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I'm Coming Back!

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version
See "How do we Know...?"

Resurrection Sun - 04/24/11
Is. 25:1-:9;   Ps. 93;   Col. 3:1-4;   Jn. 20:1-10

In the recent newsletter from Fr. Neil Edlinís church, St. Mary Magdalene, it is asked, "Why did Jesus fold the napkin?" The Gospel of John, which we just read, tells us that the napkin, which had been placed over Jesusí head, was not just thrown aside as that which covered his body had been. It was neatly folded and placed at the end of that stony coffin.

Early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb and found the stone removed from the sepulcher, no guards to be seen. She ran to tell Peter and John that "they", no doubt the Roman or Jewish leaders, had take away the body of Jesus.

Peter and John ran to the tomb. Peter is the first to look in to see the shroud which had wrapped the body of Jesus in one place and the napkin, or sudarium, as it is called in Latin, folded or rolled up "in a place by itself". The shroud is not spoken of as "folded", giving the impression of having just been tossed aside.

The article asks:

Was that important? Absolutely!

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, and every Jewish boy understood 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 were 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. For in those days, the wadded napkin meant, "Iím finished."

But if the master got up from the table, and folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because..... The folded napkin meant...., "Iím coming back..."

Some months ago, I described the history of the sudarium (napkin, sweat cloth, handkerchief) in connection with the shroud, known now as the Shroud of Turin because it resides at the cathedral in Turin, Italy. The history of the Sudarium is known and not disputed. It resides in a town in northern Spain. For reasons I do not understand, it has not been paid much attention by the Church.

The history of the Shroud, on the other hand, is spotted. There are gaps in that history which have not yet been filled. But it has been paid lots of attention. And, those investigations into the Shroud over the last several decades have shown there to be a clear link between the two pieces of linen.

There is probably no piece of cloth in all history which has been more deeply, fully, and extensively examined and investigated than the Shroud of Turin. It attracted this investigation because so many persons of high repute thought it to be the shroud which indeed had covered the body of Jesus in the tomb. Several decades ago, a team of investigators was formed, including every possible field of study which might shed light on the truth of that claim for the Shroud.

As the investigations proceeded, with many if not most of the investigators convinced that it would be proven not the covering for the body of Jesus, it slowly became more and more apparent that there was an almost undeniable case in favor of the claims. Test after test verified the probability that the Shroud came from about 30 AD, from the area around Jerusalem, and from a victim who had been beaten nearly to death, and then led away to be crucified. You wonder how they could tell all that from a piece of cloth. But they did. Forensic investigators can do that kind of thing now. The evidence could not specifically identify Jesus as the victim of the brutality, but it certainly made Him a very likely candidate.

Yet when the carbon dating test was made, it showed a date in the late Middle Ages, about 1200. As a result, the mountain of evidence favorable for the ca. 30 AD date was dropped in favor of the lone carbon dating test -- 12 centuries later.

That is not the way honest science treats evidence. When there is a clash, you seek to resolve the clash, you do not dismiss the side you do not want to hear. That mountain of positive evidence stood as firm on its own grounding as did the carbon dating on its ground, and needed to be dealt with, not dismissed.

But then, ironically, the carbon dating test was shown to be invalid because the piece of cloth used for the test had, unknowingly of course, been taken from a section which had been sewn onto the original Shroud -- in the Late Middle Ages. So, the test was accurate, but irrelevant.

And since then, even more startling evidence has come to light -- that the specific area on the cloth with the image of Jesus (but not the rest of the cloth) has three dimensional information on it, like a hologram. There is no known way of putting that kind of image on any cloth. It is therefore absurd to claim that some forger performed a task in the late Middle Ages which is technically impossible to perform even today.


It might be, and has been, said by some that this kind of scientific evidence is not what brings one to faith in Christ. That might indeed be true for many, and each person will have to make that decision for himself. But the truth of the matter is that many of those doubters on the investigative team indeed became Christian believers. The objective evidence was just too much to stay a disbeliever.

And even though many come to believe in Jesus Christ apart from such evidence (undoubtedly the large majority of all believers through history, for the simple reason that they did not have any such scientific evidence available to them...), nevertheless when presenting the case for Jesus Christ as the Son of God in the public arena, it presents a powerful challenge to a scientifically oriented people to ask them to show good reason why this shroud could not be the shroud which covered the body of Jesus. As it stands now, they have no answer to that challenge. There are good and valid reasons for thinking that the shroud was indeed the covering for Jesus' body. And none, so far as I know, for not believing.

The reasons for concluding that the Shroud is as claimed are stunning and compelling. Some of you may recall the DVD we showed some months ago here at Sunday School. The scientific evidence appears fully to support the claim that the Shroud of Turin is indeed the Shroud which covered the body of Jesus.

The Sudarium is one of those pieces of evidence. The Sudarium had become virtually unknown to modern Christians around the world. Protestants probably thought of it as what they considered one more of those awful Roman Catholic idolatries of this or that object, and so ignored it. But when the researchers on the Shroud heard of the Sudarium, they wondered whether there might be some verifiable connection. It was, after all, historically related to the burial of Jesus.

They discovered three things, (1) the blood stains on the two cloths are the same blood type. (2) the pattern of the blood stains match each other when placed over a manikin as they would have been on the body, strongly suggesting that the two cloths had been placed on the same body. (3) since we know the history of the Sudarium, that puts the Shroud of Turin at the same time and place, Jerusalem about 30 AD. And..., thus by any reasonable conclusion, on the same body, that of Jesus.

