Standing Outside On Easter Morning
First Baptist Church Laurens
The first church I served as minister in North Carolina included all sorts of interesting folks just like most congregations do. Among our unique cast of characters was our pianist. At the time I became pastor, she was well into her retirement years and was quickly moving toward the end of her life. There are a number of things that I recall about her. For instance, she had trouble remembering things including whether or not she was familiar with the hymns that we were planning to use in worship on a given Sunday. She also had a fiery temper. And, she easily got her feelings hurt which meant she always had to be handled with care. But, since she was the only person in the entire church who could play the piano, we didn’t have much of a choice but to keep the peace, focus on her happiness and be as sensitive as possible to her at all times and in all ways.
What I also remember is that her husband shared some of her same quirks. At times they could both be pleasant and welcoming but you just truly never knew how any visit or interaction with them might begin or end.
While she continued to be faithful to church and to playing the piano until her death, he never came to church. Actually, let me restate that. What I should say is that he never came inside the church. In truth, he came to the church every Sunday. Every week, he pulled up outside, let his bride out of the car and then dutifully came back to get her when the day was over. Here was a man who came to church every week, but, he never ventured inside.
John’s gospel tells a similar story as it relates to Easter Sunday morning about two of Jesus’ disciples. In this fourth gospel, the two of them have a footrace to Jesus’ tomb on the very first Easter morning. But, once they arrive, they enter the moment at two different levels. One goes all the way inside the tomb and the other stops at the entrance. One goes into the very place where Jesus’ body had been and the other waits outside.
The story that ends with these two disciples at the tomb begins with Mary Magdalene who was one of the early female followers of Jesus. Whether alone or with others we are not sure, Mary went to the tomb of Jesus well before daylight on that first Easter. When she arrived, she found something far different from what she had expected. The stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the body of Jesus was no longer inside. This discovery led Mary to do two things. First, it led her to assume that Jesus’ body had been stolen. Her sense was that either the Jewish leaders or Roman authorities, as a way of adding insult to injury, had taken Jesus’ body. Second, beyond making that assumption, the other thing that Mary Magdalene does is to go and tell others. Those others come in the form of the two disciples I have already mentioned. Their names were Peter and John who in the story is referred to as “the one whom Jesus’ loved”.
It was Mary’s message that leads both Peter and John to respond with their sprint to the tomb. Yet, as I have already said, when they arrive, they do two very different things. John first stops and simply looks into the tomb. But, Peter goes inside. John stays outside but Peter goes right in.
Ultimately, John does join Peter inside the tomb. Once inside they are able to see things much more clearly. Yes, Jesus’ body is gone but there are also other tell-tell signs that help to explain what had happened. These signs come mainly in the form of the grave clothes that Jesus had been wearing and that had been left behind. Further, it is the way they had been left that is equally if not more important. Rather than having been tossed to the side and into the corner, they look as if they have either been folded up neatly or as if the person who had been inside of them, namely Jesus, had simply vanished leaving the grave clothes right where they had been when Jesus had been shrouded in them. Either way, the placement of the clothes indicated that the body was not stolen. After all, if the body had been stolen, why remove the clothes? And, even if you did, why fold them?
Being inside helped them to look, see and understand what had happened. Inside, the evidence mounted up and suggested that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Alive, he had either folded up his grave clothes or simply left them right where he had last used them. Their seeing all of this lead to one response – belief. The gospel says that the disciple John believed and it is implied that Peter either before or shortly thereafter believed too.
Here is the simple, one sentence point that I want to make on this Easter Sunday from this text. When it comes to faith proximity matters. Here is what I mean by this statement. In the story, it is only as Peter and John truly go inside the tomb that the truth becomes clear to them. At first, John stays on the outside, a bit at arms length, on the periphery of the tomb. But, once he joins Peter inside what they see and experience leads to belief. Further, when you think holistically about Mary, Peter and John it is their presence at the tomb itself that leads to either encounters with the empty tomb or an encounter with Jesus himself. Being at the tomb leads to experiencing the Risen Christ, to knowing about Resurrection, to belief itself.
