Saturday, April 07, 2012

Easter Day

I've never been particularly patient with puzzles.  Even crossword puzzles – the easy ones I mean, let alone the cryptic ones – if it doesn't come out in 20 or 30 minutes I lose interest.  I remember once though, at the end of the school year, deciding with my sister to do one of these massive 1500 piece jigsaw puzzles, some nature scene or other where at least half the pieces were nothing but blue sky.  So we sorted out all the pieces according to whether they looked like trees or animals or sky and we found the corner pieces and set to work, with the cover of the box set up on the table as a guide.  I don't know how many days we were at it but finally we got to the end.  All the pieces laid out neatly.  And a great big hole in the middle of the picture where all the missing pieces should have been.

St Mark's Gospel does this, this morning.  We get to the end of the story and all of a sudden we realise.  There aren't enough pieces.  There are whopping big gaps in the story, and we can't make the pieces fit.  The biggest hole, maybe, is the empty tomb itself, the gap where the body of Jesus should have been that invites us – not into a certainty, in the modern sense, but into a mystery.  But the other hole, the blank space right at the end of the story – is – so what?  What happens next?

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 simply end with this, "They said nothing to anyone, because they were terrified."

Can you imagine?  These women knew what had happened to Jesus, according to Mark, these same three women were looking on as Jesus died on the cross – maybe 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 other, 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 still can't quite get a coherent picture. 

Mark's ending is so ambiguous and so downright unsatisfying, that from 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 changed 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 that its power 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.  We don't actually need to have all the answers to be resurrection people.

But there is one inescapable 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.  The whole of our faith revolves around this claim.  That Jesus, who was as dead as you get, as dead as a doornail - 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 true meaning of human life is self-giving love – demonstrates for us finally the truth of 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 of that isn't actually in the inexplicable absence where the body of Jesus should have been – the proof is in what happens next - in what Salome and the Marys do next, what the shocked and defeated disciples do next, and not least in what you and I do next.  The final proof of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ, the true resurrection body of Christ, is embodied 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 or Syria or Haiti.  Resurrection belief asserts what doesn't always seem obvious in our world – that cynicism and greed and competitiveness and profit don't have the last word.

But, just as we started to get into it, the pieces of the jigsaw all laid out – there's the gap.  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 the women eventually find the courage to tell the good news.  Otherwise we – you and I – wouldn't be here.  And what that means is that the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle – are us.  Today, we have heard the rumour of resurrection – psst! Christ is alive – pass it on!  What are we going to do with that?  Because the power of the resurrection continues to make itself known in the telling.  Will we today simply go home and tell nobody – not sure that we heard right, not totally sure that it makes any difference in our lives or anybody else's, absolutely sure that we don't want to stick our necks out?

How do we learn to believe the angel's rumour of resurrection? How in our own lives do we learn to live it and proclaim it with passion, so that the resurrection story remains alive – through us?  There's the puzzle!