Sunday, 29 April 2018

Easter 5: Abiding in God




I spent the inside of last week away on a Diocesan training course. Odd though it might seem, it took place in St Andrew’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery a few miles outside Bruges in Belgium. The Diocese often uses this monastery for courses like this, partly because it means we can spend some time surrounded by the rhythms of prayer and daily life of the monks who live there, worshipping and eating with them, sharing the healing balance of their daily routine.

But as we were leaving on Friday, we realised that their routine was being thrown out of the window temporarily. They were setting up to mark a very special occasion. One of their number was celebrating his Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of him taking his permanent vows as a monk. There was going to be a special festive meal, and a service of celebration. And quite right too. Half a century is a long time. This was evidently a monk with considerable stickability.

Benedictine monks and nuns make three vows when they commit themselves to the monastic life. They take a vow of obedience – to God, to their abbot, and to one another.  They take a vow of “conversion of life”, a commitment to a continuous process of renewal, growing in God’s love. And they take a vow of stability, literally to stay put, in that particular community, in that place, with those people, for the rest of their lives. Some do get moved around, of course. Monks from St Andrew’s Abbey had founded monasteries in West Africa, Brazil and China; so there was some coming and going from those places, but only at the instigation of the order. They aren’t free suddenly to nip off on holiday, or move jobs, or even to wander off into town for a bit without permission. And they certainly aren’t free to seek out more congenial companions if they aren’t getting on with their fellow monks.

From my conversations with monks and nuns over the years, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, it’s often this vow of stability, which is hardest to keep. If the other members of your community irritate you, as they will do, that’s tough. You have to find a way to bloom where you are planted, to get along together.  That’s part of the reason why the 1500 year old Rule of St Benedict sets out a way of life in which boundaries are clear, and silence plays a big part. If you are going to be thrown together year after year, you have to find ways of allowing each other space and privacy. I noticed the monks at St Andrew’s Abbey didn’t feel under any obligation to acknowledge each other, or us, every time they passed. They didn’t put on fake smiles and false bonhomie. They obviously cared about each other and knew each other well, but they’d learned to let each other be, rather than continually interfering in each other’s business.  It’s a wise way of living that could help us in any community where we live closely with others – families, workplaces, churches.

There’s a word in this week’s Gospel reading which came to life for me as I watched them. It’s that little word “abide”. “Abide in me as I abide in you, “ says Jesus to his disciples on the night before he dies.

“Abide” isn’t a word we probably use much in daily conversation, but it’s a good and powerful word. Maybe it reminds you of the hymn “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide”, a prayer for God’s presence at the evening of the day and the evening of our lives. Or maybe, using it in a negative way, you’ve sometimes said in exasperation “I can’t abide Mrs X!” or “ I can’t abide it when people do such and such!”  - we can’t bear to be around that person, or that behaviour. Or maybe you have described yourself as “biding your time”. Abiding is about staying put somewhere, sticking to something, even if nothing really seems to be happening, but it’s not a passive word; it is about actively waiting and watching for the right moment to say or do something. Our “abode” is the place where we live, the place where we feel at home, the place which nurtures and sustains us, but also the place where we have responsibilities.  Much though I enjoyed my stay in Bruges, I was glad to get home to my “abode”, to Philip, to this parish, to the tasks I’m called to, and to you, the people I’m called to. There would have been something wrong if I wasn’t glad to be home.

The man we met in our first reading, the Ethiopian official, longed for that sense of abiding, for a place to belong. He’d been to Jerusalem to worship, we are told, or at to try to worship. What he would have found, though, was that, as a eunuch, he wasn’t allowed in the Temple. The law expressly forbade it – you had to be physically perfect and whole to worship there.  Those who’d been castrated were singled out for specific exclusion. We aren’t told what Philip and he talked about when they met, but the fact that he was reading the book of Isaiah gives us a clue, and the particular quotation is even more of a clue. Isaiah talks of a time when God will use and bless someone who is like a sheep before his shearers, a lamb who will be slaughtered. If we read around this quotation we would find that this figure was someone who was   “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”, someone who was marred and disfigured. No wonder this man is puzzled. If God could love and use this suffering servant, why couldn’t he love and use this Ethiopian eunuch? Philip answers by explaining  “the good news about Jesus”,  a crucified, broken man who had been raised from death – and therefore blessed –by God. In him, God proclaimed that no one now was beyond his love, outside his family. Everyone could belong. Everyone could abide in him, as he abided in them. You didn’t even have to go to the Temple. God was wherever you were. The Ethiopian loses no time. “Here is some water for baptism! Let’s get on with it! I’m in!”

