Sun, Apr 01, 2018

Beginning again

Sermon for Easter Day

As much as I enjoy a good film...

my general experience, sadly, is one of disappointment and frustration.

Some films, of course, are disappointing simply because they're very badly done--

whether it's the script...

the direction...

the acting...

or some combination of all three.

And I'm sure we can all name films we have seen like that!

But even in an otherwise quite good film, I seldom find the ending fully satisfying.

Some films--

and, of course, probably most of the action genre--

are so predictable and so neat:

the good guy always wins;


and it's usually a he--

saves the world, gets the girl, and lives happily ever-after.

In some cases...

an otherwise good film is ruined by a bad ending--

everything is resolved and every narrative thread is tied off too neatly...

too conveniently...

too easily;

an otherwise good film ruined by a weak, trivial, or schmaltzy ending... 

out of synch with or unbecoming the story that's preceded it.

Of course, on the other hand, there are those films whose ending simply leaves you dangling.

There's no resolution.

The narrative threads aren't tied off...

leaving far too many questions unanswered.

Endings are crucial.

Be it a film or a novel--

an inappropriate ending can ruin an otherwise good story.


Our reading this morning is the ending of the Gospel of Mark--

that is, the author's original ending...

and, seemingly, his intended ending.

Now, if you look it up in your Bibles, you will find there are another twelve verses after this.

And yet, they were not written by the same author--

the style and language is completely different--

and virtually all scholars agree that they probably come from decades later.

Rather, the author of Mark's Gospel concludes his story of Easter--

and his whole story of Jesus--

with the women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body;

but, instead of finding his corpse, they see an angelic figure...

who tells them that Jesus has risen...

and instructs them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee.

And, in response:

"The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid".


Narratively speaking, it's a strange and anti-climactic ending!

We have an announcement of the resurrection...

but nowhere--

unlike in the other Gospels--

do we actually encounter the risen Jesus.

He never appears!


Now, in one sense, that's probably not all that problematic.

Theologically-speaking, much of Protestant thought finds the resurrection awkward.

Despite the fact that we display empty crosses--

rather than crucifixes--

much of Protestant theology has centred on the crucifixion. 

In particular, it has interpreted the whole event as a bloody sacrifice--

specifically, that God was angry at our sin and punished Jesus in our place...

without which we couldn't be forgiven.

Logically speaking, the resurrection of Jesus doesn't really fit with that.

It's not a necessary component;

and it's not a logical outcome or consequence of it.

The resurrection doesn't really fit with the so-called "Penal Substitutionary Theory".

So, in that respect... 

the apparent lack of emphasis on the resurrection in Mark's Gospel...

perhaps makes it a bit less awkward.

But, as I have said many times before...

I have a problem with that particular theology.

Apart from the blasphemous image of God that it presupposes...

it doesn't make sense of the fact that Jesus forgives people throughout his ministry...

and expects us to do the same.

In any case, this author--

no less than the other Gospel writers--

still holds up the resurrection as the climax of the whole story.

But, narratively speaking, it's a strange and anti-climactic ending.

And it's the behaviour of the women, here, that is particularly striking.

Throughout the gospel, the author portrays the twelve disciples as abject failures: 

they are dim-witted and obtuse;

they utterly fail to comprehend what Jesus was telling them;

they run away and desert him;

Judas betrays him;

and Peter even denies him.

And yet, generally, the author portrays the women much more favourably-- 

women such as Mary Magdalene... 

Mary the mother of James... 

and Salome. 

Whereas the twelve fled, these women remained.

They were present at the crucifixion--

albeit at a distance.

They witnessed Jesus' death and burial. 

And they were the ones who went to the tomb to anoint and embalm his body...

demonstrating their genuine devotion.

But, despite their devotion, they don't actually do what Jesus asks of them. 

Instead of telling the others what they have seen, they keep silent. 

Instead of passing on Jesus' instruction, they say nothing.

So, in the end, they too fail as disciples.

But Jesus' promise--

conveyed by the ambiguously angelic messenger--


'go to Galilee and you will encounter the risen Christ'.

And, of course, in Mark's Gospel...

without any birth or childhood narratives...

that's where it all begins--

in Galilee.

In effect, then, the invitation at the conclusion is to go back to where it all began--

in a sense, to begin again the journey of discipleship--

because it's in that beginning again...

in the starting over...

that they will encounter the risen Christ.


For the author of Mark's Gospel...

the story...

the sign...

the symbol of resurrection...

is not some clunky conclusion...

tacked onto what is, otherwise, the true climax of the story.

Rather, it is the essential assertion.

For the author of Mark's Gospel... 

the resurrection is the counter-point to our weakness...

our failures...

our betrayals and desertion...

our complicity with evil.

It is a divine demonstration that we are loved and cherished--

despite what we have done...

and despite what we are capable of doing.

As the theologian, Giles Fraser, puts it:

"The resurrection is not a conjuring trick with bones. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success".

For the author of Mark's Gospel...

Jesus' death on the cross doesn't procure or guarantee our forgiveness.

Rather, Jesus' resurrection invites us to realise that we are forgiven--

and we always have been.

The resurrection is an invitation to take hold of new and abundant life--

an invitation to let go of the past and to begin again;

and the resurrection is a promise that--

in the act of letting go and beginning again... 

we will encounter the risen Christ.

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