Running instead of sleeping

The Easter Sunday Sermon from the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | April 5, 2015

"The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection" by Eugene Burnand.
“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand.

Happy Easter! It is a glorious morning to be gathered together here at St. George’s. Easter morning in this and many churches is grand. Lots of alleluias, beautiful flowers, gorgeous music, bells ringing. We gather to celebrate the good news that Christ has risen, the Lord has risen indeed. The forces of death have not triumphed. God’s grace and love cannot be buried, cannot be contained. The stone has been rolled away, and the tomb is empty. Alleluia!

We wouldn’t have Easter morning any other way, but we have to admit, it is not exactly the tone that we encounter in the Gospel accounts of that first Easter morning. Those who arrive at the tomb are scared and confused. They fail to see right away what has happened. There are no alleluias, no bells ringing. And so even as we celebrate, even as a we set a feast for the eyes and ears and prepare, perhaps, for a big meal later on, it is a good thing to stop and imagine what it might have been like on that first Easter morning.

What has caught my imagination this year as I ponder this familiar account of Easter morning in the Gospel according to John, is all the running. The running. This may be the only passage in the whole Bible where three major characters are all running so close together. Mary Magdalene, after seeing that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, runs to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. That unnamed disciple, by the way, we tend to call John, since he identifies himself later on as the author of that Gospel. So Mary runs to tell Peter and John the disturbing news that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” It was early in the morning, still dark. Were Peter and John asleep? Did Mary stop to catch her breath or did she just launch into the news while still gasping for air? Then Peter and John run together to the tomb also. Why? Did they think they could do something? Or maybe it was one of those times when you run because you need to know and see right away.

Let’s remember that these were not joggers. Running as a recreational activity really did not happen until the mid to late 20th century. You ran regularly if you were a child, an athlete, a messenger, or a solider of some kind. Otherwise you only ran if you had to. So I’m thinking that neither Peter nor John were used to running. They were probably wearing sandals and clothes that might not have been suitable for all that jostling around. Plus they had likely just gotten out of bed and had not had a chance to warm up. Yes, the adrenaline was pumping, but still I don’t imagine that it was a very comfortable thing to be running to the tomb on Easter morning. For some reason, Peter begins to lag behind. Adrenaline will only take you so far, and he’s sucking wind at this point. I came across a painting entitled: The Disciples Peter and John running to the Holy Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection. It was done in 1898 by a Swiss artist named Eugene Bernand and hangs in the Musee D’Orsee in Paris. In the painting, Peter and John’s hair is blowing in the wind as the dawn is breaking. They are tilted forward. Peter is grabbing at his chest. They look distressed. It is not a peaceful scene.

How many of you are runners? How many of you are NOT runners? People ask me if I’m a runner, and I say, “I like to run around.” I’m one of those runners who runs just enough to know that I’m not much of a runner. So I can understand how Peter is feeling as John pulls ahead, and his lungs are burning. Happy Easter, Peter! So they get to the tomb and we can just see them bent over, trying to catch their breath. They don’t say anything, maybe because they didn’t have breath to say it. Peter goes into the tomb. John soon follows. They see the burial cloths. Jesus is gone, and neither of them understands fully what has happened.

That first Easter morning was not a pretty picture, not a blissful experience. It was a sleepy, sunrise sprint that left these disciples panting and probably sore. I’m imagining Mary running to catch up only to find that Peter and John are leaving. Wait, what’s going on? All she can do is weep. Yes, later she does encounter Jesus and she does eventually go and tell the disciples the good news. But let’s not jump to that part too quickly. An important part of the Easter message is found in the breathless and uncomfortable running. 

Bishop N.T. Wright, a noted Anglican Bible scholar and preacher, once reflected that “Easter is about running when you thought you’d be sleeping.” Easter is about running when you thought you’d be sleeping. The good news of Easter can yank us out of our comfortable beds and set our feet pounding the pavement not knowing exactly what’s going on.

I think there are many of us here who know something about running when we thought we’d be sleeping. We’ve been woken up when it was still dark with an urgent call. It might have been a literal call from someone in need: a child, a spouse, a parent that brought us running to the door. It might have been a call of our conscience to wake up and run to the halls of power in this land to speak for justice and peace. It might have been a call to show up at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesdays to meet the food truck so that the Table could have food to give in the name of Jesus. It might have just been the call to wake up and get here this morning. I know that can be no easy task sometimes. This Easter morning kind of running, this running to the resurrection…we don’t always know why we’re doing it or what we’ll find. It’s not easy or comfortable. The resurrection of Christ does not really belong on a Hallmark card or with a coconut cake shaped like a sheep (which I have to admit is one of my favorite Easter traditions). It does not really go with Easter eggs and candy. The resurrection comes with with blisters and sore muscles and lungs gasping for air. It’s the call that jolts us out of our normal existence and sets us moving, urgently searching for a truth that can never be fully grasped. Jesus rose from the dead. That’s impossible, and yet we say that it happened. Too often we say that it happened in the same way that we say “Today is Sunday.” Really…I wonder if we need to say it while panting for breath, while rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, while looking down to see if our feet are still attached to our legs. It’s that kind of news, news that is a shock to the system. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is calling us to keep going.

It’s not easy to keep going. We feel like stopping. We feel like going back to sleep. But when we’re running to the resurrection, when we’re running on an errand of our Lord, we have access to the power that woke Jesus from the dead. We step into the powerful flow of love that rolled away the stone. We are given the grace and the strength that endured the cross and grave.

I am so thankful for all who have been running in order to get ready for this joyous day. The musicians have been practicing for weeks. The flower guild has been running around here preparing this magnificent display. The clergy, though, have just been eating bon-bons. Families have been running to and from stores to prepare meals and treats. I won’t even mention the Easter Bunny. Many of you may have been running this morning to get dressed and prepared to come to church. I am under no illusion that coming to church is an easy experience for many of us. It may feel like we barely make it sometimes. And maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe it is very appropriate that we arrive at church breathless and confused. It may be just right that we come here without all the answers, wondering if the world has turned itself upside down again. If we come to this place aching and panting and wondering if we’ll be able to get out of bed tomorrow, then we might just be in the best frame of body, mind, and spirit to hear the Gospel news that Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen indeed. We might be ready to hear that love wins. If you find yourself running when you thought you’d be sleeping…the best thing to say between gasps for air is: “Alleluia!”


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