“Leave the Linens in the Tomb”

Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson

at the Church of the Intercession, NYC Easter Sunday

April 21, 2019

Text: John 20:1-18


Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Finally, Easter morning. It’s been a long winter, a long season of Lent, it even feels like it’s already been a long year, although 2019 is not yet a third over. This morning truly feels like a new day, as though the world is reborn into new hope. In order to enter into that new hope on this Easter morning, we need to leave much behind in the empty tomb. This morning we celebrate that empty tomb. We call the tomb empty because Jesus’ body is no longer there – he is risen as the Christ.

But even though we call it “empty,” it is clear from the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John that the tomb was not completely bare. There was something still left inside: Jesus’ burial linens. He must have intentionally left them; we know that Jesus never did anything without a purpose; all of his actions were meant to teach us something, so no doubt we are meant to learn from them. But what, exactly?

For starters, we know that the other time someone came out of a tomb in the gospels was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. At that time, Lazarus did not leave his linens behind. The gospel of John says that when Jesus, standing by the dead man’s tomb, “cries out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

Tellingly, it is also John’s gospel that has the most elaborate description of the linens left behind in Jesus’ tomb. John says that Peter and an unnamed disciple race to Jesus’ tomb after Mary Magdalene tells them that she has seen that the stone sealing the tomb was rolled away and that Jesus had gone missing. When Peter arrives, he enters the tomb, and finds not only the linen wrappings, but also the shroud that covered Jesus’ head. The gospel is careful to note that this head cover was “not with the linen wrappings but folded up in a place by itself.”

So why all of this attention to some pieces of cloth? For the lessons, of course. In them is a very important lesson about resurrection: there is a big difference between being merely free, and being truly free. The Bible puts it another way. Remember in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that if that the Son of makes you free you will be free indeed? That’s what we’re talking about here.

Let’s go back to Lazarus for a moment. Lazarus comes out of the tomb with the bonds of death still on him; others had to unbind him – notice that Jesus raises Lazarus but he does not unbind him; he orders others to do so. Lazarus was indeed free from death, but that freedom only lasts a short time – he was restored to our world for awhile, but not resurrected for all time. We don’t know exactly when, but Lazarus died again and wound up right back in the grave from which he came.

By contrast, Jesus leaves the bonds of death, those linens, behind in the tomb – and their presence in the tomb is as telling as his absence from it. Without dragging death with him as he leaves the grave, not needing anyone else to unbind him, Jesus is resurrected, free for all time, and Jesus wants us to be, as well.

In order to be worthy of the true freedom Jesus gives us this Easter morning, we too need to leave all of the junk in the tomb that would weigh us down, make us too heavy to be truly free. Jesus did not die so that we could hang on to broken relationships, grievances, times we were abused, financial difficulties, illnesses, deaths of loved ones, even our own sins. He took all of these upon himself on the cross, and they were buried with him in the tomb. If we insist on hauling them out of the tomb this morning, we are saying to Jesus that despite his sacrifice, we insist on carrying death with us, as Lazarus did, allowing what Jesus freed us from to bind us once again, effectively enslaving us to the past forever.

Now we all know that this is much easier said than done. It’s hard for us to admit it, but many of us cherish our wounds and our identities as victims, which, of course, binds us to the past. But Jesus says that if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Jesus has given us the tools to break the bonds of slavery, and there is a hint amidst the pile of cloth that Jesus left in the tomb as to how. Remember that John said that in addition to the linen strips, the burial cloth that had covered Jesus’ face was folded up and set apart from the rest? Now that can tell us several things. The most obvious is that Mary clearly taught her son Jesus good manners, so he learned to fold his napkin neatly after dinner; that’s the allusion here in the original Greek, that he treated this cloth in the manner of a dining linen: a tablecloth or a napkin. But being neat about folding your burial linen is a strange thing to do in a tomb when you’re busy being resurrected, unless Jesus meant to remind us of a meal.

I think he does. That meal is the Eucharist, the food that Jesus left us at the Last Supper. Clearly speaking of the time after his death and resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples to take and eat his body in the form of bread and take and drink his blood in the form of wine, in remembrance of him, and with thanksgiving – that’s what the word “Eucharist” means, thanksgiving. The Holy Table that we are about to approach is the table that Jesus set for us in the grave, the holy altar on which we consecrate the bread and wine is meant to remind us of the tomb, and the Holy Communion that we will share is the gift of thanksgiving for the resurrection, eternal life, the kind of life that means freedom for all time.

The difference between being free and free indeed is as wide as the gap between the temporal and the eternal. Everything and everyone that we see right now in this world, even the whole universe, will pass away – everything, every last bit of it, every living thing, every single building, every natural wonder, even the earth itself will one day be no more, swallowed up by our sun as it cools and enlarges towards the end of its lifetime.

We saw a vivid and terrible example of impermanence this past Monday, as we watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris burn; in a matter of a few short hours something that had been a touchstone, a monument to the glory of God and human achievement for over 850 years went up in flames. Something that felt eternal turned out to be utterly fragile. Part of the reason that the fire affected so many of us so very deeply is that it touched a deep and fearful truth that is hidden in every human soul: that nothing physical lasts forever. John’s first letter says, “the world and its desires are passing away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Even Jesus the man died on the cross as all mortals do – but because God is eternal and loves us so much that God’s deepest desire is to spend eternity with us, Jesus the Christ (who did do the will of God) rose from the dead, truly free, for all time.

The day after the fire at Notre Dame, the pictures of the rubble and charred remains of that magnificent cathedral were deeply sad to behold. Yet, shockingly, the devastation was not as total as I first feared: the altar remained, the golden cross stung hung in its place, and most movingly, the rack holding the votive candles, lit with the prayers of the faithful, was untouched – not a single glass container shattered, with every one of the candles still burning. This was a small physical sign that what cannot be seen or touched was what truly remained: neither God’s love for us nor our true faith in God can never die.

The Letter to the Hebrews says:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem . . . and to Jesus. . . See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking.

That one who is speaking is Jesus the Christ, this morning risen from the dead, eternally free. My sisters and brothers, this morning let’s leave our linens behind in the tomb. Let’s accept and not refuse the invitation to eternal life and freedom offered to us by Jesus. As the Apostle Paul says, “Christ has been raised from the dead and so all will be made alive in Christ.” With deep joy and profound thanksgiving, let us greet the risen Christ this Easter morning, and accept his gift, that we all might be free indeed, forever.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Happy Easter!