This is the sermon Bishop Jane Alexander preached at our online Easter Sunday service today.
My favourite Easter hymn!
Nine years ago today, my dear friend Joe Walker wrote his last ever blog post. And it was a winner.
“Are we there yet?” Any one who has spent time in a form of cultural character building exercise known as the family vacation will have experienced the ritual and almost liturgical repetition of this phrase.
We drove across the northwest USA in a 1974 station wagon. The kind that Chrysler used to make, with the engine that consumed gallons per minute and where the various parts of the rear seat belts were forever tucked under the living room sofa that was called a “back seat”. It was covered on the exterior with that charming 70’s wood paneling which was popular not only on certain brands of American automobile, but throughout numerous suburban basements. In retrospect it was probably a good idea, ahead of its time. If your wood panel station wagon got into an accident, you could repair it easily with supplies from your own family “rec room”.
And still the cry went up to the father: “Are we there yet?”
Read the rest here. Please do.
But the pains which he endured; Alleluia,
our salvation have procured; alleluia,
now above the sky he’s King; alleluia,
where the angels ever sing: alleluia!
I don’t normally criticize Charles Wesley, but ‘Now above the sky he’s king’ is very bad theology that gives a free rein to power-mad rulers below the sky while consigning the rule of Christ to some faraway place that many of them don’t even believe exists. The New Testament proclamation is ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to (Jesus)’. ‘Now in all the earth he’s king’ would be better—and if we took it seriously, the world would be a much more just and compassionate place.
(h/t to N.T. Wright, in various places.)
My favourite Easter hymn!
This is a prerecorded version of my Easter Sunday sermon. Happy Easter, everyone!
I’ve often noticed that when a new baby is born, no one in the family has to be reminded to spread the good news! The parents make the initial announcement and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls and then, just when they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Auntie Susan—you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always call her ‘Auntie’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Auntie Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard—your mom called me an hour ago!”
That’s how it happens with good news—no one needs to tell us to spread it. When we’ve had a wonderful experience that enriched our lives, no one has to tell us to share the story. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony was fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be—I know you’d enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? We would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on.
We sense that excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the time of the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.
It’s appropriate that every year in the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them hadn’t actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experienced him as a living presence in their lives when they went out to share the gospel with others.
Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. This story probably takes place several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem: sick people are being healed and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the members of the religious establishment are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ.
Morning comes and there’s consternation in the ruling council: where are the apostles? Apparently they’re back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them a tongue-lashing: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28).
This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Christian message, the Good News. What does he have to say?
First, he affirms that Jesus is Lord. In verse 31 he says, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour”. The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as ‘leader’ often means ‘Prince’ or ‘Ruler’. So the good news Peter proclaims is that Jesus is the true Ruler of the world.
Around the world today many people feel as if they have no control over their own lives. They feel helpless in the face of what are often called ‘forces beyond our control’. They might be workers who’ve lost their jobs because of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know the feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name.
In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ had a face and a name: he was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful and his cult was spreading around the Mediterranean world. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’: after all, he was the Lord of the known world and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees: the rich families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. Most of the members of the ruling council—the people who had arrested Peter—were part of that group.
Now, in this context, Peter and the other apostles made this great Gospel announcement: “The world has a new King, Jesus the Messiah, the one who will bring justice and peace for all. He’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true his rule is hidden at the moment, but don’t be deceived by appearances: he will have the last word! Not Caesar, not the Sanhedrin, not the High Priest, but Jesus! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”
The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian. Our baptism is our citizenship ceremony, the moment we placed ourselves under the authority of this new King. Or, for most of us, the moment our parents placed us under his authority—an authority we accepted for ourselves when we were confirmed.
What does that mean for us? It means no prime minister, no premier, no multinational business, no philosophy or ideology, can have more authority over us than Jesus. Following his teaching, seeking first the Kingdom of God—it’s our joy and delight to make these things the highest value in our lives. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian.
But we might ask, “How do we know all this? How do we know Jesus is Ruler and Saviour of all?” And the answer is, we know because God raised him from the dead.In verse 30 Peter says, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”
Peter was there, of course. He was one of the first to be called to follow Jesus. He’d spent three years following him around the country, getting to know him better, sharing in his mission. He’d come to believe Jesus was the Messiah: the king like David who God had promised to send, the king who would set God’s people free from foreign oppression and establish the earthly kingdom of God. And what would be the sign of this? The sign would be that God would give the Messiah’s armies victory against God’s enemies.
