Today we are all here to praise God and celebrate Easter! I remember a few years ago on a beautiful Easter Sunday I was going to church and when I arrived I was greeted by the first person I met with this salutation; they said, “The Lord is risen”! Having expected this person to say to me either Good morning or Happy Easter I was a little blank-faced and took a brief moment to respond, but then the obvious answer kicked in and I replied, “The Lord is risen indeed”. And so my dear friends I would like to try that salutation with you and would like you to respond similarly. My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord is Risen! (Response). And indeed He is, the Lord is risen and the world once again is bathed in and moved by and changed because of the infinite and boundless love of God. Jesus Christ is risen today and we are therefore now and forever secured in the knowledge that we are all the children of God because the Word lived among us, the Word brought us light, the Word died for us and the Word rose again to give us hope without end, life eternal and a love that transforms us. So, let us throw ourselves into the wonder of Easter and consider some of the words of God.
I am always intrigued in a striking way by the Gospel of John’s account of Easter morning. It seems every time I read it a new facet appears that I have not considered before. I find this passage so humble so and human and so very real in it’s depiction of the reaction of the disciples to the news that the stone has been moved and that Jesus is not in the tomb and that Jesus is in fact risen from the dead. I guess that is why I find something new every time I read this Gospel passage because it is such an innate response and it’s author brilliantly captures the complexity of human emotions and reactions. I would therefore like to share with you one new element to the Easter morning story I found this year in the Gospel of John and what new perspective this gives me.
When Mary Magdalene finds that the stone has been removed she runs to the disciples and tells them that someone has removed the body of Jesus. The two disciples Mary runs into are Peter and, as mentioned in the text, “The one whom Jesus loved”, presumably the apostle John. The two disciples run to where Jesus was buried, John reaching the tomb first. John looks in and sees some of the linens lying on the earth but does not go into the tomb. Perhaps the shock of the moment is too much for him to enter. Then Peter arrives and goes into the tomb itself. He as well sees the linens, but also notices this; he notices that the cloth that had been placed on the head of Jesus was not with the other linens lying about, but rather it was rolled up and put in a place by itself. This seemingly small and insignificant element of the story is what caught my attention this past week and I would like to delve into it further because I think it is in fact hugely significant and tremendously important for our Easter celebration today.
What are we to make of this small portion of the larger Easter morning story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was, unlike the other linens, rolled up and put aside. As I am sure you can imagine there are a number of theories. For example, some suggest that after the resurrection Jesus, just like Moses, needed no veil on his face when he was in the presence of God. In the book of Exodus, Moses would take off his veil when he went into the direct presence of God and likewise Jesus had laid aside his head covering because he was now standing side by side with God. This is a very plausible and reasonable explanation and I have no quarrel with it whatsoever. However, this does not fully make clear to me the intentionality of the action and the placement of the face cloth. All the other linens are found where one would expect them to be found. Well, where one would expect them to be found given that the deceased person wrapped in them came alive and presumably took them off – obviously we are dealing with the Devine nature of things and conventional expectations are open for modification, but I think you know what I mean. The head cloth is treated differently. Jesus takes it off, carefully rolls it up and puts it, and I quote, “In a place by itself”. Why would Jesus intentionally do this?
In his life and ministry Jesus spoke and taught largely in parables and metaphor. As such symbolism was important to Jesus. What if the answer to this question is relatively simple? What if Jesus’ removing of the face cloth and rolling it up and putting it in a place by itself was simple act of symbolism? The face cloth more than any other of the pieces of burial linen represents true death, it covers the face, it covers the window to the soul, and forever indicates the breath of life has gone from the body. Jesus rises and takes the face cloth off, as the other linens are falling from his body, and he carefully roles up the cloth and places it by itself. It is a symbolic act in that Jesus is saying, “I do not need this any more”. The darkness of death is forever finished and the light of God’s love is triumphant. Jesus took darkness and death, rolled it up nicely, and put it in its place. The apostle John who’s Gospel we read today comes into the tomb after Peter and sees the head cloth and the symbolism hits him like a thunderbolt. John goes into the tomb and as his Gospel states, ‘He saw and believed’. He saw the linens, he saw the head cloth rolled and placed to the side, and he believed.
If you read the Book of Acts in the New Testament what you have is a collection of sermons from the very early church. In these sermons what you get is the importance of the resurrection of Jesus to the early movement. Very little attention is made to the ministry of Jesus or his early life, but an enormous significance is placed on the resurrection as the starting point of the Christian faith. Indeed many have noted that to the early church the Gospels themselves were just an Easter story with an exceptionally long prologue. There was something in this part of the story of Jesus that reached the deepest parts of their hearts and of their minds. The resurrection of Jesus was such a miracle, they believed, that the world would pivot on this event and change course forever. The love of God, the forgiveness of God the grace of God and the light of God was made self evident in the resurrection to those at the time who knew Jesus. After his death the disciples ran for their lives and hid in fear. After his resurrection the disciples enthusiastically spread the good news of God even though they faced ridicule, torture and death – because of the Easter story everything had changed for the early Christians, the followers of The Way.
I do believe that the life and ministry of Jesus are crucial elements to hour Christian faith and to our love of each other, which is our faith in action. But I would also say that today we Christians are still very much an Easter people. There is something in this part of the story of Jesus that even today reaches the deepest parts of our hearts and of our minds. The hope and joy and love of Easter reside in the deepest parts of our being and that is the place where both faith and doubt reside. The great Theologian Karl Barth once said what brings people to worship is an unspoken question that lingers in the deepest part of us and that question is simply this: “Is it true”? Is it true that something so extraordinary happened on that day that we as Christians continue to build our movement on that very foundation, that very foundation that calls us to construct the kingdom of God here on earth? The doubt we may hold attests to the very magnitude and might of that which we proclaim. Easter is too powerful to be wrapped in certainty, too glorious to be limited to observable and objective reality and too wonderful to be bound up and defined by our human capacity to see and to imagine. We are gathered together today as an Easter people and that means we open our selves to the love of God and that love will help transform us and the world around us. Is it true? John walked into the tomb; saw the linens and he believed.
We proclaim that Jesus is risen. Jesus took the dark cruelty of humanity and rolled it up and put it in its place over on the side of the tomb and he walked out into the light. Today we proclaim the unbelievable, the extraordinary, the audacious, the everlasting and the powerful truth that Jesus is risen, that Jesus lives with God and that Jesus lives within each and every one of us. We are an Easter people because the story of Easter gives us hope without end, life eternal and a love that can move mountains. Perhaps the early church was in truth onto something. Perhaps in a way Easter is really the beginning of the story. With the unconditional love of God in our hearts and in our souls and in the deepest part of us, what is it that together with God we cannot accomplish? Can we make ourselves an instrument of love and peace and forgiveness and understanding in our world? Can we imagine a time when the words war and violence and hate and hunger and injustice are historical relics of something that once was? The Easter story, our story, answers those questions in the affirmative and challenges us to start that great venture today.
When I arrived at church on Easter Sunday those years ago the first person I ran into said to me, “The Lord is risen”. For us Christians those are perhaps the most powerful words ever spoken. Love was, love is, love will ever be the force that moves us and transfigures us. Jesus lives and gives each one of us a limitless supply of that love. Today we are all here to praise God and celebrate Easter and to say to each other that Jesus is risen he is risen indeed, and that makes all the difference in the world, because that means in all things love will have the final word. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney