No Detail Too Small (John 20:1-10)
Rev. David French
It’s been a couple years since I’ve gotten one, but there was an email that used to show up just about every Easter. This particular e-mail focused on the folded napkin neatly placed in the empty tomb. It goes like this ... The gospel of John (20:7) tells us that the napkin which was placed over the face of Jesus was not just thrown aside like the grave clothes. John makes it a point to share with us that the napkin was neatly folded and was placed at the head of that stony coffin. Is that important? You'd better believe it! Is that significant? Absolutely! Is it really significant? Yes! In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of that day. The folded napkin had to do with the master and servant relationship, and every Jewish boy knew this tradition. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, and the servant would not dare touch that table until the master was finished. Now if the master was done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. But if the master got up from the table and folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not touch the table because the servant knew that the folded napkin meant, "I'm coming back!"
Now, I certainly don’t want to be a wet blanket on this holy day, but that’s a bunch of nonsense! Let’s begin by saying that no such master/servant tradition has ever existed in the Jewish world—ever. In fact, the very first reference anyone can find regarding this alleged tradition is dated 2007, and it’s only found on the Internet. That’s like watching the movie “The DaVinci Code” and taking it as historical proof that Jesus and the disciples all ate at a long table with chairs and plates and forks and spoons and napkins, all facing the same direction.
My friends, this story is simply the result of someone taking a kernel of truth from the Scriptures and applying their own personal, Lifetime Channel interpretation. Did it make you feel good? Did it give you that warm Easter feeling you were hoping for? Probably, but is it true? The event-yes, but not a word of the interpretation about the event.
So … why, then, was the facecloth purposely folded and set aside from the rest of the burial shrouds? And notice I used the word “facecloth.” I know that some translations say “napkin,” but that’s only because of its size. The original Greek translates simply as “sweat cloth.” It is a cloth, about the size of a napkin, used specifically for wiping perspiration from the face, wiping the nose, or in the case of death and burial, used for binding the face of a corpse; a face covering. It’s the same word spoken of with Lazarus when Jesus raised him from the dead. Jesus calls out to Lazarus to arise, and Lazarus comes out of the tomb, hands and feet bound up with wrappings, and his face bound with a separate cloth.
“Okay, so this is nothing more than a face covering that every Jewish person was buried with. That still doesn’t explain why it was folded so neatly!” Well, considering there is no Jewish tradition about a master-servant relationship and some secret napkin-folding code, let’s follow the first principal of Scriptural interpretation, which is go with the simplest meaning first.
So, why would John make a point of telling us about the facecloth being neatly folded and set aside on the burial bench? The most obvious reason is so there could be no doubt that this was not a robbery! Remember, one of the concerns the Jewish leaders expressed was that someone would sneak in and steal Jesus’s body from the tomb and then claim that He rose from the dead. That’s why they asked to have Roman guards posted and the tomb sealed. No one, absolutely no one, was to open or enter that tomb.
Have you ever seen the aftermath of a robbery? It’s not pretty. Thieves are usually in a hurry. They’re not very neat or orderly, especially when they’re worried about getting caught. They tear the place up. Drawers get dumped; furniture gets upended. It’s a mess.
And if you were attempting to steal the body of Jesus, knowing you have the heads of the Jewish government and the Roman army working together to prevent that, how much time would you take in trying to pull off your caper? How careful would you be knowing that getting caught would mean a slow, painful death? If you’re like most people, no one would have to tell you to hurry up, and cleaning up after yourself would be the last thing on your mind!
And yet, someone did take their time. Someone deliberately took the time to fold and neatly set aside that face covering. Someone wanted everyone to know that this was no robbery. This someone, after paying the price for the body and soul of mankind and descending into Hell to proclaim His eternal victory over sin, death and the power of the devil, no doubt calmly and majestically simply walked out of His tomb.
Now, you may be thinking, “But still, you can’t deny what the e-mail ends up saying, that Jesus is coming back again.” It does, and Jesus is coming back in all of His glory to judge both the living and the dead. But … that’s not what the folded facecloth meant. That’s not at all what Jesus was trying to convey when He took the time to neatly fold His death shroud before walking out of the tomb. Those are the two dots that were wrongly connected. That’s what someone wanted it to mean, but is that an honest use of Scriptures?
It really brings us to the good old Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” What does all this mean for us today? Why take the time to focus on such a small point of Scripture on such a big day? My fellow redeemed, don’t you see? Our Lord cared about the tiniest of details when it came to our salvation. Nothing was taken for granted or left to chance. Everything Jesus did was for us and for our salvation, right down to the smallest detail like taking away any doubt you might have by taking the time to fold His death mask.
Think about that the next time you’re struggling and you feel like God has forgotten about you. Remember that nothing is trivial when it comes to you and your salvation. God knows and cares about even the smallest details in your life.
You know, in a way, this little detail is kind of “sacramental-ish.” I mean, this folded facecloth is an earthly element combined with the Word of God, which was given for our forgiveness. Through the Word of God and the working of the Holy Spirit, we see exactly what they saw. This was no robbery. This was the death-conquering, Satan-defeating, promise-fulfilling, heaven-opening resurrection of God Himself.
And through the promise and by the power of your baptism into Christ, it is your resurrection as well. For in that sacrament we have been united with Christ and clothed with the robe of His righteousness. We have been brought from death to life that we might go out into the world proclaiming the joy of our salvation, a gift of life from God Himself. Purchased for all and paid for in full with the life-saving, life-giving blood of Christ Jesus the Holy One who was raised from the dead for your justification. The Lord is risen …
In His name, Amen.