The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
April 4, 2010
First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, UCC
This sermon was transcribed.
Introduction to the Scripture:
In our church, we like to preface the scripture with an introduction. It helps us put it in an historical and cultural context. We like to ask hard questions of the text. We say, ‘We take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.’ In some ways that makes me think that’s one of the reasons that we’re not great congregational hymn singers, is that you’re all looking forward to the next verse of the hymn to see if you agree with it.
As you know, there are different versions of the resurrection story. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all tell slightly different versions, with different characters playing key roles. This morning, you’re going to hear the version from the gospel of John. What that means historically is that after Jesus’ death, there were different groups of Jesus’ followers led by different disciples. This was the gospel that rose up out of the community of Christians who were following the disciple, John. What that means is that about 100 years after Jesus, this was written down and put together. In each of these gospels there are different heroes of the story. Predictably, in the gospel of John, it is John who is often the hero. But he is quite modest, so he doesn’t refer to himself as John, but ‘that other disciple’ or ‘that disciple that Jesus loved.’ So when you hear that, you’re going to know that is John. This community had a vested interest in seeing John as the leader, so at one point you’re going to see Peter and John literally race each other to the tomb; and I’ll leave it up to your imagination to see who, in the gospel of John, is the winner.
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Christ is risen!
When is the last time you raced to tell someone good news? When is the last time you had something so exciting to see or to report that you ran—you all-out ran—to get the news out? …not running for fitness or for a sport, mind you, but when is the last time you ran simply because life compelled you to? If you’re an adult, it’s probably been awhile; but kids do this all the time. I saw a little girl breathlessly running down our street to her friend, a few blocks away. She was gasping and out of breath, and heaving herself forward to bring the phenomenal news, “Mom says I can have a sleep-over tonight!” Then she collapsed in the drama, because it was a Wednesday, after all.
I heard a story of an African village, where they were experiencing something of an epidemic, and many of the villagers were very sick, so they sent a young man to seek help. He ran to the village over the hill, where he knew they had a clinic and a doctor who would visit on occasion, to see if that doctor could come and help the villagers. They awaited word anxiously. The people of the village looked out over the horizon for any sign of that young man returning. Finally, he appeared over the ridge, walking back to the village. You could hear great cheers rising up from the villagers, but a wise elder of the village said, “We have no reason to cheer. If he had good news, he would not be walking, he would be running.”
The prophet Isaiah says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” When one is bringing good news, those beautiful feet are likely to be running across the mountain, not strolling or moping along.
So what kind of news would make you pick up your feet and run?
The version of the resurrection story that appears in the gospel of John is chock full of running. It’s like the Olympics of the resurrection narrative; but the story does not begin that way.
After Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which we marked here in church last Sunday as Palm Sunday, and after his very Last Supper, which we marked in worship as Maundy Thursday, and after the crucifixion and his heartbreakingly painful death on the cross, which we remembered in worship on Good Friday, we come to Easter.
By the time Mary Magdalene, his dear friend, arrived at Jesus’ tomb on Easter, she was like a sad, little orphan, lurking around the last place she saw the person who meant the most to her. She came to the tomb because she probably had nowhere else to go. She didn’t expect anything to be out of order there. She just needed a place to visit and remember the closeness she had lost—because Mary had lost her teacher, her Savior and her friend. I imagine that her walk to the tomb that day was very, very slow. She didn’t particularly want to be there, she just had nowhere else to be.
In a cemetery, no one goes running or bounding to a grave. They walk toward it very slowly, reverently, perhaps even fearfully—wanting a connection, but knowing that this cold stone will only deliver a memory and not the real thing.
So, I imagine Mary making her way to the tomb very slowly. But instead of finding a sealed-up memorial, she finds an empty tomb. Let me help you imagine what a tomb would have looked like in 1st Century Jerusalem. It would not be a grave of the type that we have in a cemetery, but it would be a cave-like building or structure that one could literally walk into—except that it would be sealed. And on Friday, three days earlier, that tomb had been sealed with a stone. So Mary’s first shock was seeing that this stone had been rolled away—a massive, giant stone that was meant to block up and seal that tomb forever. The scripture reads, “So she ran” “She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one who Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ ”
For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism—like a cynical physics proposition—combined with the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism. It was probably the case that when Mary showed up to say that the tomb was empty, the two men did not believe her. They probably thought she got the wrong tomb, she was upset, she was hysterical, she wasn’t thinking—so, silly woman, the men had to go check it out themselves. It couldn’t be true.
These two men must have suspected, on some level, that it was true, because it says in the scripture that they both ran—not like mourners visiting a grave, but like desperate, even excited men, who wanted to see if the things that Jesus had predicted could possibly be true. In fact, Peter and John race each other to get there—and John gets there first.
It says that “…as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” They did not yet understand it. I think that means they did not yet understand it intellectually, that is, in their heads, but they understood it somewhere else—because these adult men ran to check it out. It’s as if their bodies did understand the scripture “that he would rise again,” and whatever skepticism they had in their brain in that moment, their feet took over and they ran to see if this could be true. And true, it was.
