The Great Vigil of Easter – Br. Curtis Almquist
The body would have begun decomposing very soon after death, both because the Jews did not practice embalming, and because of the Middle Eastern heat. The normal practice was to wash the body, then anoint the body with spices, including aloes and myrrh, to mask the smell of death. Then the body would have been wrapped in linen – binding the chin to keep it from lowering, and then wrapping the entire body in linen swaths before it was placed in the tomb. But nothing could mask the grief, then as now: the sadness, the tears, the questions without answers. All of this would have gone on during the visitation of Jesus at the grave. Jesus went to the grave, and they rolled the stone away. I’m not speaking here of Jesus’ death; rather the death of Lazarus – Jesus’ dear friend, brother to Mary and Martha – whose grave Jesus visited, and it is Jesus who weeps. i
This story of Lazarus is told in John’s gospel not that long before the story of Jesus’ own death. In the case of Lazarus, Jesus finds his voice, he looks into the tomb and proclaims with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And you may remember what happens: there’s a resurrection. Lazarus is brought back to life!
This story of John’s gospel about resurrection – Lazarus’ resurrection – sounds awfully familiar with the resurrection story Jesus, and for several reasons. For one, we know the burial customs in Jesus’ day; what was done with Lazarus’ body was done with Jesus’ body. Secondly, the gospel story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, then of Jesus’ death and resurrection, are reported to us in John’s gospel. But it’s not like CNN live coverage. The death story about Lazarus, then Jesus, was a remembered story, passed down by the grandparents’ generation before it was ever written down – a number of decades following Jesus’ death before it was written. After all that time, some of the details of history begin to fade while, at the same time, perspective increases in the time. And in time it became clear to the Christian community that eventually produced the gospel according to John that these two resurrection stories – Lazarus’ and Jesus’ resurrection stories – had a lot in common.
There’s one fascinating detail in the Lazarus story that begs a question in the story of Jesus. There at Lazarus’ grave the stone is rolled away. Jesus looks into the tomb and cries out, “Lazarus, come out.” And he does! But what a sight! He’s up and alive, yet he’s still bound in these wrappings of death, head to foot. What a sight! And now to those who came with Jesus to visit Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus, who is now very much alive, is also set free.
So I have a question for you about the visitation to the tomb. Now I’m not talking about Lazarus; I’m now talking about the visitation to Jesus’ tomb. Once more, in John’s gospel, we’re told of the linen death wrappings. We read, “The cloth that had been on Jesus’ head [was] not lying with the [other] linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” ii Here is my question for you: Who unbound Jesus? Maybe Judas!? iii [sic] Who unbound Jesus? He could not have unbound himself. Who unbound Jesus? I’ll come back to that question.
We gather here this morning to remember Jesus’ resurrection. We do this in remembrance of Jesus. I would say that our memory fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection only as a past event that we’re simply re-enacting here this morning. The church has this turn of phrase: “resurrection power.” And I would say that there’s power in Jesus’ resurrection only if it has a quality of “now” and not just “then.” For this memory to be real, and not just make-believe, Jesus’ resurrection must show its presence today. (We will sing at the end of our liturgy that great Easter hymn, “Jesus Christ is risen today…” How do you know that Jesus Christ is risen today? Our memory fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection in terms of “then” and not also in terms of “now.”
And secondly, our memory of Jesus’ resurrection fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection only in terms of “them” and not in terms of “us.” If there’s “resurrection power,” we need to know of this power not just behind us (in the past), or around us (in others), but within us, in our own lives. You are teeming with that resurrection power, and you need to be able to know it and practice it as clearly as Jesus’ followers in first-century Palestine.
And thirdly, our memory of Jesus’ resurrection fails us if we only understand his resurrection as a miracle. Jesus’ resurrection was a miracle (as was Lazarus’)… but Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It’s needs to be normal… every day… how we live and breathe. I’ll tell you what I mean.
In March I had opportunity to travel with our brother, Tom Shaw, to Tanzania, at the invitation of the Bishop of Tanga, in northeast Tanzania. We traveled for several weeks and saw much of this mostly-rural diocese which is full of riches. Again and again we witnessed so much kindness, so much generosity, humility, a spirit of hope and joy, a personal devotion to Christ. There was such a sense of community with the members of the church being interdependent, as if they were like parts of a body that belonged together. Our brother Tom and I witnessed so many of these riches, day after day. And also poverty. We saw almost unbelievable economic poverty… unbelievable unless you have traveled to such parts of the world. In the year 2005, the Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States was $42,000; Tanzania: $700 iv (less than 2% of our GNP). Tanzania, poorer than Ethiopia or Congo or Afghanistan. v
One afternoon we walked with the bishop and a priest from the cathedral into a village of grass huts, all-too-common, to visit a mother, an Anglican, who was very sick. She has an undiagnosed degenerative disease that has caused her to go blind and lose muscular control, now from the waist down, but rising. Whatever the cause of this crippling debilitation, it seems hereditary, and her two young sons sat nearby on the dirt of this grass hut, equally crippled. The hut was like a darkened tomb, fetid. The mother greeted us with this most beautiful smile. The bishop spoke with her in Swahili, and then we laid hands on her and the children and prayed for God’s healing and God’s provision. As we preparing to leave, the bishop asked this mother whether they had eaten that day. (It was now late afternoon.) No, they had not. Not for several days. And so the bishop took from his pocket several thousand Tanzanian Shillings – worth about 3 U.S. dollars – and placed this in the mother’s palms. And she said with some ecstasy, “We have been praying that God would provide food. It’s a miracle.” It was not a miracle. It was not a miracle to us. It was simply something we could do. It was not manna. It was normal. It was expected. It was possible. It was no miracle to us. It was a blessing that we could enable. Our visit, and those Shillings, were a simple act of love that we could provide, in Jesus’ name. To this mother and to her crippled boys, it was a miracle.