So, evidence-wise, the ball is in the opposition's court. They need to show why this does not give sufficient evidence for belief that the Shroud is indeed the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. If this kind of evidence were presented in any normal trial concerning two pieces of cloth and a dead body, there would be no question as to the conclusion. Persons, one of whom I know, have been declared guilty of first degree murder on far less evidence. It is only because the Son of God is the person at issue that the resistance to belief is so impenetrable. Some people will not believe, no matter what kind of evidence. It is sometimes not a matter of evidence, it is a matter of stubborn will.

But that should not be surprising. That has been the case all through Biblical history. There are people who do not want God in their lives, no matter the cost, and no matter what the evidence.

The primary reason for evidence is not to convert the unbeliever, though it may help do that. The primary reason for evidence is to make sure that we ourselves are on the right track into the realm of truth. Scientific evidence does not replace intuitive and personal relationship evidence, but it is a cross check for accuracy. Where there are conflicts, we need to resolve, not dismiss, them. He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life will have no trouble helping us do that if we are ourselves honest truth-seekers rather than position-defenders. Truth-seeking becomes the royal road to the true and honest position.

In a sacramental world, where the spiritual is manifested in community life through physical things, we have an obligation to be intellectually, morally, and spiritually honest with each other and with non-believers, living in the light. When we do, we will find that all three agree: intellectual, moral, and spiritual. If any one of them is out of sync with the others, we still have homework to do. Like beacon lights at the entry to certain harbors, when all three lights line up in a straight vertical row, you know that you have a straight path into the harbor.


"I am coming back..." If that interpretation of the folded Sudarium is the real explanation, there is no evidence that the disciples saw that meaning. Even if it were the real intention of Jesus as He left the tomb, in the rush of emotions and events, His intention could easily be missed. Not being at a meal time, it would be a subtle and out-of-context clue. Maybe it was meant for us later, looking back on these events. God drops clues in many mysterious ways. The Shroud and Sudarium themselves have become a center of attention, perhaps just to provide significant evidence to a scientific age in which Christians suspect (wrongly) that science is not of God.

Jesus did come back. There was a resurrection. And, He spent another 40 days with His disciples, teaching them more deeply about how the Scriptures pointed to Him -- which we will be following over these next weeks.

But then He left again, ascending into heaven. But God did not leave. He Who Is did not leave. He merely changed the way He stayed with us to conform to the original intention, that is, that He would write His law in our hearts. We ourselves would become at Pentecost, as St. Peter describes, living stones of a sacramental temple of the Holy Spirit, pointing back to the conditions of the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve had intimate, personal relationship with God. God is restoring to us the possibility of His original intention for the human race. We can begin to live again in our original goodness and original innocence, and with the power of the Spirit of God to deal with the troubles and problems of life.

The conversion to Jesus does not come simply from scientific or intellectual evidence by itself, although that may help clear the way. It comes when we confess our need and our sins, and assent to Jesus being our Lord and Savior. That is a personal-relationship matter. It comes when something happens within us which convinces us that this person Jesus knows the way to life, that in some mysterious sense, He is the Way, that in Him, we have come home. We find our personal stability and our moral direction.

We have in the Shroud of Turin, I believe, what amounts to a photograph of the risen Christ. It is a wonderfully majestic face. But evidence like that only points to the search for salvation with the risen Christ. Believing that a picture is of Christ is not the same as worshiping Him as Lord and Savior.

The first Christians kept those cloths, both of them. Both, I think, left the Near East as Islam took over the area by the scimitar. Their history separates at some point. The Sudarium made its way to a town in northern Spain, and the Shroud to Turin, Italy. It appears to be only in our own time that their relationship is being put back together, an event which may have extraordinary consequences for how we Christians see ourselves in the face of an increasingly hostile, pseudo-scientific world.

In the Epistle, Paul tells us that our orientation has now been shifted from the world to heaven itself. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

In other words, you have died to self, died to dependency on things of the earth, and moved your dependency and obedience to God in heaven. Jesus has successfully led you back to the Father and to life in the Trinity, something nothing in the created world can do for you. Mission accomplished!

So our mission now is to live that life right here in the midst of the confusion and rebellion from which we ourselves have come. That points us on to our Sunday School theme, "The Acts of St. Luke's", our participation in the mission of the Church to bring the saving news of Jesus Christ to the world around us.

At Sunday School today, we will be playing the tape I mentioned last week upon which I stumbled after 15 years of being hidden away in a box -- about the Columbine, Colorado, experience.

It shows a resurrection community of Spirit-led believers, who were prepared ahead of time for the tragedy of that day. They were plunged into the darkness of death and grieving, and of all the aftermath of feeling which can come like a tidal wave. But the Spirit of God brought those Christians through and made them into evangelists because they had, to a significant degree, already died to self and were living in the power of the Spirit of God.

That is "charismatic renewal".

As at this morning, 20 centuries ago, Jesus came back -- from the dead.

In doing so, He did what Isaiah predicted in our Old Testament lesson this morning,

He will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.

What is this veil of death but that which creates the "closed circle" cosmos, the wall which gives the cosmos the impression of being independent from God. The wall which feeds our imaginations with the delusion of being self-sufficient, in no need of God...  until the world painfully teaches us otherwise.  

But the arm of God has not shortened over the centuries to do miracles through His people, ordinary people like you and me. God has plans for us of a like nature, a history which can be rightly called the Acts of St. Luke's, to prepare us for whatever is coming down the road, whether it be violence or not, to prepare us for a ministry of those three things which Paul says endure: faith, love, and hope. God wants to make us into a people who are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful.

He will keep coming back -- until we say a clear "yes" or a clear "no".


Father, we want hearts with a clear "yes" to Your purpose for our lives, a clear "yes" to your commands for our behavior. Give us hearts willing to give up what we must, and to take on what you desire. Make us worthy witnesses for You to the people all around us, in the name of Jesus, Your Son, our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Audio Version   See "How do we Know...?"

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Date Posted - 04/24/2011    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012