Sermon: The Easter 5K
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Date: April 23, 2017
Is it just me, or does it seem like every day is a holiday anymore? This week for instance we celebrated the international day of Karen, National Liars Day, Earth Day, and daughter’s day, among others. The reason that taxes were due on Tuesday instead of Monday is because it was a holiday in Washington, D.C. and federal workers were off. And of course it was Patriots Day in Boston which means that running has been in the news this week because of the Boston Marathon. Now, because of the terrorist attack a few years ago, we all watch with a heightened interest and collectively hold our breaths in hope that nothing will happen again. And I also read that this was the 50th anniversary of the first woman to run in the marathon and that the same woman ran this year who broke the barrier 50 years ago. Fifty years ago they tried to rip her number off and prevent her from running. This week they honored her for her courage and spirit. And there were many women running in the Marathon. And I know that some of you are runners. Some of you have even run in marathons before. And by my observation, people run for many reasons. Some people run for their health. You see them along the road with the most pained expressions on their faces. It says, “I’m going to be healthy, even if it kills me.” For a time I was a runner when I was in college but I got over it pretty quick. I told people I was doing it for my health, but it was strange how my route always seemed to wind through the area of the women’s dorms. Because I knew that women were attracted to sweaty guys, gasping for breath. Which brings me to the second reason that people run – out of necessity. Airports used to be a good place to watch people running out of necessity. Now, of course, with all of the added security, those mad dashes to catch planes are mostly things of the past. But there are still some who run out of a need to get somewhere fast. And then there are those who run out of fear. They fear what or who might be chasing them. Perhaps you know the story of the two campers who are bedding down for the night and one of them keeps his shoes on when he goes to bed. And the other one asks why he’s doing that. And he replies in case a bear attacks in the night. And the shoeless camper laughs and says, that won’t do you any good. You can’t outrun a bear. And the first one says, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you. Some run out of fear. And then there are those who run for the pure joy of running. Children run a lot just for the joy of it. Remember the feel of the wind in our face. Running would leave us breathless and excited.
Well, I say all of this because the Sunday after Easter is typically a low energy Sunday in the church. In fact, for a pastor it is often the most discouraging Sunday of the year. It is hard not to experience a let down after the huge crowds, and inspiring worship of Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is such a high energy day. But then the Sunday after Easter the crowds are usually lower than normal and those of us who lead struggle to bring the same kind of energy to worship. We go from a frantic, 100 yard dash kind of faith, and settle into more of a marathon. We’re not as breathless and excited on the Sunday after Easter as we are on Easter Sunday. And quite frankly, that has always puzzled me. I have never really understood why the excitement of Easter doesn’t last beyond that one Sunday. And as I have contemplated that again this year, I have come to this possible explanation. On Easter Sunday, the message of resurrection is more global in nature. It is a world changing event that we remember and celebrate. But the Sunday after, perhaps, we are challenged to look at Resurrection on a more personal level. And many of us don’t like that. Ok, last week we said that the Resurrection had happened. That Jesus was alive. The stone was rolled back. The Tomb was empty. But the Sundays after we run the risk of being asked to take time to contemplate what the risen Christ means to us personally. We can emerge from Easter Sunday personally unscathed. But the Sunday after. That might get personal. The Tomb is empty. Let’s celebrate. But Jesus raised and alive in me – wait a minute. I’m not sure I want to think about that. Let’s just skip that part of the story. But the problem is that John doesn’t let us. He quickly turns the story personal by telling it essentially through the eyes of three persons, who I believe represent us. We are brought into the story through the reactions of Mary, Peter, and John. And scripture presents them all as runners. And so the telling about Easter is a high energy, breathless kind of story. But the frenzied pace of the story after the women find the stone rolled away is a bit of a contrast to the rest of John’s Gospel. For most of his Gospel, John presents the story of Jesus in kind of a slow and deliberate way. Jesus never seems to be in a hurry. He always has time for everyone he encounters, sometimes to the frustration of the other Disciples who want to hurry on. Jesus is not a runner. Never seems to be be in hurry. Remember, it took him four days to get to Bethany after being summoned because His friend Lazarus is dying, even though they were less than a day away. When he finally arrives, Martha – Lazarus’s sister says, in essence, if you would have come running when you first heard the news, Lazarus would not have died. But Jesus was not a runner. When Jairus comes and pleads with Jesus to hurry and go with him because his daughter is near death, Jesus goes, but he is in no hurry. Someone had touched the hem of his garment seeking to be made whole and Jesus delays going with Jairus until he can figure out who had done that. When they finally arrive at Jairus’s house, they are greeted with the news that the little girl had died. And Jairus must have been thinking, Jesus if you would have come running when I first came to you, my little girl would still be alive. But Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. He always had time for everyone. That is until Easter morning. And then He was in such a hurry to leave the tomb that He couldn’t even wait until the women got there. The pace of faith changes on Easter Sunday. Resurrection changes the pace of life and faith. It brings a sense of urgency to our faith. After all, if Jesus can die somewhat unexpectedly on a Cross, who of us knows when we will need to face our own cross. So John tells the story of Resurrection through the eyes of three runners.
