I wonder how you got here this morning. In my experience, crowds are always larger on Easter so that means that there may be a greater diversity than usual in the congregation. I expect that some of you have come here because you are always here, even when it’s not Easter. Others of you may have come because, though you are not usually here on Sundays, it’s Easter. Still, others of you have come because someone invited you, or someone forced you, or just simply out of curiosity.
I got a call a few years ago from a reporter for The Duke Chronicle.
“I’m doing a story on fun things to do during Spring Break,” said the student voice, “and thought it would be cool to mention the Chapel.”
“Okay,” I said cautiously, the tone I always use with The Chronicle.
“Dr. Willimon, what is the goal of Easter?”
“The goal of Easter?”
I had no ready answer. I could see the story, “Preacher says Easter is pointless.”
What has brought you here? How did you get here?
I watched you arriving this Easter and I noted that, though you came by automobile, or lumbering up the sidewalk, none of you came running. None of you ran toward Easter. Which, notes Tom Long, is curious because, according to John’s Easter gospel, there was a great deal of dashing about on the first Easter. First, according to John, Mary Magdalene came (John 20:2) and she, seeing the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, started running. Not that she believed in resurrection at this point, for that would come later (John 20:11-18). For now, in the pre-dawn darkness, she just begins running back to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus’ body is gone. “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where to find him,” she shouts.
On her sprint back to town, she meets Peter and the beloved disciple. In her shock, her fear, Mary reminds me of a boy in my high school chemistry class. During some chemistry experiment gone wrong, there was an explosion in the back of the class. Nothing serious, just a loud bang. And he, seated at the front, bolted out the door, ran down the hall and was not heard from again that day.
“What on earth were you thinking about?” the teacher asked him the next day.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” he said. “I was just running. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran.”
Mary Magdalene, in her grief, ran. Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. And now someone had taken His body. So, she ran.
On her way back she met these two disciples. When she tells them what she saw, or didn’t see, they break out into a run. She ran from the empty tomb; they ran toward it.
Tom Long called my attention to an interesting detail. John says these two disciples didn’t just run together toward the tomb, they ran against one another toward the tomb. They get in some sort of race, rushing — now one gaining on the other, then falling behind, gaining again — toward … what?
Why did they run against one another? What did they think they were running toward? Mary Magdalene interpreted the empty tomb as further tragedy. Not only had they killed Jesus; now someone had stolen His body. Perhaps they were running toward that awful, terrible, last insult.
“There’s been a bad accident on the school ground,” someone told the mothers at coffee. And everyone of them jumped up and started running toward the school. Why run? Why run toward the tragic? If it is not your child who is hurt, then some other mother’s child is hurt. Odd. We run toward both good news and bad. We must know, and quickly, if the news, good or bad, is for us.
Or perhaps they ran as rivals, says Tom Long. Throughout the Gospel of John, it’s Peter who is the leader of the disciples, the one with a ready word on most occasions. But it was this “beloved disciple,” whoever he was, who seems closest to the heart of Jesus. They ran to see which one of them — Peter the leader, or the disciple who was beloved — would arrive first.
A group of kids walking down the sidewalk arm-in-arm. Someone shouts from down the street, “There’s free ice cream being given out down at the corner store,” and watch friends become rivals in a race to the corner. They want to see if the good news is theirs, if this be good news for them.
As they run, these two disciples, surely there was something in them which told them that, in this strange event, they were running toward some strange, new, possibly terrifying future. Someone says, “Come! Look at this!” and we come, we run, toward exactly what, we do not know. But we run.
And perhaps that describes you this Easter. You have come here. But when I ask you, “Why, have you come?” you have no ready answer. Perhaps you do not know why. You have no clear picture of what you think you’ll here see or experience.
