April 15, 2012

 

ON LOOKING FOR THE BONES OF JESUS

                                                        Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                               at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 15 April 2012 
 
                                                                  Reading from the Gospel: John 20: 19-31

 

Last Tuesday evening, on the ABC TV News programme, “Nightline”, there was a segment that reported on the efforts of some people with an interest in Biblical archaeology to unearth the bones of Jesus.  Apparently yet another tomb has been found under modern-day Jerusalem containing some ossuaries, stone boxes, for want of a better term, in which the dead were buried in the days of yore.  This particular site is some two hundred yards away from the Church of the Resurrection, the traditional site for the cave in which Jesus was said to have been buried.  No one has, as yet, actually been able to get into the cavern – there are all manner of legal difficulties doing with property rights to prevent this from happening at present.  But the archaeologists have been allowed to send a camera into the chamber at the end of a cable, lowered down through a pipe, and pictures have been taken, and based on these photographs a full-scale replica has been made of one of the ossuaries. 

This particular ossuary has some letters carved into its surface but it will take a cryptologist to work out what these letters indicate, and in what language the words, of which these letters appear to be initials, come from.  Of course, once the language has been established, there is no guarantee that a cryptologist will come to the correct definition.  After all, think of the different meanings we have for the letters CD in English – compact disc, certificate of deposit – and then when we go into the world of international politics they could mean corps diplomatique.  There is also an interesting carving on the side of the ossuary, which some self-proclaimed experts have determined is a large fish with what might be a small figure of a man emerging from its mouth, and this is supposedly a representation of Jonah being spewed out of the mouth of his whale, a symbol of the resurrection in the early Church.  Other supposed experts have seen this as a large vase, with handles, and frankly that is how it looked to me.  But what do I know about these things! 

There are so many ifs, buts, maybes and howevers in all this that really we can say nothing very much about what this ossuary might have contained, or even when it was made.  What we saw during that broadcast was something that is seen all too often and ever more frequently these days and that so many times have turned out to be complete misunderstandings – if not downright hoaxes.  And I guess we shall continue to see these things, since people have been puzzling over what happened to the body of Jesus, and not just his bones, ever since the first First Day of the Week after the crucifixion.

As we saw last week, the Madeleine went to the tomb even before sunrise on the First Day of the Week and found the tomb open and the body not inside, or so the fourth evangelist has told us.  When she saw someone, whom she identified as a gardener, she enquired as to where the body of Jesus might have been taken.  The Jewish authorities had been so concerned about the followers of Jesus removing the body and claiming that he had been raised from the dead that they had sought permission from Pontius Pilate to have a guard posted at the tomb and had sealed it.  And that was all well and good until there was an earthquake, at least according to the evangelist Matthew.  And then the sentries found that the tomb was empty, and when they reported the matter to the Jewish authorities they were given a bribe and were told to say that the followers of Jesus had been the ones who had removed the body. 

Whatever else we might think, it seems certain that no one removed the body and placed it in an ossuary and then carved a fish or a vase or something else on the outside, and some cryptic letters in who knows what language, and then buried it.  If nothing else, there is no way that that amount of activity could have taken place without someone knowing about it.  And there is nothing at all about any such activity in the surviving Roman and Jewish official documentation, or in the traditions of the early Church, Greek, Latin or Hebrew.

Graves of Jesus, or so it is claimed, have been located in places as far apart as India and Arabia, and there are some wonderful stories, legends, myths or cock-and-bull yarns as to how he came to be in these different places.  Usually these graves have some sort of headstone that has been engraved with words that mean something like Jesus Messiah in the local language and script.  That does not make them any more authentic – or less – than the ossuary shown on television last Tuesday.  Even if any of these graves were proved to be genuine, and that is most unlikely, the point of the Easter message would not be diminished in any way. 

All the evangelists, and several other New Testament writers, as well as writers whose words never found their way into the New Testament, have sought to express the truth of the Resurrection in terms that make some sort of sense.  That is why there are so many different accounts, and why some are mutually contradictory.  We cannot help that.  As we have seen this Holy Week and Easter season, it is the differences that authenticate the validity of the Resurrection experience, and the differences allow us to enter into that experience in our own lives. 

Last week we were afforded the opportunity to see how two very different individuals reacted to the Resurrection of Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, whom we saw could well have been the older of Jesus’ two sisters, once she had identified Jesus as someone other than a gardener, sought to cling to him, as would any sister with a brother from whom she thought she had been separated for ever.  Jesus forbade her do this, but instead dispatched her, as his very first apostle after the Resurrection, to take the Good News to the rest of his immediate family, his brothers and his other sister.  And then she went and told the rest of the disciples.  Despite her telling them the Good News, one of them, as we shall see in a moment, could not accept it. 

