Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter Sunday

Mark 16.1-8

I wonder what sort of anxiety dreams you have; those dreams where you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong equipment, and somehow you can’t seem to put it right. Everyone has them, but what form they take depends on what you do for a living. Teachers, I expect, dream of finding themselves standing in front of a class they didn’t know they were meant to be taking and doctors of treatments that go disastrously wrong. Taxi drivers probably dream of being hopelessly lost somewhere, and actors of being on stage, but with no idea what play they are in.
Priests – if I am at all typical – dream that they are here in the pulpit preaching when they discover that the last page of the sermon has gone missing… Don’t worry, as far as I can see it is all here this morning.

But Mark’s Gospel, from which this morning’s account of the resurrection comes is the kind of thing that might well feature in such a nightmare, because, as far as we can see that is just what happened to it. It ends on a very puzzling note – and this is the very end of the gospel itself. “The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end.

Is that it…?

Where is the bit where Jesus appears to them? Where is the bit where it all starts to make sense? Where is the bit where their terror turns to joy? Did Mark really mean it to finish like this? Biblical scholars tend to think that, just as in those priestly nightmares, the last page of his Gospel was indeed lost at some early stage, ripped off by accident. The early church really just consisted of scattered small groups of persecuted believers often meeting in secret, so it’s easy to imagine that happening.  

But in many ways I’m glad we have lost the ending, because it gives us an intriguing space to fill, a space for wonder and imagination. I like it that it doesn’t end with everything tied up and explained, because in reality, the resurrection wasn’t like that anyway. Even the Gospels which are complete don’t really find ways of properly explaining exactly what happened. It’s quite clear that Matthew, Luke and John are struggling to describe it. They talk about the risen Jesus as the same as the man who died on the cross, and yet also radically different. Sometimes it takes a while for his disciples to recognise him. Mary mistakes him for the gardener at first, two other disciples don’t realise who he is as he walks beside them on the road to Emmaus. They tell us that Jesus is flesh and blood – eating meals with them, showing them the wounds he suffered. But they also talk about him appearing and disappearing in locked rooms, or by the lakeside, coming apparently out of nowhere.

In an odd kind of way, though, the fact that they are stumbling and awkward about what happened  makes it all the more clear that something did happen. Frankly if you are going to make up a story, you would make up something that held together better than this, that wasn’t full of loose ends and unanswered questions, that wasn’t so puzzling and unsatisfactory.  There was no need for the disciples to invent the resurrection; there was nothing in it for them but trouble. And yet, this is the story they tell.

Something - whatever it was – happened on that first Easter Sunday, something so powerful that those who were there were utterly convinced that Jesus was not dead but alive, and more alive than he had ever been, more alive than they were themselves, with life flowing out of him that brought them to life too, giving them courage to go out into the world and spread his message. The day before, they had been huddled in their locked rooms, hiding in fear that what had happened to him would happen to them too, and with good reason – why should the Romans, or the Jewish authorities want to leave any of these dangerous revolutionaries where they were?
Yet on this day, that mood of fear turned into one of hope, of joy, of faith that all wasn’t lost, that God was still very much with them. If they hadn’t been utterly convinced of that, then they would have given up and gone back to their former lives. And if they had done that then the Christian message would have been dead before it was born, the church would never have got off the starting blocks, and we wouldn’t be here. So in an odd way, the best proof of the resurrection is us.

A former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, was pilloried a few years back for saying that the resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, but he was absolutely right. The real miracle wasn’t what happened to Jesus’ body but what happened in the hearts of those who had followed him, who had watched as he was crucified, sure that all their dreams had turned to dust and ashes. It doesn’t matter that we can’t explain the resurrection, that we can’t describe it. The proof of its power and its truth is in our own lives, as it was in theirs, as we find the courage to rise again ourselves, to carry on hoping when hope seems daft, to carry on loving when love is thrown back in our faces, to continue to struggle for dignity and justice against what can seem like an overwhelming tide of oppression and injustice in the world. Whenever that happens, Christ rises again in us.

You can’t fail to have noticed, I’m sure, this fine Phoenix here at the front. We made him at Messy Church on Good Friday. But why? you might ask.  What has this mythological bird got to do with Jesus? Am I going to be preaching about the Loch Ness Monster or the Yeti next? No, the point of the Phoenix is that it was adopted early on as a symbol of resurrection – both Christ’s and ours. The story went that every 500 years the Phoenix would lay itself on an altar and burst into flames, sacrificing itself. But from its ashes it would be reborn to live again. The Phoenix predates Christianity, and it is found in many cultures, but it is easy to see why those early Christians liked it. In its story they found echoes not only of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also  a picture of the lives they were leading too, lives which were often very hard, and which often ended in martyrdom. Was it all worthwhile? Was there any point in trying to live out Christ’s message when it would all end in the pain and sorrow of death? Why not simply throw in the towel, live for yourself, look after number one, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, everyone for themselves and the devil take the hindmost?

The Phoenix, and the story of Christ which it echoed for them, was a reminder that what you were going through now was not the end of the story, not the whole picture, just a stage along the way, that beyond death, all sorts of death – the death of the body, the death of hope, the death of love – there was new life. They believed in resurrection – not just in terms of what had happened to Jesus but also, and much more importantly, what happened in their own lives too. I have no idea, and no one can, what happened on that first Easter Sunday, what we would have seen if we had been there, but I know for certain that something did happen, and that it changed the lives of those who saw it forever. It gave them the strength to endure, to stick to their message, to carry on when they felt like giving up.

In a moment we will be baptising Verity. Her name means “truth”. But what is the truth we want her to know, and to embody, as she grows up? Christians say that it is this: that she, like everyone, is a child of God, made in his image, that she, like everyone, is eternally loved, that she, like everyone, will never be failed or forsaken by God, and that whatever happens to her, whatever trouble she falls into, God can raise her up again. We pray that she will know and live the truth of that resurrection power, the truth of the Phoenix; the truth that tells us that what looks like the end to us is not the end to God. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

As Desmond Tutu put it:
“Good is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours,
through him who loves us.”   


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