Easter – What are we afraid of?

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“For they were afraid” (Mark 16:8)

These rather strange and challenging words have come to be accepted by most scholars as the way that Mark deliberately ended his Gospel.

Strange because we know it did not end there – we are here in Church today today because it did not end there.  Challenging because they beg the questions: what had happened and why did it not end there?

It seems that, for the disciples, the death of Jesus was – in the words of Winston Churchill in 1942 to a nation which had been very frightened indeed – ‘not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning’.

[Churchill speech in November 1942]

Have you been afraid this Eastertide?  It is a season that forces us to look into difficult matters.  Not least death.  This leads on to ‘what is the meaning of life?’ and then for those who are theologically minded (and for priests and ordinands there is no escape!) we have to think about the meaning of the suffering of Christ and of his resurrection.

Those who have been to our services over the Easter season have had a chance to work through some of these fears kinetically as we have remembered the final days of Christ’s life here on earth.

  • We have shared in hospitality and conviviality and experienced sacrificial service as we re-enacted the last supper and the washing of the disciples feet
  • We have looked into the face of death with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in our Maundy Thursday vigil
  • We have considered the pain and suffering of life and in particular as inflicted by mankind on our fellow human beings we walked with Christ on the road to Calvary in our walk of witness.
  • We have shared in Christ’s desperation to see where God is in the world as he hung dying on the cross in our last hour at St Mary’s
  • Today we share the bewilderment of the followers of Christ as they tried to make sense of his death and the disappearance of his body – before sharing in the joy which came with the growing confidence in his resurrection

But what do we mean by that resurrection?

  • We might think of a physical resurrection – like the icon depicted on our order of service where the saints are being shown being dragged from their graves by Christ)
  • Alternatively, a spiritual resurrection – the feeling that Christ, the person of Christ is still alive, a real meaningful presence in the world, though perhaps dematerialised from a human body
  • Or something else – something more subtle – the very idea of Christ being alive, of death being conquered, is a form of resurrection, of life after death. A metaphor for a life lived in hope – not hope for something to come – but an optimistic way of seeing the world and of living

I have come to believe that we must each find our own way, our own Gospel, our own understanding of Easter, our own resurrection story.

So I am going to share mine:

As you may know, as part of my training I have been spending some time as a Chaplaincy volunteer at Princess Alice Hospice, in Esher.  I have had the privilege of spending time with people in their last days.

This experience of people confronting death has been new to me and I can tell you – what you probably already know – that there is a remarkable difference between life and death.   A person who is alive, even when very weak, can fill a room with their presence.

This begs the question as to where that life goes, that presence, that personality that can fill a room.  Frankly, I do not know but it seems highly unsatisfactory to say that that death is the end and human beings, at all times and all places, have never believed that.

Perhaps another experience at the Hospice holds the key to this.  At Remembrancetide, when we read out the list of the names of the fallen, I talked about how someone only really dies when their name is said for the last time.

At the Hospice I attended one of the regular monthly services of remembrance which are open to anyone whose life has been touched by the hospice and who has someone that they wish to remember.

On arrival, each attendee was asked to give the name of the person they wish to remember at the service and was given a flower. I brought the memory of my grandmother – the person whose loss has impacted me most deeply.  One of the people in my life who has most exemplified unconditional love.

In the service, which followed attendees were encouraged to consider “what about this flower reminds you of the person you wish to remember”.

Memories of my grandmother flooded back. I thought about her reading to me when I went into her room in the morning, long before anyone else was up. Of her making me sweet tea in my own special plastic mug.  As I smelt the flower I remembered the floral smell of her skin as she lent over me washing my hair.  I remembered the flowers on her coffin.

After a pause, the names of the remembered were read out and as each was read, the attendee took their flower and placed it in a single large vase gradually forming a substantial, multi-coloured bouquet.

As I put my flower in the vase I had a strong feeling of the presence of my grandmother as still ‘out there’ in the world as part of a richly coloured background – as if a part of a domestic carpet or wallpaper, present in the background, a continuing part of life’s rich tapestry.

Not only had the service brought her back to mind (I had not thought about her seriously for some years) in some way the ritual had brought her back to life. And I have been thinking about her ever since.  Thinking what she would say or do in certain situations.  Thinking what I might learn from her about unconditional love.

So what does this tell us about the events of Easter?

  • The Gospel resurrection stories, which differ so much, all tell us that Jesus’s disciples could not forget him
  • Though they may have been frightened by his death – they all in some way got the sense that it did not end there – that he was still alive and working in the world
  • They had experiences of meeting him
  • People, places, things all reminded them of him – like a stranger breaking bread
  • Importantly they began doing as he had asked them to do
    • to love one another, and
    • to repeat that last meal together

And so they began to perform the ritual of the Eucharist or Holy Communion – in remembrance of him.  And as they did that, and as we do that, we bring Jesus back to life

  • By remembering him and remembering his instructions
  • By being aware of his spiritual presence as woven into the warp and weft, the very fabric of the world
  • Not just ‘out there’, but ‘in there’ – physically, a part of us, as we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’

So that when we leave here today we do not leave Jesus behind, but we leave with Jesus

We take with us his memory by which we mean his word, his message of self-sacrifice and love, his peace which comes from being right with oneself, one’s neighbour and with God.

His memory which has the power to transform lives and make them new.

His memory which can replace fear and despair with joy and hope

Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning

That is what Easter means to me.

That is what it means to say:
‘Alleluia, Christ is risen’.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Sermon preached by Chris Hancock at St Andrew’s Box Hill on Easter Sunday, 5th April, 2015

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