There was evidence that this was more than a body-snatching, but actually could be the resurrection, because the linens that had covered the body were just left there in the tomb. Think about it as if you were investigating. No one would ever steal a body and leave the materials that it was wrapped in. Something extraordinary had happened.
It would take all the disciples and Mary some time to figure it all out—at least in their brains—but in their bodies, it was like they already knew. That’s why, before they understood it, they ran. They ran, not fueled by athletic drive, or fitness goal, but ran because they were full of the hope of the Holy Spirit. They were “running on full.”
People talk a lot about “running on empty,” like a car that is running out of gas with no gas station in sight, or the prices are too high—the gas gauge is not up at “full,” it’s way down at “empty.” It is not a good thing to be “running on empty,” but there are times in life when we feel that way… the gas tank in your car, or the gas tank of your bank account, or the gas tank of your heart, all run low, and you can’t seem to move with the elegance and the style and the speed for which you were designed. When you’re “running on empty,” the car is reduced to this puttering clunker ready for a trade-in—and energy and speed are the first things to go.
That’s probably how Mary and the disciples felt after losing Jesus—from this point on forever, they would just be “running on empty.”
But in the moment of finding the empty tomb, Mary has this glimmer of hope, and suddenly her feet have her running before her head can tell her that she’s crazy. Peter and John find themselves racing like little schoolboys before their heads had time to tell them to sit down and be still like skeptical adults.
Instead of “running on empty,” all these people are “running on full”—full of this hope of the Holy Spirit that says, “Brain, you don’t have to be in charge of everything in this body; not everything needs a logical explanation, not everything needs to be proven.” Sometimes our feet take us to where our heads can’t get to yet—and we find ourselves “running on full.” That is the spiritual journey.
My husband loves to run. And like many American runners, he is hooked on this book called, Born to Run, which describes the journey of an American man to Mexico. There, the writer is a sports writer, but also an injury-prone runner, himself. He discovers the Taraumara Indians, who run these extreme distances without ever breaking a sweat or without ever getting injured. He discovers, when he interviews them and visits them, that their secret is that they’re barefoot running. Rather than wearing any kind of running shoes, they’re running barefoot, or wearing at most, just the lightest sandals that are made of old tires. They are these super athletes who can run against the elite runners of the developed world, even though their society and technology are five hundred years behind ours. In addition, he discovers, they have this culture in which running is a form of play, with all kinds of game—not only that children play, but adults play these games as well.
The writer comes to the conclusion that American runners, with their high-tech, name-brand running shoes and drive for celebrity or money or victory, actually train their feet to run in the wrong way. For example, we hit with our heels, when we really ought to be springing on our toes. The stuff that we think is going to make us run better is actually making us run worse. By shedding that stuff—those shoes, that mentality—he believes we can return to this pure, more physical form of running that is playful and childlike and natural. That’s his theory.
I haven’t tried any of this running myself, of course, I’m far too busy sitting around writing sermons about it. But if I were ever to get off the couch and run an ultra-marathon, I’m definitely doing it barefoot… less stuff—more instinct—more fun—better speed. These folks are “running on full.”
There’s a lesson for all of us, whether we’re runners or couch potatoes, particularly when we’re feeling run down, or when we’re “running on empty.” Can you, the next time you feel yourself “running on empty,” imagine saying instead that you are “running on full”? Can you imagine deleting the complaint, “I’m so busy,” from your vocabulary forever, just deleting it? Can you imagine, rather than seeing your life as a mad rush to keep up with this “to-do” list, instead see your life as rich and full? Rich and full.
I challenge you, as I am challenging myself, that the next time someone asks you how you are, and you are about to reply with that tedious sigh and the words, “I’m so busy,” that you catch yourself and reply instead, “My life is rich and full.” Because, in an economy where so many people are out of work, nobody should be complaining about their job. In a mortal world where time with people we love is way too short, no one should be talking about those people as items on a “to-do” list. In a world where so many people have so little, nobody should talk about leisure activities, like sports, as any kind of a burden. Nobody should view the privilege of a good education as any kind of a chore. We are not busy. Our lives are rich and full.
When you decide to look at your lives as rich and full, instead of just busy, it’s very hard to see yourself as actually “running on empty.”
We’re running, filled with the hope of the Holy Spirit that caused the grieving disciples to pick up their tired, grieving feet and run to the tomb, with the hope of the Holy Spirit that caused the great reformers of the church to stand up to intolerance—that caused the civil rights activists to stand up to racism, and causes us to stand up for equal treatment and dignity for all people today—that causes church members in wealthy suburbs to stand up for the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill right here where we live—that sends teenagers to build houses across the country in the hot summer sun and parents to take off for strange lands and build them there. It causes the grieving to put one foot in front of the other because, through Christ, death and emptiness do not have the last word. Nobody has to “run on empty.” By the grace of God, we all “run on full.” Christ is risen!