Reading Mark 16:1-8
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
On the third day he rose again: a very familiar phrase from the creed. How gullible are you that you could believe such a thing, asks the secularist, the rationalist and the sceptic? Incredibly, it’s three decades since David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, shocked the establishment – figures within the Conservative government of the day, and the church – by declaring that a literal belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus was not a prerequisite for being a Christian. Some of you will remember the controversy. A thunderbolt which hit York Minster, where Jenkins was consecrated, was interpreted by some as a sign of divine displeasure with a bishop who, it seemed, could not subscribe to scripture and creed as literal truth. Of course, what Jenkins actually said was that he was convinced it is impossible to be certain when it comes to matters of faith. What he was sure about, however, is that those Christians who claim certainties based solely on a literal approach to the Bible or church tradition are mistaken. His own view of the resurrection – which, actually, he firmly believed in – was that it was not a ‘conjuring trick with bones’, a memorable phrase that came to be used as a brickbat against him. Rather, it was a continuing series of encounters with Jesus on the part of many characters mentioned in scripture – Peter, James, John, Mary, Thomas, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the disciples by the lakeside, and others – the cumulative effect of which was to convince the disciples and their companions – who, remember, had seen Jesus dead and knew that he was buried – that that was not the end of him.
The two great themes of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are the absence of Jesus’ body where it should be (in the tomb), and the presence of Jesus’ body where it is not expected to be (in the garden, in the upper room, in Galilee, on a hill, on the seashore, on the road to Emmaus.) All the slightly muddled stories of what happened that first Easter seem to point to the same thing. Jesus meets people in places where he had met them before his death. There is no suggestion that the crucifixion was some big mistake, or that the past suddenly didn’t matter, or could be disowned. Indeed, the risen Jesus still bore the marks of his passion and death. The resurrection stories tell us, on the contrary, about the continuity of Jesus’ risen life with his ministry and his passion. They tell us, too, about the continuity of his followers’ experience. Jesus appears among his friends in the upper room, where he had broken bread with them. To some, he appears in a garden, perhaps the same garden where he had been betrayed. He is found walking alongside others on their way out of Jerusalem. Another story tells of his appearance by the lake in Galilee, the scene of so many episodes in his life. Now, we could speculate until the cows come home about whether this was a physical resurrection, or a spiritual one, or something we cannot explain at all. We can’t produce a dead body or a risen body for Jesus. All we have are stories that tell us of the ways in which Jesus is both ‘here’ and ‘not here’, texts that point to the mysterious freedom of Jesus after his death. He is not a corpse, not even a resuscitated corpse. He is free to make his body present among his closest followers, in the face of strangers, in the life of the community, in the bread of his supper. Just like the stunned disbelief and even fear with which Mark ends his Gospel account of the resurrection, we struggle to find words that can adequately contain what we believe and what we experience. The scriptures and the creeds are attempts to do precisely that, but we know – or we ought to know – that even these are imperfect vehicles. Words can only do their job if they persuade us to look beyond them, into the empty tomb, to see for ourselves.
‘Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?’ might not be the best question to ask. A person’s soundness in doctrine or faith can’t be reduced to subscribing to a line of the creed. It can be easy to recite the words, but not let the profound truths it seeks to point to impact on our lives at all. The far more important question surely has to be: what difference does the resurrection of Jesus make to our lives? Whatever else we might say about Easter, one thing is certain: because of today, things can never be the same again. Easter means taking a fresh look at ourselves, other people, the church and the world. It’s tempting to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection here this morning, but then leave the church building and just carry on with the same old attitudes, presuppositions and habits we’ve always had. But the resurrection disturbs our perceived comfort and security, for we just don’t know where we may encounter the living Jesus next. And perhaps that is why we sometimes feel a need to try to ‘explain’ the resurrection. It’s an attempt to control it. Our explanations are the way we try to ‘hold on’ to Jesus, but he refused to let Mary Magdalene do that, and he doesn’t let us do it either. He will not submit to our so-called ‘explanations’ of the resurrection, for, as Mark’s Gospel makes clear, we cannot explain the resurrection. Rather, the resurrection explains us. For if God did not raise Jesus on the third day, then our existence as church, and the fact that we gather together to celebrate Easter, both become unintelligible.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the earliest reference we have in the Bible to the resurrection doesn’t come from any of the four Gospels, but from St. Paul, who, as we heard this morning, tells us that Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than 500 witnesses, most of whom were still alive at the time the account was written, then to James, then to all the apostles and, last of all, to Paul himself. This is the miracle we celebrate on Easter Day. Resurrection becomes a reality in our own personal history and experience, as it was in Paul’s, whose heart, mind and subsequent life were changed for good. From being a persecutor of Christians, he became the faith’s greatest defender and advocate, and no one was more surprised about that than the man himself. For him, this was the most extreme and unexpected work of the risen Christ, appearing, as Paul himself says, ‘as to one untimely born.’ This is the real fact of resurrection. It is not a written proposal we sign up to, but a living encounter which reshapes and redirects our lives.
So, there are two resurrections, but only one of them is available to us. The first is the original event, the ‘Big Bang’, if you like, that ignited the Christian movement. Seeking a literal explanation for that, while interesting, is to my mind ultimately futile. The second is the continuing impact of Jesus on history. And that is up to those of us who dare to name themselves after him – to Christians. The fascinating thing about the resurrection is not what was claimed, but who made the claim. The people who had deserted Jesus in fear and fled from his dying, somewhere found the courage to proclaim the meaning of his life. It could be said that that transformation – that turnaround – is what we mean by resurrection.
The risen life of Jesus expands our horizons and our potential. Like St. Paul, our own encounter with the risen Jesus could lead us to places we had never foreseen or planned in our thoughts, our attitudes and our imaginations. Yet bear in mind he also meets us in places already familiar to us – our gardens, or upper rooms, the roads we travel on, or by our lakesides. Our new life in Christ does not mean the abandonment of all that has gone before. For we, too, like him, still carry with us the marks of our own passions, sufferings, and deaths. But the difference Easter makes is that the messiness of our past – our guilt, mistakes, regrets, sorrows, haunting memories, the ways we have crucified each other – and ourselves – today have the potential for healing and transformation. Belief in resurrection means we must open ourselves up to that possibility of transformation – in ourselves, our society, the church, and the world.
This prayer sets the disciples’ experience in the upper room in the context of our daily lives. Lord, come alive within my experience, within my sorrows and disappointments and doubts, within the ordinary moments of my life. Come alive as the peace and joy and assurance that is stronger than the locked doors within, with which we try to shut out life. Come alive as the peace and joy and assurance that nothing in life or death can kill.
The tomb this morning lies empty. Even the heavy stone rolled over the entrance couldn’t stop him. Just imagine that – and see where this day, this new beginning, might take you. For the Lord is risen: he is risen indeed. Alleluia!