For Easter Sunday, I went to church this morning. Actually, I go to church every Sunday, but there were more people at church this morning because it is Easter.
My pastor preached about the folded napkin, or burial cloth, that was in Jesus’ empty tomb, according to John 20:7. I was expecting my pastor to go in a certain direction with that point, but he did not. I’ve heard some pastors make a big deal about the napkin being folded, and they refer to an alleged ancient Near Eastern custom that a person folding a napkin at dinner indicated that he was not finished yet; similarly, their reasoning went, Jesus is not done yet, for Jesus will come back.
I remember years ago visiting another church where the preacher on Easter Sunday was making that particular napkin point, and then I came home from church and visited my Christian dating site, and someone there was continually ridiculing it; someone had posted that napkin point. I was somewhat hoping that my pastor would not make that napkin point this morning, since I had already boxed up and sealed for packing my Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary for the New Testament, and thus I was limited in my ability to fact-check; I suppose that I could use google, though.
In any case, I was making other associations in my mind with John 20:7’s reference to the folded napkin. Years ago, I read a Nicholas Spark’s book, A Bend in the Road. In this novel, a widowed sheriff was dating an attractive schoolteacher, and he learns later that the schoolteacher’s shy brother was actually the one who killed his (the sheriff’s) wife and child in an automobile accident. Before the sheriff learns that, however, he remembers that a blanket was covering his wife and child at the scene of the accident. The person who caused the accident must not have been too horrible a person, the sheriff reasoned, for he had taken the time to cover up his victims.
How was I associating that with John 20:7? Because, in both, one could tell something about a person’s character by what that person left behind. Suppose that Jesus’ body had been stolen by robbers or people who wanted to abuse the body to gloat about Jesus’ death, or simply had been moved to another location. Would robbers or abusers take the time to fold the napkin? Would movers even leave the napkin? Jesus was leaving a personal indication of his resurrection in the empty tomb, a signature, if you will.
I am not really venturing into apologetics, here. The detail of the folded napkin may be literary—-the storyteller is simply narrating that Jesus personally left an indication of his resurrection for his disciples, who took a while to understand what was going on. Some may point to the detail of the folded napkin as an indication that we are dealing here with eyewitness testimony; people have debated, however, whether vividness or appeal to detail is an iron-clad sure indicator that an account or story reflects the testimony of eyewitnesses. I am just saying that, as someone hearing a story, and maybe even believing it, on some level, that detail of the story moves me.
A relative of mine one time appealed to the folded napkin in John 20:7 to encourage me to be neat. “What did Jesus do with his burial clothes when he was done with them? Just throw them to the side? No, he folded them and placed them down neatly.” I have a hard time feeling joy when I hear that, since it sounds to me like a rebuke or a put-down. But my relative’s point can be turned into something positive. Jesus did take care to fold his garment and lay it down neatly. That may have been to hint to his disciples that he was alive—-who else would take such care with his burial clothes? It could have also indicated that Jesus is one who is attentive to detail and who tries to bring order. Jesus, therefore, takes care of me and others, and I can have hope that he can bring some sense of order and peace to my life and emotions, and to the world.
At the Easter service this morning, I thought about another church meeting that I attended years ago. I worked at a nursing home and talked with one elderly woman about her church. I asked her about it because people from it often visited her, and the women visitors usually dressed very conservatively—-their hair was in a bun, and they wore a white blouse and a long black skirt. In any case, the elderly woman gave my name and address to one of the lady church members, and I got a card inviting me to a meeting that was being held in my hometown. I went a couple of times, and, in one of the messages, the woman speaking was sharing what she thought about when she was reading a Scriptural passage. I think the passage was “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). This lady was saying that she thought about people being sad after Jesus died, but they were happy when he was alive again.
That thought has long stayed with me, even if I did not think that it was particularly profound exegesis when I first heard it. A lot of times, on Easter (and I read some of my past Easter Sunday posts after church this morning), I wrestle with various issues: whether classic Christian apologetics make good arguments when they say there is evidence that Jesus rose; whether Jesus’ resurrection proves the truth of Christianity, and my vested interests in either answer; or how Jesus’ resurrection assures us that death has been conquered. But I think that it is good for my mind to go back to the personal dimension: a story about people unjustly losing a friend whom they loved, a friend in whom they hoped, and feeling happy when they encountered that friend, not as dead anymore, but as alive. They got to see their friend again.