All You Ever Give is Grace
by Tim Mooney
The Gospel of John describes the resurrection differently than the other Gospels. This is not odd: each Gospel has curious differences. But some details in John are curious because they seem so unimportant. John gets to the tomb first. He looks in, and sees the linen wrappings. Then Peter goes in and sees the linen wrappings. But Peter notices the head cloth is not lying with the wrappings, but off by itself. This is an example of “Not Seeing the Mountain for the Mole Hill!” Jesus has just been RESURRECTED! Who cares where the linen wrappings and the head cloth are? John was either neurotic, influenced by a fastidious mother who made him neatly separate his clothes into piles – socks here, t-shirts there – or, this seemingly random information carries symbolic meaning.
If that’s not confusing enough, John adds more. After Peter went into the tomb, John “also went in, and he saw and believed.” We think this means John believed Jesus was raised from the dead. But the next verse says, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So what was it, then, that John believed?
This is where the head cloth by itself has meaning. To the Jewish ear, the head cloth would be an allusion to Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain he wore a head cloth – to hide his face because it shown so bright after being face-to-face with God. The head cloth, off to the side by itself, was symbolic language that Jesus was now face-to-face with God. Nothing separated them. Jesus had ascended; he was in God’s presence. This is what John believed.
In John the emphasis in not only on He is risen! The resurrection is purposeful in that it removes what separates Jesus, and us, from God. Resurrection is the means by which Jesus and we ascend to and be in God’s presence. This reflects what Isaiah saw when he wrote, “And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” This is not just about Jesus rising and ascending. It’s about us, too. As Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.”
At the beginning of John’s gospel it says, “the Word was with God,” and now, at the end, through resurrection and ascension, it says, “the Word is with God.” And the good news is, so are we! My God and your God! That which separates us from God is destroyed forever!
On Easter we emphasize, “He is risen, he is risen indeed!” Amen to that! But it seems to me that if we stop there, and focus only on Jesus’ resurrection, we are missing the point. The resurrection of Jesus, and John’s emphasis on the ascension of Jesus to be face-to-face with God, is really saying: Heaven’s gates are thrown wide open! The gates are wide open, torn off their hinges and thrown away! It’s all God’s grace showered on us out of God’s great love, seen and touched in this newly risen one. That’s why we come to church every Sunday – to hear that again and again and to take it to heart because it’s outrageous, but true. Death is dead; the shroud, the sheet is destroyed; the head cloth is cast off in a corner. It serves no purpose any longer. We are held in God’s love now and always. As Paul says in Romans: Nothing shall separate us from the love of God!
We still believe that we have to earn God’s grace. We still believe that there is a list of things we must do right.
But we must not equate Heaven’s gates thrown open wide with the afterlife. God’s salvation is for here and now. In Matthew chapter 28, the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples to meet him in Galilee. It’s as if he’s saying resurrection life is for this world and it is for our life as it is right now, no matter how messy or challenging. He does not say, “I’ll meet you in heaven after this life is over.” He says, “I’ll meet you in Galilee.” “I’ll meet you in Denver, in Aurora, I’ll meet you at your place of work, I’ll meet you at home, I’ll meet you in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of racism, in the middle of environmental disaster. In the middle of our messy, not-what-we-want-it-to-be life.” This is where resurrection happens!
But you know what? We don’t believe it. We still don’t get it. We still believe that we have to earn God’s grace. We still believe that there is a list of things we must do right. We see this belief played out in the cartoons and jokes about what happens after we die. The scene is so familiar. An aged, bearded St. Peter stands behind a podium before the gates of Heaven, with a stern look on his face, and a line of people waiting to see if they’ve done enough. St. Peter checks the big book to see if there is sufficient enough evidence for each particular soul to be welcomed into heaven.
In one cartoon, a man stands before St. Peter, hat in hand, a concerned look on his face. St. Peter says, “And if that’s not bad enough, on that same day, you used a Bible for a coaster!” In another cartoon St. Peter says to the man hoping for entrance into heaven: “Well, your morals check out, but now we just need to run a credit report.”
I can’t resist. One more. “A minister dies and, resplendent in his collar and colorful robes, waits in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is a guy dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, and leather jacket. Saint Peter asks, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?” The guy replies, “I’m Joe Green, taxi-driver, from Noo Yawk City.” Saint Peter consults his list, smiles, and says to the taxi-driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff, and enter into the Kingdom.” The taxi-driver enters Heaven with a loud, salty expletive! The minister is next in line. Without being asked, he proclaims, “I am Michael O’Connor, head pastor of Saint Mary’s for the last forty-three years.” Saint Peter consults his list and says, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Just a minute. That man was a taxi-driver, and you issued him a silken robe and a golden staff. But I, a pastor, get wood and cotton. How can this be?” “Up here, we go by results,” says Saint Peter. “While he drove, people prayed!” While you preached, people slept.”
It is a lovely irony that St. Peter is the guardian at the gates of heaven, the keeper of the ledger of what we’ve done wrong. It is a lovely irony, because of all the disciples, except for Judas, Peter is the one who failed the greatest. If anyone knows you can’t rely on a list of deeds, it’s Peter. Peter is also the one who knows that the promise of Heaven alone isn’t good enough. He needed grace in the middle of his messy life here on earth, on Saturday night when it was darkest of all.
Peter was the proudest of the disciples. He boasted that others might betray Jesus, but he would never betray him! We know what happened. Not once, not twice, but three times, Peter denies Jesus. If there was anyone who needed to know that resurrected life was available right now in the midst of abject failure, it was Peter. The Gospel of Mark hints at this need of Peter. In chapter 16 the angel says to the women at the tomb, “Go, tell his disciples, and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter, out of all the disciples, was the one who most needed to hear that when Heaven’s gates are opened wide, even his betrayal was swallowed up by God’s grace and love. There is a part of each one of us that feels like Peter. There is a whole bunch of us in this nation who feel this way, betraying our brothers and sisters of color. We need to hear that resurrection is not just for the afterlife, it’s for you and me, here and now, in the midst of this life. Because this is where we need it. Amen.