Lessons from John, 19:33-42 Death and burial

John 19:33-42 Death and Burial of Jesus

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 6, 2007. Craig D. Atwood, 

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week in your home. I was away all week in Herrnhut, Germany, but thankfully I was able to be home in time for Madeleine’s eighth birthday. It was a good conference on the significance of the old Unity of the Brethren. There were only two papers given in English, both by Americans, and unfortunately my German is not very good. I had the opportunity to talk to a group of young people studying for the Moravian ministry. We had a good discussion of how to use history in the church today. I met a lawyer from Surinam who told me that the reason he is a Moravian today is because the Moravians educated his ancestors when it was illegal to educate black people. It was quite a witness to the positive aspects of our heritage and our mission. One of the most exciting papers was about the discovery last year of two boxes containing hundreds of records from the last bishop in Bohemia. They were hidden just after the Battle of White Mountain. Scholars will be working on them for years.

While I was there, I got to visit Niesky, which was founded about the same time as Bethlehem. They have one of the largest Moravian stars I have ever seen. More than six feet in diameter with 144 points. It was beautiful. The stars in Niesky are much more complicated than ours. The pastor said it was the biggest Moravian star in the world, but I told him about the one on top of Baptist Hospital. I don’t think he believed me. I also learned that the women who serve lovefeast in Germany wear black skirts with white aprons. I think we ought to think about going to the more traditional look here at Home Church.

I have a true story from a family member. While her daughters were cleaning their bedroom, she heard one say “Maybe we could it on the chair.” She went in to see what they were doing. One of the girls told her the preacher said we shouldn’t leave the Bible on the shelf” so she was putting it on a chair.

Spear Wound                        Last week Dr. Vinson gave a wonderful lesson on the crucifixion in John’s Gospel. John’s account is a little different from the other gospels. Jesus gives up his spirit without any cry of abandonment. Simon of Cyrene was not there to help shoulder Jesus’ burden, but the Beloved Disciple was there with Mary, his mother. Zinzendorf suggested that the first church was simply Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the feet of the cross. What Jesus says from the cross in John is different as well. The famous Seven Last Words are taken from all four gospels, not any one gospel.

There is one verse unique to John that has been the topic of much discussion over the centuries. As you heard last week, one of the soldiers poked Jesus with a spear. Apparently he was checking to make sure that Jesus was indeed dead. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to abuse Jesus in this action, but when the spear entered his side blood and water came out. Over the centuries, this story grew into legend. The soldier was promoted to a centurion and given the name Longius, which means spear. He was identified with the centurion in Mark who declares Jesus was the Son of God, and he became a Christian. During the Middle Ages there were dozens of spears that churches claimed was the spear that pierced Christ. According to a non-canonical gospel, the soldier stabbed Jesus’ right side, and so most Catholic paintings show this wound on the right, but there is good reason medically and theologically to assume it was over the heart of Jesus as it is in Moravian artwork.

Many researchers doubt this event took place. For one thing, it is not mentioned in the other gospels. Presumably something so important and dramatic would have been mentioned elsewhere, but we have found things reported only in John that appear to be historically reliable. It is possible that Mark either did not know about this incident or omitted it from his gospel. Interestingly, we have events in the other gospels that might symbolize this event. The climax of Mark’s account is when the veil of the Temple was miraculous torn asunder at the moment Jesus died. Matthew adds dramatic supernatural details about the rocks splitting and the dead rising. There are no such miracles in John. His account of the piercing of Jesus is much more restrained and more believable than the other gospels.

Blood and Water            The second objection to this story is a bit harder to address. Dead bodies don’t bleed, and if they did, it is very unlikely that water would come out with the blood. I’m sorry to talk about such things on a Sunday morning, but this is part of our Scripture.  For over 200 years there have been physicians intrigued by this story. I wish we had Dr. Kahl in here this morning to verify this information, but apparently the best medical explanation for what happened when Jesus was stabbed is that either he was not quite dead or he was so recently dead that the heart was still full. If John’s account is accurate, then the spear must have pierced the heart of Jesus, which becomes an important metaphor for the crucifixion itself. John is depicting the literal breaking of God’s own heart in love for his creation.

