We have a bunch of kids in this congregation who love to run. And here, on the most sacred day of the year, we’ve got a story about running. Mary running. Peter and the other disciple racing. The action moves with speed.
This story and the others that follow it in the Gospel of John have a cinematic quality, they are like watching a movie of the reactions and responses of the various followers of Jesus to the news of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.
But we don’t just watch the action—we can feel it. There’s a physical immediacy and urgency to the stories, starting here with running disciples. Later we’ll have Mary’s weeping and Thomas’s touching and Peter walking on the sand and John eating beside the fire.
These stories are vivid and powerful and intimate. They are stories that reveal the deep relationships Jesus had with his friends and those he loved. Ted Jennings, one of Katie’s seminary profs and who spoke and preached here a few years ago, describes these stories as depicting love through “physical closeness and bodily intimacy.”
He elaborates, “This love is expressed in intimate fellowship, mutual service, friendship, shared understanding, a common fate, and destiny, which together characterize Jesus’ relationships to all these disciples.”
And it is this intimacy that draws us in.
Eugene Peterson, the New Testament scholar, points out that these stories describe action that even a five year old can comprehend. These stories aren’t alien, abstract, intellectual—they are exciting and vivid and resonate.
Peterson, too, indicates that intimacy is a key aspect of the stories. He writes, “Jesus by means of John’s story, invites us into his life, God’s life, in terms and in circumstances that are immediately accessible.”
And, so, we get Mary running from the empty tomb, and Peter and the other disciple running back to see what’s up. Running is something we understand. Running in fear, running in worry, running in joy, running for exercise, running to play, running just because we can.
The very best recess of my childhood was one afternoon in sixth grade. I had been reading, for the first time, C. S. Lewis’s final novel in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. I’d read the chapter “Farther Up, and Farther In.” The characters in the story have survived the final battle and have watched the ending of the world, and now they are in Aslan’s world where they will experience the full abundance and fecundity of God’s goodness. They start by traveling through this new landscape in sorrow and bewilderment until they begin to recognize what is around them, but seeing familiar places in new, richer ways, seeing a deeper and truer reality. And so they become joyful and, then, they start running and running. And those who couldn’t run before can run now and they run fast and they don’t get tired. And they begin to call to one another, “farther up, and farther in” as they run to explore this new world and its goodness.
And I read that chapter, and went out to recess, and I ran and ran and ran. With abandon and enthusiasm and joy. And I’d never quite realized until that moment that running could be a spiritual practice, a way to connect to God, through playfulness. And I’m grateful to C. S. Lewis for revealing that to me, but his source was probably here in the Gospel of John, where on the most sacred and holy of days, we are met first with running.
And it’s somewhat of a funny scene too, this race between Peter and the one whom Jesus loved. It is traditional to identify the other disciple as John, the author of the story, though that’s only tradition and not actually in the Gospel itself. In fact, some scholars think there’s a lot better evidence for it to be Andrew or some other follower of Jesus. But the who isn’t too relevant to us today, and I’ll probably just say John on occasion just because that’s familiar and easy.
Peter and John run to see what Mary saw first.
Ted Jennings points out why these two might have been hanging out together. Peter had denied Jesus the night before and was full of shame and guilt and might have needed to unburden himself of his failures. And the one whom Jesus loved had been there are the crucifixion, watching the horrible, violent death of the one he had loved. Maybe he was seeking comfort too? Were they consoling one another in their grief?
And so they run to see what happened and the one whom Jesus loved gets there first and stops and looks and can’t go in. I like what Ted Jennings writes, “One may suppose that the loved one hesitates also because he is still traumatized by the sight of the mangled bleeding corpse of his lover only some hours before.”
But Peter rushes in, as impetuous Peter is wont to do. And is then followed by the other, beloved disciple. And we are told that the beloved immediately believes.
Maybe what the beloved immediately believes is that life has defeated death? Warren Carter points out that life versus death has been one of the dominant themes of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. “I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly,” he tells them. Jesus is repeatedly inviting people into new life. Inviting them to engage in activities that are life-giving and life-affirming. And a kind of life that is eternal—that transcends time and all the constraints of our human lives.
“Eternal livingness” is how the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes the teaching of Jesus. Which he points out is not about length of life but is, instead, “depth of experience in the moment.” He writes beautifully,
But it is at the same time a life that begins every moment, and an awakening vitality, provided that we look to the future and welcome the possibilities of the new morning.
The kind of life Jesus offers us is also “infectious livingness,” which, Moltmann points out, results in a “new courage for living.” This is power that kindles within us the sense of life beyond death, that every moment of every day is ripe with possibilities for new beginnings.
Warren Carter then says “Those who believe in [or] entrust themselves to Jesus already have eternal life. Already now they participate in a life free from what is contrary to and opposes God’s purposes.”
To believe, in this case, isn’t to affirm a proposition, but is to embrace the fullness of life offered by Jesus. Is to entrust oneself to what Jesus has taught and witnessed to. To live with courage and hope in the possibilities of a new and better future that transcends all human constraints and defeats the forces of death.
That’s why the characters in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle ran with joy and abandon at the end of one world and the beginning of a new and better one.
Our response to the empty tomb of Easter ought to also be one of joy and courage and hope. This is our reminder that we too can be a part of God’s great and good work in the world. Our takeaway should be—to look every day for the ways we can participate in God’s life-giving work.
Warren Carter summarizes our task this way, whatever “manifests God’s life-giving, loving, and liberating purposes should guide our thinking and shape our practices.”
And when we see and embrace God’s life-giving work, then we experience that infectious livingness, we get our moment of eternal life. That is when we find ourselves in intimate union with God.
These stories invite us to participate in God’s life, they are invitations to intimacy.
And, so, this Easter Sunday I invite you to find some way this afternoon to experience the joy of living fully. If that’s playing or listening to music, taking a walk on this beautiful day, laughing with friends and family, or maybe, for you, it is running.