We Are an Easter People

Easter Sunday Scripture Readings

We celebrate this morning that Jesus, the Christ, is risen from the dead. This morning’s gospel reading concludes and completes the Church’s emphasis on John’s Gospel for the Last Supper, the Passion, and now the Resurrection. This narrative, of all the gospels, is the most personal. It’s the testimony of an eyewitness, touched with relatable and very human details.

The other evangelists speak of several women who came to the tomb very early in the morning—maybe even before sunrise—with perfumed ointments to anoint Jesus’s body. It was a gesture of pure love and devotion. Here, John only identifies Mary Magdelene, perhaps because it was she who was moved to run and tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved—evidently John himself—that the body of Jesus was gone. We can only imagine how startling it must have been for Peter and John to have been awakened by an obviously distraught Mary so early in the morning. “They have taken the Lord!” The two disciples jumped up and raced to the tomb to see it for themselves.

John was younger—perhaps still a teenager—and easily outran Peter, the retired fisherman, and reached the tomb first. His curiosity led him to peer inside, but that’s as far as his courage took him. He was able to see only the empty burial cloths. Then Peter arrived, probably out of breath, and—much more accustomed to dealing with death than his young companion—he didn’t hesitate to go inside and see firsthand what had happened. Only then did John gather enough nerve to follow Peter in. What they saw were Jesus’s empty burial cloths, and the “cloth that covered his head not with the others but rolled up in a separate place.”

What was it they saw? To gain a better understanding, we should consider Jewish burial customs of the time. After the body was washed, it was laid on a long linen shroud, fourteen or fifteen feet long, with the feet at one end. A second piece of linen was placed under the chin and tied at the top of the head to keep the jaw in place. Then, packets of aromatic spices were set along the body on both sides. Finally, the other end of the shroud was pulled up over the head and stretched over the body. Bands of linen were tied around it to keep the shroud in place. It was evidently this shroud that Peter and John saw, and the chin binding rolled up and set aside.

The phrase I find most remarkable in the gospel passage describes John’s reaction to seeing the burial cloths. All it says is, “… he saw and believed.” What was it he saw? What was it about the burial cloths that convinced John that something amazing had occurred? Personally, I’m certain that what the disciples saw that convinced them that Jesus’s body had not just been taken away was the condition of those cloths.

I’ve seen the relic that’s been identified as Jesus’s burial shroud. Hundreds of thousands of people—myself included—have determined that the Shroud of Turin is, indeed, genuine. It’s a fourteen-and-a-half-foot-long linen strip containing the image of a crucified man. The image is a perfect photographic negative that existed centuries before photography was invented. It was only recognized as such when it was photographed, and the photographic negative, when developed, revealed the detailed and photographically accurate image of a man. The image was not drawn on the linen. The only pigment ever found on the shroud was blood from the hands, feet, chest, and forehead. The image itself doesn’t penetrate the cloth fibers but has been scorched onto the surface, apparently by a huge burst of energy.

If Peter and John entered the tomb and saw that image seared onto the cloth, they would have been immediately convinced that they were in the presence of something miraculous. They would have seen and believed. And, might it not also be possible that the women in Mark’s gospel who saw a young man in the tomb might have mistaken the image for an angel?

When I saw the Shroud of Turin up close, spread out before me in a very large glass case, I had an interesting thought. What I saw before me was certainly a relic of Jesus, but not like the other relics I’d heard about—relics of his suffering and death, like the crown of thorns, or the cross, or the nails, or the lance. Frankly, the provenance of those items of devotion is sketchy at best. However, this was unique. Not only did it contain in itself the proofs of its authenticity, but it was unique in our world as the sole physical relic of the Resurrection.

What we celebrate today, and what we’ll be celebrating for the coming weeks until Pentecost, is the fact that our lives are full of relics of the Resurrection. We don’t have to wait for the next public exposition of the shroud in Turin, Italy to encounter proofs of the Resurrection. They’re all around us, if we only have the eyes of faith to recognize what it is we’re seeing.

Once again, I insist that the gospels not only tell Jesus’s story, but they tell our story as well. They tell the story of an intimate spiritual connection to our God such that nothing outside of ourselves—even death—has the power to shake it. The Word that became flesh, the Word that God speaks to us is “Life” and nothing has the power to silence that Word. See how the Father has called us into life. That’s proof of the Resurrection. See how the Father has sustained us and raised us up. That’s proof of the Resurrection. See how the Father has taken us through peril and trials, pain and sorrow, doubt and fear, illness and injury, and still we are here. That’s proof of the Resurrection. And for those of us who see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the paradigm for the life we share, we stand fearless before the experiences yet to come—death included. That, too, is proof of the Resurrection.

This morning, we stand before our God, the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead as pledge of our own Resurrection, and we cry out with joy, “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song. Христос Воскрес (Christos voskres)! Christ is risen! Воістину Воскрес! (Voyistinu voskres)! Christ is truly risen!

Readings & Homily Video

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