I’ve spent the greater part of this week puzzling through John 20:1-10 for my Easter sermon. It’s starting to come into focus the last couple days. Here’s one tidbit I’ll share. Wright is building a larger point about Jesus, but what he says here about John 20:8 presents a key to this Sunday’s preaching text. ~Jon
“The beloved disciple goes into the empty tomb, sees what Peter had seen a moment before (the grave-clothes lying, separate from the head-cloth), and believes. Could it be that in his case, or at least in the mind of the evangelist writing this, the empty tomb by itself was sufficient for the rise of his faith? The answer suggested by the text is ‘No’. The grave-clothes seem to be understood as a sign of what had happened to Jesus, a sign which would be the functional equivalent of the actual appearances of Jesus (John 20:19–23). The beloved disciple came to his new belief, the text wants us to understand, not simply on the basis of the emptiness of the tomb (which had been explained by Mary in verse 2 in terms of the removal of the body to an unknown location), but on the basis of what he deduced both from the fact that the grave-clothes had been left behind and from the position in which they were lying. He, like Thomas at the end of the chapter, saw something which elicited faith. The fact that the grave-clothes were left behind showed that the body had not been carried off, whether by foes, friends or indeed a gardener (verse 15). Their positioning, carefully described in verse 7, suggests that they had not been unwrapped, but that the body had somehow passed through them….” (Wright, 2003, Kindle Locations 15164-15174)
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Vol. 3. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Even those vaguely familiar with the Lenten season know Lent as a time of self-denial. Many Christians spend this season denying (or improving!) themselves, as a keeping-in-mind of Christ’s death which concludes with an Easter remembrance of the resurrection of Christ. Common targets of Lenten self-denial include chocolate, soda, and other first-world amenities.
The irony of Lent is that us Christians work hard (or hardly work!) to deny ourselves through a season that ends with the cross and resurrection, then put self-denial in our rearview mirrors as soon as we have marked the events which harbor the only power through which we might in fact deny ourselves.
This aspect of Lent could lead a person to conclude a couple of things. First, that in the death and resurrection of Christ lies the conclusion of Christian self-denial. Since Christ has died and risen we can live however we want! Second, that the death and resurrection of Christ do not lead to and indeed compel lives of sacrifice and service. Christ’s death and resurrection have simply to do with an eternal future with God in heaven, and are divorced from ethical implications right here right now on earth!
Perhaps what Christians need is Lent after Lent. A Lent that is not designed to conjure up some sense of sobriety about Christ’s death, but is instead an impulsive living out of the victory of God expressed in the cross and resurrection.
I wonder if the petty targets of our typical Lent, trifles human beings all over the world live without nearly every day of their entire lives, might be replaced by more noble and deeper-seated self-giving. Where are the present-day heroes of Christianity? I’m not talking about political activists who work to get Christians to vote a certain way, or conference speakers who shame every Christian perspective but their own. Who is pouring themselves out in Christ-like sacrifice? Who is fighting an extraordinary battle against their own baser desires, or difficult life circumstances, or the sheer deadening weight of living?
Color me quirky. This year I intend to celebrate Lent after Easter. My soul cries out to discover what it means to give of myself because of the foundational vitality of Christ’s cross and resurrection. So I’ll be doing Lent beyond Lent.
From a sermon I will give tonight at First Christian Church in York.
Let’s face it. In a typical gathering of the Christian church in 21st century America, what most of us need is not more information about the Bible or God or Jesus.
Some of us may come to the church season of Lent like experienced farmers. The back of our neck is tanned and wrinkled. Our hands are calloused. Scars mark our bodies where the softness of our flesh has been pierced in various times and ways by the hardness of life. Perhaps all these signs of age and experience are a tribute to our faithfulness.
But experience can have other side effects. Sometimes we feel like we know the route home so well, that we have in fact fallen asleep at the wheel. Sometimes our collection of scars becomes a source of pride and a reason to not risk any further damage. Sometimes we would say “this is who I am” or “this is what I believe” of our Christianity, but the joy is gone and there is no play in our religion.
Some of us may come to Lent this year as sojourners with the church. We are not yet certain that we are Christians or intend to follow Jesus as our King. But we are sharing life together with the church and seeing what this is all about. Perhaps we are new to this extended holiday that seems to be characterized by strangeness: foreheads marked with ash, personal sacrifice, palm leaves. We might ask questions. What does all this have to do with Jesus? What does all this have to do with me?
What we need this Lent is not more abstract information about the Bible or God. We need a concrete encounter with the God who made the world, the God who cares so deeply about his upside-down creation that he is fulfilling his promise to turn it right-side-up again through Jesus Christ. Every abstract principle that waters God down into anything other than this Creator God making things right in Jesus is a distraction and a lie. If we reduce God to the Bible, or a set of ethical rules, or a particular political viewpoint, we run the great danger of worshiping ourselves or our systems rather than the God who is known concretely in Jesus.