17th April 2023

Fear and Failure

Cathedral Sermon Easter 2 2023, Preached by The Revd Maggie Guillebaud 

Daniel 6: 1-23

Mark 15:46-16:8

‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’

So ends Mark’s gospel – three terrified women running from the gaping tomb, three women too scared to tell anyone what they had seen. The original Greek even has the double negative to emphasise the negative statement ‘they said nothing to anyone’. And if Mark’s gospel had been the only gospel to have come down to us, that ,in all likelihood, would have been that: no Christianity, no revelation of God’s salvific plan for the world, no transformation of humankind’s hearts and minds. Just terror and silence.

Now this may seem an odd place to continue the period of joyous celebration which began last Sunday when we celebrated the Resurrection of Christ, the foundational event of the church. But then we have to remind ourselves that the Easter season goes on for many weeks, 52 days in all, until we celebrate the Ascension – and this period should, like Lent, lead us into spiritual reflection which goes beyond mere celebration. There is still work to be done.

So this evening let’s reflect on this abrupt conclusion in the earliest of the four gospels which have come down to us.

We have, as in the other gospels, women coming to the tomb early to anoint the body of Jesus. The gospels are not in exact agreement as to who they were, but let’s leave that aside. The three mentioned here, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, approach the tomb with trepidation as they worry about who will help to remove the massive stone rolled across its entrance. It is the day after the Sabbath, it is Sunday, and they are still in a state of shock. For they, as they courageously set out on their way, have come to do what women have done down the ages: lay out a corpse, and in the Jewish tradition, anoint it too.

What they find – the stone rolled away and a ‘young man dressed in a white robe’ telling them that ‘He is risen; he is not here’, is completely unexpected. But that is not all. The young man gives them specific instructions: they are to tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them, and that they are to meet in Galilee, the place where it all began.

But the women don’t. They run away terrified and tell no one what they have seen.

We can say with justification that the women were stunned into silence. But that leaves the question hanging in the air: what is Mark getting at here?

Of course we could say that there were many reasons we shall never know why Mark stops here, and later writers supplied a more appropriate ending. But for whatever reason, this is where the gospel stops.

I think what this ending indicates is a break between the old, pre-Resurrection world and the new post-Resurrection world. And it throws out a challenge to us, the readers.

The women come to the tomb from the old world of certainties, and also the old world of disillusion. They have spent three years following an extraordinary man who claimed to be the Son of God, who promised a new kind of kingdom. They have witnessed countless miracles, seen how he has transformed lives. They have listened to teachings which up-end expectations of what it means to be human, and challenge the hierarchies of society. They believed he was the Messiah. But that had ended on the cross in an agonizing human death. They come now to honour a corpse.

Except they now find all their old certainties blown out of the water. And what they cannot yet grasp, the initiation of a new, post-Resurrection world.

Jesus has been let loose in the world, death no longer confines or restricts him, he will meet the disciples in Galilee, as earlier in this gospel he had promised he would. He has defeated death.

Mark sees Jesus here as calling his disciples to follow him wherever he asks them to go. And the path of discipleship, as Mark has already shown us, is not easy. Particularly in the days leading up to the crucifixion there has been betrayal, most memorably by Judas and Peter, but the other male disciples have also run away and are even now holed up somewhere out of sight in Jerusalem.

It was only women who stood at the foot of the cross in Mark’s gospel. It is to the women that Christ is revealed as risen. Yet it is the women who will take this no further. The men have failed, and now the women have failed too.

Many theologians, and I agree with them, see this abrupt ending of the gospel as a challenge. This may, or may not, have been Mark’s intention. But the effect of this terror and silence is, in cinematic terms, to turn the camera on us, the spectators/hearers of the story. Everyone in the story so far has failed. But what are WE going to do now? That is the challenge, the gauntlet thrown down, to our discipleship.

Jesus calls us to live in the paradox of the hanging thread of unfinished business which the women’s reaction to what they have seen leads us. He calls us to the way of the cross. The women’s terrified silence here in the face of what they have experienced is perhaps our silence. Are we also terrified sometimes by the enormity of the challenge of discipleship?

We all fail, and we know discipleship is difficult, at times costly, or wearying, sometimes boring, and occasionally inexpressibly wonderful. And yet we persist.

And this persistence is perhaps the most valuable thing we have to offer, not only to God but to an increasingly unstable world. True discipleship, unflinching discipleiiiship, is knowing the ground on which we stand. We know and proclaim, unlike the terrified women, that Christ has risen. We learn to live with the paradox as we negotiate our way in the new world order proclaimed by the Resurrection.

This is no small task. And from it will flow the direction in which we shape our lives, lives at best of hope shaped by love, and founded on a response to the One who still calls all his disciples on a daily basis to follow him to Galilee.