He discovered that he could abide in God, because God was already abiding in him, and it transformed his life – he instantly knew it for the precious privilege it is. And tradition says that discovering he belonged changed the course of history, because according to Ethiopian belief, he brought his new found faith back home with him, and founded a Christian community which is still there to this day. It has to have got there somehow, so why not through him?

Abiding in God, which also means abiding in the places and situations he’s called us to, is just as much a privilege for us, something we should be delighting in. But let’s be honest, abiding can be tough too. It can be tough because we find ourselves stuck in situations we can’t escape, and which we didn’t choose – illness, sorrow, challenge that we’d give anything to be able to walk away from. But it can be just as tough when we do have choices, because we have choices. We live in an age where choice is king, where the freedom to change our minds, change our direction, follow our dreams is often held up as a basic human right. Abiding takes commitment, though, and commitment can feel frightening and limiting. Committing ourselves to something  or someone means cutting off all sorts of other possibilities. If we take this job, we can’t take that one. If we live here, we can’t live there. If we spend our time on this thing, we can’t spend our time on that thing. We can become like the proverbial donkey that starves to death between two bales of hay because it can’t decide which one to eat first. We’re eternally restless because we can’t settle to anything or settle for anything.  The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and the fence beyond that, and the fence beyond that, ad infinitum.

Abiding means saying no to many things, so that we can say yes, fully and freely, to the thing that really matters; to the job, the relationship, the activity God calls us to. And how do we even know what that is? I’m always happy to listen if you want to reflect on that with me. You may remember that a couple of years ago I began to invite people, to come and talk to me, asking them three simple questions. The first was: “What do you think God is calling you to at the moment?” The second was “How can I help you to fulfil that calling?” and the third was, “Who else should I be talking to who might appreciate this chat?” I had a lot of very fruitful conversations, and I’m happy to have more, or to talk again if you’d like a follow-up chat.  

Wherever each of us is called to be, to abide, specifically, though, our fundamental calling is to abide in God through Christ, to discover our home in him. Jesus uses the image of a vine to describe this.  He is the vine. We are the branches. If we don’t abide in him, if we don’t allow ourselves to be connected to him, through prayer and worship, through fellowship with each other, through loving service of others, then we eventually shrivel up and die inside. We are not created to go it alone. We are called to each other and to him.   

Abiding can be hard work. I’m sure that monk who’d just clocked up fifty years of faithful service in his monastery could have told us that. In our choice- hungry, freedom-obsessed age it often feels counter-intuitive to commit ourselves to one thing, one place, when we have so many possibilities. It can take time and prayer and effort to discern our calling, but these readings remind us of the age-old wisdom that true freedom isn’t found in rootless wandering. We can only become truly free as we allow our lives to be grafted into the life-giving vine of God’s love and learn to abide together in its life. And if we abide there, the life of God will flow through us, like the sap through the vine, and give us the strength to abide wherever he calls us and to abide whatever he calls us to.

Amen


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Easter 4: Shepherds and Shepherding

Audio version here 


“What’s your occupation?” That’s a question I often have to ask people. If you are getting married or having a child baptised it goes in the register, recorded for posterity. A couple of centuries ago, every other person would probably have been an agricultural labourer, but now the answers are very varied, and often quite puzzling. It’s all project managers and consultants and the like. I often have to ask, “so, what do you actually do?”

Sometimes the people answering the question are just as baffled, though. New parents booking Christenings are often at a time of flux in their lives. One or other of them may be taking time off to care for their children.They may not be sure what their plans are for the future. Maybe they won’t go back to the job they once did. But are you still a hairdresser if you don’t dress hair? How long can you call yourself a brain surgeon if you aren’t performing brain surgery?
Unemployment and retirement can lead to the same uncertainty, and it can be quite a crisis for people . “Who am I now that I haven’t got that convenient label anymore? “

I was reading a commentary earlier this week on the 23rd Psalm. It’s the set Psalm for today, Good Shepherd Sunday, which is why we sang one of the many hymns based on it at the beginning of the service. The commentator, an expert on ancient languages called Sarah Ruden, made the point that the first line, as we normally know it, really isn’t an accurate translation at all.  “The Lord is my Shepherd.” That’s what’s familiar to us.  But Sarah Ruden pointed out that the word we translate as shepherd isn’t actually a noun – a word for a thing - at all. It’s a participle – a part of speech derived from a verb, a doing word, if you’re interested in the grammatical technicalities. It doesn’t say “The Lord is my shepherd” ; it says “the Lord is the one who is shepherding me”. Ruden points out that in the ancient world the idea of having one occupation  would have seemed rather strange to most people. They did a wide range of jobs - whatever they needed to do to provide for themselves and their families, just as subsistence farmers and smallholders do today. In the course of a normal day they might be shepherding one minute, sowing the next, or building a wall or taking goods to market to sell. There were specialists in various trades and crafts, but Ruden says that job titles were rare for ordinary people. You just did whatever came your way to put food on the table and clothes on your back.

So the psalmist isn’t giving us a title for God here; he’s telling us what God does for him, a vulnerable sheep. Shepherding involves providing food and rest, guidance and protection, being with the sheep in the dark valleys, rod and staff at the ready to defend them. You may call yourself, but if you aren’t doing these things then the title is meaningless. I expect we’ve all had experience of people set over us who bear the title of “line manager” but never take any interest in managing us, or people who are called “assistants” who don’t assist. Having a title on your contract is one thing, but it’s actually doing the job that counts.

Shepherding wasn’t an image people in Biblical times used just for God, though. They looked to their human leaders for shepherding too, for care and sustenance, but often they fell far short of God’s ideal. The Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, thundered at the leaders of Israel who’d failed to care for God’s people, “Thus says the Lord God. ..You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals...
thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. ( 34.3-6 & 11)

So when Jesus called himself the  Good Shepherd in the Gospel reading we heard today,  people knew exactly what he was saying, and it was deeply challenging, deeply political, and deeply offensive to many of them. A carpenter from Galilee, was setting himself up as  a leader of the people of Israel, and indeed of those beyond Israel too – the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. No wonder people were shocked. But if we look at the context of these words, we find he has good reason to claim the title, because “shepherding” is exactly what he had been doing.  

These words come right at the end of a story which started back in chapter 7 of the Gospel. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the feast of booths or tabernacles, Succoth in Hebrew, a festival that celebrated the end of the harvest. During it, according the Bible, everyone had to build temporary structures – the booths of the title – and live in them. This was a reminder that , however prosperous and self-sufficient they felt, with their crops gathered in around them, they had once been homeless, hungry refugees from Egypt, and it was only God’s love and care, his shepherding, that had brought them safely through that time of trial. They were, and would always be, sheep in need of a shepherd.

But during this particular feast, on the Sabbath day that fell within it, Jesus happened to come across one sheep who didn’t need to build a booth to remind him of his dependency. This man had been blind from birth, unable to earn a living, excluded by his disability from the Temple and its worship as well as facing all the other physical, emotional and social obstacles that being blind involved. What did Jesus do?  He healed him. Of course he healed him, because he needed healing. It was the compassionate, sheperdy, thing to do. And the man’s life was transformed, just as a rescued sheep’s would be when it was brought back into the fold.

But all this had happened on the Sabbath, and that was a day when you weren’t supposed to work. Healing was work. Jesus was in trouble. He’d already put the backs up of the religious authorities at this feast. They’d already  accused him of being possessed by demons and he’d  accused them of betraying their heritage, of being unfaithful to God. The authorities had sent  the Temple police to arrest Jesus, and picked up stones to stone him, but hadn’t followed through, afraid of the reactions of the crowd who supported him.  Tempers were already running high. And then there was this business with the blind man.

The powers that be hauled in the blind man and his parents, bombarding them with questions about who had done this and how and why . “We don’t know, and we don’t care”  they said, “All that matters is that someone who was blind now sees – hallelujah! - how can that be wrong?”  And surely anyone with any compassion themselves would simply say, Amen. But that’s not what happened.
                           
Jesus is entitled to call himself the Good Shepherd, because he is , one who has done the good shepherding, the one who has rescued this lost sheep from a life that was dangerous and miserable. But all the religious leaders can see is that the law had been broken. They are the hired hands in Jesus’ parable here, jobsworths, who, when they see the wolf coming, the challenge to their own neat ideas, the threat to their religious comfort zone, decide it is above their paygrade and hightail it out of danger. And they were in the right, according to the law. But Jesus was in the right according to the sheep, and it’s the sheep’s perspective that counts if you want to call yourself a shepherd.

But what’s all this got to do with us? What difference does it make to us? I think it is just as important for us as it was for the people of the Bible to understand that shepherding is a verb, not a noun. We all have the opportunity to be shepherds in the roles we fulfil, whether that is in our families, in church, in our workplaces or neighbourhoods, but it’s what we do in those roles that matters, not what we call ourselves. You can call yourself a parent, but it’s parenting that will make the difference to your children. You can call yourself a carer, but if you aren’t caring, that means nothing.

Today we hold our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. In the light of this passage I wonder what difference it might make to us if, instead of calling ourselves a church, we called ourselves people who are “churching” -  doing things which build up the Body of Christ and gather people together in our community? What might those things be, the things we can do to make other others feel cared for and welcomed?
I wondered what difference it might make to us as individuals if, instead of calling ourselves Christians, we called ourselves people who are “Christing”, living out his love in our everyday lives? That’s what counts, say our readings today – not what you call yourself, but what you are actually doing, not the nouns but the verbs.

So, what is your occupation? Forget the job title or the trade you trained for, what is it that actually occupies, and pre-occupies, you? What do you spend your time and energy doing? What have you done today, what will you do tomorrow that will actually make someone else feel loved, safe, noticed – those things we all need as vulnerable sheep in a wolf-filled world?

Our church, our community, our world doesn’t need people who call themselves Christians, or institutions that call themselves churches. It needs individuals who are “Christing” and groups of people who are “churching”, day by day and week by week in the places that God has put them. That’s what makes the difference.
Amen

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Easter 2 - Darkness, Death and Doubt


John 20.19-31, 1 John 1.1-2.2, Acts 4.32-35



Fellowship. It’s not a word I hear used much outside of church context nowadays. Perhaps it’s heard occasionally in the world of academia or Society but not often now in common conversation.

When John refers to it in his letter he wants his readers to consider that fellowship is something we find together in God, a common way of existing, being and believing. It’s something through which other people might get a glimpse of what God is about , when at its best. In our Acts reading we heard of fellowship lived out in a way that ensured the needs of the entire group were met.

John’s letter is about living an honest life, not wanting those seeing us to think that all is perfect once we choose to enter into fellowship with Christ. He points this out in saying ‘if we say we have fellowship with him when we are walking in darkness, we lie’.

Our shortcomings and weaknesses which we later regret don’t necessarily cease because of our faith but neither do they make a mockery of it if we are honest about them.

I can remember someone telling me Sunday mornings often really cheesed him off, he would be washing his car or mowing the lawn as his neighbours arrived home after church strutting in full of self-righteousness and superiority. I suspect it had more to do with his mistaken idea of what being a Christian means and we certainly suffer from the judgment of many who have made up their mind what Christianity is, and they often don’t like it.

For many, Christians are seen as intolerant of alternative lifestyles, sexual preferences even other faiths, or are dull people who take themselves far too seriously and don’t know how to have a laugh.