It was the similar with Leonard, whom we visited twice in this same village. Leonard, in his early 30s, is dying of AIDS. Leonard is an employee of the diocese, a cook in a diocesan school. His wife has already died, and from AIDS, along with other family members. We met Leonard on his bed in his home – what we would call a grass hut – with his three young children and many members of his extended family. We prayed together, we sang, we anointed him with healing oil. And we later entrusted to the bishop several hundred dollars which we had carried from here, from Cambridge, the gift of one of our friends to help some children in Tanzania. We left this money with the bishop to help Leonard’s three children who will soon be orphans. And that gift will be a miracle of God for this extended family who has lost many loved ones to AIDS. For us it was not a miracle. It was normal, or it should be normal.
We have been invited back to Tanzania and to Kenya, where we have ministered during these last few months. vi We will return. Some of you, our friends, have already partnered with us in this gospel enterprise, and we will be inviting you to share in more. Whether or not you are seized with compassion for such needs in Africa or the Middle East or Mexico or the south end of Boston or for the nameless and homeless woman, child of God, who sleeps on the ledge in front of the Harvard Post Office… let the resurrection power of Christ dawn on you.
I want to come back to that question I posed earlier. Who unbound Jesus? Jesus, like Lazarus, was brought back to life, bound head-to-foot in linen wrappings, trapped in his death garments. Who unbound Jesus? Here is my answer. You do. You unbind Jesus. We hear Jesus say, elsewhere in the gospels, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” vii We are all family. There is no “them.” The operative pronoun is “we.” And there is no past to Jesus’ resurrection if there is no present or presence… or future that we can imagine and help bring into being. That’s what we are praying, momentarily, in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are helping build that kingdom, on earth as it shall be in heaven. Who unbinds Jesus? We do. How? How do you do it? I’m not going to say. That’s your story line, for you and God to work out. Just make the miracles normal. Make what someone else would call “a miracle” the normal way you go about living and breathing… which is why God has breathed life into us all.
“God Has a Dream.” These are some words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “‘I have a dream,’ God says. ‘Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. . . My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.’”viii I have a dream, God says. Dear friends in Christ: give your life to making that dream come alive.
i John 11:1-44.
ii John 20:5-7.
iii Alluding to The Gospel of Judas, the apocryphal commentary by Bart D. Ehrman.
iv World Factbook (U. S. government) : https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html
v World Factbook: Ethiopia, Congo, and Afghanistan’s GDP per capita estimated at $800.
vi In January 2006 Brs. David Vryhof and Thomas Shaw visited AIDS ministry projects being funded by the Jubilee Program of the Diocese of Massachusetts, then taught for a week at St. Philip’s (Anglican) Theological College in Maseno, Kenya. Kenya’s GDP is at $1,200 (World Factbook).
vii In the Gospel according to Matthew (25:34-40), we hear Jesus say: “…The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
viii Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, Doubleday, New York, 2004, 19-20.
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Br. Curtis, this sermon is truly food for thought.
It speaks to my soul. May I never turn my head and heart away from the bindings of Jesus, but, instead, unloose him to be fully resurrected in my
Dear Brother Curtis,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful reflections on John 20:1-18. (This year I have been especially thankful to you and the other brothers at SSJE for the Lenten meditations. )
The thought of our participating in unwrapping the resurrection power of Jesus in our lives by being particularly open to His presence and direction is a very encouraging way to look at the mystery of our lives in Him, and of course, poses a daily challenge. That our awesome God wants us to participate with Him in bringing heaven to earth I always find amazing!
Thank you again for your thoughts, and for the joy they convey.
Many blessings to you,
This morning I needed a resurrection story. Thank you for giving me not only a story but a means of being resurrection.
Beautiful and important new insight. Thank you!
Thank you for praying for the healing of the mother with degenerative neurological disease and Leonard with AIDs. Healing is not the same as cure; in some ways it is more blessed to be healed.
Very beautiful and moving in the immediate exchange but do we also challenge the institutions and our personal greed that give the Tanzanian’s a GNP 2% of ours?
And though I love the imaginary I always understood that Jesus was hastily laid in that tomb the evening that he died. It was to bind him that the women came on Easter morn so no one unbound him as he was never bound!
With great respect, reverence and love, Margo