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Home » Sermon – 31st March 2024

Sermon – 31st March 2024

    Easter Sunday

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    Readings: Acts 10: 34-43 and Mark 16: 1-8

    Two comments from unrelated BBC broadcasts in the last couple of days have struck me. The first, from a young man – quite educated and articulate – taking part in a pilgrimage trail in North Wales with other people of various faiths and none. He said he didn’t realise that Jesus Christ was a real person. He’d heard of Christianity, but didn’t think of Jesus as being as real person. How many more people in Britain think likewise? And then an item from Jeremy Bowen on the Today programme, reporting from Jerusalem. Easter can be a kind of flashpoint in Jerusalem, with the three religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – all finding meaning in their holy sites. Apparently it’s quiet in Jerusalem this year, as many Palestinian Christians can’t get permits to visit. But one sentence struck me in that report. Jeremy Bowen said, “This is the time of the year people here live for – their religion is so important?” Could we say the same? Is this the time of year you live for, because your religion is so important?

    But let’s go today’s gospel. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is how the reading ends. There are some more verses in Mark chapter 16, but most biblical scholars consider these to be a later addition, for they are different in character from what has gone before. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It seems a very strange way to end the Good News of Jesus Christ. St. Mark is known for his straightforward no-frills writing, but his account of that first Easter morning is curious. Jesus doesn’t appear to any of the disciples in our verses today, but only to the women who go to the tomb. They meet a ‘young man, dressed in a white robe’ who tells them that Jesus has been raised. After he had finished speaking to them, the women went out and fled from the tomb; terror and amazement seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

    Many have wondered why St. Mark leaves the story at this point. Was he interrupted and prevented from finishing the gospel, or was the last part of the gospel lost, rather like the back few pages of a paperback becoming loose over the years, and eventually torn away? We may never know. I remember being told while doing my Theology degree, that if you have a problem with a passage, or a passage is capable of more than one interpretation, the most difficult possibility often proves to be the correct one.

    So we may be left with the possibility that St. Mark intended the gospel to end at this point. I mentioned that there are other verses in chapter 16 which seem to be an addition, or additions. I was reminded of Charles Dickens, whose original end to Great Expectations was so disappointing to his readers that he had to write a happier ending later!

    “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What the women experienced that morning was, surely, only natural. After all, if a young man dressed I white, or an angel, appeared to you to inform you that somebody you knew very well to be dead was, in fact, alive, or if that person walked into church this morning, then I guess many of us would be afraid. Maybe Mark’s intention was to place emphasis on the frailty of humans, who are nevertheless called to follow Jesus.

    We celebrate Easter with great joy, with music, with beautifully-decorated churches; with a national holiday weekend. We have come to expect Easter Day every year. But, of course, what happened on the morning of the resurrection was not expected. Whatever Jesus may have said to his disciples beforehand had either been misheard or not understood. It did not seem possible at all to them that Jesus could really be raised from the dead after they had seen his brutal execution and burial.

    There are, of course, many people who cannot accept the fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is, indeed, a ‘mystery’ in the best sense of that word. We cannot describe what happened. There have been many films and movies and other dramas about the last week of Jesus’ life. Most describe and portray his suffering, crucifixion and death vividly; but, in my opinion, very few deal with the resurrection convincingly. How could they?

    As I have said at previous Easters, I find it significant that no other satisfactory explanation about what happened to Jesus has been convincing, other than that he rose from the dead. All four gospels talk of it – with differing details; St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 of those who saw Jesus after the resurrection; some of whom, he says, are still alive – so, go and check it out with them. Let’s not forget, too, that Jesus was a notorious figure in the eyes of the authorities. Why couldn’t they produce the body of Jesus after it had gone missing from the tomb? If any plausible explanation for his disappearance had been available, it would surely have been spread far and wide.

    The women in our gospel today who went to the tomb, might well have come away in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. But it didn’t stay that way. I’m sure that after a few days, the women were saying plenty to everybody, and were anything but afraid.

    That is another interesting point. In the culture of the time, women were not regarded as credible witnesses. But all four gospels have the women as being the first at the tomb. Surely, that part of the story would not have been invented, because to have the women as the first witnesses would actually make the story less credible to the Roman world.

    St. Paul doesn’t mention the women in connection with the resurrection, but the fact that he chooses to name all the other people to whom Jesus appeared suggests that there were still doubts about the resurrection when he wrote, say twenty or so years after the event. And in the speech of St. Peter, recorded in the Acts reading today, Peter says, about Jesus, “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” “Us who were chosen by God as witnesses.”

    I always think there is a different feel at Easter which is not so evident at Christmas. Easter is the festival of Christian believers, of those who have true faith in the saving acts of Jesus Christ. To you and to me, although we may struggle with our faith sometimes, and puzzle over the biblical accounts of the resurrection, I suspect it would not make much difference if the resurrection could in some way be proved beyond doubt. Our lives would not really be made more complete if the Turin shroud was proved to be, without doubt, the image of the face of Jesus. For we have not only chosen to believe the truth of the gospel, absurd as other people may find that, but we have in some way experienced the truth of the living presence of Jesus in our lives.

    Jesus was not raised from the dead to die again six weeks later; he rose from the dead to be with us evermore; he rose to promise us a portion of his Spirit, which came so mightily upon the Church at Pentecost. The joy of this day is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning, but that Jesus is with us evermore; alive in his Church and amongst his followers, who eat and drink with him round the sacramental table, who know his presence among them, a presence which is constant in good times and bad, in life and in death.

    This is a day when we have our confidence in Jesus Christ confirmed; the time of year we should live for. The challenge to us is not ‘to say nothing to anyone, for being afraid’, but to find the courage and confidence to tell everyone what Jesus means to us; that Jesus was a real person and is real now. May we have confidence in the power of his resurrection; and in how that victory was won; how Jesus brings peace and meaning to our lives; how the Church, even in its imperfection, is the embodiment of his living presence; how he ushered in a kingdom of power and love – a kingdom of holiness to measure its strength against all others; how he longs for all people to enter that kingdom.

    Of course, Easter gives us hope for the future as well as the present; Christ’s raising from death gives assurance that we, too, will rise to be in his presence after this life. But the four gospels do not talk about that very much. They were written to Christian communities in the half-century after Jesus’ resurrection, and their emphasis is on the most basic message of Easter; that God’s new creation has begun, and that the followers of Jesus are its agents, not just its beneficiaries. The stories don’t say ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we will be raised and go to heaven’, they say ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we have a job to do.’

    And that is our proclamation today. Let us go out in that confidence, proclaiming the gospel by living it out by who we are, by what we believe, and by demonstrating that the Spirit of the living Christ dwells in us, and makes a real difference to our lives. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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