But this didn’t happen. Jesus showed no interest in military or political power. And when the time of the great confrontation finally arrived, God didn’t deliver him—God abandoned him. At least, that was how everyone saw it. Instead of leading a victorious army in the name of God, Jesus was hanged on the cross, the symbol of Roman oppression. When the apostles saw that, there was only one conclusion they could draw: Jesus was a false Messiah and they’d been wasting their time.
But then on Sunday morning the reports began to come in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. Peter and John confirmed it. Later on, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive, and she brought the message back to the astonished apostles. That afternoon a couple walking out to the village of Emmaus met Jesus on the road. In the evening ten of the eleven were gathered in the upper room where they’d eaten the last supper, and suddenly there he was among them! They knew he wasn’t a ghost, because they touched him and saw him eating a piece of fish.
And so the appearances went on for the next seven weeks, and the apostles gradually realized what it meant: God had vindicated Jesus. Jesus was the true King. Jesus was so powerful that even death couldn’t keep him down. And now all who followed him were promised a similar resurrection. So they had no fear of death: why would they? They ignored the threats of the rulers and told everyone they met that Jesus was alive and was Lord of all.
Jesus is alive from the dead. He’s won the victory over the ultimate weapon used by all oppressors to keep people in their place: death itself. God has made him the true Ruler of the world and Lord of all. Now: what does that mean for us? Two things: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 31-32:
“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the Gospel. It’s what scandalized people about Jesus when he walked the earth: the fact that he wandered around announcing forgiveness to the most unlikely people, the rich and the poor, respectable and outcast, great and small. The message of the Cross is that God loves his enemies and refuses to take revenge on them. All who repent can be forgiven. All they need to do is turn to God and ask.
At first the apostles didn’t realize how wide this was meant to be. Peter talked about Jesus giving ‘repentance to Israel’. But gradually as time went by the apostles became convinced that God had a much wider group in mind. Jews and Gentiles—worshippers of the God of Israel and worshippers of the Greek and Roman gods—the message was meant to go to everyone. God wanted everyone to have the chance to hear this good news and experience the joy of Jesus for themselves.
Forgiveness of sins is still central. Many people today are burdened by their guilt. It’s like a huge weight on their backs, bearing down on them. Never mind God’s standards: they can’t even measure up to their own standards! “How can God ever love me? How can I be sure God would forgive me?” The Christian answer is clear: Jesus said it, and God confirmed it by raising Jesus from the dead. So you also can be raised from the deathly hand of guilt to the new life of forgiveness and peace with God.
And you can also experience God’s presence in your life today. That’s what the Holy Spirit means. Ancient Israelites may have seen the wind as a sign of God’s presence. And so when they looked for a word to convey their sense of God’s presence with them, they found the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, which means ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. Their scriptures told them that at the moment of creation a wind from God moved over the waters, and when God created humans he breathed into them the breath of life. The Spirit is God’s breath. He lifts us up from spiritual death and breathes God’s new life into us.
Today I want to invite you to take a deep breath! Jesus Christ is the true Ruler of the universe. God has shown this by raising him from the dead. He is alive forever and is longing to pour out the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who will believe in him. Today Brad and Lizelle are going to stand up and profess their trust in God and their desire to live this new life. They want Blake and Sophia to experience it too, which is why they’re bringing them for baptism.
But the promise isn’t just for Blake and Sophia and Brad and Lizelle: it’s for all of us here. Your sins are forgiven! God’s Spirit is the breath of life in you! Jesus is alive forever, and so there’s no need to fear the power of death. We can go boldly from this place, full of joy in our Risen Saviour, full of confidence in his Holy Spirit who lives in us. So take a deep breath, and then go and share this good news with someone who needs to hear it!
Many years ago when you still bought music on circular pieces of vinyl called ‘LP records’, the story went around that some rock bands had started putting secret messages about death and suicide and drugs and that sort of thing on their recordings. The trick was that you had to play the songs backwards to be able to hear the messages. Then someone with a low opinion of country music came up with a joke about this. “What happens if you play a country song backwards?” Answer: “Your wife comes back to you, your farm is rescued from bankruptcy, the kids get free of drug addiction,” and so on, and so on…!