It’s for us to challenge that view by simply being ourselves with all our faults and weaknesses yet being people who keep trying to make God’s love known to others through acts of kindness and forgiveness, and even trying to be cheerful along the way.

After all when Jesus appears to the frightened disciples who have locked themselves in a house it’s not to vent his anger at being denied and deserted by those closest to him, leaving him to suffer and die but to say ‘Peace be with you’, it’s the offer of a new relationship with the risen Christ which causes a spontaneous outbreak of joy.

Then there’s Thomas, who was out when all this was happening. He’s such an important figure in that he makes it OK to have doubts. I’m sure that many of us can relate to him. It reminds me a bit of the times when I was at school and didn’t want to ask about something I thought everyone else knew or understood, and then it’s a relief when someone else has the courage to do so.

Of course Thomas already has history with Jesus, back in John 14 we find him asking more questions when Jesus said ‘And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Perhaps Thomas drew on this and for him the ultimate realisation of ‘the way’ was to be in the presence of his Lord and God.

It may seem a counter intuitive thing to say but his doubts make my faith more real. For me it’s hard to relate to a version of the Christian story which is neat and simple, teaching all taken at face value. We should never feel guilty to say that we cannot find God where others tell us he is, to say this isn’t real for me, to explore and look for God in our own way. I’m with Rev Mark Oakley when he said he remains ‘unconvinced that reality is mirrored neatly in the recitation of any creed’.

We need space and time for our faith to be felt, tested, lived with and ultimately become part of who we are to make it authentic, something that others may find believable.

I wasn’t in a great mood to celebrate Easter last Sunday and I was relieved that Anne’s sermon was sensitive to the fact that this will have been the case for many of us as we remember dearly loved friends and family that we miss sorely. Even when our faith is firm, to do so can still be painful. We heard how, at the end of Mark’s gospel the women fled in terror without answers and reassurance, no neat happy ending, perhaps a bit more typical of our reaction when the reality of loss hits us and dread and fear can take over.

This year Lent for me began with the death of a dearly loved friend, from MS and complications, the wife of my friend since childhood. As many of us do at such times I gave my sincere condolences and then felt quite helpless as I said ‘let me know if I can do anything to help’. He came back to me a few days later and said that the funeral service would have more meaning if led by someone who really knew Amanda and the family. It’s something I’ve not done the training to be licenced for in church but I was able to accept as anyone can perform this role as a Civil Celebrant in an appropriate place.

Whilst Christian prayers and hymns were included in the funeral service I was acutely aware that this was a time to tread very gently with the eternal hope I feel to be real through Christ, a time to focus on the very real love for Amanda and make space for memories and mourning. After all what right do I have to assert my beliefs in such a setting?

I was grateful to be given the opportunity to serve my friends in this way but deeply saddened for myself and them that it was necessary to preside over Amanda’s coffin being lowered to its final resting place.

It was both a stressful and strange experience for me returning to my old Essex stomping ground and having discussions with chums from school days met rarely since.

Chatting with people later in the day I could understand why some, like Thomas did, have doubts, why some don’t believe at all and why some are not quite sure what to believe about death and an afterlife.

Tom Wright, in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ wrote “Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead” but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.

Most of my lent time this year was spent thinking about death, the physical finality, the pain and separation. I can understand why this can bring a real pressure on an individual’s faith which can seem suffocated by the darkness and angry questions left unanswered, particularly when we may feel no tangible reassurance of life with God continuing in a new way.

Yet despite these dark thoughts, little by little the love of God made real in Jesus Christ proves too powerful for me to lose hope of an eternal future for myself or for others.

We can use words and live lives that demonstrate what we believe but ultimately we cannot prove that God loves us too much to abandon us anymore than we can prove that love for another is real, at some point we have to accept it or reject it.

Coming back to that fellowship in John’s letter, one aspect of this is to create a community where we are able to talk with each other about hopes, fears, sadness and times of reassurance relating to the death of loved ones or anything else we find challenging. I know that to be the case here via individuals or groups and positively encourage it.

