A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sermon (March 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Different Robes of Jesus: Seamless Robe"

    Not much is known about the seamless robe which the soldiers cast lots for while Jesus was being crucified.

    There’s a book by author Marjorie Holmes called The Messiah.  This was the third in a series of books about the life of Jesus that were based on biblical knowledge about Jesus, but then Ms. Holmes filled in the blanks using historical fiction.

     In her book, she said that Jesus’ grandmother, Anna had made the seamless robe for her grandson Jesus as an act of love.  She had given it to him before he left to travel to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, which would be his last here on earth. The author describes Anna’s feelings of agony and despair as she watched her grandson being crucified, along with the other women at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

     While none of this is biblical, it does help us to think about this particular robe of Jesus. Jesus had parents and grandparents, and they must have shown human love and emotions and gave gifts as acts of love just like any other normal family does.  This is what I enjoy about reading historical fiction. It helps us to see historical events from a variety of perspectives.

     There are also some traditions held by the church surrounding the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ seamless robe.

[Trier, Germany Cathedral - Jesus' Seamless Robe Relic]

     It is said that the robe is held as a relic in Trier, Germany.  Here is what the information page on the cathedral’s website says: 

     “The most precious relic in Trier Cathedral is the Holy Robe, the tunic of Christ.  According to tradition, Helena, the mother of Constantine brought the seamless robe of Christ to Trier. The Holy Robe is mentioned for the first time in the 11th century; the history of the Holy Robe is documented with certainty only from the 12th century, when it was removed from the west choir to the new altar in the east choir on May 1, 1196.
     Since the Cathedral renovation in 1974, the Holy Robe has been kept in its wooden shrine from 1891, lying under an air-conditioned glass shrine.  The last great pilgrimage, in 1996, became a celebration of all the faithful, with its continuation in the annual Holy Robe Days.  Only during the Holy Robe Days is the Holy Robe chapel accessible, but the garment cannot be viewed. The original state of the textile has altered because of past events and the unfavorable storage conditions, as repairs have frequently been made.”

     The question of the genuineness of the Holy Robe cannot be answered with certainty.  For the faithful, the symbolism is important: the relic signifies Jesus Christ himself, his incarnation and the other events in his life up to the crucifixion and his death. The undivided and seamless garment is also a symbol of Christian unity and evokes the binding power of God, as is expressed in the Trier pilgrim's prayer: 

     "Jesus Christ, Savior and Redeemer, have mercy on us and all the world. Be mindful of Thy Church and bring together what is divided. Amen."

     The symbolism of the unity of Christ’s Church exemplified in the seamless oneness of Christ’s seamless tunic is interesting.  Too often the Church fails to be unified and instead we rip and tear at the fabric of the unity of the Church for which Christ prayed in the Gospel of John.

     Our Protestant heritage does not put much emphasis on relics like other streams of our Christian faith do.  It seems impossible to prove that the tunic in Trier Cathedral is the true seamless tunic of Christ or not.  After all, eleven hundred years had passed since the crucifixion until the first recorded mention of the garment being in Trier. 

     But then again, faith has never been about proof, has it?  Faith is belief in that which we cannot prove by evidence alone.

     So, what do we know about the garment from the biblical stories that are recorded in the gospels?

     The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus was being crucified in between two criminals, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.  And they cast lots for his clothing.”

     This was common practice for Roman soldiers to divide up the clothing of executed criminals among themselves. When these soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes, they fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm 22:18.  “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”

     In Mark’s telling of the crucifixion, probably the first written account which we have, it says in chapter 15, verse 24, “And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.”

     In Matthew’s gospel it says in chapter 27, verse 35, “And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him.”

     It is from John’s Gospel account of the crucifixion that we get the most detail about this robe which Jesus had been wearing.  Beginning in chapter 19, verse 23 John writes, “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. 

     They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.”  This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”  And that is what the soldiers did.”

     There is one very important lesson I think we need to focus on from these few, short verses in the various gospel accounts of the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ robe, and it is this: Don’t gamble on your future with Jesus.

     Casting lots is like rolling the dice to see who will win the prize.  Casting lots is like drawing straws to see who will go home the winner. This is no way for us to trust our future with Jesus.

     There are two important characters in these stories that can help us in our faith.  The first one is one of the criminals who was crucified beside Jesus.