Have you ever watched people run? Everyone has their own style. And that style usually illustrates their overall approach to life. Some are marathon runners. Life is lived at an easy pace. No real sense of urgency, until you hit the wall and then it’s a fight to get through it. All of your planning and training brings you to that moment. Jesus was a marathon runner I think. But others are sprinters. Life is a series of events and you get from event to event as quickly as possible. You live for the moment. With Resurrection, faith was transformed from a Marathon into a 5K. The Disciples are more sprinters. In John’s telling of the Easter story, Mary and Peter and John are all runners, though each runs with a different style.
Let’s first consider John. I think John was a natural athlete. I picture him with nice fluid running motion. His journey to the empty tomb seems almost effortless. He has a natural running motion in which everything seems to work together – his legs and arms – all the parts – seem to work together. It doesn’t seem to be a struggle for him. He runs like he writes his Gospel. Steady. Deliberate. John’s Gospel was the last one to be written by several years and is much more introspective, reflective than the other Gospels. Until we get to the Resurrection. Then the pace quickens. Everyone starts to run. And I think John is a fast runner too. He beats Peter to the tomb. And all the way there he is trying to put all the pieces together. Remembering all the things that he had witnessed. All the things that Jesus had said to them. At their last meal together, he recalled Jesus saying, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. I’m simply going to prepare a place for you in God’s house and then I’ll come back and take you with me.” When He first spoke those words, they didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but then with Mary’s pronouncement of the empty tomb, the pieces all began to Fall into place. And by the time he arrived at the tomb, John didn’t really need to even go inside. He knew what had happened. Jesus had risen like He had said He would. And he writes “He saw and he believed.” He didn’t need Angels to tell him. He didn’t need to see Jesus walk through walls. He didn’t need to touch the wounds in order to believe. And he didn’t need Jesus to tell him. His Lord was alive. No wonder He is the “beloved disciple.” His is the ideal faith. He believes simply because Jesus told them what was going to happen. He takes Jesus at His Word. His belief is shaped by his understanding of tradition and scripture and the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus. His run to faith is effortless. And you know I can look out on this crowd of people today and see the face of the beloved disciple. Old and young. Men and women you are here. You were raised in the faith. Your parents brought you to church and Sunday School and taught you what faith was all about. You can’t really remember a time when you did not believe that the stories of Jesus were true. And you come to the empty tomb and you don’t really need any proof. Of course, Jesus is alive. And He lives in us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story ended there. If everyone accepted Jesus the way John did. What a different life we would have. What a different world we would live in.
But then there’s Peter. Peter is not an athlete like John. Just a rough fisherman. Peter is a wild runner. When he runs his arms flail around. He often tries to take too long of a stride and ends up tripping over his own feet. Running is hard work for Peter. He always wants to be the first one to finish. Maybe even take some shortcuts that lead him off the path where he gets tangled in the vines and thistles and he has to retreat, go back to the beginning and start again. Peter looks angry and flustered when he runs. He’s not really sure who he’s angry with. Perhaps it’s Mary. Surely she’s mistaken. She must have gone to the wrong tomb. Jesus’ body just can’t be gone. Or perhaps he’s mad at the soldiers that were supposed to be standing guard. Or perhaps his anger was towards whoever would be low enough to steal a body in the first place. But more likely, he’s mad at himself. Peter was often mad at himself. Why didn’t he stop all of this from happening? Why did he desert His Lord at the time of His greatest need? Why did He deny He even knew Him? Sometimes when we watch Peter run we’re not sure whether he’s running to or away from Jesus. And so, John tells us that Peter finally reaches the tomb and charges in, as Peter is want to do, sees the grave clothes, and goes back to the Upper Room more confused and bewildered than before. Peter is always filled with questions and doubts. Faith doesn’t come easy for him. He had heard the same things John had heard. He had seen the empty tomb. But he struggles to put it all together. He doesn’t really believe that Jesus is risen. And even if He has, there was this nagging little voice telling Peter that He didn’t come back for him, not after what He had done. Betrayal. Denial. Abandonment. Within the space of a few days, Peter had done all of that. Why would Christ come back for him? There was probably a part of Peter that just wanted to keep running. Away from the empty tomb. Away from Jesus. Away from the Upper Room. Away from his calling. He knew what the other disciples were thinking about him. He didn’t really belong there anymore. But