Easter: Take off Your Grave Clothes

John 11.1-44
John 20.1-23

The story behind “He Lives”
Did you notice the hymn we just sang, closes with a question and answer, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” This was a real question, asked of the author and composer, Alfred Ackley, except not so positively phrased. Ackley was preaching a series of evangelistic meetings and a young Jewish student came and asked him, “Why should I worship a dead Jew?”

According to George Sanville, Ackley responded:
"He lives! I tell you, He is not dead, but lives here and now! Jesus Christ is more alive today than ever before. I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands."

Ackley went on to personally study the Resurrection accounts in Scripture and to share with this young man from the Scriptures, from his own experience and from history- the testimony of others- eventually this young man came to believe in Christ. This study and conversation eventually led him to the writing of this hymn, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”

Today, how do you know “He lives”? What brings you here to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

John 20 – The first Easter
When we come to service on Easter morning, we come expecting certain things. We come expecting upbeat, exuberant singing. We come expecting to hear, “He lives! Christ lives! He has risen from the dead!” We come expecting to celebrate. And this morning our first words were words of praise: the Liturgist greeted you with “Praise the Lord!” And you responded in turn.

But it was not like that the first Easter morning. The disciples were not enthusiastically proclaiming, “Christ lives!” The only lips that are recorded uttering those words with confidence, are those of the angels at the tomb. But the disciples …  in the Gospel of John, they are met with fraught with dismay – “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” The disciples are met with disbelief – Luke reports that the women returned from the tomb to tell the Eleven and all the others, “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” (Luke 24.11) Only in Matthew, is there a bit of joy expressed. The scripture reads, “The women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy …”

That first Easter morning, the disciples did not know what to think. The women had gone early to the tomb expecting to place more spices on the body. And they find no body. Two of the Eleven, Peter and John, are the next to arrive. And John’s words are interesting, “He saw and believed.” But the scripture continues, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” If they didn’t know he rose from the dead, what did John believe?
~Did he believe the tomb was empty?
~Was there some inkling of belief, but yet he could not fully understand what was happening.
~Maybe he still believed Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, but still just couldn’t put all the pieces together.

Thomas, nicknamed Doubting Thomas, always takes a hard knock, because he said he would not believe until he put his finger where the nails were and his hand in Jesus’ side. And it is one week later that Jesus appears to Thomas and he believes. But the truth is, all of the disciples were slow to believe.

John 20.19 says that it wasn’t until evening that the disciples believed. The women had told them that they had seen Jesus. But the disciples were locked away in a room because they were fearful of the Jews because of all that happened. But the evening of the Resurrection, they finally believed, because “Jesus came and stood among them” and “he showed them his hands and side.” Then, the disciples were overjoyed! Then they celebrated! Then they believed!

Grave clothes
The Gospel of John, actually gives us one of the clues that should have told the disciples that Jesus body just wasn’t moved to another place or that the body wasn’t stolen.

Or even as Matthew’s account says that when the guards reported these things back to the chief priests, the chief priests and elders met together and devised a plan. They gave the soldiers a large sum of money (bribed them) and told them what to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.”

The problem with this story is that the burial cloth was still in the tomb! There could have been pieces of clothe or one large piece of linen that was wrapped around the body, this was laying in the tomb. And John says that even the separate cloth that was used to wrap around the head was laying separate from the linen and it was folded up. There was no haste in Jesus’ departure. There was a calmness in that time was taken to fold up this head clothe. The body clothe usually had wrapped with it 75 pounds of spices, and those probably remained with this piece of clothe and would have been why it was not folded. If one were to steal a body, one would have taken the clothes with it!

Let me jump back to the other resurrection story that was read this morning – that of Lazarus. After Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come out.” And the scripture says that the dead man came out, still wearing his grave clothes. The same pieces of clothe are listed, that which wrapped his body, and that which around his face. He would have had to shuffle, or perhaps hopped from the tomb. Jesus next instructions were to those who witnessed the event, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Lazarus was risen from the dead, but he still was wearing his grave clothes. Lazarus was alive, but he was still encumbered by his grave clothes. Lazarus had been given life, but he could not experience it fully until his grave clothes were removed. And it was the responsibility of the community to unwrap him. This is another beautiful example of how God works in our lives, but there is still the necessity of the community.

Our place in the journey
When we gather together to worship, we come together and we are at many different stages of our Christian journey. But we are all on a journey. We are like the disciples, on a journey to discover the living Christ.
~Some of you have come and like the women who come in the dark and all they can see is that the stone is rolled away.
~Some of you are like John, you believe, but you don’t understand – you just don’t have the big picture yet.
~And some of you have been in the room and Jesus has appeared to you, you have seen him and rejoiced.

And we are all like Lazarus … we are dead, spiritually dead, and we need God to breathe new life into us. Some of you have experienced that new life, that calling forth, but you have come forth and you still are wearing your grave clothes!!! Truth be told, underneath our Sunday best, we all are wearing some grave clothes. Grave clothes come in all shapes, sizes and fashions.

Remember the butterfly I talked about with the children. You all should have gotten a butterfly when you came in today. Take it out and look at it. The cocoon or chrysalis is shed. It is free and ready to fly. The transformation is complete. It is God’s desire to make us into a new creature. To transform our sinful, self-centered desires into something beautiful.

And just like Lazarus we need the community of believers to help us in the transformation.
~We need the community to model what it means to have new life in Christ.
~We need to learn and grow together as a community.
~We need to love and encourage one another along our journey.
~We need to hold one another accountable to live this new life we are called to.

When Jesus appears to the disciples where they are gathered in the locked room, his first words to them are, “Peace be with you!”

We are called to be a community of peace. We talked about peace, God’s shalom, a couple of weeks ago. Peace is the wholeness he wants to bring; the fullness of life; the life that he originally intended for us before sin entered this world; a life that is no longer inhibited by grave clothes, or in the case of the butterfly the chrysalis. Keep that butterfly somewhere to remind you of the transformation God is working in your life.

And so, I invite you to take a closer look inside the tomb. Draw a little closer today. If you really want to see Jesus, if you really want to know if he is who he says he is, he will reveal himself to you. It may be early in the day, it may be late in the day (and I use those terms relatively), but keep looking, he will appear.

And as you draw a little closer, what grave clothes are you still wearing? What are you still holding on to that is blocking your vision of Christ, that is encumbering your walk, that is not allowing you to be fully alive in Christ?

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