The Big Footrace

“The Big Footrace”

by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Hingham, Massachusetts
April 5, 2015

John 20:1-18

When I was a young child, my parents and my big sister cultivated a large vegetable garden in our back yard. It was way down in the back corner of our property and was bordered on one side by a big, undeveloped field. Working in the garden was a private, soothing, meditative activity for all of us.

One springtime, when I was about eight, I asked my sister if I could plant something in the garden and she said, yes. Since I liked carrots, I put those in. And since I loved peanuts, I planted some of those as well. My sister had never heard of anyone planting peanuts in a back yard garden before, but she supported my decision.

All summer long, I watered, weeded, and fertilized my short, crooked row of carrots and my little peanut patch. Each day, for two months, I went down to the garden by myself to check on them. For an attention-challenged eight-year-old boy, that kind of waiting does not come naturally.

Finally, at the very end of August, the time came for the harvest. I pulled up my first carrot and… I held in my hand a tiny orange sliver of a thing. I thought, Well, the rest will be great. But no, the biggest carrot I pulled was about as big as my pinky. What had happened? At least the peanuts will be a success, I thought. Peanuts, here we come! But all of the peanuts were rotten.

The disappointment I felt was deep and real, but it paled in comparison to the disappointment that the characters in our story must have felt when Jesus basically allowed himself to be arrested, tortured, and executed.

They, too, had spent a season of their lives nurturing something special. Jesus’ movement was exiting, adventurous, risky, healing, spiritually powerful, prayerful, redemptive and life-giving for Peter and Mary and the unnamed disciple, as well as for the people Jesus had asked them to serve.

The traveling, the new relationships, the positive feelings they had about what they were doing and this amazing man who was leading them… Why did it all have to come to an end?

Jesus had tried to explain it to them – that it was meant to be, that an important part of his calling was to give his whole life to his people. He was not about to back down because the religious and secular leadership was uncomfortable with what he was saying and doing. And it cost him his life.

And then came that awful night. All three of them, I am sure, wished they could have it to do all over again… wished that they had been able to stay awake in the garden as Jesus wept and prayed… wished that they would have stayed with Jesus through his entire ordeal like true disciples… wished that they had been better friends to the one who had made their life worthwhile… wished that they hadn’t let fear separate them from their rabbi and from their best selves.

And then, he was gone. Left to die a painful, humiliating, lonely death. Now sealed in a cold, dark tomb.

But… Mary discovers that Jesus’ body is missing. She tells Peter and the unnamed disciple and they take off running toward the tomb.

Now, there is some mystery about the details of this footrace. What does the author of the Gospel of John have in mind when he reports that the unnamed disciple outruns Peter? What is the significance of the fact that Peter, although arriving second, is the first to enter the tomb?

It might reflect the politics of the early church as much as anything. In other words, maybe the author of John wanted us to know that the established church, which Peter headed for several years, included other very faithful, passionate leaders, like this “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

But in the story itself, besides being kind of confusing, it serves, I think as an illustration of how each of Jesus’ disciples and each of us experiences and approaches faith differently.

Some of us, like the fleet-footed unnamed disciple, are passionate about God and zealous about our faith. This kind of person has a deep spiritual hunger and is willing to pursue answers with all his or her might.

Others of us are like Peter, courageous and willing to take risks. Peter doesn’t hesitate. He goes right into the tomb to see what’s up. This kind of person might be willing to speak up while others are silent or take action when others are afraid.

But neither Peter nor the unnamed disciple are able to grasp what is going on. As the scripture says, they just don’t understand that Jesus was serious when he had told them he would come back to them.

So, in their shock and grief, they turn and leave, unable to experience the risen Christ. At least not yet.

But Mary… who at first thinks that his body must have been taken by grave robbers, has no need for competition. She doesn’t join in the footrace. She takes her time. She is perhaps more open to the unexpected and the miraculous.

Oral tradition has it that Mary had lived a very hard life before Jesus found her and invited her to join him on his amazing journey of healing and redemptive interaction and service.

There is something about Mary’s personality experience that allows her to slow down and consider what the angels have said. That, one way or another, Jesus is alive. So, unlike the men, she stays in the garden, as disappointed as she is, and eventually encounters and recognizes the risen Jesus.

He is alive! He is still with her, despite the terrible death he has suffered! And he is somehow still able to reach her.

Of course, there is that strange moment when she thinks he is the gardener, until he says, Mary! It’s me!

Could it be that it was the gardener after all? And Jesus at the same time? There is a tradition within Christianity of doing our best to see the Christ in the stranger, or really in anyone and everyone.

It just may be that Mary was particularly good at seeing Christ in others, even in the most unexpected people around her.

As you look at this cast of characters, who are you? Are you the unnamed disciple whom Jesus loved, the passionate one, the one urgently looking for answers? Or are you like Peter, solid and courageous and yet so human?

Or are you like Mary? Do you attach yourselves to others strongly and emotionally? Do you feel your losses deeply? Do you take your spiritual journey slowly and steadily? And are you willing to see the Spirit of the Living God in the people around you, even in the least likely people you encounter?

On this Easter morning, it doesn’t really matter to which character you relate most of all. So, I invite you to look passionately, courageously, patiently, and with an open mind for the God who moves in our midst, even today.