It’s a joke, but I suspect many of us wish we could find a way to do that. We’ve all made foolish choices from time to time, and now we find ourselves living with the consequences of those choices. If only there was some way of playing the record backwards—going back to the place where things started to go wrong and starting all over again!
I’ve called today’s sermon ‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’. This title comes from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure of the magical country of Narnia, is explaining to the children what they have just seen. He says:
‘If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”
What on earth is Aslan talking about? Well, let me tell you the story.
All through Lent, here at St. Margaret’s, we’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories as our spiritual guide. We’ve been looking at some of the characters in the stories each week, asking ourselves the question, “What do these characters teach us about following Jesus?” We’ve met Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure of Narnia, who has come to rescue his country from evil. Narnia is under the reign of the tyrannical White Witch, who has put a powerful enchantment on the whole land, so that it’s always winter but never Christmas. One of the ways she enforces her power is by her ability to turn people into stone. Over time, the courtyard of her castle has become filled with statues: people who used to be her enemies.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starts when four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and Lucy, the youngest, finds her way into Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room. Eventually her brother Edmund gets into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She knows about the old prophecy, which says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears that Edmund is one of four, she immediately sets out to entice him to her side. She gives him enchanted Turkish Delight to eat, and she goes on to appeal to his pride: she wants a nice boy, she says, who can be king after she is gone. But the king will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house, where he will rule over them.
So Edmund is deceived and he becomes a traitor. When all four children get into Narnia, Edmund slips away to the White Witch’s castle and tells her where the others are. But to his surprise, he isn’t treated as he expected. Gradually he comes to realise that the Witch is evil; she’s been using him to trap his sisters and brother, and she intends to kill them all.
Aslan’s forces rescue Edmund and restore him to his brother and sisters. However, his troubles are not yet over. The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he’s settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. The Witch then leaves Aslan’s camp.
But Susan and Lucy notice that Aslan seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him and follow him. He goes to a place where there is a great stone table. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife. She and her followers then leave to attack Aslan’s army.
Susan and Lucy come out of hiding and throw themselves on the body of Aslan, crying bitterly until they have no tears left. They spend the night keeping vigil at the Stone Table. When dawn comes they both feel very cold, so they get up and walk around. Suddenly, when the first ray of sunrise comes over the horizon, they hear a great cracking sound. They turn and see that the Stone Table is cracked and the body of Aslan is gone.
“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”
“Yes,” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane… stood Aslan himself.
It doesn’t take long for Aslan to convince the girls that he’s alive, and they have a wonderful romp around the Stone Table together. But eventually, after giving an earth-shaking roar, Aslan tells the girls to climb onto his back. He then races across Narnia to the castle of the White Witch. She and all her armies are gone, and Aslan jumps the wall and lands in the courtyard, which is full of the statues of people she has turned into stone. As the girls watch, Aslan runs around the courtyard and begins breathing on the statues. Gradually, by the breath of Aslan, the whole courtyard comes alive again. Aslan’s breath creates colour, where before there was only the deadly grey of the stone. Where there was only silence, now Aslan’s breath sets voices free: “happy roarings, brayings, yelpings… shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” Aslan’s words are coming true: death itself is working backwards.
I won’t tell you the rest of the story; if you’ve already read it, you don’t need me to remind you of it, and if you haven’t—well, what are you waiting for? But you may be asking “What’s this got to do with us today, on Easter Sunday at St. Margaret’s?”
Today we’ve heard once again the story of the resurrection of Jesus, which was as much of a surprise to his followers as the resurrection of Aslan was to Susan and Lucy. The first disciples of Jesus were hiding behind locked doors on the evening of Easter Sunday, for fear they would be arrested and crucified in their turn. They were terrified that Jesus’ death would lead to their own deaths. They didn’t dare hope that in fact Jesus’ resurrection would one day lead to their own resurrections.
But this is in fact what the New Testament tells us. Let me quote again to you the words of Aslan with which I began this sermon:
“If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”
This is exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for us today. You and I are Edmund—we have believed the lies of evil and so we’ve turned away from our true King and become traitors to him. But our acts of treachery have been laid on Jesus. Out of love for us, God sent his Son into the world to take our place and die our death, so we could go free.
