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Running Through the Cemetery

Knowing that Jesus has come for us and called us by name should send us running with joy.

Have you noticed how much running there is in this text? This is a breathless text. It's got sweat all over it. Everybody in this text is running. You have to use film to catch them. You don't have much running in the Bible, not much running in the Gospels. But in this paragraph everyone seems to be out at a mile sprint.

Why this running? And of all places, the place that they're running is in a cemetery. I see running in a lot of places but not very much in a cemetery. In cemeteries we walk lightly on our hearts as if through a land mine. We walk softly through these tablets of memory with reverence. That's okay. But no one goes running, not in cemeteries. What is it about the Easter morning story that sent people running in the cemetery?

I do see people running in the mornings at these sunrise services that I hold with other people in my neighborhood. We're out there running. But we look more like Good Friday than Easter Sunday. We grimace, and we barely try to grin. We grunt at each other as we go past. Our faces are etched with pain. We're trying to keep our heart rate up and our waistline down, but we're not running out of much joy, of course.

I see people run at workrunning with many things to do in the paper chase or being chased by it, having overcommitted themselves. They're trying to accomplish an incredible amount in a short amount of time.

I see people running through airport concourses trying to turn back the clock and get all the way from Gate 1 to Gate 40 in two seconds. I see people run around neighborhoods. Homemakers in Suburbans, delivering children from PTA to soccer practice to the for baseball, then back to the church picnic. Running.

I see some people who run in fear.

But I don't see very many people who run out of sheer joy, except for children. If you take a group of little urchins to the mall and release them, they spread like gnats. Then they just run, not because they're in a hurry, not because they're being chased, not because they've overcommitted, not because they're trying to get their heart rate up or their waistline down. They're running for the sheer joy of running. They're running because it's fun to run. They're running because you won't run. They're running because it is great to move that fast. It's great to run. They love to run.

That is the spirit, almost, of this Easter running. This is a running that has light feet about it, feet that were wounded and scarred by all kinds of experiences in life, suddenly set free and running. Some of us will have trouble appreciating this, but this is a running text.

When the sun comes up Easter morning, it dawns on people in different ways, and the shadows flee from your faces in different ways. Just as on the first three people whose stories are told in John 20, so we who gather on this Easter morning are not identical to each other. I want us to see how the Scripture respects this and allows you to be called to faith in different ways, not all in precisely the same manner.

Some of us respond to the resurrection with simple faith.

Look at their faces. There's the beloved disciple whom Jesus loved. Isn't that a great nickname? The disciple whom Jesus loved. He's never actually named, but we would believe from tradition that it's actually the apostle John. He's very close to Jesus. When Jesus calls three aside, it's Peter, James, and John, so John sees many of the special miracles.

When they're sitting at the Last Supper, John is right next to Jesus and can whisper, "Who is it that will betray you?" When Jesus dies on that cross, everyone flees, but according to this Gospel, that beloved disciple was still there at his feet. And it was to this disciple that Jesus gave the word from the cross, "Take my mother home with you. Let her be your mother; you be her son." He was close to Jesus. He saw and witnessed the entire experience.

Now we hear that he's in a foot race with Peter. Maybe because he's younger, he beats Peter to the tomb when they hear the incredible news from Mary that the tomb is empty. They're racing to the tomb to see about this. John gets there first. So he was fit, but he was quicker in more ways than just feet. He was quicker of faith.

When the beloved disciple got to the tomb, did you hear the story? He did not go in, he just looked, and he saw the linen cloth depressed down like a cocoon emptied. He saw the headpiece here, and he paused to reflect on that.

Then Simon Peter came rushing up and rushed right on past into the tomb. And then the beloved disciple entered as well and saw. It simply says that he saw and he believed. Isn't that wonderful? He didn't have to have a lot of proof. Unlike doubting Thomas, he did not have to thrust his hand into Jesus' side or put his fingers into the holes. He didn't have to see Jesus walk through walls. He didn't have to have anything. He just saw that little bit, and he believed.

