Running to the Tomb

John 20.1–10
a sermon at the Easter Vigil at Stanhope, April 11 2009

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

I had an email earlier today from a friend in Sydney, Australia. And of course where he was Easter had already come. Here we are, meeting in the darkness of Holy Saturday evening, but there the sun is already up. That is an obvious geographical fact, but it points to something far more mysterious but equally true. It’s still dark in this world, but the Son has already risen – the Son of God, the crucified one, Jesus himself.

That’s what John is telling us in the way he recounts the breathless story of Easter morning. ‘On the first day of the week, very early, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and found the stone rolled away.’ Something has already happened, and we weren’t ready for it. We weren’t expecting it. Dead people stay dead. Dead Messiahs stay dead. Everybody knows that. Yes, we believe they will rise again on the last day, but not in the middle of history, not in the middle of the night, not in the middle and the muddle of our twisted and fragmented and puzzling and grieving lives . . .

So she ran and told Peter and the young man John, and they ran too – the only time in the Bible, I think, when three people all run in the same story – and they come to the tomb, puffing and blowing but with their hearts pounding because they have no idea whether this news is good or bad or just totally bizarre. They don’t have a game plan for this. If you come to Jerusalem following a Messiah and he gets caught and killed, your best plan is to hide for a few days and then sneak out of town while you still can before the authorities come after you as well. You don’t want to be running around inspecting tombs in the half-light of early dawn on the first day of the week, the beginning of the working week, when people would soon be up and about their business after the sabbath. But Peter and John come running, and Mary follows close behind.

The point is this: the resurrection of Jesus was totally unexpected, and remains, in our world today, totally unexpected. It’s a shock, an insult to our worldviews – not just to our modern worldview, though modernists like to imagine they are the first people in history to notice that dead people stay dead. Al Gore wrote about the Inconvenient Truth of global warming, but let me tell you the resurrection of Jesus is a still more inconvenient truth, slicing through our normal assumptions and telling us, like the email from Sydney, that the day has already dawned when all our instincts are to say, No it hasn’t, go back to sleep.

But Easter is supposed to be a surprise, supposed to get us up too early and running about when other people are still asleep. That is the foundation of the church, of Christian faith, of Christian life and hope and love and laughter and witness. It isn’t supposed to be the sort of claim that people can look at and say, Well, I suppose that might be true; a little unlikely perhaps but quite possible; maybe I’ll consider it. Anyone who said that hadn’t got the point. Easter is not just unlikely, it’s impossible, but it happened. Easter isn’t just difficult to believe, it is unbelievable, because it doesn’t fit into any other categories. To believe in the Easter gospel is to have your mind and your heart torn open in quite a new way so that the new day can come flooding in despite the fact that you thought it was time to go to bed, and so that you can be set off running to see what it’s all about. There’s no time to lose. Easter is about running when you thought you’d still be sleeping. It’s about believing what you thought you’d never imagine. It’s about living in a way you’d never have dreamed possible. It’s about Jesus returning from the dead and launching the new creation in which all is forgiven, all is remade, all is reborn.

That’s why this is such a great time for baptism, as the earliest church knew well. Baptism is about sharing the journey of Jesus, down into the deep waters of death and up the other side into new life. It’s about setting your watches to a different time, to Easter time, the time that says the new day is dawning even when the rest of the world thinks it’s still night-time. It’s about setting off at a run to see what it’s all about when moments before you were still asleep.

There are three ways in particular in which this startling new day should jolt us into a different way of being and living.

First, the whole point of Easter is that God the creator has dealt with everything that messes up his wonderful world, and has set in motion his plan to sort it all out, to put it all right, to remake it so that it is filled with his glory and beauty. And we who hear the news of this, even though it doesn’t make much sense to the world around, are called to be the advance runners for this project. From one point of view this means working for justice – to put things right, to remind our rulers and authorities that that’s their job and to hold them to account on it, to be alert for the places where injustice is done and speak up about it, whether it’s a rural community losing its post office, an asylum seeker being bullied by the Home Office, a company forcing people into redundancy to fund big payments to top executives, or whatever. From another point of view it means working for beauty, to restore beauty to our towns and our countryside, to enhance the beauty of nature and to reflect it in fresh works of art, music, dance, poetry, whatever. From another point of view it means working to heal and renew our wonderful planet, making it fruitful and abundant and preventing it being poisoned. Easter is about God’s new creation and we are called, surprising though it may seem, to be agents of that new creation here and now.

Second, to be agents of new creation we must ourselves become, and live as, people of new creation. And that means holiness, which means rediscovering what a full and genuine human life was always meant to be like. Our world has lived on so many lies and half-truths about what it means to be human, whether it’s the celeb culture, the drug culture, the idolisation of sport, the obsession with sex, or just the slow deterioration of human relationships and community. The challenge to personal holiness always comes as a shock, like someone waking you up at midnight and insisting that you’ve got to come running to see the new dawn. We are called to be Easter people, resurrection people, leaving behind in the grave all that spoils and downgrades our human calling.

Third, to be people of new creation, people of justice and beauty, we must be people of worship. We have heard the great story which carries us forwards as God’s people, the story of God’s mighty acts from creation to new creation. That story is the heart of our worship, and as we find ourselves caught up in it again we turn it into prayer and praise and eucharist. Christian worship, and the carefully structured liturgy which makes sure we are really paying attention to the whole counsel of God, shapes us as communities, and shapes our personal characters, so that we really are worshipping the living God made known in the resurrection of his Son, and so that our habits of life, communal and personal, may bit by bit be brought into line with the new day that has dawned.

So there’s plenty to do, plenty of running to and fro in the excitement of the Easter morning. But at the heart of it all there is the still centre, the moment of wonder and awe, the moment when Peter and John come into the tomb and discover not only that the body of Jesus has disappeared but that the grave-cloths have been carefully put aside, indicating that the body has not merely been resuscitated but transformed. It is that transforming power of the new day that we invoke tonight, this most holy night, as we seek in love and gratitude to become truly Easter people, the people of the daytime for a world still in darkness, the people of Jesus for the world he loved so much that he gave his life. Let us then celebrate God’s victory over death itself, and commit ourselves once more to follow him into the new day.