It reminds me of the words of George Burns, ‘Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family. In another city’.

Taking today’s readings forward into the weeks ahead the symbolism of Christ saying to Thomas ‘reach out your hand and put it in my side’ is an important one. Jesus is making it very clear that this is still him, the same man who lived with them. He’s saying I came to you in flesh and blood but I’m also your way to the Father.

When we think of the disciples and their sending out by Jesus it has to be to a new more honest interaction with the people. They are aware of their weaknesses and failures, promises to stick with Jesus through anything turned out to be lies and it’s time to rely less on their own strength and more on their response to God’s calling.

It’s a message we can draw upon as we continue our own journey through life, aware of our own weaknesses but also aware of the liberating hope and forgiveness available to us each and every day.

Kevin Bright

8th April 2018

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Easter Sunday: What are you afraid of?

Audio version here

Easter Sunday 18

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Well, that’s a bit of a downbeat ending for our Easter Gospel, isn’t it! Where are the Easter bunnies? Where are the spring chickens? Where are the Alleluias? “They were afraid”. That’s it?

And it’s not only the end of the reading we heard today. It’s also the end of Mark’s Gospel completely. Or at least the end of it as we now have it. Scholars believe that it probably lost its last page at some early stage in its history. It was written at a time when books still had to be written out by hand, one by one, so it would have been quite easy to lose a bit of the original, and then have nothing to copy from.

So Mark’s Gospel hasn’t got the stories the other Gospels tell of Jesus appearing to his friends. All we get is these women, running away from the tomb, terrified.

But in a way, I am quite glad of that. Because Easter, in my experience, isn’t always a time when we get all the answers and everything is happy ever after. I like it that we have these frightened women at the end of our Easter Sunday Gospel, because fear is a perfectly natural reaction to what they’ve been through.

We are all afraid sometimes. There may be particular things which scare you. Anyone who knows me will know that I don’t do heights. This pulpit is about as far up as I am comfortable with! I can go up the tower if I really need to, but I’d much rather not, thank you very much, especially not up into the clock room, where you can see down through the cracks in the boards to the tower floor a long way below!  It makes me feel funny even to say it. I don’t know whether it is really full blown acrophobia – that’s the posh name for fear of heights – but it’s quite bad enough. If you are fine with heights you probably don’t know what I’m going on about, but you may be equally scared of something else. There’s a phobia for everyone. Pick your own!

How about anatidaephobia, for example. That, apparently, is a fear of ducks. In particular, it is a fear that ducks are watching you and planning to attack you. Or there is koumpounophobia, which is a fear of buttons – I’m really not sure what could be scary about them, but if that’s your phobia, it must make life quite difficult.

Baffling though some of these phobias seem, they don’t come out of nowhere. A bad experience might trigger them, or just some deep-seated evolutionary impulse which has got out of control. Phobias are often defined as “irrational” fears, but in a way they are very rational – there is always a reason for them. If we had no fear at all, we probably wouldn’t last very long, because life is full of dangers. If we weren’t at least a little scared of heights, we might fall off the first cliff we came to. If we weren’t at least a little scared of snakes we might get bitten by them, and that could be fatal in some parts of the world. I’m still not sure about the ducks and the buttons, but I guess there may be dangers I haven’t thought of…

So what were these women afraid of, when they ran away from the tomb?
It seems to me that there are two things that might scare them. And unlike the ducks, the buttons and my fear of heights, these are fears which we can probably all identify with.

Their first fear is the very basic fear of death. They’ve just watched their friend die a painful and horrific death by crucifixion. That would be enough to traumatise anyone. But they also know that they are putting themselves at great risk by identifying themselves as his supporters. That’s what they’re doing as they come to the tomb in the early morning, and someone is bound to see them, and it might not be someone who is well-disposed to them. They’ve had to screw up all their courage to make this journey.

