St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

But Go, Tell

But go, tell

Ser­mon preached on East­er Day, 1st. April 2018 at Enmore.

Read­ing: Mark 16.1–8.

I heard a story recently about an Anglic­an Min­is­ter in anoth­er dio­cese who was want­ing to chal­lenge the think­ing of his Christ­mas Day con­greg­a­tion so he began his ser­mon by ask­ing a num­ber of rhet­or­ic­al ques­tions: ‘Do we actu­ally know when Jesus was born? And do we know where he was born and do we know who his par­ents were?’; and he con­tin­ued in this man­ner for some time until a little girl in the con­greg­a­tion could con­tain her­self no longer and shot her hand up and declared loudly, “Well I know!” Giv­en his exper­i­ence it is with some trep­id­a­tion that I pose the ques­tions this morn­ing:  “What do we know about the resur­rec­tion of Jesus?” And why should we, 21st Cen­tury scep­tic­al people, believe in the real­ity of this event?

The start­ing point to answer these ques­tions must be the text of Scrip­ture. Imme­di­ately we have a prob­lem. We have four accounts of the resur­rec­tion of Jesus in the Gos­pel records and they dif­fer sig­ni­fic­antly. Crit­ics of Chris­tian­ity have often used this as an argu­ment for their unre­li­ab­il­ity- if the Gos­pel writers can’t agree on the details why should we believe them? How­ever, giv­en that the Gos­pels were writ­ten by four dif­fer­ent authors, writ­ing to var­ied audi­ences, some­time between 50 A.D. and the late 90’s A.D., find­ing dif­fer­ences in their accounts should be expec­ted. Indeed uni­form­ity would be evid­ence of col­lu­sion and later edit­ing. This morn­ing we have read the old­est record we have of the East­er event- Mark’s account. Mark is our shortest Gos­pel, a mere six­teen chapters, his Greek is rough and unpol­ished but it has an imme­di­acy that holds our atten­tion. His account of the resur­rec­tion is so short and the end­ing so abrupt that later edit­ors felt impelled to tidy it up and fill in the miss­ing bits. (That is why most trans­la­tions of the Bible will give you a couple of altern­at­ive end­ings but they are not ori­gin­al).

So what does Mark tell us? He starts with the women and here he is in accord with the three oth­er evan­gel­ists. Mark tells us that three women go to the tomb early on Sunday morn­ing at the break of day: Mary Mag­dalene, Mary the moth­er of James and Salome. In the pre­vi­ous chapter he has men­tioned these same women being part of a lar­ger group of women stand­ing at a dis­tance and watch­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion. The ele­phant in the room in the accounts of the cru­ci­fix­ion is the ques­tion, ‘Where are the men?’ John’s Gos­pel alone tells us that ‘the dis­ciple Jesus loved’ was there at the foot of the cross with the women but oth­er­wise the male dis­ciples are nowhere to be seen at the cross or on East­er morn­ing. It is the women dis­ciples of Jesus who stay with him to the end and who go in sor­row to the tomb on Sunday morn­ing to anoint the body of the man they have loved and fol­lowed so faith­fully and at such cost. The task of embalm­ing was nor­mally the respons­ib­il­ity of the blood rel­at­ives of the deceased. Mary the moth­er of Jesus had been a wit­ness to the cru­ci­fix­ion but she was not present. The little group of women who go to the tomb were part of that exten­ded fam­ily that Jesus had talked about-the fam­ily that had God as their fath­er and Jesus as their broth­er. To these women was giv­en the great priv­ilege of being the first wit­nesses of the empty tomb and being entrus­ted with the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. At that time the word of a woman was not trus­ted because in the words of Joseph­us the “lev­ity and temer­ity of their sex” (Joseph­us) — in a court of law a woman’s testi­mony had to be con­firmed by the word of at least two men. In his life Jesus had giv­en women a dig­nity and status not com­mon in his soci­ety; he had affirmed Mary of Beth­any when she had taken the role of a dis­ciple say­ing, “Mary has chosen the good por­tion which shall not be taken from her.” Sadly the later church did take away much of that status and denied women the equal role in lead­er­ship in the church- an injustice which con­tin­ues in many places today as we are aware.

