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.