And when they get there they find the body is gone, and they don’t know how or why. Sure, there’s a young man sitting there – an angel in the other Gospel’s accounts - who says to them “Don’t be alarmed”. Sure, he’s trying to tell them that Jesus has been raised from death, but would you believe it? No wonder they’re scared. We hear this story sitting in a church full of daffodils, with gold altar hangings, and triumphant music echoing in our ears. For them there was just the awful memory of that agonising death, and the knowledge that the soldiers might be coming for them too, at any moment.

So, they are scared of death – and that’s a fear which hits everyone at some point, perhaps when we’ve had a brush with mortality through accident or illness, or when we’ve lost someone we love. No matter how safe we try to make our world, we know that sooner or later, we’ll all die, and that’s a frightening thought. We may be scared of death, or scared of the dying process. We may be scared that those we love will grieve, or scared of our own grief at losing them. Whatever we believe about the afterlife, this life is what we know, and hopefully sometimes at least, enjoy. There would be something wrong with us if we felt happy at the thought of leaving it.

The women who run from the tomb have had more than a brush with death. They’ve seen it up close and personal. They aren’t going to be able to shake their fear off just because some young man claims that Jesus has risen, and if we have come to this Easter moment with a bereavement, or an impending death in the family, we aren’t likely to be able to just because its Easter either. Grief and fear have their own timetable, and it’s ok to sit with them as long as we need to. It’s ok if you haven’t reached Easter in your heart yet, and if that’s the case you’re in good company, because neither have these Gospel women. 

They are scared of death. But I think there is something else they are scared of too. My guess is that they are equally scared of life at this moment.

“Jesus of Nazareth… has been raised” says the young man in the tomb. “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.”

While they’re still trying to get their heads around the past trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion and the present fact that the tomb is empty, this mysterious young man is talking about the future, about going to Galilee, about Jesus being there, about what sounds like a whole new chapter in a book they thought was finished. At least, if Jesus was dead, that was that. They could go back to their old lives, changed, but not too much. It was a shame it had all ended in tears and failure, but you can’t win them all. Their best hope was that they could chalk it up to experience, if they managed to avoid the wrath of the Romans themselves. It was over.

Except that now it isn’t, and sometimes the only thing more frightening than death is life.  What is going to happen next? They have no template for this, no pattern, but already it sounds as if it will make demands of them. All that stuff Jesus  talked about – loving your enemies, welcoming the outcast, being one body with the Gentiles – it’s not going to be theory any more, just a bunch of words he said, it’s going to be something they have to live out. It may be a message that’s full of joy and hope. It may bring them life “in all its fullness” as he promised them, but what is it going to be full of?

For us, too, sometimes life can be even more terrifying than death. We’re offered something good, something we want – love, forgiveness, new life, a new direction – but we quake inwardly, and maybe even turn back to  the old, safe, familiar despair.

That’s what these frightened women are going through. They may be scared of death, but they’re equally scared of the new life Jesus’ resurrection calls them to.  No wonder they run. But, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Even if Mark had meant to end his Gospel here, it wouldn’t have been the end of the story, and those who read it first knew that, because they wouldn’t have been there to read it if it had been the end. Mark’s Gospel was written around 60 AD, about 30 years after the events it describes, for one of the many groups of early Christians which had come together in the wake of that first Easter Day. Christian faith had spread rapidly, all around the Mediterranean and beyond it. Groups of Christians had been drawn together into new communities, transformed by their encounter with God. 

They understood the terror of those women, because, I am sure, there were often times when they were terrified too, but they also knew what those women hadn’t known; that Jesus had risen, and that he was present with them through his Spirit. They saw the Spirit’s fruit in their lives – love, joy, peace, patience – both in good times and in bad. In a way, it didn’t matter to them that Mark’s Gospel didn’t have an ending. They were its ending. They didn’t  need words on a page to tell them what happened next. They were what happened next.  And so are we, if we can learn to trust that God is bigger than our fears, stronger than anything death, or life, can do to us. It’s ok for us to feel afraid, and to acknowledge our fears, but Easter gives us the power to “feel the fear and do it anyway!”

“Jesus lives! thy terrors now can no more, O death – or life – appal us; Jesus lives! by this we know, thou, O grave, can’st not enthral us. Alleluia!”  
Amen