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Sermons

Inside the Empty Tomb

March 31, 2013

Bible Reading

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

(John 19.38-20.10)

Reading from Swedenborg

Our mind has several levels. There is an earthly level, a spiritual level and a heavenly level. Each one has its place and is different. As we are regenerated and come into more love and understanding, these levels open up and become active, but the newer level which is one of perception is very different from the earlier one. It sees every level or everything but the earlier one can only see itself. So we call this new level a higher level. Everyone realises how we can see something in a single moment which would take ages to put together or describe in words.

(True Christian Religion 603)

Sermon

And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there…and the handkerchief that had been around his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. John 20: 5, 7

Not long after we came to Australia, I went to Lindfield to hear Kel Richards talking about his new book on the events of the resurrection, The Case of the Vanishing Corpse. It was a detective story going into the how, what, and why of Easter, the empty tomb, and the risen Jesus. Nice chap, good talker. He went on to write another one, The Case of the Dead Certainty—a great title, but I’ve no idea what it was about.

In new and original ways, people have kept on trying to get their heads round the Easter story—this challenging, scientifically unbelievable, awesome, “it’s either true or the whole Jesus thing is ridiculous” event. It was the resurrection that sparked the beginning of Christianity, as people went round and proclaimed that Jesus had come back to life. And boy, it took off! Within just a few years, there were new communities in Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Alexandria, and so on. It really was a successful marketing exercise, with the perfect product—and I’m not being facetious in the slightest. Christianity had what no other religion had ever had before. It had a man who showed he was God by coming back to life. All the other religions, including that of the Israelites, had a deity (or several), but always only a deity “up there.”

So you and I have come into existence after a whole two thousand years of Christianity. We’ve come along pretty late in the day, when Christianity is definitely not brand new but rather old and possibly faded. We’re terribly dependent on “brand new,” whether that is the iPhone 4 (which immediately makes every prior model embarrassing to be found using) or Chilli Marmalade chips (which if you haven’t tried, you haven’t lived).

But Jesus coming back to life is the start-out “original” flavor. And this empty tomb…

Let’s go back there. First, Mary Magdalene came and saw an open tomb. People honored the dead by visiting the grave within three days of death, before decay set in. Mary couldn’t come on the second day because it was the Jewish sabbath and she would have broken the law, so she came on the third day and saw it open. She immediately thought that people had come and stolen the body of her rabbi, Jesus—and she probably had no idea that the Romans had set guards to watch over the place in case of exactly that, and that the chief priests had bribed these guards when they heard that the tomb was empty and given them money to go around and say that people had come in the night and taken it away. (I’m really sorry this is getting complicated, but you see the enormity of the event!)

So Mary told Peter and John, who did an amazing run to the tomb, which almost deserves a whole book by itself. Peter started running, but John overtook him and got there first, looked inside, and saw the graveclothes but didn’t go in. Then Peter arrived, following John, and (typical of Peter) he went straight in and saw the cloths lying there, and also the cloth that would have been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the other cloths but folded together in a place by itself. (Hold on to that fact for the moment.) Then John—who, we’re reminded, had got there first—went in, and he saw and believed. And apparently, it says, neither of them knew the scripture that he must rise again from the dead. Don’t forget, they didn’t have access to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, none of which would exist for another hundred years.

And then it just says that they went home. How ordinary!

How do you end a good story? My nine-year-old pupils, once upon a time, tended to visit Mars or meet dinosaurs, but something inside them needed to end the adventure by having tea and going to bed. Security and everything is really all right! Is this Peter and John, perhaps?

No. I think the real point is that, having seen the empty tomb for themselves and believed it, they were already “at home,” if you see what I mean. If you can believe Easter—if you can believe it, not just historically but in terms of everything it suggests, like newness, hope, meaning, security, and the idea that God has actually got everything under wraps—then you are home and dry. But don’t forget that it also brings you your responsibility, in terms of what you are going to do with that newness, hope, meaning, and security. Otherwise, you’re just sunbathing.

So there’s the evidence, but not quite enough. Question: Why did they believe that Jesus had risen back to life? Why did they not believe that people had come along and simply stolen the body? You could say that if anyone would have done so, it would have been Peter and John, of course, or they would have heard about it. This was a pretty tight-knit group.

No, the logic would be right there, in what they actually saw for themselves. Put yourself in the place of someone who is going to go and steal a dead body, and don’t forget that it is being guarded. For one thing, there is a huge stone over the entrance. Shh! Can’t you roll it more quietly? No, and you’re grunting like a steam train (or whatever the first century AD equivalent would have been). So logic suggests that the stone moves because of the inside, not the outside. And of course you know what I mean. So let’s do a Peter and then a John, and go inside.

There isn’t much, but it’s still enough to make them believe. The linen cloths are over here, and the cloth for the head is over there, folded, in a place by itself. If I were stealing a body and I’d managed to deal with the stone somehow, I would not be waiting around to unwind the shroud and, much less, to tidily fold up the handkerchief or napkin (which was actually placed over a body’s face, out of respect for the departed). I would lift the lot, over the shoulder or in my arms, and get out of there—and I would hope that I wouldn’t have to explain my poor sick friend to anyone I met. Then, because I couldn’t re-roll the stone in my present circumstances, I would get out fast.

What we’re given is all we need. The cloths would have been exactly as they were with the body inside, but now the body isn’t, because it has transmogrified: it has taken on a new substance and composition. We could talk about atoms and energy and E=mc2, but transmogrification covers it. We could talk about the divine celestial of the internal spiritual, but transmogrification moves me more miraculously. You cannot eradicate God, because you cannot annihilate love—which, because it is energy, can only be passed on into something else—transmogrified.

Now, the shroud is lying there the same as ever, minus the body. But the handkerchief is folded up and in a place by itself. Normally, of course, you just wouldn’t say that, because it would discredit the whole possibility of this transmogrified resurrection. A shroud, yes, but a folded napkin moved elsewhere? This is not a hotel room! If this aspect of the story does one thing, it adds paranormal mystery to something that is already beyond belief. Did Jesus pick it up and fold it before leaving? Did he do that to leave us puzzling over it for the next million years, with a smile? Work that one out, dear friends.

I can’t say, and part of me hopes he did. What I can say is that it fits beautifully. Let’s put it like this. Jesus came into a dangerous mess (a hell of a mess, literally) and what he did was to put it all back into its intended proper order, so that we can all start out in our spirit with newness, hope, meaning, security, and everything under wraps because of God. Jesus spent his whole life folding this handkerchief. Jesus went around folding handkerchiefs wherever he saw one—with a blind person who couldn’t even find his, and so on. Jesus is folding your handkerchief right now, and you’ll screw it up tomorrow and he’ll do it all over again, because he loves you and he wants you to be all right. It’s as crucial as that.

Easter is proverbially difficult to explain, especially to children. They can’t get a body that’s no longer there. We’re hard pressed. So perhaps Easter needs to celebrate handkerchiefs and how they get folded so that they’re layer on layer on layer, clean and ready. That is something we can all understand, something we can use—and, Lord Jesus, something we can be eternally grateful for. Amen.

Prayers

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcam the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him: grant that we,
being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit
be praise and honor, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

- Frank Topping


In the beginning, O God,
You shaped my soul and set its weave;
You formed my body and gave it breath.
Renew me this day in the image of your love.
O great God, grant me your light;
O great God, grant me your grace;
O great God, grant me your joy this day,
And let me be made pure in the well of your health.

- J. Philip Newell, from Celtic Prayers from Iona (Paulist Press, 1997)

Rev. Julian Duckworth