Saturday, April 15, 2006

He is risen!

I don’t think I’ve got a very good comprehension level when it comes to movies, especially the sort where as a viewer you’re left to fill in all the gaps for yourself.  I guess when I find time to flop down in front of the TV I just want to be told a story, not find myself struggling to keep up with where it’s going and what it all means.  Worst of all, from my point of view, is when the movie just stops, and you’re left hanging – well, did she actually kill him or did he just fake his death and leave the country?? What happened about …?  What if …?  I don’t want to have to make up alternative endings for myself.  I just want a believable ending so I can switch off the TV and go to bed.

St Mark is particularly guilty of this.  And it isn’t just me that thinks so.  Bible scholars think that the original version of the gospel just comes to a sudden stop, right where we stopped reading today.  Tacked onto the much longer story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, just eight verses that tell us about traumatised women going out early on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body, finding the grave open and empty – an ambiguous description of a probably angelic messenger with an equally ambiguous message.   ‘Don’t be alarmed – go and tell the disciples to go back to Galilee – back to where it all started – that’s where they’ll find him.  He is risen.’

Don’t be alarmed??  How would you feel?  Probably at that point nothing actually sank in anyway.  The women ran away from the tomb terrified and amazed or trembling with amazement or frightened out of their wits, depending on what translation of the Bible you read.  And the very earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end with this, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Can you imagine?  These women knew what had happened to Jesus, according to Mark, these same three women were looking on – not, as St John tells it, at the foot of the cross, but at least from a safe distance after all the male disciples had fled in abject terror.  They knew that Jesus’ body had been twisted beyond recognition, beyond the remotest possibility of ever again containing life; they had seen him breathe his last.  They, with the other disciples, had spent the weekend cowering in shock, leaving it to others, more socially respectable sympathisers to do what could be done to give Jesus a decent burial.  Finally these women, the only ones who didn’t absolutely desert Jesus in life, work up the courage for one last act of love – anointing Jesus’ body - only to be frightened out of their wits by a spooky young man with a cryptic and hardly reassuring message.

He is risen.  And no one knew it except three women who were too scared to tell anybody, and who – as women – wouldn’t have been regarded as credible witnesses even if they had.  And that’s it.  That’s how St Mark’s gospel ends.  Maybe Mark knew there were lots of other stories doing the rounds in the early Christian community about the resurrection, and what happened next, maybe he never set out to write everything that could be written.  But right where he gets to the point where the enigmatic messenger has announced Jesus’ resurrection – Mark abruptly ends his story with a question mark, with the three women so paralysed with fear, they just run away and don’t tell anybody.

What happens next?  Well, we can always read the other gospels to fill in the gaps, but it’s like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then realising that not all of the pieces come out of the same box.  You just can’t quite get a coherent picture. 

Mark’s ending is so ambiguous and so downright unsatisfying, that a century or two later we find manuscripts of Mark showing up with alternative endings – in our Bibles today we still have two different alternative add-ons – and in both of them the women get over their fright and do exactly what the scary angel has just told them to do, they go and tell the others.  So the editors do with St Mark what I’d like to do to some of these deeply unsatisfying movies I watch – they change the ending – and I guess the reason they do that is because – well, if the women hadn’t told anybody, how would we know about it?  We wouldn’t be sitting here in church on a perfectly good Sunday, for a start!  The editors have realised one essential fact about the resurrection, which is the power that lies in the telling of it.

But I think there’s a good reason for Mark to end his Gospel just as he does – with fear and confusion and with the women being too afraid to tell the good news of the resurrection.  Because, you see, Mark is writing for tentative disciples – for disciples who are a bit iffy about the whole thing.  For – if we’re honest about it – disciples like us. 

And Mark puts us right at the moment of choice, standing with the women at the ambiguously empty tomb.

We’ve just been told about the resurrection – this startling claim that raises more questions than it answers, that causes just as much fear and confusion today as it ever did.  Arguments still rage between Christians about what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means, and about how it happened – if you were there, what would you have seen at that vital instant? 

The Bible isn’t much help about the details.  St Paul, who wrote the earliest parts of the New Testament, argues that the resurrection body isn’t like the physical body we now have – suggesting to some people that he is thinking of the resurrection as a spiritual, rather than a physical, phenomenon.  Writing a few decades later, Luke and John, on the other hand, so want to emphasise the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body that they include stories of him eating fish and being physically touched by his disciples after he is raised from the dead.  Certainly, it’s possible for thoughtful Christians to hold a range of opinions about the what and the how of the resurrection, and I think this sort of diversity of opinion in the Church is OK.

But there is one central claim that shakes the two Marys and Salome to their very core, and it should shake us to our core as well because there’s no getting around it.  Jesus, who was as dead as you get, Jesus, who was at the receiving end of the worst that human malice and human darkness can dish up; Jesus, whose totally idealistic platform of forgiveness and love was never in a million years going to be a match for human trickiness and compromise and cunning – that Jesus lives.  That Jesus, who understands his own identity as coming out of the centre of his relationship with the one he calls Father, that Jesus, who understands that the meaning of human life is self-giving love – demonstrates for us what he’s been talking about all along, because in pouring himself out for others he is transformed into the unquenchable essence of life itself. 

And the evidence for it is in what happens next, in what Salome and the Marys do next, what the shocked and defeated disciples do next, and also in what you and I do next.  The final proof of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ, the true resurrection body of Christ, is in the community of those who dare to live in this untransformed world as though it were already God’s kingdom. 

You see, what the resurrection means is that there is no human darkness that love is unable to penetrate.  What it means, for those of us who dare to believe it, is that the power of God which is the power of self-giving love, is able to reach into our darkest and most alienating human experience and transform who we are.  The opposite of cynicism, resurrection belief is the assertion that human life has meaning and an ultimate destination, resurrection belief is the assertion that the value of human life is not relative.  Resurrection belief connects us at a fundamental level with one another, with those we love, with those who suffer in places like Sudan, like Gaza or Guantanamo Bay.

But, just as we started to get into it, the movie is over.  What happens next?  Mark has put us, with the Marys and Salome, at the crossroads of the story.   It could go either way – but he knows that we know they find the courage to tell the good news.  The real question Mark’s posing is for us: what will we do?