An ideal disciple is this beloved one. It doesn't take much to nudge him to faith. No, he did not come thinking that Jesus was raised, but when he got there, it did not take much. You just had to announce it, just whisper it out of an empty tomb. No angels yet, and he believes.

You are here, aren't you, beloved disciple? Men and women, old and young, some of you are here. And you believe like this disciple believes. It does not take much labor to midwife you into faith. You cannot even remember a time that you did not believe passionately in Christ. When you became a believer you just walked across the stream of faith at its narrowest point. Even though it's always a supernatural thing when a person becomes a Christian, for you it was almost natural. It just seemed right. You don't struggle about your faith. And you get up Easter morning and you say, "Well, of course he's risen. He's risen indeed." And you don't understand why anybody even struggles about that because it is for you something you just find simple to believe.

Now, make no mistake about it. Persons who believe like this are not simpletons. They're not naive. They're not unplugged from the world. They're not ignorant. They're not childish. They simply have the gift, the blessing. They're fortunate. They have the blessing and the giftedness of an easy faith, of a painless labor into faith. This is a wonderful and beautiful thing. And there will be some here this morning who will say, "That is who I am." That's all right. You've not missed something because you've not struggled. It's a wonderful thing, and I celebrate that. Your face is in this portrait.

Some of us respond to the resurrection with struggling faith.

But not everybody comes to faith that way. In fact, in all the four Gospels, when the story of the empty tomb is told, the only person who came to faith upon witnessing the empty tomb was this beloved disciple, John. No one else did. Simon Peter walked in. He saw the same linen cloth, and he walked home scratching his head, saying, "I wonder what happened?" He didn't believe. He was just stupefied, mystified. He had questions, doubts, and concerns, even though he saw the same evidence.

There are some of you here this morning who looked around this room and up in the choir loft, and you said, "Everybody has this fresh face aglow with faith. Why don't I feel that way?"

You might be thinking you're the only person in the entire history of Christendom for whom faith, even faith in the Resurrection didn't come simply. You simply have a lot of questions, a lot of skepticism, a lot of things you're not sure about.

Guess what? Your face is in here too. Your face is in this story, and you don't have to be like the beloved disciple. You don't have to pretend that you're like him. You can be who you are. Watch him. His name is Peter.

Simon Peter comes in and sees all of this, but he's a man's man. He lives in the world. He's a fisherman. He knows all the dirty jokes, and he does some cursing on the side. He's done both of these recently to try to prove to people that he did not know the Christ. Now he's consumed with the guilt and the brokenness and the darkness of his own life. Although he ran to the tomb, hopeful maybe, he also knows that when you're dead, you're dead. He knows that when it's over, it's over. The Yogi Berra of the disciples is Simon Peter.

There's nothing else after death. It was dreadful and terrible what happened to Jesus, more dreadful that he denied knowing Jesus. He could have done something, maybe, and didn't. That's even worse. Something in Simon Peter died when Jesus died.

There are a lot of believers, there are a lot of people who hang around the believers, there are a lot of people who get up and put on uncomfortable Easter shoes, who in their heart of hearts are not sure. You're not sure that beyond death there's anything else, for you or for Jesus or anybody else, because your experience doesn't give you any evidence to that.

Simon Peter, male or female, old or young, are you here this morning? You've come running. You might even come hopeful. But you find believing a struggle. For you, the labor is painful. And the coming to faith is not simple or natural, and the stream is wide where you try to cross.

I want this text to encourage you. I want you to know that Jesus Christ not only came back, but he came back for Simon Peterespecially for Simon Peter. In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, when this story is told, the angel says to Mary Magdalene, "Go back and tell the disciples that he's gone before you, and Peter." Tell Peter especially. Simon Peter believed that if anybody had been dropped off God's invitation list, it was

him. And he did deserve it.

But Easter is to say that Jesus is raised and to say that he did come back and he came back especially for people who believed that he couldn't have come back for them. And when he came back, Jesus did not upbraid Simon. He did not scorch him with a sermon, with an "I told you so" or an "I knew you'd fail me." What Jesus came back with was scarred arms, arms to reach around him to say, "Simon Peter, I love you. I came back to say your failure wasn't the end. You cannot dig a ditch so deep, you cannot run away so far, you cannot accumulate any amount of curses, bad things, or denials that can make you out of reach of my love. If death can't stop me, if they can't nail me down with real nails, you can be sure that you can't get far enough away that my hand can't reach you. Simon Peter, I came back for you. It may take you a while to get that, but I came for you!"