The reading from the epistle last week was one of Paul’s own accounts of his encounter with the risen Christ.  I have always considered Paul’s story the most telling of all the versions of the Resurrection narrative in the New Testament, because he is writing in the first person as an actual eye-witness.  And what is probably as telling for me is that he is the one man who did not want to believe in the Resurrection.  If our understanding of who Paul really was, as we saw in our meditation on Good Friday, is correct, then he was the man who led the party to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, he was the man who prosecuted Jesus in the trial before Pontius Pilate, he was the man who stirred up his hired mob to demand the crucifixion of Jesus, and he was the man who had supervised the crucifixion on behalf of the Jewish authorities.  If there was one person in the New Testament era who did not want to see a resurrected Jesus it was Saul of Tarsus – and yet he had a very personal and distinct encounter with the resurrected Jesus.

Our Gospel reading this morning provides us with an account of how the risen Christ impacted upon another person, a close relative of our Lord.  Although it is not spelled out in the New Testament literature, other early Christian writings have shown us that the Beloved Disciple and the man nicknamed Thomas, the Hebrew word for “Twin”, are one and the same and that he was the youngest brother of Jesus, Jude the Apostle.  It was to Jude, rather than to his oldest brother James, that Jesus passed on the responsibility of caring for their widowed mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He had watched Jesus die, and had seen the lance thrust into his side, the only apostle to witness that.  He had been the first to the tomb after his sister, Mary, had reported that the body of Jesus had been removed, and we are told that when he went into the tomb “he saw and believed”.  The question is, he believed what?  Traditionally it has been held that the Beloved Disciple believed that Jesus had risen, but that is a pious interpretation or misinterpretation of what is in the Gospel.  If you read it as though you are reading it for the first time, without all the wishful thinking of later writers, what he believed is what Mary had told him, that someone had removed the body of Jesus.  And I would argue that he went away in total despair to mourn not just the death of his brother, a seven-day obligation laid on all Jewish men, but also the disappearance of his body out of the tomb, an act of desecration particularly abhorrent to Jewish people even today, as recent events in Palm Beach County have shown. 

Being in mourning he could not have attended the activity in the Upper Room on the first First Day of the Week after the crucifixion, but he would have completed his period of mourning by the second First Day of the Week, and that is why he was present with the others then, and for the first time heard that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  He might have heard about his sister Mary’s encounter with their oldest brother, but he had seen that lance pierce him in the side, he had seen the blood and the water spew forth, he had been to the empty tomb and he had seen how the body was not there even though the burial clothes were still there.  He knew what he had seen and so he knew what he believed, and no matter what anyone said, unless he could put his finger in the wounds and thrust his hand in his brother’s side there was no way he was going to believe what anyone said about the matter.  He had seen with his own eyes.  He knew from his own experience what was the truth. 

And then the one who had once called himself the Truth was suddenly in their midst although they were behind locked doors!  We cannot tell in what tone of voice Jesus spoke to his younger brother, but since this was the one who is known as the Beloved Disciple we may well be correct in assuming that it was not in a stern judgemental tone.  After all, he had just said, “Peace be with you!” And at once he turned to the most important matter to hand, the reassurance of his brother.  “You said that you needed to put your finger in my wounds – here, put a finger in this wound that you see in my hand.  You said you needed to put your hand in my wounded side – here, reach out your hand and put it in the wound.  Do not become as one who doubts.  You have shown you have faith in what you have seen.  Believe now in what you see.”  And the younger brother realized that he did not need to touch those wounds.  His older brother had given him the opportunity to have his demands met, but suddenly he realized that with the risen Christ there is no need for us to have our demands met.  Our relationship with the Risen Christ is based on something other than demand.  It is based on his recognition of our real needs, and in response, our recognition that he is the only one who can meet our real needs. 

The younger brother’s response was one of amazement and awe.  Suddenly, having known Jesus all his life as only one brother can know another, he understood and recognized and gave voice to his understanding and recognition as to who Jesus is.  “My Lord and my God!”  Unfortunately we only have his words in translation.  We do not even know in which language they were first spoken.  If it were Hebrew, then these words express much more than we see in our English words.  They would be a confession of faith that Jesus is the Source of all being and of all power.  Indeed he is Being and Power, with capital B and capital P, in and of himself.  What an affirmation of Faith! 

And then Jesus said some words that his younger brother never forgot, and later, in his old age, he passed them on to another, a man who might be called his beloved disciple, the evangelist that we know as John.    “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  The question was addressed to the younger brother, but the statement is addressed to all those who have come to believe because of the witness of that same younger brother, first to his own disciples and then through the written word passed down to us through the centuries from the one we might call the Younger Brother’s Beloved Disciple.

And if we want the next generation, or even the members of this generation, to know blessedness, then we too must be prepared to tell the old, old story of the One who makes all things new, the One who has been raised from the dead, the one who is Being and Power.  And should you recognize that from what you have heard this morning, then Blessed are you, and if you pass the message on, thereby making others blessed, then you too will be a Beloved Disciple.