Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Holy Footrace: Peter and John and You and Me and the Empty Tomb

John 20:1-19

It was well after midnight.  We had left the hospital where they had removed my dad from the life support which had been keeping him breathing. Back at the hotel, I was sitting up with a couple of friends who had traveled in to keep vigil with us and who had decided to stay. As you can imagine, there would be very little sleep that night. As we sat together, I turned to one of them and asked, "Where do you suppose he is now?"  "What are they doing to him?" She couldn't answer with any authority, of course. What she did say was, "You can be certain they are treating him with respect." Her assurance was tender and kind and I am confident that what she said was true.

I remember my worry that night now whenever I am with a family whose loved one has died. I remember that while we know that once life has left the body, he or she truly is no longer there, even so? Not long before that flesh and blood and bone once held the life force of one we so loved. It would be devastating to think that what is left is not treated with the utmost care.

Indeed, a few years ago, it was all over the news. A cemetery outside of Chicago had been desecrated for profit. Bodies had been dug up and put in unmarked graves so that the plots could be resold. Anyone who heard the story was sickened by it. Punishment was swift and severe, for now as always, it goes against all we hold dear to so disrespect what is left behind of those we have loved.  (You probably know the story, but if not, you can find a summary of it here.)

And so it is we surely understand Mary Magdalene's reaction when she reached the tomb that early Sunday morning. Unlike in other Gospel accounts, we don't hear why she went, only that she did. And when she got close enough to see that the stone no longer covered the tomb where he had been laid the Friday before, she jumped to the obvious heart-breaking conclusion. Someone had broken in and done who knows what with what was left of one she had so loved. Apparently, Mary could not bear to face this alone. And so as quickly as she could, she tracked down Peter and John. Once she found them, all she had to do was utter her suspicion that the body of Jesus was gone and they were off.

I wonder now what was running through their minds as those two disciples tried to outpace one another to get to the now empty tomb.  Indeed, I wonder where they got the energy to run --- for I can't believe that between them they had gotten much rest in those last days. I wonder if it was anger and outrage that was fueling them then as they considered the real possibility that for all that was horrible that had already happened to Jesus, even after his death it continued. Or I wonder if perhaps somewhere in the back of their minds they are remembering something of what Jesus spoke about the temple being destroyed and him raising it again in three days. Words which could have held no logical meaning for them when Jesus first spoke them. I wonder if they were remembering their best moments together over the last few years: of people fed and demons expelled and life and health and hope restored. And yes, I can't help but wonder if they were hoping against hope that their last hours with Jesus would not have the last word after all: that their abandonment and denial of one they had pledged their lives to could perhaps still be redeemed after all.

We will never know for sure, of course. What we do know is that when they got there John was blessed with understanding which was immediate while the Peter's came a little later. What we do know is that once they got there and saw the linen wrappings cast aside, they simply went home. I wonder now if they talked as they made their way towards home. Indeed, I wonder if John spent that time trying to convince Peter of what he somehow knew to be so. I wonder if he wasn't even then trying to coax the Easter Proclamation from him --- that "Christ is Risen, Indeed!  Alleluia!"

Well of course, you and I do know what happens next --- that Jesus calls Mary by name and that he comes bearing peace to that place where the disciples have locked themselves away. That he will feed them by the seashore and that he will remind them that their call now as those who love him is, in turn, to feed his sheep. We know what comes next. And yet? Sometimes still, I find myself trying to keep pace with those disciples on that early Easter morning -- living in that tenuous place between doubt and hope, grief and joy renewed. I am still enough 'of this earth' that I cannot help but love and honor what is flesh and blood and bone between us even as I cling to the certain hope that this is not all there is. I am still learning to hear the announcement that the 'tomb is empty' and to receive these as words of ultimate promise for me and us and all this world that God so loves.

And so it is this Easter Day in the early morning I will gather with others outside a mausoleum at our local cemetery. A place where we honor and protect what remains of what we have so loved in this life now. I have done this for years now in different cemeteries and I expect I will continue to do so. I have done it with handfuls of fellow believers who are on this holy footrace with me and I have done it with crowds. I do this because I cannot think of a more fitting place for us to raise our defiant cry against all that marks our lives with loss and grief and struggle and shame and death. I do it now in a cemetery where there are now countless I have known by name and loved. Including my dad. Oh yes, in that early morning hour I will read aloud the names of those we have buried there. And together we will shout the Easter Proclamation:
"Alleluia! Christ is Risen!" "Christ is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!"
I love that this call and response wells up within our hearts. I love that these words of promise are ones we speak with and to and for one another. And yes, I have to say that I love that these words matter so for the flesh and blood and bone we have loved in this life now. For while we know and trust that there is more for us? This is what God has given us to love now.

And so this Easter Day, and the day after that, too, I count it a privilege and a joy to run this holy foot race with the likes of Peter and John: alongside others who are running towards an empty tomb and seeking meaning and understanding there.  Oh yes, I am so grateful for those who respond with the Easter promise that "Christ is Risen, Indeed.  Alleluia!" To be sure, it is an announcement and a hope that I am still seeking to comprehend, but what joy it is to press these joyful words against our hearts and minds once more again this year.


  • What do you think Peter and John might have been thinking as they ran towards the empty tomb? What would you add to my wondering above?
  • Can you imagine what their conversation was like as they made their way home?  What might they have said to one another?
  • What does it mean to you to run this 'holy footrace' with others of God's people?
  • How doe the Easter promise that "Christ is Risen Indeed!" speak to you this year?  Where are the cemeteries you most need to hear it?