Sermon preached before the Annual Parochial Church Meeting
Reading Mark 15.46-16.8
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The Sunday after Easter. Shops are emptied of eggs and chick-and-bunny-related merchandise as the smart weapons of consumer capitalism lock on to Summer and barbecues and beachwear. Easter is over. Time to Move On. For us, however, this is the second Sunday of Easter, the eighth of fifty days in which we let sink in the event which launched a faith that has grown and spread so as to gather up even you and me.
This evening we have Mark’s account of the first Easter Day. Mark – probably the earliest of our four gospels, and the most puzzling, full of unanswered questions, and ending with a big puzzle – one commentator calls it ‘the greatest of all literary mysteries’ – the ending. We have heard tonight how Joseph of Arimathea laid the body of Jesus in a tomb; then how, early on the Sunday morning, the two Marys and Salome came to embalm it but found the tomb open and the body gone; and how, after an encounter with a mysterious young man, they ran and ‘said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ And that’s it. Matthew’s gospel (as we heard on Easter Day) has them running away in fear and joy and almost at once they meet the risen Jesus. Tonight, no joy, no appearance. Strange. Would any writer mean to end the story of the ‘good news’ of Jesus like that (Mark 1.1)? Surely not.
So thought some early readers of Mark, and they tried to add ‘proper’ conclusions. One produced the so-called Shorter Ending (check your Bible at home), which gives a summary of what happened next: the women did speak to the disciples, then Jesus sent them all out to proclaim the gospel. Better, but a still not good enough for some, so someone else had a go with the Longer Ending, which is like a compilation tape, a remix of favourite bits from the Easter stories.
We know these are later additions, they are not in the earliest manuscripts we have; but if neither of these is the original ending, then what happened to the real original ending? Was the author arrested, pen poised over chapter 16 verse 9? Or was the original ending lost (eaten by mice? It happened a lot in the ancient world) or removed to make way for a ‘better’ ending? Or is this the original ending: the women running speechless from the tomb?
That would be strange, and the strangeness grows when you consider the gospel’s final word, gar, the Greek word meaning ‘for’, or ‘because’ – rarely seen at the end of a sentence, let alone a whole book. Some modern writers deliberately end their books oddly: James Joyce ends Ulysses, with ‘yes’ and Finnegan’s Wake, with ‘the’, but Joyce was a terrible tease and that’s not the way we think of a gospel writer. Well, not a tease, but perhaps a riddler, for Mark is the gospel of the riddle of Jesus: people just don’t know what to do when they have the Son of God on their hands: ‘Who is this man?’ the people ask; ‘Do you not understand?’ Jesus often asks the Disciples (No!); ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he says to a man he heals, who then does the first-century equivalent of tweeting. So, if the young man at the tomb now tells the women to get the news out but they run away and don’t say a word, isn’t that the perfect end to this story of God’s grace and human perversity?
Whatever your verdict, the earliest version of Mark that we have does stop just there, whether the writer intended it or not. And the question is, can God speak to us through this strange ending? If what we have is incomplete, could it be like looking at some atmospheric ruin, or a beautiful but damaged statue, and finding a power there that the intact building or work of art might not convey? And if God is speaking through it, what might God be saying?
Let’s think about our agenda this evening. We are developing a Mission Action Plan for our Team. Its emerging priorities are:
- making our churches centres of community in Richmond
- embracing people of all ages
- enhancing our welcome and pastoral care
- growing in numbers
This gives us a lens through which to look at all we do and to ask, ‘Since we can’t do everything, how do we choose what – and what not – to do?’
Some years ago, the rower Matthew Pinsent was asked about how he and his shipmate Steve Redgrave became such a winning force on the water. He recalled how, when they kept coming second or worse and wondered what they could do, they analysed their entire operation – diet, equipment, training – and looked at every change they might make through a single ‘lens’, by asking this brutal question: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’
Now, it would be absurd to apply a single question to what we do as the people of God, which is much richer and more significant than paddling a boat on a pond. But our MAP priorities give us several questions which together make for a sophisticated, varifocal lens through which to look at what we do. So, whenever we consider how we are spending money, time, energy, let us ask:
- is it helping us look out to the world for which Christ died and rose again?
- is it helping us to open our arms to the whole range of people in Richmond (where, for instance, the number of under-16s is that same as that of over-65s)?
- is it helping us to be a more hospitable church -welcoming to those who are new, caring for those who are established?
- is it helping us draw more people to seek God here?
If the answer to at least one of these questions is not a firm Yes, then whatever it is we are doing, why are we doing it?
There is a danger in this exercise of practical atheism: we make an initial nod to God then do as the world does, as any organisation might review its resources and objectives. The plan will fail (and will deserve to fail) unless it is grounded in prayer, in time spent waiting upon God. A small group of people have just begun doing that for a few minutes each Wednesday morning. Would you like to join them? But what might we pray for? You might reasonably ask for God to give some real certainty, a sharp picture of how things ought to be. But how realistic is that? Back to Mark.
What might have been really helpful after the first Easter Day was a clear picture of what really happened and a blueprint for the future that it opened up. What the gospels give us, however, is a kaleidoscope of encounters with Jesus – very hard to distil into a coherent account – and Mark’s jagged ending offers no encounter at all, and certainly no blueprint; just a promise: ‘He has gone ahead of you’, says the young man to the women, ‘you’ll see him there.’
Unsatisfying – unless you have seen blueprints for the future before, and found that what actually happened turned out to be rather different. A promise may be better than a blueprint: whatever lies ahead, we shall meet him there, if we dare to wait upon him.
At this point, it’s as though Mark looks up and says
Yes, you’ll meet him, but I’m not going to prescribe how it’s going to be. I’m putting my pen down. This is your story now as much as mine. It’s over to you – you and your prayers and your openness to God’s Spirit; you and God’s unquenchable promise, that will survive the worst you can do or suffer.
Mark’s ending See the discussion, with reference to Joyce, in Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, pages 66-73.