THE EXPANDED UNIVERSEThe Word of God and the First Easter Sunday
If you know anything about us at CCR, you’ll probably know that we like doing things a little bit differently. Sometimes that’s because we just want to be different for different’s sake, but usually because we want to offer something unique and compelling. This includes what we do on Easter Sunday. On each of our three Easter Sundays together in Richfield, I’ve tried to take a bit of a different approach than expected. Easter, after all, is the most attended Sunday of the year on which we’ve been trained to expect the same story that we hear every year on this Sunday.
But what if our celebration of Easter included more surprise like the first Easter morning?
Two years ago when we were studying the Gospel According to Mark, we talked about textual variants and the idea that the oldest of the Easter stories ends with the women leaving the tomb and telling no one because they were scared. What do we do with that?!
And last year in studying the Gospel of Luke, I discussed how the Easter story was not that unique in the first century — that the Gospel authors shamelessly borrowed from stories of other kings and other gods. What do we do with that?!
So with that in mind today, I am not going to be reading from the story of the empty tomb. Instead, I’m going to begin by talking about Star Wars … and three quarters of you just tuned out! Bear with me.
In 1977, the original Star Wars movie was released and it absolutely blew people away. There had been sci-fi movies and there had been special effects, but what George Lucas did in creating an entirely galaxy far, far away and a long time ago opened up a new world — or perhaps universe — of possibilities.
Eventually there were additional films that began filling in the unknown corners of the Star Wars galaxy. But something else started to happen as well. Many fans began feeling that a handful of movies could not possibly go into the depth of possible Star Wars experiences. There were simply too many other stories that could be told. And so people began to tell them.
The result is what came to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Novels were written, comic books were drawn, action figures were produced, and — most importantly — new stories were told that expanded upon the characters and narratives that had already been told. Stories that no set of films could possibly encapsulate.
For 35 years, the Expanded Universe sat alongside the Star Wars films not as official stories but as stories to appreciate nonetheless.
Then in 2012, Disney purchased the rights to Star Wars with plans to produce new films following the original characters and storyline. In order to make it possible to tell new stories, however, they needed to clean things up.
The result was the narrowing of the Star Wars canon and the destruction of the Expanded Universe in 2014.
The Star Wars universe was in need of quality, clarity, and consistency, and much of the Expanded Universe was inconsistent, contradictory, or just plain crazy. Even for Star Wars.
So these stories that didn’t make the cut for the official Star Wars canon were dubbed “Legends” — interesting but ultimately unreliable stories.
Which brings us back to the Bible. And to the Gospel of John. And really to Easter.
This might come as a surprise to some, but the Bible as we have it today did not simply fall out of the sky. For the first few hundred years after Jesus, there were dozens of stories and writings flying around and being read by followers of Jesus. There had been pretty strong consensus by the second and third centuries on the uniqueness of the 27 books that now appear in our New Testament. Even so, it wasn’t until late in the fourth century — at earliest — that the church arrived at an official canonization of these 27 books as authoritative Christian scripture.
These 27 books — including the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus — had among other criteria clarity, quality, and consistency.
And yet they weren’t wholly consistent.
Nowhere is this quite as clear as in the Gospel According to John. John’s story of Jesus is SO vastly different from the others. He omits things that the other stories include, includes things that the other stories omit, and in the stories that is does share disagrees in some pretty substantial details.
Even reading John’s story of the first Easter morning, we can see some major consistencies. There has been a physical resurrection. A woman is the first to see the empty tomb and to tell others. Men feel the need to investigate and corroborate the woman’s story (because of course they do). Heavenly beings appear at the tomb. And Jesus appears to his followers to prove that he’s actually alive.
But there are also some major differences. John includes that “the disciple Jesus loved” beats Peter in a foot race to the tomb. (John, not always known for his humility, is “the disciple Jesus loved.”) This is also the only Easter story in which Mary Magdalene is alone at the the tomb, has a one-to-one discussion with the risen Jesus, and is sent to preach the good news to the others.
Why does John do this? And why is John allowed to be placed alongside Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
The answer is pretty simple. Because he — a close friend of Jesus — had a different and compelling story to tell.
Many of us know the broad outlines of the Easter story. And this is probably what most people are expecting to hear on Easter Sunday. But I want to offer you something unique.
Fast-forward to the next and final chapter in John. Several weeks have passed since the resurrection. Jesus has reunited with his disciples. Three times he proves to them he has risen. He restores Peter and gives him some words of encouragement. He gives “the disciple whom Jesus loved” some final instructions.
But the end of John does not include a nice and tidy ending with his ascension to heaven. Instead, John ends his story about Jesus like this.
This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
What a strange thing for one of the authors of the Bible to say.
From what many of us have been taught about the Bible, we’d expect John to say something like, “And this book includes everything you need to know, believe, and do. The end.” Here’s your pretty little package all tied of neatly with my nice little bow. Instead he offers something highly unexpected.
According to John, this picture of Jesus is not exhaustive. You might even say that it’s incomplete.
It’s not just this story. It’s not just these four stories. It’s not just this book. In fact, no written words, no pages, no books can fully contain the story of Jesus.
Which bring us all the way back to the first chapter of John. Here the evangelist speaks of “the Word” of God. But the author of a whole 20% of the New Testament does not describe his words, nor his peers’ words, nor the words of scripture as the Word of God. The Word of God is Jesus. And according to John, the true Word of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Through his life, the Word of God showed us the very heart of God poured out for all people.
Through his death, the Word of of God showed that there is nothing he won’t do to win is back.
And through his resurrection, the Word of God announces that he cannot remain bound to a tree. The Word of God cannot remain bound in a grave. The Word of God cannot even be bound in a book.
Instead the Word of God named Jesus is alive and active and continuing to animate the universe. His testimony is true, and we are merely called to testify our knowledge of him.
If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
If this ideas feels at all unsettling to you, that’s okay. You’re not alone. The earliest Christians found themselves in a similar predicament — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus forced them to rethink everything they knew.
Who was God? Who are we? What is scripture?
At its heart, the New Testament is the first Christians’ best attempt at answering these questions. And yet written into the very text itself is an admission that the books they were writing and compiling is not, indeed cannot be EVERYTHING that God has to say. Why? Because Jesus is alive. The fullness of his story is continuing to be told. And he continues to reveal himself and his kingdom TO and IN and THROUGH us.
You might say that we now live in the expanded universe of the post-resurrection. Not everything goes. We have these stories of the canon which serve as testimony to Jesus. But we also have more stories and experiences of Jesus that are not in conflict with it but merely expand our knowledge of a universe in which Jesus has risen and a new kingdom is at hand.
The Word of God — once bound and left for dead — is alive and active and shaping new stories with us.
And I don’t know about you, but to me that is some pretty amazing and unexpected news on Easter.