Find­ing the tomb empty, Mary Mag­dalene and the oth­er women are greatly alarmed to be con­fron­ted by a mys­ter­i­ous young man who tells them not to be frightened because the cru­ci­fied Jesus they are seek­ing is no longer dead but alive. An empty tomb is in itself an ambigu­ous sign. The women are alarmed to find the tomb empty- in John’s Gos­pel Mary Mag­dalene is sor­row­ful when she finds it empty because she believes her Lord’s body has been stolen. With Karl Barth I believe that “Chris­ti­ans don’t believe in the empty tomb but in the Liv­ing Christ.” But the empty tomb is import­ant in at least one regard- it secures the real­ity of the resur­rec­tion of Jesus’ body. Writ­ing around the time of Jesus, the Roman philo­soph­er Seneca expressed his hope of being freed from “this clog­ging bur­den of a body, to which nature has fettered me.” Pla­to and most oth­er philo­soph­ers of the time would have agreed. But in its insist­ence on the resur­rec­tion of the body Chris­tian­ity went against the pre­vail­ing view and affirmed in the words of Ter­tul­lian “that God would not des­troy some­thing that he had made and pro­nounced good.” The resur­rec­tion body may be in many ways dif­fer­ent from the earthly body but the Chris­ti­an hope is not for an eth­er­e­al spir­itu­al exist­ence but for a new body. To affirm that we believe in the resur­rec­tion of the body is to declare that the human body is a good thing, not to be dis­reg­arded.

The women are not only told that Jesus has ris­en but that they are told “to go and tell his dis­ciples and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee: there you will see him just as he told you.” Galilee was where Jesus had spent most of his min­istry-it was there that the dis­ciples had trav­elled with him and listened to him and watched all that he did. He was always going before them-he had led, they had fol­lowed, some­times reluct­antly. He was always ahead of them too as he tried to teach them what life in the king­dom was all about. They were so slow to under­stand the things Jesus taught-it involved unlearn­ing so much. The mes­sen­ger par­tic­u­larly men­tioned Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. The guilt rid­den Peter would have been both troubled and yet grate­ful that he was men­tioned by name.

We expect Mark to tell us that the women are obed­i­ent and do just as they are told but we are sur­prised and per­haps shocked by his end­ing: “so they went out and fled from the tomb for ter­ror and amazement had seized them and they said noth­ing to any­one because they were afraid.” What a strange end­ing-it leaves us hanging with all sorts of ques­tions: Did they recov­er from their fear and deliv­er the mes­sage? Did the male dis­ciples meet Jesus in Galilee? What happened after that?  We know what happened next because we have read the oth­er Gos­pels but even if we didn’t have the oth­er Gos­pels we would know that some­thing extraordin­ary happened on that Sunday morn­ing. Jesus was cru­ci­fied around A.D.30 and Luke tells us that post cru­ci­fix­ion he had about 120 people who were still will­ing to be called his fol­low­ers. Just twenty five years later without the aid of Face­book or twit­ter or any oth­er form of elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tion, and without jet travel, Chris­tian­ity had spread through­out the Roman Empire so there were Chris­ti­an house churches in every major city includ­ing Rome itself. Men and women from every level of soci­ety and from every major eth­nic group were meet­ing on a Sunday morn­ing, break­ing bread and pray­ing togeth­er and declar­ing, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. Meet­ing the ris­en Lord changed fear­ful men and women into people who were so pas­sion­ate about shar­ing this know­ledge with oth­ers that they turned their world upside down. The birth and rap­id rise of the Chris­ti­an Church remains an unsolved prob­lem for any his­tor­i­an who refuses to take ser­i­ously the only explan­a­tion offered by the Church.

Mark’s abrupt end­ing is inten­tion­al. He wants the read­er to fin­ish the story. He wants us to go and tell our world that Christ is ris­en. The testi­mony of the apostles and the women who found the empty tomb on that first East­er Day is com­pel­ling. But in the end I sus­pect that the reas­on why most Chris­ti­ans believe in the resur­rec­tion is that we ourselves have had an encounter with the liv­ing Christ. So this East­er let us throw off our fear and the tempta­tion to say noth­ing to any­one and show by our words and deeds that Christ is ris­en, he is ris­en indeed.

Philip Brad­ford