Sermon: WHO WILL ROLL AWAY THE STONE?
Preached on 8th April 2012
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
There are no Easter bonnets or bunnies in Mark’s story. How strange, and thin it is. There is the empty tomb, the young man's message that Jesus is risen, the command to tell the disciples that he has gone ahead to Galilee, and the promise that they will meet him there. And the women fleeing for sheer life. That is all: there is so much it doesn’t say. There are no appearances like in Paul’s letter, no meetings with the risen Lord, no gift of peace, no restoration of fallen disciples, no shared Easter meal. The music is powerful but is in a minor key. It is true that our Bibles print longer endings to St Mark, but they are not in the best and oldest manuscripts; there is none of the vividness of Mark’s writing. They are inept tidying up jobs with the tendency of well-meaning religious people to spell everything out and tie up loose ends. That makes us suspicious. And we can see off ideas that Mark died before he could finish his work or that the last page was lost. We can trust the manuscripts: what we have is what Mark intended.
The spirit of this resurrection story is in keeping with Mark’s portrait of Jesus. The Son of Man has not gone about drawing attention to himself; he has kept people guessing. A few have followed him, but apart from the women even they have abandoned him by the end. There is something enigmatic about him, something hidden: his words and works point to the kingdom but it is not disclosed yet. Only at the cross do things become open to the world so that the centurion looking on can say ‘surely this was God’s Son’. After that there is a great silence and a great mystery. The resurrection happens in secret. No-one sees or knows what takes place inside the sepulchre at night time.
Public was death, but Power, Might
But Life again, but Victory,
Were hushed within the dead of night
The shuttered dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone.
The body is not there. That is the baffling evidence that confronts the women who come to the tomb at sunrise. What could it mean? The young man inside the cave says, in three ways. Death could not hold on to the crucified one. God has vindicated his Son who was put to death. And Jesus belongs not to the past but to the present and the future. The tomb is empty. ‘He has been raised’, he reigns as lord and king, and we shall see him. It is just as he told them. They don’t yet know the fullness of his risen presence. But it is promised. And even if the resurrection plunges them into the heart of a mystery, they are told not to be afraid. They are given a symbol of the promised meeting: Galilee with its remembered meetings and greetings and beginnings. It tells them that the empty tomb is not a destination, not the end of the journey. It’s the dawning of a new day. In Galilee they shall find the risen Jesus and know him.
Faith, says the New Testament, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. Mark’s faith is in the gaps, the silences, the hints. For him, the place of God's power is a void, like the holy of holies at the heart of the temple, like the vacuum of empty space in the first instant of the big bang. Emptiness can be potent, mysterious and explosive. It can open up huge unimagined of possibilities. So how do we live Mark’s Easter today? What has it got to say to our longing for truths and values to live and die for? How will Carola Elin live it as she is incorporated by baptism into this strange, compelling Easter story today?
Most of life, the world’s life, ours, is lived on this threshold between emptiness and meeting, in the dawn that is not night but is not yet the full light of day. Sometimes we are nearer the dark: life is too painful or hard for us to do more than hope against hope that there is some good purpose in it all. But at other times we are nearer sunrise. We are pulled forwards into the promise that our hungers will be met, that stones of death can be rolled away and the tombs that surround us can become empty through the limitless power of the resurrection. Wherever we are on this journey it is not what we know that counts but having faith and hope. We believe with all our hearts that Easter is true, because the tomb is empty. And if the full experience of it eludes us, or we are silenced or bewildered at this place that bears God's footprints, ‘Galilee’ stands for our desires and hopes and longings. Hope is what we have; hope is what we live by, hope is what we need if we are to flourish, hope is what the world cries out for, an end to fear, a new reason for living. Galilee is the symbol. ‘There you will see him, just as he told you.’
So there is no closure in St Mark, no happy ending because as every child has to learn, the project of human life is not about neat closures and tidy resolutions. It consists of open doors, journeys to unknown places, crossing thresholds. Easter is for our unfinished lives and unfinished business: we must put ourselves into the story and inhabit it, allow resurrection to become true in ourselves. That is why we need a message as tough as Mark's. It tugs at us, beckons urgently, shakes us out of sleep, shatters our illusions and our false selves, asks to change us, questions us about who we want to be and what we shall live for; summons us to believe in a way that demands everything. It takes us back to the summons that first rang out by Galilee and that echoes out of the gospel for all time: follow me. So at Easter we renew our baptismal promise to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. This is the faith Carola Erin is baptised into today. Because of the empty tomb, what other choice is there for her, for us? What other way of living can there be than this resurrection way, this Christian way, this human way?
I find Mark’s story very much in tune with our own times. For his readers, faith was under pressure as it can be for us. Like the women we bring to the tomb our confusion, emptiness, unbelief, pain, despair. We hardly know why we come, but some instinct tells us that here life can begin again. And as we look into the mystery of the tomb, perhaps we find that an angel is rolling away the heavy stone that lies across our heart, opening up space for hope. Ruth Fainlight has a poem: ‘Sometimes the boulder is rolled away/but I cannot move it when/I want to. An angel must.’ And an angel will come to those dark and fearful tombs in us and in our world. If we don’t run away but dare to stay, dare to listen to the angel telling us not to be afraid, dare to believe the promise and dare to hope, everything will change. If we dare to stay, we shall glimpse the sunrise and the dissolving shadows and a new, clearer light penetrating the dark. If we dare to stay, we shall know that God has raised his lost and perished Son, and that he will raise us too.
(1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Mark 16.1-8)