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!”  

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