Bishop of St Albans Easter Message 2015
Mark 16. 1-8
The story is told of a motorist getting lost remote countryside and, seeing a local farmer, pulls over and asks the way. ‘Well’, said the farmer, pausing and scratching his head, ‘if you want to get there, you don’t want to start from here’.
And that’s what I want to say about these eight verses from Mark 16 which we have just read as today’s gospel. Here is Mark setting out to tell the wonderful good news of Jesus, who had died and had been raised from the dead. If I were recounting this I would not do it is the way that Mark does. It is not only extraordinary, it’s bizarre. The whole gospel concludes by splintering into confusion, bewilderment and even terror. It’s a total shambles:
- If you were making it up, you would never have two women coming to the tomb because in Jewish Law women weren’t able to appear in court as witnesses. Their testimony could be dismissed.
- And then why would two women go to the tomb when, by their own admission, they know they can’t roll the huge stone away from the tomb entrance?
- When they arrive and see the young man dressed in white, we are told that they simply flee from the scene in terror and amazement. They don’t fall to their knees in instant faith and belief, proclaiming ‘He had promised he would rise from the dead! Now we believe!’ No, they run for their lives, scared out of their wits.
- And far from believing and proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, we are told that they don’t dare tell anyone what they had seen.
- These eight verses described the final act in a catalogue of failures by Jesus’ followers. Mark has told us that these were the women who’d never left Jesus; they’d not run away like the other disciples, but stood at the foot of the cross, faithful to the very end – until now when even they flee.
- The gospel ends with the downbeat comment ‘for they were afraid’.
You could hardly write up a more negative or depressing finale to a gospel that the one we have in Mark. And Mark’s gospel is not alone. Most of the resurrection appearances which are recorded in the other three gospels are equally embarrassing and humiliating for the first believers, portraying their unbelief, their confusion and their fear.
And yet it is precisely because of these facts that this account has such power and such authenticity. Even although the disciples have been told on several occasions by Jesus that he would be killed and would rise to new life, they simply didn’t believe it. It was so far from their understanding and experience.
In our so called modern sophistication, it’s tempting to think that people who lived in the time of Jesus were naïve and gullible; that they didn’t find it difficult to believe in resurrection. Yet one of the main schools of Jewish teaching, the Sadducees, had as one of their basic tenets of belief that there is no resurrection. But these people weren’t stupid – they’d seen death often enough and they knew that bodies didn’t come back to life.
This is one of the main reasons which persuades me that these accounts are not simply invented by a group of people who were desperate to think that it could be true; this was not a group of people having to fool or cajole themselves into believing the unbelievable. These are men and women who are confronted, unexpectedly, astonishingly with the God who enters into our broken world, into those situations where everything seems hopeless, and brings light and hope.
The resurrection is not some vague optimism that things might get better, but which has no basis in reality. You may recall the scene towards the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian where one of the thieves hanging on a cross next to the crucified Jesus tells him to cheer up. He breaks into a jolly song:
Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…
And…always look on the bright side of life…
If only it were that easy. In reality groundless optimism does not and cannot offer real comfort and solace. As we look around at the world it is easy to lapse into despair. In the past few months alone we have been confronted with the beheadings of prisoners by Isis, police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, the shooting down of Malaysian Airline over Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the senseless murder of at least 147 people at Gerissa University in Kenya three days ago.
In the face of such atrocities, we like those first disciples might be tempted to give into despair, for they knew that Jesus suffering and death were very real. As Edwin Muir put it so starkly in The Killing:
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left
Of a death-wounded deer’s great antlers.
Reflecting on the counterpoint of hope and despair in human life, Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, writes: ‘We cannot comfort ourselves with wistful thinking. We instinctively admire the courage of those who squarely face the possibility that human life is simply absurd, that there is no future at all, and that the only honourable option is to live with dignity and kindness as we wait for our meaningless extinction. Courageous as it is, however, this view is not convincing, for it leaves too much unexplained. Deeply rooted in our experience is an obstinate certainly that our best intuition will prove to have been the truest, and no mockery.’
The resurrection on that first Easter Day confounded his disciples, just as it still confounds us today. Nevertheless, the resurrection is God’s promise that his love is greater and more powerful than the worst that evil can throw at us and that his love will eventually overcome.
This is not some vague optimism or warm feeling, because the resurrection hope is not just a doctrine to be believed with our minds – it is a reality to be lived out in our daily lives. This resurrection hope is behind the churches which have set up food banks in nearly every urban area in our diocese; it is behind the new Credit Union which was opened last Monday in St Mark’s Bedford – just one of a number of credit unions and debt advice centres across Beds and Herts run by the churches; it is behind the homelessness centres in Luton and Watford and here in St Albans; it is behind the more that £2.2m that the churches of this diocese gave away to charity last year. These are example of new life bubbling up where there was death and despair. This is the power of the resurrection at work among us still today.
This morning – along with tens of millions of believers across the globe – we gather to celebrate and to proclaim afresh the good news of the resurrection and pray for grace that we may be a people who live the resurrection today.
The Lord is Risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!
© The Bishop of St Albans