Easter Day Sermon

12 April 2009 08:00 Eucharist

I deliberately chose the account of the Resurrection in St Mark as our gospel for this morning, rather than the other option, which is St John's account. "You are serving us slender fare on this, the greatest day of the Church's Year", you might say to me. But Mark's account, brief and enigmatic though it appears, contains some surprising riches.
It was a commonplace at one time among commentators to suggest that Mark's gospel was the most straight forward and simple of the four - but not now! Scholars have come to recognise that the appearances are deceptive; Mark can be subtle and allusive and theologically complex.
The resurrection account stops short at verse 8 with the words "for they were afraid". Scholars now believe this was the true ending of the Gospel - and that the other verses of Mark 16 were tacked on later (as is obvious if you examine them carefully - they are an amalgam of incidents from the other gospels in summary form). The action in these eight verses of Mark 16 is soon over - the three women come to the tomb to anoint the body, find the stone already rolled away and, when they enter the tomb, see a young man dressed in white who tells them not to be alarmed for Jesus has been raised. They are to go and tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus was going on ahead of them into Galilee, where they will meet him. Despite this, they flee for terror and tell no one! Deceptively straightforward!
Until, that is, you begin to look in detail at the passage. There is the young man - the Greek word used is neaniskos. It is the same word as was used in Mark 14:51 - the verse that tells of the young man who began to follow Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane but then fled away naked, leaving his robe behind - the Greek word used there for robe is sindon. And sindon is a rare word, used only in three places in Mark - in Mark 14:51 for the robe of the young man who fled away naked; in the resurrection account in Mark 16 for the white robe worn by the young man; and at the end of ch 15 for the burial robe of Jesus. What is going on here?
It has been suggested that Mark is almost writing in a form of code here - and that what is being alluded to is baptism. In the New Testament and the Early Church baptism was undergone naked - you took off your clothes to enter the water and be immersed in it (thus making the symbolism of sharing in the death of Jesus in baptism far more meaningful). And so the young man following Jesus and then running away naked in ch 14 was prepared for baptism. Prepared, but he could only be baptised after Jesus had died and risen again. As the naked candidate came up out of the waters of baptism (which symbolised sharing in the Resurrection of Christ) they were reclothed in a white robe. Only after Jesus is risen can the young man be seen in the tomb reclothed in the white robe (the fact that the same word is used for the burial robe of Christ and for the white robe worn by the young man in the tomb suggests even more strongly the link between the death and resurrection of Jesus and baptism).
"Very interesting, I might hear you say, but what on earth has all that to do with Resurrection?" Fair question - and to answer it I must refer you to the very end of the gospel:
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.
I do not think this is just a prosaic description of some terror-struck women. This ending is of a piece with the whole of Mark's gospel. He makes much of the theme of secrecy. Mark seems fond of mystery; and he presents the disciples almost to the end as failing to understand what Jesus was trying to teach them. And here in these words at the end of the gospel it is as if Mark is wanting to say to us that the Resurrection of Jesus is something that reduces us to speechlessness. It is beyond human grasp and human reason.
The subtle allusions to baptism that I have just outlined are also suggesting that the only place we can understand the resurrection of Jesus is from within the sacramental life of the Church. As if Mark is saying to us: "If you want to understand resurrection, reflect on your own baptism" - which was a much more dramatic event in the early church than having a few drops of water sprinkled on your head. It is only as we share in Christ's death and resurrection in baptism and become members of his body and begin to share his risen life that we can possibly make sense of resurrection. Mark is telling us that the resurrection of Christ is not something to speculate about, but which can only properly be experienced from within the life of the believing community.
St Luke incidentally came up with much the same answer when he penned the story of the two disciples meeting the Risen Christ on the Emmaus Road. He was, very probably, writing that story to answer the question from his Church about how they could know Jesus then, years after the events of Jesus' ministry. And he answers them by telling that story of the road to Emmaus where the as yet unrecognised Jesus explains to the two travellers the meaning of the Old Testament passages about the Messiah and then of how the two disciples suddenly recognise the figure who takes bread and breaks it before them in the house at Emmaus. Luke's answer to the question from his congregation is to say that we know Jesus now in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist - that is within the life of the believing community of faith. Which is what I suggest the ending of Mark is also saying, except he points us to our baptism.
That was the answer Mark and Luke gave to those they were writing for. But that was then and we live a long time after their day. For us there remains the question of where shall we meet the risen Christ on this day of Resurrection? How shall we recognise him? How shall we come to know what resurrection means?
We shall, as Mark implies, meet Christ in the ongoing life of his Church. We shall meet Christ in our midst this morning as we discover ourselves to be the community of the risen Lord, the Easter People, those who have been baptised in his name and in our baptism have shared in his death and resurrection. We shall meet him as we find the risen Christ in the lives of those about us, and as we share with them the peace of the Lord that flows from Calvary and the empty tomb.
We shall meet him in this Eucharist - this banquet in which the Risen Christ makes himself mysteriously and wonderfully real to us; in which he gives himself to us in bread and wine. We shall, like those two at Emmaus, know him in the breaking of the bread, in the sacramental life of the Church, in which his risen life, given to us in baptism, is renewed and affirmed.
And we shall meet him as he goes before us into the world - that world where he has gone already ahead of us. As he promised at the end of our gospel today to go ahead of those disciples to Galilee, the place of the Gentiles, symbol if you like of our non-religious life. There he will surprise us in the most unexpected places. And where we find him, our sorrow will be transformed into joy. We will be speechless no longer, for the Risen One is with us to empower our witness and enable us to speak of him to others in the power of his Spirit.
How can we begin to make sense of the resurrection? Only from within the life of the Church, into which we have been baptised in that sacrament in which we share in the death and resurrection of Christ. That Church where we come to share week by week, as we do this morning, in the Eucharist, in which his risen life in us is affirmed and strengthened. It is here in the life of Christ's body, the Church, where we will come to grasp the Resurrection not as some abstract theory, but through the abiding presence of Christ with us day by day through his Spirit. We know of resurrection only through the risen Lord who shares his life with us day by day.
May the peace of that risen Lord Christ be with you, this day and always.

Rev. Gordon Plumb (web page by Adrian Worsfold)