Sermon: The story continues

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, 1st of April, 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Today is April Fool’s Day. It’s still before noon, so we still have time to try to fool each other. It’s a perfect day on which to remember the resurrection, especially the resurrection as described by Mark. Today’s story sounds like the story of a prank going wrong. Women going to a tomb to anoint a dead body find the body gone. The explanation given is absolutely impossible, and so they run away in terror. Oops. The prank has miscarried.

(In fact, in the gospel according to Matthew we read the suggestion that Jesus’ disciples did hide his body: ‘While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.’)

In the gospel according to Luke the men think that the women who are telling a fool’s tale. When the women tell the apostles of their encounter with two men in dazzling clothes, ‘these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus tell the as-yet-unrecognised Jesus, ‘some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive’. It’s obvious that these two disciples don’t believe the women’s message, because they are walking away from Jerusalem in grief.

At Christmas we tell a Nativity story that contains both shepherds and magi, even though they come from different gospels. I suspect that we do the same thing at Easter and create a story that includes the meeting on the road to Emmaus in the gospel according to Luke, the miraculous catch of fish and breakfast on the beach, with the forgiveness of Peter, in the gospel according to John and the great commissioning on the mountain in the gospel according to Matthew. Mark doesn’t tell us of any such meetings; doesn’t add anything to this combined resurrection story. Mark’s abrupt conclusion to the story he’s been telling has been such a problem for the church that scribes later added two further endings to the gospel to provide closure. But they aren’t the way Mark originally ended his gospel. Why does the gospel according to Mark end with a whimper rather than a bang?

Three women are walking to a tomb. Between them, these women had followed and served Jesus, had watched from a distance as he was crucified, and had seen where he was buried. Unable to care for his body on the Sabbath, they now bring spices to anoint him. After the body has been so long in the tomb the spices probably aren’t going to do much to ameliorate the smell of decay, but the women who have served Jesus throughout his ministry want to continue that service him after his death. They’re more loyal than the male disciples, who fled and betrayed Jesus, but like the men these women don’t believe in Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection. They’re prepared to care for a dead body, not to be confronted by new life.

As they walk, they worry about the stone that had been rolled over the entrance of the tomb, a stone too large for three women to move by themselves. But as they arrive at the tomb they find that the stone had already been rolled back. By whom? Entering the tomb, they find a young man, a heavenly messenger, who tells them that Jesus has been raised. Again, by whom? Another actor has entered the drama, someone who rolls away stones and raises the dead. On the cross Jesus cried out his abandonment by God. Now we learn that God did not abandon him. The stone has been rolled away and Jesus has been raised; he is not here. God has taken over this story of betrayal and abandonment and death, intervening to change the ending.

The story is astounding. But it’s not immediately joyful and triumphant. The women are given a message to pass on to the other disciples, but because of their fear they don’t say anything to anyone. All the way through, when the Twelve, the male disciples, were getting it wrong, the women had been getting it right. They had served Jesus; followed him; witnessed his death when the other disciples deserted him; come to anoint his dead body when Peter and the others were nowhere to be seen. But, now, finally, they too fail. No one, neither the Twelve nor the women, succeeds in their discipleship.

Over this past Holy Week I have been quite grumpy about the time and attention we’ve given to cricket’s ‘ball-tampering scandal’. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, congratulations. How have you managed to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage? I got extremely grumpy on Friday when I read a tweet from Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones, ‘Today is Good Friday- the brilliant young Australian captain who has made a mistake and is being abandoned by those who profited most from his talent, Cricket Australia and some in the gutless corporate world, Steven Smith is proof that crucifixion exists.’ Crucifixion was an agonising, torturous, means of judicial execution. No matter how badly we might think Steve Smith has been treated, his treatment can’t be compared to crucifixion. But maybe Smith does fit in this year’s telling of the Easter story. After all, there’s no doubt that he has failed, fallen short of what has been expected of him. And one of the things that the Easter story reminds us is that all human beings do fail. Part of being human is stuffing up. The Easter story reminds us that every single one of us is part of the crowd that screamed, ‘Crucify him!’ Even the women, who had been so loyal, ended up running away in fear.

But the Easter story also reminds us while we fail, God doesn’t. Despite the women’s fear and flight and silence, news of God’s astounding intervention was shared. Mark was writing for a believing community, and his gospel has been read by believers for thousands of years. The gospel itself doesn’t tell us that the women overcame their fear and passed on the young man’s message. It doesn’t tell us that the disciples went to Galilee and met the risen Christ. But it doesn’t need to. These things must have happened, or the gospel would never have been written. The story doesn’t end with the end of the written gospel. The story continues in the lives of everyone who reads it.

Who are the disciples that the young man refers to when he says: ‘tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you’? James and John and the rest of the twelve, obviously. Peter, mentioned by name, with the suggestion that this means he has been forgiven for his betrayal in the courtyard of the high priest. The rest of the women who had provided for Jesus in Galilee and followed him to Jerusalem. All of these, and more, were the disciples that the young man told the women to tell. But it doesn’t end there. We are those disciples too. We, too, are given the message that Jesus is going ahead of us, that we will see him in the future, just as he told us. And so we, too, can forgive ourselves and others when we and they fail. We can continue to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ first disciples, who failed, and failed, and failed again, and then finally, by the grace of God, succeeded.

Mark’s story of Jesus has a beginning, but it doesn’t have an end. It simply continues, from one life to another, touching and transforming. We, here, today, are now part of that story. Jesus’ first disciples were told they would see him again in their home town, the place where their story of discipleship started, in the midst of their ordinary life. We, too, see Christ in our daily life; in the faces of ‘the least of these,’ those most in need, and wherever resurrection (life, love, light) triumphs over crucifixion (death, hate, darkness). Let us continue to play our part in that 2000-year-long story. Amen.

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