the cloth that wrapped his body, and was rolled up in a separate place, which is also important. If we were crime scene investigators looking over the scene of a crime—in this case, the alleged theft of a body, as some people explained the emptiness of the tomb—such details, like where the grave cloths were left and how, would be fairly screaming with important clues about the person who left them. We might say that these still and silent fabrics, lying in the shadows of a tomb, tinged as they are with blood, soaked and stiffened by spices, continue speaking through the ages. They fairly shout a testimony that speaks to our hearts and minds through the eyes of our imaginations.

So, why were the grave cloths left at all? And why were they left the way they were? Especially that head cloth, rolled or folded up as it was, separate from the shroud? And what does that mean? Why is that important?

One explanation that’s been making the round of emails and websites explains the rolled up and separated head cloth this way: The head cloth for any Palestinian burial would have been basically the same size and kind of cloth used in eating, as a napkin. At least the name used was the same. In Greek. When a Jewish master or mistress of the house would stop eating, his or her servants would know whether or not they should clear the table and remove the leftovers depending on what he did with the napkin. Crumple it up and that meant that dinner was done; take the bowls and cups away. Fold it up or roll it up and that meant, even if I step out for a moment, leave everything—take nothing—because I will be back. So some people say that by rolling up the cloth that covered his head and face, Jesus was serving notice that he would be back, as in, when he comes again to judge the living and the dead and reign over his rightful kingdom. Or maybe that he’ll be right back so that his disciples can see him, even that very day. Either way, he’d be back, just like the man who told his servants that he would be back to the table, by the placement of his napkin.

I really like that explanation. I would really, really, really like that to be the case. Because I do believe that Jesus is returning. Not because of this passage, though, but because of so many other Scripture passages. And having him roll up the cloth with that significance ties his resurrection and his return together quite nicely. At least he returned within the day to all but one of his disciples, Thomas.

But there’s a problem. That explanation requires a connection between a tomb and a table, a dead body and a dinner, which I think most Jews of the time would have found quite unsavory and offensive. Tombs, death, grave cloths and dead bodies were associated with ritual uncleanness, not with feasting. Though Jesus has served notice that he will come back, he’s not coming back to his former tomb for another helping of death. And no early Christian commentators, who would have known of such a dinner table custom, ever made that connection with this passage, between “I shall return to the table,” and “I shall return to the world.” What’s more, people with better grasp of the Greek than I have disagree as to whether or not the head cloth was rolled up like how you and I might roll up a t-shirt to pack it, or whether John simply means that it was still wound up the way it had been wound to cover Jesus’ head on Good Friday. In which case, all John may be saying is that the cloth covering the body and the separate cloth for the head were simply lying where they had been, as they had been, when they covered Jesus’ body. Only now there’s no body inside them. I lean toward that explanation if only because it is the simplest explanation.

But the presence and the placement of the cloths and napkin struck John the Beloved like a thunderbolt. He says that this is when he began to believe that Jesus was risen, and not stolen, even though he didn’t yet understand that this is what the Scriptures had foretold would happen. Up to then, all he had to go on was Mary of Bethany’s report: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” But when Peter and the beloved disciple saw the grave cloths still there, in the tomb, they realized that was not the case; it was highly unlikely that anyone would have taken the body and left the grave cloths. Or even that they could have taken the body and left the grave cloths.

That’s what the earliest commentators we have on record, from the 2nd Century forward, say about this signature placement of the grave cloths: that they lent credence to John’s faith—and our faith– that the body of Jesus was risen, not stolen. Those earliest commentators knew all about the burial customs of the time. They were in a position to tell us that if anyone were to take the body or steal it, they probably would not have left the grave cloths behind. Anyone who made it past the guard posted outside that tomb, anyone who managed to roll away the stone and get inside the tomb, in the dark, undetected, who probably would not have wanted to come by torchlight nor do their dirty work by torchlight, would probably not have either the means nor the time to unwrap a dead body. Anybody who had gotten that far, unimpeded or undetected, would probably have simply whisked away the body, grave cloths and all, and not have taken time inside the tomb to remove them, much less reposition them as neatly and purposefully as they were when the disciples first saw them.

No, the position of the fabrics speaks not of something speedy, sneaky, furtive and crafty. They speak of someone and something powerful, triumphant, peaceful, fearless, and intentional. If that head cloth had been folded and rolled up, it was probably done by we-know-whose two nail-scarred hands. In which case we would even get a glimpse into the personality of Jesus. Even in his moment of overwhelming triumph and vindication, he takes a moment to tidy up and leave a very human signature. Kind of like the friendly greeting on my chalk board and post-it notes. Even while demolishing death he does so with class, calm, and an eye for order. He wouldn’t be caught dead leaving a messy tomb. Even with the soldiers outside cowering in fear as the stone rolls away from the inside, even with the first rays of the sun turning the eastern horizon from pitch black to grey, even though all of human history has just turned on the hinge of death’s reversal, there is yet time for one last finishing touch. What’s the hurry? What can anyone do to him now that has not been done already, but that he has overcome it?

