Further Up and Further In

The Sunday of the Resurrection
Year A (John 20:1-18)
Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

We hear the story every year. Each year we read the story from a different gospel, but the plot line remains essentially stable as it pertains to that first Easter morning: the tomb is empty, Jesus has conquered death, Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! To be sure some of the details vary – in every gospel, women arrive at the empty tomb first; but only in John’s gospel does Mary Magdalene arrive there alone. Matthew’s gospel tells of a great earthquake which rolls the stone away from the tomb’s entrance – in the gospels of Mark and Luke, like John’s account we heard this morning, the stone has already been rolled away – no fanfare, just the gaping entry to the empty tomb. And so, the details vary -but again, the basic plot remains the same. So, if it’s not for the story, why are you here? Why am I here? What are we doing on this Easter morning that is so different from what we did last year or the year before that or the year before that or the very first time you or I ever experienced an Easter morning?

In C.S. Lewis’ delightful children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the characters – Mr. Tumnus explains that all the faithful followers of Aslan – a great lion who, in the stories, represents the God-head or at least Jesus Christ – all the faithful followers get to go “futher up and further in” to Narnia – Aslan’s Kingdom. The phrase “further up and further in” captured my imagination this week as I reflected on John’s account of that very first Easter morning.

Mary arrives at the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away. Immediately, she turns around and runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple what she has seen – and her interpretation of the situation: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Someone has stolen the body! This is an understandable interpretation, isn’t it? Matthew’s gospel goes so far as to place guards outside the tomb in order to prevent the body from being stolen – an act which the chief priests and Pharisees believed was not beyond the antics of Jesus’ disciples who would stop at nothing to trick the people into thinking Jesus had risen from the dead. But here, of course, we have Mary Magdalene, a disciple, distraught over what she presumes to be the stolen body of her Lord.

After telling the two disciples, they all run back to the tomb and this time they enter further up and further in as the beloved disciple bends over to look into the darkness of the empty tomb. He is able to make out the shape of the linens which had been used to wrap Jesus’ body. Simon Peter goes even further as he enters the tomb to see not only the linen wrappings but the cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, rolled up in a place by itself. The beloved disciple follows him in and the gospel tells us, “he saw and believed.” Some scholars have suggested that what he believed was the account that Mary shared – that someone had stolen the body. He has now seen it for himself and believes she is telling the truth. But, this interpretation is anachronistic because it assumes a use of the word “believe” that simply had not yet occurred. You may recall my mentioning this a few weeks ago – the better translation of “I believe” being something like, “I set my heart on” or “I give my allegiance to”. To believe is a heart word, a loyalty word, not a rational thought word. And it simply makes no sense that the beloved disciple would be setting his heart or giving his allegiance to the notion that Jesus’ body has been stolen. No, the disciples have come to believe that Jesus has conquered death. No mention of the resurrection at this point; simply that Jesus has overcome death and the grave. Further up and further in.

The two disciples, we are told, return to their homes and Mary remains behind at the tomb, weeping. She stays behind and has an experience that will take her further up and further in to the truth of the empty tomb – she encounters the risen Christ. He calls her name and she knows his voice. Does this remind you of another Scripture passage from John’s gospel? It should: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish”[1]. Jesus has indeed overcome death and the grave, he has, in fact, been raised from the dead – now the resurrection is the story!. And now Mary is able to leave the tomb and return to the disciples with the first report of the Good News: “I have seen the Lord.”

We hear the story every year. The plot never changes: the tomb is empty, Jesus has conquered death, Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! And so, if we already know the story, what are we doing on this Easter morning that we haven’t done before? Perhaps we are here because each time we hear the story of the empty tomb and the resurrection we are invited and encouraged to go further up and further in for ourselves.

Perhaps you are like Mary first arriving at the tomb convinced that the body has been stolen, that some great deception is at hand. It’s not what you want to believe, but you somehow cannot help yourself. The evidence for anything more is just not there for you. Or perhaps you are like the beloved disciple just stooping down to look into the tomb to see for yourself and, finding only the linens, you are ready to accept that Jesus has somehow conquered death but until you have a clearer understanding of how that happened you can go no farther. Further up and further in. Or maybe you are like Mary who stood outside the empty tomb weeping and you too have heard Jesus call your name and you have encountered the risen Christ. Further up and further in. Perhaps you are so enlivened by the power and the truth and the glory of the resurrection that you cannot help but announce it to your friends, to your neighbors, to your classmates, your co-workers, and strangers you meet on the street – Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia! Further up and further in!

Mr. Tumnus the Faun from Lewis’ Narnia says, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside . . . . like an onion except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last”[2].

Further up and further into the story that never changes, further up and further into the story that is forever changing us. Christ is risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia!

[1] John 10:27-28.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (Harper Collins, 1994), p. 207.