Easter Day sermon 2021
Thoughts on today’s gospel: St Mark chapter 16 verses 1 to 8
"And they said nothing to anyone: for they were afraid.” So ends the gospel for Easter Day, at least according to St. Mark. It seems an odd way to close the story on this the most important day of the Church’s year. The women at the tomb having seen an angel who told them of their Lord’s resurrection fleeing from the scene and saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
And there ends St. Mark’s gospel. It is true there are more verses in our bibles, verses 8 to 19, but most scholars agree that those verses are later additions. You’ll appreciate that there are many early manuscripts of the gospels, but those who are expert tell us that the most ancient end Mark’s gospel with those slightly discouraging words. It has been suggested that the original end of the gospel was lost, and that there were more verses with a happier ending. But I remember being told at theological college that if you are presented with an awkward bible passage and there are alternative explanations or readings, then usually the more difficult alternative is the correct one.
This isn’t the only time during Jesus’ resurrection appearances that there is fear. The disciples locked themselves up on the evening of that first Easter Day, according to John – ‘for fear of the Jews.’ And in Luke’s account when the disciples first see Jesus after he had risen they were terrified ‘and thought that they were seeing a ghost.’ You might think, well, that’s a pretty natural reaction. One doesn’t see people risen from the dead. So there was fear at times, and uncertainty. On that occasion Jesus invited them to touch him to be sure he really was there bodily, and they gave him a piece of fish to eat, which, presumably, a ghost couldn’t have eaten.
So it took a while for the significance of this momentous happening to take hold. We are joyful on Easter Day, having prepared ourselves through Lent, and having followed the events of Holy Week – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We are perhaps especially joyful this Easter Day after the experiences of the past year. But nothing would have prepared any of the disciples for Jesus appearing before them again. It seems he had told them he would rise from the dead, but they hadn’t understood. So after the resurrection there was uncertainty and fear.
We live in an uncertain world. If we didn’t know it before, this is something we’ve had to come to terms with following the onset of the pandemic. Things changing from day to day; inability to make plans for the future; for many people, uncertainty over their jobs, shaky finances; school or university courses disrupted; family members or friends suddenly struck down with Covid. But life throws up uncertainty all the time in many respects. Health, finances and future plans can always raise concerns and questions to which we don’t have the answers; let alone what the effect of Brexit will really be, or the consequences of climate change.
But the season of spring reminds us that there are certainties in life as well. The daffodils have bloomed; baby lambs are playing in the fields, and the evenings have suddenly got longer with the coming of British Summer Time. And the arrival of Easter brings us a message of certainty in the promise of hope that there is life beyond the limitations of this one.
I suggested earlier that people may have been particularly looking forward to this Easter Day, and that we might be especially joyful, after the dark days of the past twelve months. Of course the pandemic isn’t over, nor do we know how long before we can say for sure that it might be, but we have reason to hope that the worst is over, at least for the UK. People have been stretched in many ways; NHS staff and key workers have given their all; most people have followed the social-distancing rules and ‘stay at home’ plea and not without cost. There has been real loss and pain with families not being able to meet their nearest and dearest for long periods. Resurrection, by its very nature, follows death, and still carries with it the wounds of death. But little in life is achieved without effort and sacrifice. We celebrate the resurrection today only having kept the events of Holy Week and knowing the supreme cost to Jesus on the Cross.
Bishop Martin reminded us diocesan clergy last Monday that ‘we are Easter people and our song is Alleluia.’ That song is one of hope and joy and assurance.
So what about that rather unsatisfactory conclusion to St. Mark’s gospel – ‘for they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” Assuming that is the intended close to his gospel, why then did St. Mark decide to finish it in that way? Perhaps he considered that his readers would know how the story continued; that there was no point in dwelling on what happened after that, because the spread of the Church told its own story. One of the most telling arguments for the resurrection, in my opinion, is the powerful witness of the Church; not just in the days of the early Church, but in the succeeding centuries. I was reflecting the other day that, sadly, many businesses will have folded permanently as a result of the pandemic. Others have been closed for months. Many of our public services have become difficult to access; things like libraries, theatres, leisure centres have been out-of-action. But the life of churches has continued. Doors may have been closed, but remote or on-line worship has flourished and many parishes have embraced new means of communication; the amount of pastoral work churches have been involved in has been huge; some vicars have been saying they’ve never been so busy, and clergy and congregations alike have been reaching out to the lonely and vulnerable as faithfully as ever. The powerful witness of the Church continues.
The events of Good Friday left Jesus’ first followers distraught, confused and afraid. But they became so convinced of his resurrection, and so empowered by his risen life, that they grew bold and strong enough to change the world. Maybe St. Mark is saying to his first readers, several decades after the first Easter – see what became of those frightened and timid disciples, who came to know Jesus’ risen power among them. Maybe St. Mark is saying - And what about you? How are you going to respond to this news – that Jesus Christ has overcome the power of sin and death and failure, and calls us to follow in his steps with lives of faith, love and goodness?
Despite the failings of those first disciples; their desertion of him on the night he was arrested; their disbelief at first when he rose from the dead; their fear of the authorities, they became confident and fearless in spreading the message, as the Spirit of the risen Jesus worked in them. So may we similarly go forward even with our doubts and fears, individually, and collectively as we all come out of this Covid period.
A prayer I remember hearing from my childhood church:
‘O God, you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with a good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
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