But death was not the end for Jesus. I once heard a story of a spider spinning a magnificent web across the mouth of a railway tunnel in an attempt to derail a train. That spider was suffering from a case of hubris, wouldn’t you think? And in the same way, for Herod and Pilate to think they could derail the love of God in Jesus turned out to be a similar case of hubris. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” says Peter, “but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:39-40)
This is wonderful enough, because it means the Saviour of the world is not dead but alive, and he can still act in the lives of men and women today. But this isn’t the end of the story. The New Testament doesn’t see the resurrection of Jesus as an isolated event. Rather, Jesus has started a resurrection movement. Here’s how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15, as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20-24)
Imagine being a participant on the most incredible Caribbean cruise, on the most wonderful luxury liner afloat. Imagine on the first night out, as you sit in the dining room, hearing the captain describe all the pleasures that are in store for you—beautiful islands, warm weather, swimming, luxury dining and entertainment and so on. But then imagine the chill that would fall on the room if the captain then said, “But of course, it’s not going to end well. We know that before the cruise ends the ship is going to be involved in a collision and all of us are going to drown. So, let’s do our best to have a good time while we can.” I think that would cast a pall over the proceedings, don’t you?
That’s a bit like our human situation. We may try hard to keep our bodies fit, but they’re still going to die one day. We work hard to earn money, but we’re going to leave it all behind one day. We can try to make good marriages and raise good families, but death will still separate us from them. We humans might prefer to forget this, but it’s the indisputable fact that lies behind our entire existence.
And then Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25) He’s talking about our being raised from the dead, with new physical bodies like his resurrection body, no longer subject to illness or decay or death, but living forever with him. Just like Aslan breathing on the statues in the White Witch’s castle, Jesus is going to breathe new life into us one day, and we will share in his resurrection.
This hope affects every moment of our present lives. If you know you’re going to live forever with God, if you know that when you read about Jesus’ resurrection body you are reading about what you are going to be like some day—well, that changes everything. You’re going to live forever, so it makes sense to ask God to help you be the best possible person you can be—forever! You can do things and say things now that will have an eternal effect. Nothing will be lost, nothing will be wasted, every good deed will be remembered as significant.
So you see, it’s not just our future that’s transformed by Jesus’ resurrection—it’s our present too. You know how we sometimes say to people, “Get a life!” Most of the people we say this to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we know instinctively that there’s more to life than biology. It’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still be missing out on life in all its fulness.
The way to discover life in its fulness is to live by faith in Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel explains to us why he wrote his book: “…these (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) According to John, the way to ‘get a life’ is to bet your life on Jesus, to trust him enough to be willing to gather up your life in your hands, give it to him, and live as his follower for the rest of your days.
That’s the invitation Easter is giving us. Jesus has been raised, so death itself has started to work backwards, and this changes everything. Don’t waste your time on stuff that’s not going to last forever. Put your trust in Jesus, put your life in his hands, and ask him to breathe new life into you. And don’t put it off—take the next step today.
For as long as I can remember, Easter has been a day full of joy.
Of course, when I was a little boy, the joy was greatly enhanced by the chocolate! We used to get great big hollow eggs in those days, with Smarties or some other candies inside! Dark chocolate, white chocolate, little mint eggs – it was all wonderful. Easter egg hunts, chocolate bunnies – we spent the whole day on a sugar high!
As I got older and came to a conscious Christian faith of my own, the day took on a deeper significance. But again, it was the joy that was highlighted. Jesus had died on Good Friday, but on Easter Sunday he was gloriously raised. The defeat of Good Friday was turned into the victory of Easter Sunday! There was no longer any need to be afraid of death; Jesus had overcome it, and he had promised that he would overcome it for us as well. So we sang the joyful resurrection hymns, and we set out the Easter lilies, and we dressed the church all in white. As St. Augustine says, ‘We are an Easter people, and “Alleluia” is our song!’
Which makes it particularly surprising that in today’s gospel reading – taken from Mark, the earliest of the four gospels – there is no mention of joy at all. What emotions do we see here? ‘They were alarmed’ (v.5). ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (v.8). This isn’t surprising at the beginning of the reading, when the women saw that the tomb was empty and didn’t know what had happened to the body. But apparently the message of the resurrection didn’t lessen their fears; it actually increased them. ‘They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them’ (v.8).
