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Race to the Tomb!—The Seventh Orthros Reading

The Seventh (7th) Eothinon (Morning Orthros Gospel Reading)
Sermon delivered March 14, 2010

Today we continue our series on the Eleven (11) Eothina, the Sunday Orthros gospel readings. We are now on the Seventh (7th) one from John 20:1-10, the first of five post-resurrectional accounts taken from the Gospel of John. We only read this passage liturgically in the Sunday Orthros cycle, so perhaps four to five times a year. Let’s hear it again before we examine it in more detail:

Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 1Then the disciples went away again to their own homes (John 20:1-10).

“The first day of the week” (v.1) is Sunday. The Greek “mia twv Sabbatwv” translates literally as “first of seven.” That day of course is Sunday or “Kyriake” in Greek, the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. Sunday is also known as the Eighth Day or the new and unending day of God’s eternal kingdom. Jewish festal cycles were typically seven days. This is probably why Jesus and John the Baptist were circumcised on the eighth day according to the ancient custom of the Mosaic Law. In Orthodox Christianity festal cycles are typically eight days long. The Apodosis or Leave-taking or completion of major Feasts occurs on the eighth day. One example would be the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos which begins on August 15th and ends on August 23rd.

In previous weeks we spoke about Mary Magdalene and the women myrrhbearers as the first witnesses to the resurrection so I will not go over this again. Instead, let us understand what appears to be a foot race between Peter and the ‘other disciple’ (v.3). Who is the other disciple? Remember the appearance of the risen Lord to the two disciples in the Fifth Eothinon (Luke 24:12-35) and how one was identified as Cleopas but the other was not referred to by name? It is believed that this disciple is the evangelist Luke because it was common at that time for authors not to refer to themselves by name in their own writings. So, in today’s passage we are quite certain that the other disciple is the John the Evangelist.

We hear that Peter and John both ran together but John outran Peter and came to the tomb first. Yet, it was Peter who entered the tomb first (v.6). It seems that John wants to say, “Even though Peter entered the tomb first I beat in the race.” However, listen to how St. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th cent.) interprets this element of the story. “Be a Peter or a John. Hasten to the sepulcher, running together. Running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you are beaten in speed, win the victory of showing who wants it more. Not just looking into the tomb but going in.” The Orthodox Study Bible notes this: “The response of Peter & John (‘the other disciple’) reveals each one’s disposition. John’s reaching the tomb ‘first’ indicates his faith his lofty and full of understanding, and indeed, he is the first to have ‘believed’ (v.8). Peter’s faith, on the other hand, is more direct and bold, shown by his immediate entrance ‘into the tomb.’”

What did Peter see when he entered the tomb? “He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself” (vv.6-7). I’m sure many of us have seen the email circulating titled “Why Did Jesus Fold the Napkin?” It states that the Jewish custom at the time was to fold your napkin if you were returning to the table for dinner. If you were done, you would throw it aside not folded. It concludes that the message in the scriptural passage is that Jesus is returning.

However, while we believe that, yes, Jesus will return at the Parousia, the Second Coming to give final judgment and establish His kingdom forever, this is not the message of this passage. First, of all the Greek word that has been translated as either ‘napkin’ or ‘handkerchief’ is ‘soudarion’. The only other place this word is used in the scripture is to refer to the burial cloth covering Lazaros face (John 11;44). The main message of the neatly folded burial clothes is to show that Jesus body was not taken by thieves because if it were, they would not have had or taken the time to fold the clothes. In other words, Jesus resurrection is real, not fake. The ‘soudarion’ or face cloth is mentioned is to note that it was in a different place, separate from the rest of the burial clothes.

Fr. Paul Tarazi, in his The New Testament: An Introduction; Johannine Writings, states the meaning is: “The effect is to stress the separation between the coverings of the body and of the head after the Resurrection. Jesus, the head of the Church, is alone glorified now while His believers must be content to wait for their turn. He shows the way that the members or ‘body’ will eventually follow.” (see Jn.13:33,36 “Where I am going you cannot follow me no; but you shall follow afterward”; 14:2-3 “And when I god and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also”).

When John enters the tomb after Peter it simply says that, “he saw and believed” (v.8). Tarazi also postulates that like the rest of this passage and the whole of John’s gospel, there is a strong message being sent to the evangelist’s readers. He states that “There are no new themes from earlier in John which include: 1) Priority of Pauline Gentile Church as first to accept gospel represented by Mary Magdalene as the first to the tomb and first to see the resurrected Lord; 2) Peter’s vacillation in that both he and the “beloved disciple” enter and see the empty tomb but only the ‘beloved’ believes. Jesus’ body was bound in linen clothes to symbolize the attempt to bind His Church in the teachings of Judaism. As we see the linen clothes left behind the irrelevance of Judaism is made manifest.”

This may seem shocking to most modern readers because little attention has been paid or given to the struggle within the first century Church between the followers of Paul and the followers of Peter who were typically Judaizing Christians. We know that Peter and Paul later reconciled and Christianity goes the way of St. Paul leaving behind most of the Mosaic Law.

Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews

Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.

Published: April 15, 2010

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