it was what was expected of Him. He had no other place to turn. And he still had a little glimmer of hope that in the community of believers, there might be hope for Him. Easter morning was not a time of faith for Peter. Resurrection would come later for him. And you know, I think Jesus knew that Peter would struggle. In Mark’s telling of the empty tomb, Jesus tells the women to go and tell the Disciples and tell Peter. Peter is singled out. He especially needs to hear the news. And even then it would not be until the Risen Christ meets him on the shore of the lake with breakfast cooking that Peter finally understands, finally believes. Finally stops running. And you know, I think Peter is here this morning. You’ve come running. Maybe even hopeful that in the church, in the empty tomb, your faith can be resurrected. You know some look at the church, and think all they see is the face of the beloved disciple. The people who seem to have it all together, for whom faith comes easy. But look again. Because some of the faces in the church are the face of Peter. Struggling today – maybe just like you. You want to believe in Christ. But resurrection? That new life can come to you. You’re not quite sure. And perhaps you are looking out over this wide canyon of faith. And you want to jump. But you’re afraid the leap is too great. That your leap will result in death, not life. And perhaps, like Peter, you’re thinking that even if it’s true, that Christ is alive, He certainly didn’t come back for you. Not after what you’ve done. Where you’ve been. The choices you’ve made. But because of Easter, there is that little glimmer of hope that lives again, that Christ can come alive in you and make you live again. Peter you are here. And there is encouragement for you in the breathless story of resurrection and new life. The good news is for you. Jesus has conquered your death and can resurrect your life today.
And then there is a third runner in the story. And that’s Mary Magdalene according to John. Mary’s run is the run of grief and fear and despair. She probably keeps to the shadows. Glancing behind her frequently to make sure she isn’t being followed. There was great danger in the empty tomb for Mary. You see she had not come to the tomb to be a witness to the resurrection. It had not occurred to her when she set out that morning that Jesus might have come out of the tomb like she had seen Lazarus come out. She came out of duty. Obligation. One final act of service. She came not to embrace life but prepare for death. And she brought with her the spices of her doubt and grief. And when she found the tomb empty, rather than run to the tomb as John and Peter did. She ran from it. She ran with a style that betrayed her own grief and fear. They had taken the body of Jesus. And maybe they would come after her also. As she ran she wept. And her cries took her breath away. And she had to stop, not sure that she could go on any further.
I suspect that Mary is here this morning also. We want to celebrate the living, but grief and doubt and fear takes our breath away. Some have lost loved ones since we last visited the empty tomb. Resurrection is hard to understand in the midst of our grief. The pain of grief can overwhelm the hope of life. And Jesus knew that. According to Luke the first thing that the Angels say to Mary and the women is “why are you looking for the living among the dead?” When our focus is on the dead, it is hard to comprehend resurrection. Mary is always among us. And the fear we feel over dying relationships, and uncertain jobs, and failing health, sometimes compels us to run in the shadows and spend more time looking back over our shoulder in fear, when resurrection tells us that most of our life is really out ahead. Our life in Christ is never behind us. Because the tomb is empty, new life, resurrected life lays before us.
But Mary’s pain and grief, the tears she shed, blinded her to the presence of Christ until He called her by name. Scriptures say that He knows our pain, knows our grief, but we know His voice in the midst of it all. And at the moment He calls our name our tears are wiped away. No matter what griefs and sorrows and fears we may bear to the empty tomb to anoint Jesus with, they melt away with the sound of his voice.
In the midst of all the articles that were written about Easter last week, I saw one about the Shroud of Turin. (Show picture). Of course, for centuries, the debate has raged around the Shroud of Turin, that many believe to have been the burial cloth of Jesus. Others believe that it is just an elaborate hoax. But one of the enduring mysteries concerning the shroud is how the image was embedded on the cloth. And one of the theories is that at the moment of the resurrection there was a great burst of energy that burned the image into the cloth. Well whether the Shroud is real or a hoax, I like that explanation because resurrection is a time of great energy, a time when new life explodes into our darkened world. It pushes away the Stoney barriers and sets humanity to running. But how we run and where we run is our choice. Some choose to run to faith. Others choose to run from it. But the choice is always ours. So the question that we are confronted with on this Sunday after Easter, is which way will you run. Will you run to the empty tomb, or from it? Will you run towards faith or away from faith? Will you run to life or will you continue to run from it?