Throughout most of human history, people would have had no difficulty understanding that terror and amazement. Terror is an entirely appropriate emotion to feel in the presence of a god. The ancient Greeks and Romans never knew what their gods were going to get up to. They were completely amoral and completely unpredictable, and the best and safest thing to do was stay out of their way. And some of the Old Testament stories give the same impression: Yahweh comes down on Mount Sinai in thunder and lightning and warns people not to come close to the mountain on pain of death. Even today we get that same feeling sometimes; when we’re walking alone through dark woods at night, and we feel the hair standing up on the back of our necks and a shiver down our spine. Something’s out there, and we’re not quite sure what it is!
Religion is all very well when you can predict it and control it! You know what time the service is going to start and what time it’s going to end. You know exactly when you’ve fulfilled your obligations to God, and then you can go home and relax and enjoy the fact that the rest of the day is yours to do with exactly as you like! You can live the rest of your week without worrying about God at all; after all, he usually stays comfortably far away, and he never cramps your style.
Until now. Now a body that you watched being placed in a burial cave is gone, and the angel seated there says he’s been raised from the dead. God isn’t far away any more – God has come frighteningly close. God isn’t just an idea in a book the preacher reads from on Sunday; it turns out that God is quite equal to the task of reversing the process of decomposition and breathing new life into a corpse. And now you’ll never know for sure where he is; he won’t stay safely nailed to the cross or sealed in the tomb. Now he’s ‘going ahead of you’, and you’ll forever be playing catch up with him.
It’s absolutely vital for us to recover some of this sense of ‘terror and amazement’ that the women felt. The God who created every single star and planet in this enormous universe has done something incredible! So what’s he going to do next? What will he do to Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus? What will he do to Pilate and Herod and the Jewish leaders, who conspired to kill him? They all thought Jesus was the holy fool and they were getting rid of his foolishness, but who’s the fool now?
A real encounter with God is like that. It’s thrilling and joyful, yes, but if it’s not even just a little bit scary as well, I question whether it’s real. I think of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, when the children are asking Mr. Beaver if Aslan the Lion is safe. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe! But he’s good!” And a few lines later Mrs. Beaver tells the children that if they can stand in the presence of Aslan without their knees knocking, there’s something very foolish about them! This is what Jesus is like in the gospels, isn’t it? He’s not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. He loves his disciples, of course, and they love him – but I get the sense that they were usually just a little bit nervous in his presence, too – and rightly so!
This is what it means to be a Christian who believes in the Resurrection of Jesus. It means that we don’t have a comfortable God who we can control. It means we have a wildly unpredictable God who is constantly surprising us by doing things we thought he would never do. Calling women to be his witnesses, for instance, in a culture where the testimony of women was not even admissible in court. Calling them to be his followers in the first place, in a culture where married women weren’t expected to have dealings with men outside of their own family. Giving them dignity and respect, along with working class fishermen and Roman centurions and lepers and Revenue Galilee employees and all the rest. And later on, taking the message of the Gospel outside the nice safe borders of Israel to Samaria and Antioch and Corinth and Rome, where those nasty idol-worshipping pagans lived. What on earth was God thinking, doing a thing like that?
Before C.S. Lewis became a Christian, he spent months and even years struggling with his beliefs. Was he still an atheist? Was he an agnostic? Was he a sort of vague theist? Gradually he began to get the sense that he wasn’t the one asking all the questions here; there was Someone Else, another Presence in his life, a Presence that might want to question him! In a letter to a friend he said, “I’ve begun to realize that I’m not playing solitaire anymore; I’m playing poker!’ In other words: there’s another player at the table, and his presence is real!
I’m reminded of a story told by Anthony Bloom, a Russian Orthodox archbishop who was a medical student in Paris in the 1930s. At the time he was an atheist, but one day a priest came to speak to a youth group he belonged to. He listened to the talk and found himself getting more and more angry at what he was hearing; it was totally repugnant to him. But he wanted to check the truth of what he had heard, so he went home, discovered that the Gospel of Mark was the shortest of the four gospels, and sat down at his desk to read it. Here’s how he describes what happened next:
While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet from Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God’. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact…It was a direct and personal experience.
That’s what Resurrection means. Jesus is not just a nice story in a book. Jesus is alive and real and doing things in people’s lives. And don’t you dare think you’re taking him anywhere! The angel says to the women, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v.7). We don’t ‘take’ Jesus to people; Jesus is there long before we show up! Usually we’re the ones dragging our feet; the truth is that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives playing catch up with him!
