And so, Simon Peter also come, following him, and entered the tomb and he saw the linen wrappings lying there and the face-cloth which had been on his head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but folded in a place by itself.
In the ancient world, authors utilized an economy of language. The materials needed to write were very expensive, so writers tried to encapsulate the most meaning in the least amount of words. Every little detail in the story or letter mattered, or else it wouldn’t have been included.
That’s what makes the folding of the grave clothes so very interesting in these verses. Why does John tell us that the grave clothes were folded in the tomb? What does it matter?
I know how all the mothers would interpret this text. They would say this detail is an indication of Jesus’ organization and neatness. I can hear them now.
If Jesus could fold his grave clothes properly before he left the tomb, what keeps you from folding your clothes properly before bed?
If Jesus kept a clean tomb, why can’t you keep a clean room?
If Jesus wasn’t too busy redeeming creation to tidy things up, what prevents you?
The less organized and messier scholars believe this not to be evidence of Jesus’ cleanliness but evidence that the empty tomb wasn’t the work of grave-robbers. After all, what grave-robber in his right mind would take the time to fold the grave clothes (except if his mother taught him well in the ways already mentioned)?
Perhaps a better interpretation is to consider this detail in the light of the other resurrection in John- that of Lazarus. In both resurrection stories in this gospel, the grave clothes of the resurrected one are mentioned in detail.
You might remember that when Jesus summoned Lazarus from the grave, the formerly dead one walked out with his grave clothes still wrapped around him. Jesus says, “Loose him and let him go.” Ironically, Lazarus walked out into the rest of his life with his death trappings still wrapped around him. He walked into his future still bound by his past. In a very small way, death still had a hold on him. The past was still wrapped around his ankles and his arms. His eyes and ears were still covered with death. Every “Lazarus come forth” must be followed by a “Loose him and let him go.”
Meanwhile, Jesus walked out of the tomb and the garments of death and decay were fully and totally left behind him. He was boldly and singularly turned towards God’s future for himself and all creation. He had no entanglements or entrapments. He was not bound by anything behind. He was free from death, hell, and the grave.
All too often I have more in common with Lazarus in this regard. I want to walk into newness of life but there are things about the oldness of life that are still wrapped around my head. I want to follow Jesus, but I want to follow all of these other ways too. I want to walk boldly into God’s grand tomorrow, but I can’t if my ankles are tied up with all my yesterdays. Jesus’ resurrection has called forth my own resurrection, but I’m still all wrapped up in my grave clothes.
In the days of early Christianity, people were baptized naked. The role of the “deacons” and “deaconesses” at these baptisms was to hold the old clothes of the baptized and then to present them with new clothes upon their baptism. After all, it’s inappropriate to walk out into a brand new world as a brand new person with the same old clothes. It was a way of saying, “Loose them and let them go.”
A few years ago, I stumbled onto a baptismal song by Kyle Matthews called, “Been Through the Water.” The chorus reads:
I’ve been through the water
And come out clean.
I’ve got new clothes
To cover me.
And you don’t wear your old shoes
On your brand new feet.
I’ve been through the water…..
I wonder what grave clothes are still wrapped around you in these days of renewal, hope, and resurrection. I wonder how you might be trying to walk into God’s future with your past still constraining your ankles. I wonder how your grave clothes might be blinding your eyes to newness right before you.
Be loosed and let go! You can’t wear your old shoes on your brand new feet.