The water is more difficult to explain, but many physicians think it was some type of clear fluid that had built up in the lungs during Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion. In order to prove this historical accuracy of this account, some conservative scholars are willing to sacrifice biblical literalism and assert that it was not really water. The most we can say is that it appears possible that this could happen to a human body, but it was very unusual. John is aware of just how strange this little story is, so he highlights the fact that there was a trustworthy eye-witness.

Why?            The question for biblical interpretation is why John focused on this. There is more to it than the fact that Jesus’ legs were not broken, which the other gospels report. First of all, this appears to be a way of proving that Jesus was really dead and not in a coma. Secondly, John tells us that this fulfilled a prophecy in Zechariah, one of his favorite books to quote. “They shall look on him whom they pierced.” Actually, you will not find this exact quotation in the Old Testament. Oddly enough, the Greek and Hebrew versions of this verse differ slightly. One says that the people will look on God whom they pierced; the other that they will look on Israel who has been pierced. Perhaps John intentionally left it ambiguous by saying “him.” Some scholars have suggested that John made up the whole story of the piercing just to fulfill this prophecy, but it is such an obscure verse that seems unlikely. No, John used this verse to help make sense of the details of Jesus’ death.

There is another reason John draws our attention to this blood and water. Although many Protestant scholars disagree, it seems clear that John saw this as a reference to baptism and the Eucharist. As we talked about months ago, John does not have a story of Jesus being baptized or instituting the Lord’s Supper. This has led some scholars, like Bultmann, to claim that this gospel is anti-sacramental, but we have seen several places where John uses sacramental imagery. This scene shows the two sacraments of the church flowing directly from Jesus. Jesus himself is the new Passover. Some of the earliest Christian theologians saw something else in this blood and water. It reminded them of the creation of Eve in Genesis. She was born out of the side of Adam as he slept. Here Christ is asleep on the cross and his bride is born out of his side. We don’t talk this way today, but this idea that the Church is the Bride of Christ born on the cross was very important to Moravians over 200 years ago.

Joseph of Arimathea                        All of the gospels report that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. This is almost certainly historical since it is reported by multiple sources and is such a surprising turn of events. We know little about Joseph, except that he was wealthy, well respected, and a member of the Jewish council. He was so different from Jesus. He had a place to lay his head in this life and in death. He was the kind of man who had access to the procurator, and he sat on the council that condemned Jesus, but he had not consented to the injustice of the Sanhedrin. He was a secret follower of Jesus who risked a great deal by asking for the body of his teacher. The time for secrecy was past. What Joseph was doing was something that the Torah praises people for doing. In Judaism it is very important to treat the bodies of the dead with respect, and it was act of mercy for a rich person to bury someone whose family was too poor to do so. Joseph was a righteous man in the Jewish sense. He was not only honoring Jesus; he was showing mercy on Mary at this terrible moment.

Since there is so little we know about Joseph, it was easy for Christians to make up legends about him. One is that he collected the blood of Jesus in the cup that was used at the last supper. This was the Grail that Arthur went in search of. Another legend is that Joseph and Mary Magdalene fled Jerusalem and sailed to the south of France where they founded a church. You can visit it today, but be aware that it was built in the 12th century. Some legends even bring Joseph to England so that land becomes part of salvation history. I prefer the historical Joseph who was a rich man who did what he could for Jesus. He is the male version of Mary of Bethany earlier in the gospel, and he should be a patron saint for all people with wealth who refuse to consent to injustice and do what they can for Christ.