Or if its the case that the head cloth is still laying there, wrapped and rolled as it had been around Jesus’ head, then that gives us a clue into the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. I honestly don’t know how it happened, but if the death shroud and the head cloth were simply lying where they had been, undisturbed, as they had been around Jesus’ body, that means that the Risen Jesus passed through them, that his new resurrection body materialized outside of them. And that’s about all I can say regarding the manner of Jesus’ resurrection. We can more easily answer the question What happened? than the question How did it happen?

And there’s another thing that earliest commentators notice about these cloths: John’s Gospel has shown us grave shrouds and head cloths before, a little over a week before to be precise, on Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. But when Lazarus walked out of his tomb, he needed help getting out of the grave shroud and head cloth. He was half wearing them, half dragging them, unable to unwind himself. That’s because the power that restored life to his dead body came from outside of himself.

Jesus, by contrast, walks out of the tomb, free and unhindered, having either removed the cloths under his own power, or having passed through them the way he later passed through locked doors to visit the disciples. That’s because the power of his resurrection came from within himself, through himself, direct from heaven’s throne. Its the whole difference between being resurrected and given life, and being the resurrection and the life. Jesus could give resurrection and life to Lazarus because, as he told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

As it was with Lazarus, so shall it be for us. “If the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, “ Paul wrote in Romans 8, “then he shall give life to our mortal bodies through the same Spirit who dwells in you.”

Those grave cloths, left behind as they were, are not indisputable scientific nor legal proof that Jesus arose physically from the dead. They’re more like one of those incidental pieces of evidence that strikes me as something that would have been hard to think about, harder to pull off, easy to overlook, if someone were pulling a hoax. They are simply one more piece of testimony that lends weight to the probability of a real resurrection, and which makes it even more believable.

These fabrics are said by some to exist yet today. The cloth covering the body is said to be the Shroud of Turin, kept in an Italian Cathedral. The head cloth is said to be in the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, Spain, and is brought out for viewing three times a year. Scientists and scholars have examined these fabrics and have come to widely differing conclusions about their authenticity. They certainly do have features which match both the Gospel accounts and what we know about death and burial in First Century Palestine. But from all I’ve read and learned about them, I’m more confused than ever about their authenticity. I honestly don’t know what to think about them.

If anyone proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are hoaxes, I won’t lose any sleep. I don’t need them to be real to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. For me, the most convincing evidence is still the resurrection in the lives of the apostles, their resurrection of hope, of courage, of energy and even defiance, when before the resurrection they had been so cowardly and confused. After being struck by the lightning bolt of Jesus’ resurrection, they faced persecution, hardship and even death with a courage that seemed to say, “Kill us all you like; we’ll only be back, and as loving as we were before.” For John the Beloved, that very transformation, from a cowardly lamb to a courageous lion, began when he saw the cloths lying where they were, and as they were. We don’t need for those cloths to be around still. They speak quite eloquently and convincingly from the pages of scripture.

Not only do the cloths urge us to trust and believe that life conquers death, and that love conquers fear. They also say “Take courage! Fear not! For our tombs will not be our final resting places; our grave clothes will not be our final dress.” And finally, they testify that this is how all who do God’s will and God’s work in this world will be vindicated, and will have their labors vindicated: by victory over every evil and idol that opposes God’s will and God’s work, even victory over death.

That hope is what sustained Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Twenty-some years ago he was martyred by elements of the para-military death squads which terrorized the poor, the laborers, the unionists and the activists for justice and peace during El Salvador’s Civil War. He boldly challenged both rebels and government forces to lay down their weapons and work together for a more just and peaceful country. Even while he received death threats and survived several attempts on his life, he kept preaching and ministering as he did. Just before he was killed while celebrating Mass, he said, “I do not believe in a death without a resurrection. Even if they kill me, I will rise again, at least in the lives of the Salvadoran people.” He spoke as someone who has looked into the empty tomb and, like John the Beloved, came back out believing. He believed enough to live and love boldly, even while staring death in the face.

We hear much in the news about power and energy. The world is looking for the kinds and sources of power that are clean, renewable, secure, and which leave no toxic wastes behind. Few things would make me happier than success in this quest. This morning we are celebrating an even greater kind of power, a cleansing, renewing energy, the force of life and love triumphant and transforming, attested by the only things it has ever left behind: grave cloths and a head scarf.

The testimony of those cloths is that we too may live even now in the boldness and confidence of those whose lives have also been touched by the power and energy that took a once very dead body out of its grave cloths and left it standing, very much alive, looking over them, maybe even folding them up. And walking on to new triumphs.



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