Sermon for Easter 2 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 April 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie on Low Sunday
The final words of Mark’s Gospel must surely constitute the most extraordinary last line of any sacred text ever written: ‘For they were afraid’. I once heard a New Testament scholar suggest this would be an excellent title for a Mills and Boon romance.
Post-modernists, people who are suspicious of theories of everything, love Mark’s Gospel. They say that you should live with loose ends, not try to tie them up. They distrust what they call ‘closure’. A more human way of putting that would be to say that there’s always more to be said. And indeed St Mark got there way before them.
Even if you look at the whole of his final sentence it remains surprising:
They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
This isn’t the ending you expect from a text which opened
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
Yet we don’t finish with a band of cheerful, enthusiastic, confident disciples, fired with a keen sense of mission and a clear strategic vision setting off to win the world for Christ. That might well be Capital Vision 2020, but it is not the gospel. Mark leaves us with a group of speechless women fleeing for their lives.
The odd abruptness of the ending is almost impossible to convey in translation. Some have thought that Mark broke off in mid-sentence, that he didn’t actually finish the book. From an early date clumsy prosthetic endings were applied to verse 8 to supply the sort of satisfying narrative conclusion which we find in Matthew and Luke, and indeed in most stories … except perhaps our own. And that is the point.
Mark leaves us here because his first hearers and readers knew what came next: them, which of course means us. We are supposed to know that. Mark’s story continues, not in the dubious appendices tacked on by early editors, but in the life of the Christian community. Originally proclaimed at length, possibly in full, in the Eucharist, the context for which it was written, this gospel invites the preacher, and the listener, to segue into the life of the church, past and present. Just as John did not feel the need to describe the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, because we would all know about that, so Mark assumes that we wouldn’t bother to gather as the Church if we hadn’t been drawn to faith by the resurrection. Modern Christian agnosticism about the resurrection would have puzzled him; he’d be with Paul in saying,
if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
1 Corinthians 15
Mark’s project is to remind us of how we got here and then to launch us out into the unfinished business of our lives, which are to be lived in the light of the resurrection.
If that sounds disconcertingly open-ended, I suppose it is, at least if you always want control and closure. The desire for that certainty is probably why, in the intervening 2,000 years most churches have spent (I was going to say wasted) so much energy claiming to define precisely who is and is not ‘in’ with God. God invites us to the feast of life under his open heaven, not to an exclusive dinner in a plush but stuffy banqueting hall. The good news, the Gospel, is that the possibilities of the kingdom, and the ways of engaging with those possibilities, are so many, not that they are all known by, and belong only to, an elect.
The Bible habitually places realism above consolation. That is its default position and one of the distinctive marks of our faith, yet we have fought it tooth and nail for centuries. We find Harry Potter more satisfying than Jesus; we would like the bible to be a magician’s handbook. Whole sections of Christianity are posited on the simplistic narrative that there is a tragic flaw in humanity – sin – and the bible has the magic pill to fix it, with words of all things.
But if you read it, rather than trying to systematize it,
‘the Bible recognises that in the end the only thing that can truly heal and console us is not the voice of consolation but reality.’
Faith does not aim at consolation. The women are not comforted by what they encounter at the tomb. They are confronted by an utterly unexpected development which, stunned and fearful, they cannot immediately grasp. But, paradoxically, it may comfort us that they were afraid, for so are we, of many things. Their good news for us is that God is with us in our fear and we can trust him; that is the meaning of faith. To apprehend and participate in the power of the resurrection is the business of a lifetime, and longer, and it requires the cheerful embrace of openness and risk.