Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Easter 2023
The end of today’s second reading is perhaps the finest cliffhanger in history.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 16th April 2023 at 3.00 PM
The end of today’s second reading is perhaps the finest cliffhanger in history. It is also the earliest account we have of the resurrection narrative. Mark’s Gospel is famous for its brevity, its punchiness and its immediacy. But if this is a cliffhanger it is also not a great PR statement. If, as is often said, the greatest single command in scripture is ‘Do not be afraid’, ending Mark’s account of the Good News with the admission that Jesus’s friends were terrified might be considered counter-productive to whatever might happen next. Is this really the best publicity for the emerging Jesus movement, for a community which will be marked out forever by the proclamation that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the first fruit of a whole new world, a triumph over death, that last boundary, a victory over the sin which separates us and which holds us back from the life and love which God offers.
Probably several decades later, someone from within the Markan tradition decided to try and round things off. There is what scholars call the ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark which tidies things up a bit, includes another appearance to Mary Magdalene, the commissioning of the other disciples, and a very short account of Jesus’s Ascension. But the fresh honesty of this earliest ending to Mark’s Gospel reveals much which is really important in understanding what Jesus’s followers encountered on that first Easter Day, and in what happens next.
Whilst scripture resoundly warns us about the dangers of fear, there is also something which we might think of as Holy Fear, to which people are frequently encouraged. Fear itself diminishes us. It locks us up in the prisons of our own anxieties and worries. It frequently turns us in on ourselves, clouding our thought and perception. At its worse, it can be the most debilitating feature of life. Many of us, most perhaps, find that learning how to be free from the paralysis that fear can engender is the project of a lifetime. We are, after all, called to what St Paul calls ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’, to life in all its fulness, as Jesus teaches us in John’s Gospel.
Holy Fear is something quite different. It is perhaps the opposite of what we normally mean by fear. It is a deep, loving respect; a dynamic which builds up relationship, rather than corrodes it. Holy Fear is the recognition that the relationship between creature and creator is profoundly not one of equals. Holy Fear is expressed in awe, wonder, delight, incomprehension, perhaps, at the extent and ramifications of God’s love.
So when St Mark tells us that the two Marys were terrified, perhaps it is a mixture of these two feelings. It would be too pious, too simple to say it was only Holy Fear that these earliest witnesses of the empty tomb felt. In fact, the text doesn’t allow us that luxury. Terror and amazement together as in their dash back to Peter and the others, they just begin to process the ramifications of what they have just encountered.
Within a short while the message that Jesus was alive, in a new, unrestricted kind of life which would be shared with his friends and with all who believe in him, was something which people would die for. What was it that happened to turn a bedraggled group of first century women and men who had lost their leader to a shameful death into a group which would lay down everything in witness to the belief that he was alive and present with them? They become witnesses to these events and participants in the drama, as they repeat Jesus’s promises and share his teachings. Mere verses before, Jesus cries out in dereliction and breathes his last from a Roman Cross. It is finished. But it’s not over. This is the truth that begins to hit the two Marys, and which pulsates around Jesus’s followers in the immediate period after Easter. It is a truth which they begin to understand a little more as he appears to them in these early days, but which will only disclose its full power when he leaves them once again at the Ascension and gives them his Spirit as they become Jesus’s sent ones, all of them witnesses to this frieze-frame of the empty tomb, summoned back to Galilee where they had heard him preach and seen his miracles. Is it any wonder that the Marys were terrified, wondering what on earth this empty tomb might mean in the context of all they had seen, known and loved in Jesus?
Two thousand years on, we treasure this witness. The Church, herself the ‘Not Over’ of God, continues to rub her eyes. And during Eastertide in our worship we are brought again and again face to face with this mystery, that death is Holy Ground and the site of Christ’s triumph., This Good News of Christ’s risen life should stop us in our tracks. Again and again, this central truth of the Christian faith reminds us that frequently our own images of God are too narrow, our sense of his mercy too shallow, and our discipleship too casual. Not for nothing does St Augustine call us ‘an Easter People’, because it all springs from the Empty Tomb. Without it, we would know nothing of Christ’s ministry, his healings, his teachings, his death. Our response should not be terror, but Holy Fear, a fresh response of wonder and delight at this great truth which remakes the world and reframes everything we would otherwise have to say about life and hope.
In one sense, Christ is Risen, and that is all. There is little else to say when we realise that the whole of our faith springs from that empty tomb and from the earliest disciples’ encounter with The Risen One. Except that this should be the central focus of our life as well, and that to encounter it, to begin to comprehend it, we need to understand who this Jesus is, what his message was, how he acted, and how he passes that Good News onto us, the Church, so that we become his Not Over, his Body. And if that sounds like too much of a tall order, remember the Marys seismic encounter with the empty tomb. If the fullness of the Christian Faith can begin to emerge from a grave yard, the Holy Spirit can transform even the tomb-like bodies of our own frail humanity, with our limited capacity, our fragile sense of self, our constrained imagination, our overly-guarded hearts. ‘He is not here, he is risen!’ Of this, we will need to learn to speak, and to tell even that which can barely be put into words. Because here, the world is being remade, and the power of death and destruction has had its graveclothes stolen.