A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on April 4, 2010.
In John’s account (of Easter)….everyone was busy running. The tempo has picked up in this gospel. After a very long series of monologues by Jesus in which he bids farewell to his disciples, after a bloody crucifixion in which things moved terribly, tragically, slowly, Easter bursts in upon us and everyone begins to run. I watched you arriving today. None of you came running.
—William H. Willimon
I think Forrest Gump is a great movie. In his lifetime, Forrest manages to experience all of the fads. He sees all the images and symbols of a generation from the 60’s on up into the 21st Century. All of the things that we have seen and experienced, Forrest seems to have either invented them or was there when they started. He bought Apple stock in the beginning, and don’t we all wish we had done that. He is there when the man gets mud on his face, takes a yellow T-shirt, wipes his face, and comes off with a Smiley Face. And he was there when the running craze began. I did not go back and look at the movie, but I think he is grieving his mother’s death and he runs across Green Bow County. Then he runs across the great State of Alabama, and he runs multiple times across the U.S. If you have seen the movie, you know that people gather in behind him and hundreds of people are running and following. Nobody knows where they are running or how long they are going to run, but everybody runs with Forrest.
It is a parody on the cultural experience of how popular running has been in my life time. What is hard to realize is that running in a broad cultural way where people are out constantly running and jogging is really something late in human history. In our world, we get up about 5:00 in the morning and take a major artery into town, and chances are we will either see someone running by themselves or a small group of people running. If you were to stop and ask them why they are running, responses might be they are running for their heart, to keep their weight down, or to compete in a triathlon or half marathon or whatever else it may be.
We take running for granted, but who in the 1800’s ran? Who can you think of in some historical setting who ran? It might have been two cowboys in a quick burst of speed trying to pick up a gun that has been dropped in a gun fight. It might be the main character in Red Badge of Courage who is running from battle and later to battle. But if you stop and think about adults in general, in society, who really ran like we experience running today?
In Bible times, it was the same. I looked it up, and there are about 200 incidents of the word run or ran in the Bible. Most of the time, it is referring to either a river, a sore, a vine branch or something related to military battle. But the number of instances in which people run is very limited.
The father of the Prodigal Son runs when he sees his son coming home and that is part of the story. No self-respecting Jew in biblical times ran. Just imagine the robes and how that has to look and the risk of getting your feet tangled up and falling down. It is not a good look, is it? As the British would say, it is “rather bad form.” If somebody in the Bible is running and it is not related to battle, war or something to that effect, it almost always has to do with super high emotions. There is something to tell. There is something that needs to be found out. There is something that needs to be known.
When we read the passage from John 20, we find it seems people are running everywhere. In the Gospel of John, we do not know what Mary Magdalene’s motive was for going to the tomb. In the other Gospels, we are told that Mary Magdalene and other women are going to prepare the body. Jesus was crucified too late in the day on Friday, and it was the Sabbath. They took his body down and put it in the tomb as was their custom. But the women wanted to go back and treat the body of Jesus correctly. They wanted to put spices on it and do all the things that accompanied burial. That is what the accounts in the other Gospels tell us.
In John’s Gospel, Mary got there and the stone was rolled away. We find out later that she thought someone had taken the body. In the moment, all she did was to see the stone rolled away and she ran. This was a rather sexist society in Bible times. Not only did most men not run, but a woman certainly did not run. Throwing aside all dignity, Mary ran and found Peter and John. The passage does not actually say “John.” It says, “The disciple that Jesus loved.” This is code. John never wanted to say “me.” He always described himself in the third person, “The disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Mary ran and she went to find Peter and John. She told them what had taken place, and they not only got up and ran as hard as they could, but they actually had a race. I don’t know how far it was. I know, at my age, anything over 100 yards is looking a long way off to me. It seems like they ran and ran and, finally, John got there ahead of Peter. They looked in, and Jesus was gone. What were they running to? Were they running to death because the body was missing or were they running to life because Jesus was raised?
