Acts 19.34-43; Mark 16.1-8
It’s a strange end to the Gospel of Mark.
“For terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Mark 16.8
In fact, of course, it is the beginning; for the Christian Gospel began at an empty tomb and people have been trying to live out the implications of it ever since.
As a diocese about 25,000 of us have been Praying Together through Lent reading a short passage from Mark’s Gospel each day. People have commented that it has been encouraging, enjoyable, helpful and so on.
Today we reach the end of the Gospel and it is not what we might have wanted. The women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus are not met with a bunch of daffodils or given chocolate eggs. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb and the body gone. It is not what they were expecting and they were alarmed. The last words in Mark are, “for they were afraid.”
That is such a difficult ending to Mark’s Gospel that the early Church softened it by adding another 12 verses in which the risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene, and then to two disciples and then to the eleven whom he commissioned before ascending to heaven. To end the Gospel with fear was simply unbearable.
The last four weeks have been very strange in Salisbury. We have a description of events but we don’t completely know their meaning. Sergei and Yulia Skripol were found in a critical condition on a bench. A policeman, Nick Bailey, went to their help. All three went to hospital, poisoned by a military grade nerve agent which made a number of others sick as well. A small section of town has been cordoned off. Two people were attacked but Salisbury has been violated.
On the whole people have responded so well. The emergency services were brilliant. The hospital has taken care of everyone. The policeman is now out. Yulia Skripol is said to be recovering. Her father is still critical.
There has been some anxiety, puzzlement and anger but people in this community are resilient. Many military live here as do the people who work at Porton Down. But we are only beginning to get back to normal. The business recovery group has been part of that. Free parking in Salisbury! Who would ever have thought it? So was Good Friday’s act of witness which reclaimed the streets when several hundred people from Churches Together walked from the cathedral to the Guildhall remembering the cross of Christ on Good Friday, praying for the city and asking God to bless us. Indeed it has felt all week that those who have come from outside Salisbury to be with us in the churches and cathedral of this city have been doing something surprisingly powerful to help the city get back on its feet. If you have come today in solidarity with Salisbury, thank you. After an act of violation we need to rebuild relationships and confidence in one another and the people and place we love.
In Holy Week, we remembered how the followers of Jesus found themselves disoriented by the events that led to his crucifixion. After Jesus was welcomed on the streets of Jerusalem as Messiah and King things fell apart - betrayed, denied, falsely accused, judged by earthly powers and crucified. The disciples ran off.
In Mark it is the centurion who stood by the cross, not the disciples who ran away, who declared “Truly this was the son of God”, the same declaration with which Mark’s Gospel began: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” (Mark 1.1) Jesus is God’s son and in meeting the son, we meet the human face of God. And sometimes it is the outsider who tells us the truth about what they have seen.
All this was not quite as expected. It took, and still takes, a bit of working out. The Gospel writers can’t quite pin down the risen Christ and yet the implications keep on unfolding. Quickly his disciples ceased to be afraid, the community that scattered was regathered in the resurrection – in and around Jerusalem, back by the Sea of Galilee where it all began, taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus’s disciples gained a confidence which was not about themselves but the realisation that in Christ evil, hatred, darkness and death do not have the last word.
Indeed that is the point. This is good news for all the world. It is for everyone. The disciples took Jesus’ message of peace, truth, justice, love into all the world. Now we have to work out what that means for us in the big picture of a fragile world.
The significance of events in Salisbury has gone way beyond this city. The local has become global. It is about how we live together in a world where there is enmity. Over 20 countries have expelled Russians from their embassies and Russia has retaliated. This is not good news. To live with fear is almost unbearable and the anxiety of that enmity escalating makes people more fearful.
A friend with a Russian/British family asked me to distinguish between the Russian state and the Russian people most of whom are like us and want to live peacefully.
It might also help us to think about patriotism carefully. Loving our own country is not an end in itself. Just as to love everyone we have to love someone in particular, to love everywhere has to begin at home. Charity begins with home but does not stop at home.
And I have been wondering what links we have with the Russian churches and how to make use of the extraordinary network by which the Church is local everywhere.
Salisbury was built nearly 800 years ago. It is a cathedral city. The Christian story is deep in its fabric. Christian faith is robust and resilient in dealing with evil. The good news of Christ in Holy Week is of God coming among us and redeeming human wickedness through sacrificial love.
There is a prayer by Archbishop Tutu which I often use at Christmas and Easter and which powerfully asserts the Christian faith that,
Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through him who loves us.
My Roman Catholic colleague in the Diocese of Evreux with whom we are linked sent Easter greetings. About events in Salisbury Bishop Christian wrote:
We live in a world where some men have lost their reason. More than ever, Christ commits us to defend the dignity of every human being.
What the early Christians found was that perfect love casts out fear. It is the challenge that tyrants always fear because in Christ the way of truth and love always wins. Think of it: always.