     One of the criminals joined with the others in the crowd in mocking Jesus, while the other recognized the truth that he and the other criminal had indeed committed crimes for which they deserved death on a cross. 

     One of the criminals rebuked the other one for deriding Jesus.  He recognized that Jesus had done nothing wrong that would merit his death sentence. 

      Then the one criminal said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

     This criminal recognized the kingship of Jesus, and asked to be remembered by him. He put his whole trust in Jesus.

     He had a faith which could not be seen. He had true faith. He didn’t gamble with his future; he placed it securely in the hands of Jesus.

     The other important character from whom we can learn in this story is the Roman centurion.Unlike the other soldiers who were gambling or casting lots for Jesus’ garments, this soldier came to faith in Jesus.

     In telling the story about the dividing of Jesus’ robe, Luke tells us that when noon came on crucifixion day, darkness covered the whole land until three in the afternoon.  During this time, the curtain in the temple was torn in two. Then, Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. Having said this, he breathed his last breath. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

     Mark’s gospel account is even more telling.  He says, “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

     Like the one criminal, the centurion also placed his faith and trust in Jesus, and proclaimed his faith with the words that he spoke.  He did not gamble on his future either, but placed his faith in Jesus who he believed to be the Son of God.

     Like these two biblical examples, we should not gamble with our life either.  We are to place our faith firmly with Jesus. This leads us into a deeper awareness of our sins and of our need for forgiveness.

     This is what leads us to accept the forgiveness which Jesus offers to us, believing that when we place our trust in Jesus we will be with him in God’s kingdom.

     And then, like the centurion, we are prompted to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God with our lips to others, so that others will receive God’s grace and forgiveness in their lives.

     Placing our faith and trust in Jesus, and the unity of the Body of Christ are the messages of this story, and the lessons we can learn from this seamless robe that Jesus wore. Seeing Jesus for who Jesus is, and working for unity and oneness in the church.

     In these days when the Son of God is not physically on earth, one of the ways we see him as he is, is when we encounter him in another person.

     The story is told about a Wise Old Sage who was meditating in his Mountain cave.  When he opened his eyes he discovered an unexpected visitor sitting before him - the abbot of a well-known monastery.

   "What is it you seek", asked the Wise Old Sage?

   The abbot recounted a tale of woe.  At one time his monastery had been famous throughout the western world.  Its cells were filled with young hopefuls, and its church had resounded to the chant of its monks. 

     But hard times had come on the monastery.  People no longer flocked there to nourish their spirits, the young men aspiring to join the monastery had dried up, and the church was almost silent.  There were only a handful of monks left and these went about their duties with heavy hearts.

   Now this is what the abbot wanted to know - "Is it because of some sin of ours that the monastery has been reduced to this state?"

   "Yes", replied the Wise Old Sage, "a sin of ignorance."

   "And what might that sin be?"

   "One of your members is the Messiah in disguise and you are ignorant of this", replied the Wise Old Sage.  And having said so he closed his eyes and returned to his meditation.

   Throughout the long journey back to his monastery the abbot's heart beat fast as he thought that the Messiah - the Messiah himself – had returned to earth and was right there in his monastery. 

    How was it that he had failed to recognize him?  And who could it be?  Brother Cook?  Brother Sacristan?  Brother Treasurer?  Brother Prior?  No, not he; he had too many defects, alas.  But then, the Wise Old Sage had said he was in disguise.  Could those defects be part of his disguise? 

     Come to think of it, everyone in the monastery had defects.  And one of them had to be Messiah.

   Back in the monastery the abbot assembled all the monks and told them what he had discovered.  They looked at one another in disbelief.  The Messiah?  Here?  Incredible!  But he was supposed to be here in disguise.  So, maybe...  What if it were so and so?  Or the other one over there?  Or...

   One thing was certain.  If the Messiah was there in disguise, it was not likely that they would recognize him.  So they took to treating everyone with special respect and consideration.  "You never know", they said to themselves when they dealt with one another, "maybe this is the one."

   The result was that the atmosphere of the monastery became vibrant with joy.  Soon dozens of aspirants were seeking admission to the order.  And once again the church echoed with the holy and joyful chant of monks who were aglow with the spirit of love.

     The world will know that we are Christians by our love.  May our lives help build the unity, the seamlessness, of the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

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