Resurrection of the Lord: “Folding Up Death”



A sermon on John 20:1-10 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on April 12, 2020, Resurrection of the Lord Sunday.

John 20:6-7

[Peter] saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

As it is with the Crucifixion of Jesus, so it is with the Resurrection of Jesus – every detail matters and is worth our consideration. On this glorious good morning, I want to focus our attention on the details that John brings out for us in Jesus’ grave-clothes, specifically how his face cloth was folded up in a place by itself. What a rich and telling eye witness detail. As Don Carson says, “The description is powerful and vivid, not the sort of thing that would have been dreamed up.” (The Gospel According to John, pg. 638) We rejoice this morning in what it means. Pray with me as we do so.

Our Father, help us to grasp the meaning and message of Christ’s Resurrection this morning. Help us to glory in Jesus’ relinquished grave-cloths, and may we long for the day when we do the same. May all who hear this gospel receive it and know themselves to be within it. Amen.

John 20:6-7, “[Peter] saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” Picture this in your mind’s eye: Jesus takes the very cloths that covered his face into his hands, and intentionally folds them up, leaving them to one side. What is he saying to us?

First, he is telling us he no longer has any need of them. “For us and our salvation he was made man” the Creed tells us – and that salvation was perfectly accomplished. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2). Is it too much to say here that he lovingly and carefully sets aside this emblem of his finished work – an empty face cloth?

Skeptics like to tell us that dead men don’t rise. Yes, we know this. The ancient world knew this, too. But there was One who did. In the middle of human history, God has planted the Resurrection of Jesus as a sign of hope, forgiveness, and new life in him. Even Lazarus came out of the tomb in his grave-clothes, but Jesus Christ left his behind! Why? Because in his Cross and Resurrection, he so utterly and thoroughly conquered sin and all its consequences. John Bowring’s hymn, In the Cross of Christ I Glory, puts it like this:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’er take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me,
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.

Yes, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus tower over the wrecks of time. Jesus’ accomplishment utterly changes life and all our hopes! Which brings us to the second thing Jesus is saying to us.

Secondly, he is telling us, as the angel told those present on that first Easter morn, that we need not be afraid. We live in a moment where we are expected to fear! To cower! To surrender to the tyranny of death. Christians may be concerned. Christians may they love their neighbor through social distancing and being responsible – we’re doing that this morning. But we may never be finally overcome by fear! Jesus laid aside his face cloth that even now we may live with expectant hope that what God did in Jesus, he will do for us and all Creation one day. Creation will lay aside its grave-clothes. God will finally and fully judge sin, vanquish evil, and our eyes and body, mind and soul will be purified to see and know God as never before! For the Christian, death can do more than to deliver us into the hands of the One who bears the scars of his Cross and then overcame, you might even say, folded up death on our behalf.

Russ Ramsey, speaking of the angel’s words to Mary and the other women with her, puts it this way:

“What the angel told them breathed told them breathed life into the hope that all of humanity’s frailty, brokenness, struggle, grief, and mourning may have a remedy – that mankind’s ability to wound one another so deeply by their own sinfulness and their ability to absorb so much pain and grief from the sins of others may in fact be reversible. If what the angel told them was true, death had been beaten. This, the angel reminded them, had been Jesus’s plan from the start. Everything  happened exactly as he said it would, which meant that no one took his life from him. He laid it down of his own accord and everything now was just as he had said.

If Jesus had risen, everything had changed. Mary Magdalene felt what all people feel in the grief of death. She didn’t want death to be the end. No one did. Deep within her lay the sense that death was an intruder. People were made to live, not die. If Jesus had overthrown the power of death itself, the curse had been reversed.” (Behold the King of Glory, pg. 212)

We live in a time where we are daily talking about grave-clothes. Body bags. Mass burials. Freezers holding the dead for burial. As Christians, we do not minimize death, for the wages of sin is death. But we don’t allow it have the last word, either. Christ’s setting aside of those emblems of death means he has the last word. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as having a face like the sun shining in full strength. As the living one who died but is alive forevermore, holding the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:17-18). How can we not trust him and rejoice in him this morning?

May we walk into the joy of Easter as people who know this.

This morning, if you do not know Jesus the Messiah, we want you to. He’s the only thing we have to offer. Reach out to us through our Healing Prayer Group, our Connect Card. Our Pastoral Associate, Chad Gross is on with us this morning. Contact me.

I end this morning with my favorite Easter poem, which says it all:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

From John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter

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