Burial                        All of the gospels agree that Jesus was buried in a new tomb owned by Joseph, but John goes into the most detail on the burial. In fact, this section is almost as long as the narration of Jesus’ suffering and death. John includes Nicodemus in the story. We met Nicodemus at the beginning of the gospel. It was night and Jesus taught him that he needed to be born from above, and here he is at the time of death as the sun sets. There is poignancy in seeing Nicodemus at the cross. I think he represents those who are reborn through the death of Jesus. No longer does he hide in shadows. He is part of this new community of the cross with Mary and the Beloved Disciple. His story also shows us that rebirth does not happen in a moment. It took the whole gospel to bring Nicodemus out of the shadows of doubt.

Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of ointment to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. That is a lot of ointment by anyone’s standards. It is enough to bury a king in high style, which is probably what John was trying to say. The Romans may have mocked the king of the Jews, but Nicodemus and Joseph bury Jesus as if he were a king. This extravagant ointment is consistent with the theme of abundance throughout John’s gospel. Think of the hundreds of gallons of wine at Cana, the surplus of food when he feed the crowds, and the expensive nard Mary poured on him. Even in death, the blessings of Jesus overflow so that all cups are running over.

There is one problem with the story of the anointing of Jesus’ body which you may have noticed. In the other gospels, Jesus was buried too quickly to be anointed, so the women return to the tomb after the Sabbath to do their duty. John could not imagine that Jesus would have been buried unprepared. There have been attempts to reconcile the different accounts, such as claiming that the women did not know what Nicodemus had done or that Nicodemus gave them the ointment but they could not use it because of sunset. I think we should just accept that we have two different memories that evolved in their own ways. You may choose which is more historical and which is more literary. Each has its own meaning.

It seems to me that John’s Gospel wants to make sure that the reader knows that Jesus was really, truly dead. There is no question of Jesus having been in a coma from which he awakened two days later. He was buried according to the standards of the day. John may have been responding to an early form of Gnosticism that denied that Jesus was mortal, or he may have been addressing Jewish polemics that claimed that Jesus had been resurrected since he had not died. We cannot know for sure, but John presses home the point that the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus were real. The Word of God that took human flesh died a human death.

Great Sabbath            John draws attention to the fact that Jesus was buried on the Day of Preparation for the Passover and that the next day was the Sabbath. He says that the Sabbath was a “high day,” or a special holy day. The oldest part of the Christian liturgical calendar is the three days from Good Friday to Easter. In the early church, this was one extended holy day. Saturday was called the Great Sabbath because that was the day when the Son of God rested from all of his labors. Just as the Creator had rested on the seventh day, the Redeemer rested. The eighth day of the week – Easter Sunday was the day of new creation. Often the church baptized new Christians on Great Sabbath evening so they could participate in the Eucharist on Sunday morning. As they were lowered into the water, they were told that they were being buried with Christ so they could be raised with Christ. Then the congregation would keep an all night vigil in the church awaiting the dawn and the words that the Lord is risen!

The Eastern Orthodox churches continue this type of observance, but the only Western Church I know that does something similar is the Moravian Church. You are probably familiar with the Easter Dawn celebration and the fact that the band, at least, keeps an all night vigil. You may not know that it used to be traditional to have a lovefeast on Great Sabbath. Here at Home Church the Great Sabbath lovefeast is held after sundown on Good Friday. Remember, the Sabbath begins at sundown. We gather to remember the Lord in death and to stand by the tomb. We remind ourselves that we are mortal and will die one day. But we rejoice that his death has blessed our death; his Sabbath rest in the grave blesses our rest in God’s Acre; and his resurrection is our resurrection. This Moravian observance is based on this account in John’s picture of the death of Jesus. For John, the Word of God continued to speak even in death.

Conclusion                        It seems appropriate to end our lesson here with the friends of Jesus leaving the tomb. Among them were two members of the Jewish Council who were merciful to the dead and to a mother who had watched her son die. We end with the picture of Jesus being lovingly anointed and covered in linen cloths. We end with the picture of the Beloved Disciple taking Mary home with him so they may comfort each other. And we end with the image of the Son of God asleep in the tomb. There are different lessons and blessings in each of these images. John asks us to leave Golgotha in silence without earthquakes and eclipses and shouts. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”


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