“Unfinished Mission:” Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Folded face cloth on empty tomb slab

Scripture:Then Peter and John set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but John outran Peter and reached the tomb first. John bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. Peter saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then John, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.  John 20:3-8

Reflection:

Our resounding and joyous Easter acclamation this morning is:

The Lord is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

The Easter Sunday story in the Gospel of John tells us that Peter and John race to the tomb early Sunday morning after Good Friday to verify Mary Magdalene’s distressing report stating that the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb.

Upon arriving, John looks inside the tomb and sees the linen grave clothes are lying there but does not go in. Peter does enter the tomb and sees the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head folded up in its own place, away from the other linens. Then John also enters the tomb, sees the evidence and believes. 

We are not told what evidence in the empty tomb brought John to faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Could it have been the folded face cloth sitting apart from the crumpled linen cloths that birthed belief in John?

In Hebrew culture, a servant would set the table for the master. The servant made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted, then the servant would wait, just out of sight while the master ate.

The servant would dare not touch the table until the master was finished eating. If the master wadded the napkin and tossed it onto the table, the servant would then know to clear the table. In those days, the wadded napkin meant, “I’m finished.”

But if the master got up from the table, folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate, the servant would dare not touch the table, because the folded napkin meant, “I’m not finished. I’m coming back.”

The folded face cloth set apart from the grave clothes in the empty tomb reminds us that the mission of our risen Lord is not yet finished.

Christ’s mission continues through his church as we stay focused on the big picture, which is to deepen the discipleship of our existing members while at the same time make new disciples devoted to following and serving him for the transformation of our broken world.

We are a people with a 160-year history of Christian nurture, outreach, and service in the Midwest as United Methodists.

Our United Methodist people make positive contributions for the common good in our communities every day in the fields of agriculture, ranching, health care, education, business, government, science, technology, and community service.  

Regardless of what is happening in our rapidly changing and broken world, our core values and mission as United Methodists are uncompromisable.

  • We will continue to help people grow in the love of God and their discipleship by nurturing them in the life of the church.
  • We will continue to proclaim new life in Jesus Christ by sharing our faith with others through fresh expressions of church.
  • We will continue to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ near and far; especially the poor, by uplifting and empowering them for self-sufficiency, by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and caring for the stranger.
  • We will continue to join heart and hand linking our love of God with love of neighbor, and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world that frees the oppressed, and works for social structures that are consistent with the Gospel.
  • Our churches will continue to be safe spaces that create connection, community and belonging as we move forward for the sake of our greater mission.
  • We will be restorative communities of faith that move from focusing on problems to imagining new possibilities. We will focus our energies not on stoking fears and finding fault, but on faithfully sharing our gifts, generosity, and abundance with each other and others in our communities and the world for the common good.

The folded napkin in the empty tomb signaled to John that Christ’s mission was not finished. It signals the same to us this Easter.

Our mission is unfinished because God is not yet finished with the United Methodist Church.

We will take both a short view and the long view of the kingdom work that is at hand and is at the same time beyond our vision.

In the present we will take an infinite number of small faithful steps toward God, each other, and toward our neighbor, each one important and vital for our unity, our life together, and our unfinished mission for Christ in the world.

As we take an infinite number of small steps in the present, we will also take steps toward God’s redeeming vision for the world that is far beyond the limits of our human capacities and existence.

Father John Dearden of Detroit concluded a 1979 sermon with the prayer,

We know that we will accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s unfinished work. We remember that we are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs. We proclaim a future not our own. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot and will not do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

Friends, today, tomorrow, and in the years to come, we will attend to Christ’s unfinished mission in the world through the witness of our lives and the grace-filled work of our congregations …

… So that relationships will be healed, social structures transformed, scriptural holiness spread, thereby changing the world and the lives of those who suffer.

… So that we will be made alive in Christ us as we embrace his mandate to love God and to love our neighbor and to make disciples of all peoples.

… So that others may also come to confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord, living in the power of his resurrection.

The Lord is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!

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