In essence, the closer they get, the more they live into the place where it all happened, the more they enter the very heart of the tomb itself the closer they come to understanding and to belief.
There is something for us to hear right here. You see, living at arms length with Jesus, the church, the things of faith, the call of Jesus or the people of faith is something that a lot of us do. Sometimes we do this as skeptics who are not so sure about all of this faith business. We participate here and there because it is what our family expects of us or because it is the cultural thing to do. But, we are not about to truly give ourselves over to it. We might stand outside the tomb but we are not planning to go all of the way inside.
For others of us, this distance exists despite the fact that we are believers. We readily call ourselves followers but we still like our distance. We need a buffer zone if you will lest we get too carried away with all of this Jesus business. We might wear an “All In” Shirt for our favorite team but it is not what we believe about faith. “At a distance” not “all in” sounds better to us.
And then, there are those of us at the very heart of the faith. Church life, matters of faith, following Jesus is at the very core of our being. But, even for most faithful of us, there are areas of this life with Jesus where we are more comfortable outside rather than inside the tomb. “Outside looking in” is not true of all of our life but it does describe a part or a particular segment.
In light of this, I want us to hear, experience and learn something today. There is a truth embedded in the Easter story and in the resurrection appearances that is so simple and yet so easy to miss that I am not sure that I have ever affirmed or noticed it myself. Have you ever realized that among those that Jesus appeared to in the gospels after his death and crucifixion not a one of them was a stranger to him. No, they were not perfect. Yes, they had their foibles and their failures. But, for the better part of three years, they had all sought to be with him, to know him to get close to him. Their proximity mattered. Keeping Jesus at arm’s length would not do.
What I want all of us to hear me say is this – the power, wonder and might of this Resurrection story becomes greater, takes on more significance and is experienced in fullness the more we try to draw nearer to this Christ and his story. Yes, we can benefit from the Easter story and the power of Resurrection even at arms length. But, if we truly want to know Jesus fully and if we want to experience all that faith has to offer, we cannot sit outside the tomb and just look in, we have to come inside.
This happens on all sorts of levels and in all sorts of ways. For some of us, it happens by finally giving ourselves and our lives to Jesus. At arms length won’t work, we must finally give ourselves fully and completely to him. For others of us, it happens by joining a church. Yes, it will require something of us. Yes, it will involve working with people that are not 100% like us but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, it is a way of closing the gap and coming inside. For yet others of us, it has to do with letting go of bad habits, secret sins, petty disagreements or a haphazard life of faith where we only come to church when it suits us. These are all ways of keeping God at arms length and yet faith demands we loose our buffer zone.
I heard a powerful story recently that seems to tie this up neatly for me. It was the story of a man and women who had just learned that their son and his wife were going to have their first child and thus for them a first grandchild. Their son and daughter in law lived in a town about two hours away and they quickly scheduled a trip to go and see them for a couple of days and to bask in the news of the coming baby.
As they traveled home, the grandfather to be admitted to his wife that he just wasn’t feeling it. No matter how hard he tried, he could not muster the excitement, enthusiasm or joy that the two parents to be and his wife the grandmother to be obviously had. He didn’t know what to do. His wife listened and then said this, “here’s what you do, build that child a crib”. And, so he did. He researched cribs, shopped for the best wood and then for weeks raced home from work, went to his shop and worked on the crib. As he shaped the wood he thought about the coming child, as he sanded and painted he prayed for this gift of God on the way and then he said this. “When the crib was ready, I was ready.” Through the crib work, he had come close, he had let this coming birth get all over him – he felt it, thought about, prayed for it. He was ready. (Told by Eugene Peterson in As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire)
The first two sentences that Jesus utters in John’s gospel are these words – “what are you looking for? Come and see.”
I will tell you what we are all looking for – his name is Jesus. But, we will not truly find him out there. We must come fully inside where we can experience him, know him, feel his presence, be with his people, work among the church, live the faith, breath it, be challenged by it. Then, we will be ready to know it not in part but fully – Easter! Resurrection! Amen.