Sunday, April 5, 2015

Don't be afraid

A Sermon preached on April 5th, Easter Day, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-8

This year in our Lenten course, we studied the Gospel of Mark. One of the things we noticed and talked about, was how in the first half of the Gospel almost every time Jesus performs a miracle, he tells the person healed or those watching him heal, not to tell anyone else what they have seen or experienced: “See that you say nothing to anyone” he tells the former leper, who however has nothing better to do than to go “out and to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.”  (Mark 1:44-45) So isn’t it a bit ironic that when at the end of the Gospel the women are told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is risen, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) People doing the opposite of what Jesus says …. Is there perhaps a pattern there, one that continues to the present day? Killing in Jesus’ name, discriminating against others in Jesus’ name, amassing great wealth in Jesus’ name? I wonder ….. 

But coming back to the end of Mark’s Gospel. Is this really the end? There are two theories about the ending in 16:8: “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.” One group thinks that the real ending is missing: “Mark couldn’t have meant to stop there,” the theologian Tom Wright writes. He is sure that the book “concluded with Jesus not only confirming … that he was indeed alive …. But also commissioning them for the work that now awaited them.”[1] The last page is missing, lost and never found. Or perhaps Mark was interrupted while writing it? A heavy hand descended on his shoulder and a deep centurion’s voice said “I’m afraid that I’ll have to ask you to come along with me to the Praetorium” or police station. [2]

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, doesn’t think so. He believes that the Gospel is supposed to end this way: “A surprising ending is perhaps in tune with a text that has all the way through been preparing us to be surprised”[3]
One thing we must not do, is to blame the women for being afraid. On the contrary – they were far braver than the male disciples. The passage we heard from Acts (10:39-41) is a wonderful example of early spin doctoring. Peter says: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses.” Really, Peter? Were you there when they crucified him, buried him, and when he first appeared? Not according to my Bible. It sounds like as if the first witnesses were women, as if women remained faithful to the end,  and as if women, those who “used to follow him and provided for him …. And had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:41) were in all the dangerous places. So if you ever wanted arguments why women should be ordained, and perhaps not men, it's all here!

Anyway, even if the women initially were too afraid to tell the disciples what they had been told at the tomb, they obviously did do so in the end. Or we would not be here. And they sent the disciples back to Galilee, to where it had all begun with Jesus’ Baptism and the words from God that “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) and Jesus’s first words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Both of these statements remain equally true after the resurrection – only it is now the disciples’ and our role to proclaim these messages - that Jesus is God’s Son and Beloved and that the Kingdom of God is here for us.  

Why were the women afraid at first, what were they afraid of? Of the mysterious messenger, the young man dressed in a white robe? Of the message as such, that Jesus has been raised? That was certainly a reason for amazement, but surely mostly of joy as the one they had followed for so long, and for so far, was alive again! Were they perhaps afraid of what the Roman might do to them? Hardly, not after all the risks they had already taken. Or were they afraid of the ridicule and disbelief they would encounter when going to the disciples, to those men who were so sure of themselves that they had fled and hidden themselves when the going got tough? And of the ridicule and disbelief they would encounter when telling their story even beyond the close circle of Jesus’ original followers, to the Jews for whom it would be a stumbling block and to the Gentiles for whom it would be foolishness, as Paul later says. (1 Cor. 1:23) I think it was the latter, even if they overcame it. That’s what they were afraid of.

But assuming that this is the real ending to the Gospel of Mark, then one reason why the story ends here – with the women’s seeming silence - is because the reader or listener is the one called to break the silence. As Rowan Williams puts it: “It throws the ball firmly into our court” and “the work of Jesus in the reader is the ‘end’ of the Gospel.”[4] Are we willing to spread the word of the resurrection and to send people to Jesus as the women were asked to do? Or are afraid to do so, and if so afraid of what? 

Are we afraid of the message that might shake up and change our lives if we take it seriously and make following Jesus and building the kingdom a part of our lives? Perhaps, sometimes. Are we afraid of persecution for being Christians and spreading the Good News? Though there are many – too many – places in the world where that is a real and present danger, it is not a danger or risk for us. Or are we afraid, like the women, of the ridicule and disbelief we will encounter if we tell others outside of these walls what we say we believe when we are in church? Is our amazement about the resurrection stronger than our joy at it having happened? 

Well, I hope not, Because whether the Gospel was supposed to end this way, or whether a page is missing and we just have to make a “theological virtue out of a necessity,” there is “ a blank at the end of the story, and we are invited to fill it.”[5] We must go out into the world and tell people about the new life that Jesus brings, about the promise of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and about the promise of a better human existence, if we model ourselves on the one who was perfectly human. So as a not so young man, but as one dressed in a white robe, I tell you: He has been raised; he is not in the tomb. Go, tell everyone about him and about the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and of the new life in him that anyone who listens and wants to, can enjoy as we do!

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 221 and 224
[2] Austin Farrer, found in Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark, 68
[3] Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark, 68
[4] Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark, 65, 72
[5] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 224

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