Simon Peter walked away from Easter Sunday morning not a believer. You may also. For Simon Peter, the truth dawned a little later, gradually, as Jesus appeared to him. Jesus called him to a new calling beyond his failure. Gave him a job to do, which is really what forgiveness is. It's not just saying, "I forgive you." It's trusting you with something to do again. He gave him a job to do, to lead the church. "I trust you," Jesus said to Peter.

This is good news, but it dawned slowly. If you approach Easter this morning consumed with your sense of guilt, something serpentine and slippery is slithering and whispering in your ear: "After all you've done, you can't believe that. God couldn't love you, not what I know about you. There's no place for you in church, not after what you've done." If you ever hear that voice from a preacher, from your own parent, or from someone who looks like an angel, I guarantee you're not hearing from God. Jesus came back to say your failures are not final. That is not the last word to be said about you. He came back to the very people who hurt him to say, "I believe in a new future yet!"

I have a son, an only son. And if I sent my son to a group of people to tell them how much I loved them, and they tortured and killed my son, had I the power to raise my son up from the dead, it would never even occur to me to send my son back to the same people again. Would it you?

And, yet, this is the God with whom we're dealing this morning: He raised his own son back up and sent him back to the same people. Simon Peter, even if your birth in the faith is slow and tortuous, if you are more doubting and skeptical, if your senses of failure have made your feet scarred and unable to run, if you've come limping into here with only a tattered flag of faith flyingI tell you, he came back for you too. Let him just call you. You learn to handle those doubts with honesty before him, knowing that they're going to lead you to faith, not away from it. Let that happen. Talk that through. Think that and believe past that.

In your failure and your questions, the borders of what you can imagine in your mind or experience through your senses, you will gradually, if you will let him, be called by Christ. Let him do that for you.

And you can't get your faith from someone else. When our daughter, Pamela, was at her first Easter egg hunt with other children, they were all 3 . The Easter eggs were out there; I could see them from my vantage point as an adult. They set the children loose, and they were running around. But Pamela had an empty basket and couldn't find many eggs. Maybe one, just a simple one.

Well, I just had to step in as a parent, because those other kids were beating my kid. I got out there with Pamela and ran ahead of them. Boy, I was flying. Pamela had a full basket then. I felt really proud.

I looked down to see if Pamela had stopped crying about the empty basket. She was still crying. "Pamela, why are you crying?" "Well, I wanted to find them," she said. She didn't want just a full basket; she wanted the joy of finding them. So I had to go out and plant them all again so she could find them.

Simon Peter, the beloved disciple's faith cannot fill your basket. You let a much wiser heavenly Father take you by the hand, and he will gently, ever so patiently, but with true wisdom, guide you to fill your basket of faith. It may be slower, but it will be yours. And it's the only faith that will sustain you and will turn you on to what he's made you to be.

Some of us respond to the resurrection with grieving faith.

The final face in this first Easter portrait is a woman: Mary of Magdalene, a woman from whom seven demons were cast out. Imagine the thud in the dust as seven full shackles of evil were released from this woman. Talk about a woman who walked light on her feet after that! Luke 8:3 says that she's numbered among the disciples. She was there ministering to Jesus, ministering for Jesus and in his name. She was there at the cross. She watched them as they took him from the cross. She was there to see him put into the tomb.

When she came to the tomb, she knew which tomb he was in. She did not go to witness the Resurrection. She did not go to get an Easter message. She went to perform a wake for her Lord, not knowing he was awake, that he wasn't there. She went to mourn. She couldn't get Easter, not because of guilt or doubt like Peter; she couldn't get it because of grief.

Mary, are you here? Male or female? Are you here? All this business of alleluia and Christ risen and celebration is difficult for you because you are carrying a sack full of grief. Maybe recently someone precious died, and you are overwhelmed by that pain.

