Easter Morning 2024. Sermon from Rev’d Ian Tattum

We all know that the Gospels are about Jesus. Most of them begin with the miracle of his birth and end with the miracle of his resurrection. In him, God comes into the human realm as a child to an ordinary family in an obscure part of the ancient Middle East. Jesus teaches and he heals, but not before he has played truant because of his need to ask questions. He fills the world with stories, which continue to shape the way people think about what is right and how to treat one another. Political expediency and religious hostility combine to bring him to a terrible death at Golgotha, bringing us finally to the scene we just heard in the Gospel reading today. His tomb is found empty, and an angel announces that God has raised him to new life.

Such, it is often said, leads to many of the hopes we have that life can come after death, evil can be routed by good, and love can have victory over hatred. Contrary to some of the bleaker messages our society is saturated with, there is much more to life than a struggle for survival, for personal achievement, for self-assertion, or mere bleak endurance in a world infested by dubious politicians and haunted by too much cruelty. Jesus’s resurrection is the climax to the story.

But, in that case, you might ask, why does St Mark’s Gospel seem to have such a downbeat ending?

How different is St John’s Gospel. After some amazing accounts of the disciples’ experiences of Christ, after the resurrection, it ends with the much more upbeat: ‘But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that could be written.’

St Mark’s last words are about the reaction of the women who found the tomb empty: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’

It might help if we think about St Mark’s Gospel being as much about us as it is about Jesus himself. St Mark gives particular attention to all those who hear Jesus’ message and try to take it to heart. One of the first scenes in his Gospel is the call of the Galilean fishermen, Peter, Simon and John, and their decision to drop everything to see what he is about. But after that we keep hearing about the disciples’ propensity for getting things wrong. St Mark tells us that Jesus repeated the feeding of the five thousand because his followers didn’t get the message the first time. The women at the tomb are the same disciples who have been part of Jesus’ entourage from the earliest days too. They have the greatest honour as, unlike the male disciples, they have not run away or, like St Peter, denied knowing Jesus at all to save their skins. And yet they still react with fear. They can’t even speak about what they have seen.

But one of the things that St Mark’s Gospel emphasises is that fear and failure are baked into what it means to be a follower of Christ. Before he was murdered by the Russian state, Alexei Navalny spoke about how his faith gave him courage to stand up to oppression, drawing especially on Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for thy shall be satisfied.’

Fear can be overcome but can also overcome us. It can stop us doing the right thing or the loving thing. St Peter’s denial of Jesus – insisting to everyone who asked him that he didn’t even know the man, is still ringing in our ears when we hear what the angel in the empty tomb tells the women: Go and tell the other disciples, and Peter. The runaways and the best friend turned denier, Peter, are forgiven. Despite their frailties, they are still part of the story. The Gospel message is that God’s love endures, and forgiveness for those who are willing to turn again is assured.

Watching the world now, I have found the vision of the devoutly catholic J. R. R. Tolkien helpful. As you are probably aware, he fought, and was injured, in the trenches during the First World War, started Lord of the Rings in the shadow of World War Two, and finished it during the Cold War. Consequently, he was no sentimentalist, or optimist, so saw faith, not as guaranteeing safety or happy endings but being about holding to a commitment to truth, love and forgiveness in fellowship with friends, in the face of fear and, at times, overwhelming odds. His fictional universe replicates the real world in which all victories are potentially followed by defeats, but where God’s grace can unexpectedly open up new horizons and initiate fresh beginnings.

I am glad that Easter is celebrated every year. It gives an annual jolt to all our wanderings in the direction of cynicism or false optimism, proclaiming that, beyond the cross, is new life and at the root of everything is God’s love, giving us cause for hope and good reason to sing Alleluia.

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