The Gospel writers are pretty unanimous in this. The early disciples really were not expecting a resurrection. The early disciples had to see evidence again and again. Look at what Thomas said, “I am not going to believe unless I can put my fingers in the marks of the nails.” The disciples did not expect it, so Mary said, “The body is missing.” What are they running to? Are they running to death wondering what has happened to the body of Jesus or have they run in the anticipation of life?
I have actually been working on this sermon for seven years. One of you sent me an e-mail seven years ago that helped put this in context for me. It was a Wednesday night.
“Dear Joel, After I left church tonight, I began putting some thoughts together that I had since our friend, my son-in-law’s cousin, got his new heart [it was a transplant] and I wanted to share these thoughts with you. When he got in the car and headed towards Atlanta, for him a five hour trip, he didn’t know if he was rushing towards life or rushing towards death. Both options were there. At that moment, his heart was working, though barely, and he was alive. When the surgeons put the new heart in, there was no guarantee that it would even beat or that it wouldn’t be rejected, but after the surgery, it beat good, and so far, so good. He has six weeks before he will be out of the woods, but he has life and that’s what he was rushing toward. This has made me think about my own life and eternity. Am I rushing towards life or am I rushing towards death?”
That question became the focus for me of what to think about on this Easter Sunday morning. If you have read the meditation text, William Willimon talks about how people are running here and there in the biblical account. What are they running to?
If you hurried into the sanctuary this morning, what were you running about? Were you running because you couldn’t wait to come in here and hear the message of resurrection or were you running because you were afraid you would have to sit on the front row if you didn’t get here on time? Were you running because your parents were expecting you to arrive by 10:50? Were you running because the children took longer to find the eggs and you were late? Were we running towards a message of life or were we running just in the preoccupation of life and really running towards death? Where do we spend the energy of our lives? Where do we spend the urgency of our years? Are we running towards life or are we running towards death? Do we spend our time and our years on those things that really are a part of Christ’s plan in eternity or do we rush towards those things that are destined to pass away and things that, quite honestly, hurt us and rob us of life. If they rob us of life, then they can only be described as death.
As Christians on this Easter morning, we believe a couple of basic things. We believe that Jesus is God’s son. We believe that somehow through Jesus’ death on the cross and our faith in Christ that we can be forgiven of our sins. We believe that Christ is the path to eternal and everlasting life. Christ is the way to life. All of the things that matter to Jesus are the things that really matter in eternity.
In all the hurry of our lives, what are we headed toward? I think our model is Peter and John because the truth is they didn’t know what they were headed toward. If you read the text, it is a little confusing. It is as if the understand of resurrection is daunting. It is not what they expected when they got there, but John gets there and he begins to get it. He begins to understand. For a moment, what had been running to a tomb is now running towards life. The raised Lord, Jesus Christ, the one who has conquered sin, death, and the grave is our guide for life. The things that matter in eternity and the things that matter in a life in which Christ fills our lives are things like mercy, grace, forgiveness, and justice. The things that don’t matter at all and that rob us of life and love are: trying to get a leg up on somebody else, trying to put yourself in a position where you can take advantage of others, trying to grab all the power that you can, trying to prove someone else wrong so that you can win, and trying to use somebody else. Are we running towards life or are we running towards death. Are we running towards pleasing God or trying to satisfy our hearts that are so very, very fickle? Have you ever satisfied your heart only to have it want something else the next day?
What are we running towards? On this Easter Sunday, we are not better than the disciples who ran towards the tomb originally thinking about death. We are hurried and we are preoccupied with things of this world that will pass away. They are like dust.
But the truth is we are no worse off than the disciples either because the message is in our hearts and the testimony is preached, prayed, and sung. We hear the promise of life. It is a faint echo and we think we understand it. Today, we want it more than anything. In the goodness of God, as it began to dawn on those early disciples, may it continue to dawn on us and may our faith grow so that we turn from running towards the things of the tomb and follow the Christ who is out of the grave, reflecting all of his glory and beckoning us to life.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.