A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 13, 2014
John 12:12-16, 20-33 ESV
In case you missed it in the news, historians claim they have found the Holy Grail, the chalice from which Jesus drank on the night of the Last Supper. I first heard the announcement from Diane Sawyer on the ABC world news. Subsequently, the story has been carried by several different newspapers and magazines. A medieval history lecturer and an art historian revealed their findings in a new book, the title of which translates The Kings of the Grail. It turns out the chalice of Christ, which is somehow disguised inside a medieval, jewel-encrusted goblet, has been on display in a church in Spain for 1,000 years. Only recently was the chalice traced back to Jerusalem.
The two historians have evidence of their theory from two Egyptian scrolls that they say back up their claims. The scrolls, written in Arabic, claim that Muslims stole the chalice from Jerusalem and that it was given to Christians in Egypt. Then the chalice was somehow sent to King Fernando I as a gift, disguised with jewels and other adornments. Scientific dating estimates that the cup was, indeed, made between 200 BCE and 100 CE.
Although they admit that they cannot prove the chalice actually touched the lips of Jesus, they insist there is no doubt that this is the cup that early Christians revered as the one used at the Last Supper. The two historians claim to have done what countless others have tried to do over the centuries in pursuing the Holy Grail. Such, movie buffs may recall, was the quest of actor Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Reportedly, since news of the finding was made, the church where it has been housed for the past 1,000 years had to remove the goblet from public display.
Well, immediately the question arises, Is this the Holy Grail or not? Some are convinced that it is, while many others are quite skeptical and say it is not. Although this most recent religious artifact is quite spectacular in its claim, it certainly is not the first religious artifact to come long claiming to have a direct link to Jesus. One of the other most famous such relics of faith is the Shroud of Turin (so called because it is in Turin, Italy), the gauze-like cloth that seems to bear the bloody imprint of a crucified man that purports to be the shroud that was wrapped around the body of the crucified Jesus. The Shroud of Turin has been the object of debate, as some carbon testing is inconclusive of it dating from the first century. While some hold it to be an authentic relic of faith, others hold it to be a later forgery.
Then a few years ago, there was the discovery of an ancient ossuary—a small limestone box which was used 2,000 years ago to house the bones of the deceased after all the bodily tissue had decayed away inside a cave or burial tomb. The lettering on the outside of the ossuary led some hopefuls to believe that it could have been the ossuary of members of Jesus’ family. Then to cite one more example, I even read once that someone claimed to have found the rusty nails that were used to nail Jesus to the cross.
Again, all these examples force the question: Are these religious relics authentic and connected to the historical Jesus, as their proponents say that they are? Or are they forgeries, or frauds, or just cases of mistaken identity? What it all boils down to, it seems to me, is faith. Since there is no way on earth to prove that any of these religious relics can be traced to the historical Jesus, it becomes a matter of faith for those who want to believe they are authentic. Or to put it another way, it becomes a matter of what we see and what we hear when it comes to religious belief or articles of faith.
What planted the seed for this sermon in my head some years ago was a paragraph I read in a book by contemporary emergent church commentator Leonard Sweet titled A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Café. There is a paragraph in that book where Leonard talks about the gospel of John’s recount of Palm Sunday. As John tells the story, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching, and then he breaks out into prayer. In his prayer, Jesus says to God, “Father glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” John tells of how the crowd standing there heard something and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.” In reflecting on this passage, Leonard Sweet asks when it comes to life, and the twists and turns that life can throw at us, what do we hear? Do we hear nothing but crashing thunder? Or do we hear the voice of God or the Sacred trying to speak to us?
There is another passage in the gospel of Mark that I almost chose for today’s reading. It is the passage where Mark recounts the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark tells how passersby derided him. Others mocked and reviled him. Some looked on from a distance. For many, it was just another day of Roman executions, and there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. The truth is, the Romans crucified thousands over the years. So in that regard, the crucifixion of Jesus was no different from the thousands of other crucifixions that occurred throughout the Roman Empire. So as most of those in Jerusalem that day looked upon Jesus hanging upon the cross, he was just another unlucky victim who raised too many eyebrows of those in power, and like many other suspected insurrectionists, both before and after him, met an untimely death.
But then, there were a few who heard and saw something different that Friday in Jerusalem. A handful saw more than just another victim of the mighty Roman Empire. They saw something in Jesus of God. They saw something of truth. They saw something of sacrificial love. And they saw something of hope for the future of Israel. Mark recounts such in the testimony of the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross. “When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that . . . he breathed his last, he said, “’Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39).
What made the difference? Why did so many see or hear nothing out of the ordinary on that dark Friday in Jerusalem? And why did a tiny handful hear and see something totally different? Something of God, something of truth, something of sacrificial love, something of hope?
When it comes to things we hear and things we see in life, doesn’t it also come down to a matter of faith? Something totally unexpected and good may happen to one person, and it is seen as a mere coincidence. The same thing might happen to someone else, and they would see the hand of God or a benevolent universe in it. For one person a happenstance, for another person nothing short of a miracle. It boils down, I suppose, to the lens through which one views life and the world. Perhaps John would say to having or not having eyes and ears of faith.
Even those who look upon the crucifixion of Jesus and see something there of God or something Sacred can disagree on what is to be seen there. To put it another way, several different theories of the cross and of the atonement developed after Jesus’ death, as his followers tried to make sense of it all. But that is a study for another Lenten season.
And so, whether it be some religious artifact like the Shroud of Turin, ossuary burial boxes, or the Holy Grail chalice; or whether it be the events of that last week in Jerusalem that we call Holy Week, it falls to each of us to interpret such things according to our worldview and our own personal faith perspective. But as we look back at that week in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, there is something significant there, something to be heard and seen by all of us. Amen.