And I think John says that these two sprinting disciples came to Jesus’ tomb just like that, not knowing, running toward some new, strange event which they instinctively knew meant a change in their world. John says that the beloved disciple outran Peter, won the race, got there first (John 20:4). That may seem a small detail, but isn’t it interesting John mentions that the beloved disciple got there first? Not only that, John says that he was the first one to peer into the empty tomb and believe. The beloved disciple was the first to believe in Easter.
I think that John not only wanted to tell us that the beloved disciple got there first, but also how he got there. Others came to Easter in different ways. Mary will not believe until she stands face-to-face with the risen Christ and hears him call her name, “Mary!” Thomas doesn’t believe until the Risen Christ offers to let Thomas touch His pierced hands and wounded side. For Thomas, only seeing is believing.
But the beloved disciple comes to Easter another way. He believes without seeing. He doesn’t hear Jesus. He doesn’t see the Risen Christ. All he does is to come, to peer into the dark, empty tomb and he believes. Long says that, “the beloved disciple, unlike the others, believes in the resurrection in the light of Jesus’ absence.” There is nothing there, no evidence. No Shroud of Turin, no photos, just an empty place. But, “He saw and believed” (John 20:8).
Now can you see why John probably went into all that about the footrace? The very first believer in the resurrection, the first to believe in the triumph of God, came there by the same path that you and I take — by not seeing the Risen Christ. To almost no one here, I suspect, has the Risen Christ personally appeared in a garden and called you by name — as He did to Mary. No one here has touched His wounds and believed. We have believed on the basis of words, “He is not here.”
“Blessed are those who have not seen” says Jesus (all of us) “and yet have come to believe.”
How did the beloved disciple come to faith in Easter on that first Easter? Trust. The beloved disciple knew his beloved Jesus. Thus, when he saw the empty tomb he did not think abandonment, defeat, death. He thought freedom, victory, life. In a moment he sensed that Jesus had taken their relationship to a new, unexpected, and more wonderful plane.
Erik Eriksson said that a child develops trust in the first six months of life. The infant learns that, when it cries out, momentarily a voice will be heard saying, “There, there, what’s wrong?” or a loving face will soon appear. The infant learns thereby that parents care, that the world is trustworthy.
Eventually, the infant will tolerate long absences of the parent. The infant does not need the parent physically present every moment of the day, clearly in sight, because the young child has learned that, even though the parent is not right there, in view, the parent is nearby; the parent will come when called. Trust.
The beloved disciple did not have “proof,” as we call something proof. He had no legal certification of the resurrection. Yet he had his relationship with Jesus. He had his own experience of a sure, certain, determined love that would not let go, even in death. He thought he had run toward Jesus when, in reality, the Risen Christ had run toward him. And that was enough. He believed.
And so have you. That’s how you got here. I made the mistake, a couple of Easters ago, of asking one of you (on your way out as you said to me how much you got from the service) how you liked the sermon. You said (you know who you are), “Sermon? Oh, Easter’s usually much too great a challenge for a mere sermon. No, it’s the music, the crowd, the building, I don’t know. All that, the feel, more to the point than the sermon, don’t you think?” Blessed are those who, having not seen, yet have they believed.
Blessed are you.
The following commentary accompanied this sermon in the printed order of service.
Notes: Forgive us preachers if we search a familiar biblical text hoping for some new insight, some weird discovery, some detail we missed in earlier readings. After all, many of us have been at this preaching business for some time now. Not only must we interest our hearers in the sermon, we also must interest ourselves!
John’s story of the resurrection is vivid, rich, full of fascinating detail. In John, the little things, the details, are often pregnant with meaning. John renders a world in which, when Jesus appears, everything bursts open with meaning, therefore it seems fair for us to treat the details of John’s narrative in some, well, detail.
Tom Long, great interpreter of the word, called my attention to an interesting detail in John’s Easter. Everyone was busy running. The tempo has picked up in this gospel. After a long, 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.
The race of the “beloved disciple” shall concern us most in today’s sermon. He is surely meant to be the center of our focus. He is the one who, though he does not see, though he has no conversation with the Risen Christ, believes. And so shall we.

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