Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Day

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.  Even the ancient church found this so annoying that ancient editors tacked on no less than two alternative endings, but it’s still the least satisfying resurrection account of the lot, so even this year, in the Year of Mark, many churches opt out and go for the less ambiguous version in St John’s gospel.

But in this, the earliest Gospel account ever written, after the women come to the tomb and find it empty, and meet the annoying young man with his mysterious news, Mark simply writes, ‘so they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified, and they said nothing to anyone, because they were too scared’. The end!  Of the whole Gospel!

No wonder this one isn’t often read on Easter Day – isn’t today supposed to be about hurrays and hugs and cries of recognition? – and here Mark is giving us bewilderment and fear!  What is there to be afraid of on the day of resurrection?

Well, actually, a couple of things.  Because for a start if the young man’s surprising news is true, if Jesus really is risen, then the pattern of life and death that’s operated since the beginning of the world has just been casually blown away, permanently.  Not only has the template been broken, not only does the ending of our own lives have to be rewritten, but everything else is up for grabs as well.  If we actually believe that God has casually changed the rules of life and death then from now on death – anybody’s death – no matter how untimely or how tragic – even my death – isn’t the last word on what it means to be alive.  As St Paul puts it a bit more poetically, ‘death, where is your sting?  Grave, where is your victory?’  Which is good – isn’t it? – that Jesus’ resurrection proves the destination of your life and mine is no longer death – that’s the good news! – but the scary consequence is that it demands a whole new approach to how I actually live.  If my life now is connected with Jesus mysterious resurrection life – I need to reassess how I live it.

But maybe there’s another reason to be afraid at this mysterious absence that - according to the earliest ever written account – has Jesus’ disciples running scared in confusion.  And I think it’s really appropriate for us on Easter morning to pause and really look at what the inexplicably empty tomb implies.  And maybe you can sum up what St Mark is trying to say like this: ‘watch out!  God is on the loose!  God has escaped!  Be terrified!’

Because, when you actually think about it, we human beings have always tried to control God, to keep God in a box.  Right from the earliest stories of the nomadic tribes scratching out a living in the Sinai desert, packing up every morning and carrying with them the ark of the covenant, God’s caravan, the travelling box that worked both as a focus of the people’s worship and as an insurance that God would not get loose and wreak havoc in the camp.  We try to keep God in the box of religion, subject God to rules and regulations and religious practices, the right amount of incense and the proper prayers, properly polished brass and make sure the priest wears the right colour vestments.  Church councils, hierarchies, bishops of the correct gender.  Do this and God will be pleased with you, do that and God will be very very cranky.  And of course there’s the ten commandments, which in religious talk often come down to one overriding instruction, ‘thou shalt not have fun. Thou shalt be very serious and be very suspicious of anything enjoyable because it’s probably wrong’.

And the disturbing fact is that St Mark’s account of the resurrection – the earliest, freshest account of the resurrection – blows the whistle on all that.  Take a close look at the empty tomb, at the mysterious absence that is at the heart of God’s presence with us, and all of a sudden you get it that God is free – free from all the God-waffle, no longer confined to the sacred spaces of our religions, God doesn’t live any longer in the holiest of holies where the curtain, ripped from top to bottom, allows us all to peek inside and check for ourselves.  God is no longer Anglican, or even English!  God is free from religion, from what psalm 50 describes as the endless mechanical repetition of prayers and sacrifices that bores God to the highest heaven.  God is free from religion, and also free within religion to meet us – not on our own terms but on God’s terms.  As Jesus tells us, ‘the wind blows wherever it wishes’. 

So perhaps there is reason to be a little afraid as we look at the empty tomb – because there’s no telling what such a God might get up to next.  There’s no telling where such a God might pop up next in our world or in our own lives.  If our cherished religious traditions don’t actually get the last word on God, if God actually refuses to live up there under the altar, then the empty tomb tells us that God, not us, gets the last word – or maybe we should say the last laugh, because can’t you just imagine the huge, side-splitting and belly-wobbling laugh of God as God leapt free from that silly stone box on Easter morning.  Can’t you just imagine that cosmic yawp of ear-splitting laughter?  It means that God is on the loose and that nothing is impossible any longer in this dreary, violence-ridden and greed-driven world.  It means creation has just flicked from black and white to full colour, the God of creation has twiddled with the DNA of life itself. 

Control is out.  Transformation is the new black.  The God we just worked out we can’t control is out of the box, which means random acts of love have now got world-changing potential.  It means death-dealing systems, dictators and merchant bankers no longer get the last word because goodness has mutated and is spreading like a virus.  Not only can we no longer think that we’ve got God sussed – that God is just like us, or God prefers Christians to Muslims or vice versa, or that God is propping up our ideology or our ‘side’ – not only is God out of the box but God is infectious.  You might have a dose of God and not even know it yet.  With any luck.

And I suspect that for us to really welcome the resurrection – for us to actually deep down think the resurrection is good news, instead of just giving it lip service with our favourite hymns – for us to truly welcome the untidy and disturbing reality of God on the loose – we might need to loosen up a bit.  We need to give upon the illusion that we are in control, for a start.  We need to hand over control to God, to allow God to be just God – crucified, risen and at large.  We also need to practice our own belly-laugh, get used to the idea of a mutated and surprising God on the loose who likes nothing better than to surprise, to shake up and disorder our world’s rigid systems for keeping some people in and other people out.

So actually, I like Mark’s version of the story.  I like the way he doesn’t pretty it up, or analyse it, or make it fit any of our preconceptions.  I like the picture of those women and their fear.  And I like imagining the unimaginable – the God who made the sun, the moon and the stars bursting out not just from the tomb but from our preconceptions and prejudices, totally out of control and blowing free wherever it wills, mutating as it goes, challenging, disturbing and scaring us – and empowering us to be a people of transformation and of love. [1]



[1] This sermon adapted from John Harvey, ‘God is on the loose’, in Ruth Burgess and Chris Polhill (eds) Eggs and Ashes: practical and liturgical resources for Lent and Holy Week, Wild Goose, Glasgow, 2004.