Maybe it was your job that just died. Maybe it was a relationship that's died and a dream that went with it. Maybe it was health; you thought if you ate enough pine bark and bean sprouts and exercised that it would just go on forever. But then your doctor said, "This is going to kill you."

So you're grieving the loss of something very special this morning, and grief can blur your vision and coat your heart. And even though the sun was up according to the other gospels, this gospel says that when Mary came it was still dark inside of her. Her grief is a shade over her faith. And unlike Simon Peter, even when Jesus appeared to her, she's still stuck in her grief. She thinks he's a gardener.

Driving to the church early this morning I passed behind the church through University Park, past a beautiful home. There were some colored Easter eggs on the lawn placed there by some benevolent and wise one, I'm sure, hoping, for the grand sunrise and little pattered feet running out into the front yard. I just pictured the whole scene as I drove by. I drove slowly, thinking about how wonderful that was.

But as I continued to pass by, their dog or your dog, some neighborhood dog, was out in the yard picking up the Easter eggs and running off with them. One by one. He had come to reverse Easter, put him back in the tomb. I don't know what he was doing. Going to hatch them? What vivid imagination does this dog have? I don't know what he wants to do with the eggs.

But I got to thinking, Oh, if that dog doesn't stop, this little child is going to come bursting out and she or he will be surrounded by grief and I stupefied parents. And all the eggs, where did they go?

This is Mary Magdalene. She comes to Easter and says, "He's gone. Where, where did he go? Someone's taken him." And the one she's talking to is him. You who may feel very far from Christ, he's the one who's here. He's closer to you than your next heartbeat. But she couldn't see him.

And then he called her name: "Mary."

Ten chapters earlier in this gospel, Jesus said, "I'm the good shepherd. I know my sheep. They hear my voice; they know my voice. And I call them by name."

"Mary." Your name is wonderful, isn't it? It's the name that you love hearing called out when you return from a trip and you get home and they call you by name. It sends you on a pilgrimage to a granite memorial in Washington, D.C.at the Vietnam Memorialand you run your fingers across a certain name. Jesus knows your name. He knows what it takes to unlock who you are and release it. And he called her by name.

Several years ago, on a Saturday before Easter in another city, I was struggling under how to try to preach the Easter message to all the varied people who would gather. How do I tell that news? I was out with my children wanting to take some quality time with them.

But I was burdened under this sermon, and the kids were flitting away like butterflies on the loose, way down the road as we were walking through the neighborhood. Suddenly they called out my name. The shield went up a little bit, and they said, "Daddy, can you do this?" I looked, and my kids were skipping along the road. "Yeah, I can do that," I said, and went back to pondering this theological treatise.

And they said, "No, Daddy, can you? I mean, really, can you go; skipping? We've never seen you."

"Well, of course, I can go skipping. Everybody's been skipping." "Well. . ." You know what they said: "Then show us."

I hate to be beaten by the kids. But I couldn't go skipping. I'm an adult, and I have a doctorate degree, and I pastor First Church, and we have members who live in this neighborhood. Neighborhood associations are worried enough when a preacher moves into town. It makes prices volatile in the neighborhood. But if he goes skipping around, well, that does it. I couldn't do that. What did they say? "N. You can't do it." So I looked around, then I did it.

I can't remember why I ever stopped skipping as a child. It's not hard on your knees. It's easier than jogging, and you can get a lot of distance. Maybe it's because adults just aren't that happy any more, not that carefree. Unless they get hold of Easter. Unless Easter gets hold of them.

The best thing that ever happened to that Easter message is that I went skipping on Saturday. It will send you running too. It may come at different paces, different frequencies, different times for you; but however you're wired, Easter has come for you, and he calls your name.

Allen Walworth is senior of Resource Services, Inc. in Dallas, Texas.

(c) Allen Walworth

Preaching Today Tape #151


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


There are three different faith responses to the Easter message.

I. Some of us respond to the resurrection with simple faith.

II. Some of us respond to the resurrection with struggling faith.

III. Some of us respond to the resurrection with grieving faith.


Knowing that Jesus has come for us and called us by name should send us running with joy.