So what message does he want to send to his frightened followers – the male ones, that is – the ones who fled for their lives while the women were standing near the cross? What message does he want to send to Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus?
I think we need to remember how this must have been weighing on Peter’s mind. Just a few weeks before, Jesus had spoken these words to Peter and the other disciples:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels…” (Mark 8:34-35, 38).
That’s exactly what Peter was guilty of. Instead of denying himself and taking up his cross with Jesus, he had denied Jesus. He had been ashamed of Jesus and his words, and now he must have been fully expecting that Jesus would be ashamed of him. He had forfeited all right to be part of the disciple community. He had sworn that even if everyone else deserted Jesus, he would not, but what had his proud words come to? Nothing! He had promised, but he had not delivered.
Can you identify with Peter this morning? How many of us have made commitments and then not kept them? Commitments to spouses and children, parents and friends, fellow-workers, other church members. Commitments to God in baptism and confirmation. We’re all afflicted with the human propensity to mess things up, to break things, to break relationships, to break people. We’re called to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, but we fall short every day.
So is a risen Lord good news for us? This must have been a serious question on Peter’s mind. Yes, of course he was overjoyed to hear the news, but a part of him must have been apprehensive about meeting Jesus again. What would Jesus say to him? Jesus had never been shy about upbraiding his disciples for their failures. Would Peter still be the leader of the apostolic band? Would he even be part of it?
Yes, he would. The angel says to the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you” (v.7). He doesn’t just say, ‘his disciples’; he explicitly says, ‘his disciples and Peter’. Jesus embraces his failures and makes them his fellow-workers. There’s forgiveness for the past, whatever we’ve done, and a readiness to move into the future and a fresh start with Jesus.
In Mark’s gospel the meeting with the risen Lord is not described. The original text of Mark breaks off abruptly at verse 8. Verses 9-20 are not present in the two earliest manuscripts of Mark that archeologists have discovered. And they don’t read like the rest of Mark; they read like a summary of stories we find in the other three gospels, as if very early in the history of the church someone felt that ‘Mark’ was incomplete and needed an extra ending.
Scholars aren’t sure why this happened. Did the original ending get lost? Or did Mark actually intend his story to end in this very unsatisfactory way, with the words ‘for they were afraid’?
We can’t be sure, but it does remind us that reading this story can never be the end for us. We can’t just read it or hear it read and then close the book and say, ‘That’s interesting’, or even ‘How wonderful that he was raised!’ Something’s still missing; we still haven’t met him. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v.7). Galilee was their home, the place they’d grown up, the place many of them had made a living for years before Jesus came along. In other words, the place you’ll meet him is in the midst of your ordinary life – maybe even when you’re not expecting it, like Anthony Bloom reading Mark’s gospel and suddenly becoming aware that Jesus was standing on the other side of his desk, even though he couldn’t see him.
We may have an experience like that, or we may not. We may discover the presence of Christ in prayer, or we may find ourselves reading his teaching and finding that it grips us, and we suddenly know, not just that it’s true but that he’s true and real. We may meet with other Christians and find somehow a sense that someone else is in the room with us as we pray and read the Bible together. We may go through really difficult times and find ourselves strangely supported through it all, to the point that we just know a power greater than our own is at work.
There are hundreds of different stories of how Christians have encountered the Risen Christ. Some of them are dramatic, most are not. Some have come at the end of a long process of seeking him; some have come out of the blue, completely unexpected. We are all different, and Jesus very rarely repeats himself.
So this is the final note in this gospel story today. Fear isn’t actually the final note. The last verse says that the women disobeyed the angel and didn’t say a word to anyone, because they were so amazed. But we know they must have eventually gotten over that fear and opened their mouths; if they hadn’t, this gospel would never have been written! And we know that the amazed disciples did as they were told, and went to Galilee, where they did indeed meet Jesus. They had many other meetings with him, too – some in Jerusalem in the upper room, some by the lake in Galilee. They met him on roads and in houses; they met him in ones and twos, and in a group of five hundred or more. They never knew when he was going to show up.
So the final word of this gospel to us is expectancy. God has raised Jesus from the dead. He is going ahead of you. If you follow after him, you can meet him too. So follow him, do the things he has told you to do, and keep your eyes and ears open. Sooner or later, you’re going to get the surprise of your life.
 Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970, p. xii).