Walking with others

This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church. The text was Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).

 

86544522“Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’” (Acts 8:29)

All of us walk at a particular pace. Some of us stride boldly along, swinging out our arms and leg. Others prefer to take life a little more easily, and amble along at a gentler pace. Whichever we prefer, we know that if we wish to walk with another person – and even more so with a group of people – then we probably need to change our speed to suit theirs.

After ten years of living in Brighton and working in London, I developed something of a ‘commuter’s walk’: head down, speeding along, determined not to let anything get in my way. (It’s the kind of walk you can see every morning and evening in central London!) By the time I finished commuting, I knew that it took me exactly twelve minutes to get to the station in the morning and, on good days, I would reach my chosen spot on the platform just as my train pulled in. This was fine on Mondays to Fridays but it did mean that I found it hard to moderate my pace at other times, and was unaware of how fast I was walking. Often, when I was out with her, my mother would simply stop and state clearly: “I cannot walk at that speed!”. I needed to learn to change my pace to suit others.

The  baptism of the eunich, by RembrandtIn the story that we have just heard read from the Acts of the Apostles, that is precisely what Philip is called to do. Philip is one of the seven deacons ordained by the apostle to serve the Early Church (Acts 6:1-7), and is not to be confused with the apostle Philip. Previously, he has been preaching the good news in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13). Now, though, he is called by the Lord, essentially, to stand beside an ‘A’ road and wait for an important person to pass by.

We do not know a huge amount about the Ethiopian eunuch is person beside what the scriptures tell us. He is an important official at the court of an African monarch, perhaps in Ethiopia or modern-day Sudan. He is wealthy and a man of influence, travelling in his own “chariot”. He is also clearly attracted to the Jewish faith, travelling a long way to visit the Temple and Jerusalem and knowing his scriptures well, notably Isaiah. There is a tradition that this man helped bring Christianity to Africa but we cannot know this for certain.

What we do know is that Philip is called to accompany this man on both his physical journey, along the road to Gaza, and on his journey of faith. To do this, he needs to change his pace to suit the Ethiopian’s. God calls him to join the chariot (8:29); to run to catch it up (8:30) and, presumably, to keep his pace up, so that he can engage the eunuch in conversation. The Ethiopian is doing what many people did in the ancient world to while along the long, dull journeys: reading. And Philip matches not only the speed of the Ethiopian’s physical journey but also his journey of discovery. He does not demand that the eunuch slows down to match his desired speed; he does not insist that he start with a preconceived discipleship course. Instead, as instructed by God, he starts where the Ethiopian is – in this case, with the prophet Isaiah – and acts as his guide and companion on the road of revelation that lies ahead. In this case, a road that leads to enlightenment and baptism.

1292-1-doop-kamerlingThis story, like so many others in the book of Acts, speaks directly to my experience as a minister and my reflections on the future of our churches. Like many commentators, I believe that the climate in which our churches operate today is increasingly similar to the world of Acts. Far more similar indeed than it is to the world of, say, the Georgian or Victorian Church. Some of those similarities are obvious. Like the apostles, we operate in a multi-faith / multi-ethnic / multi-religious context. (Although before we feel too sorry for ourselves, we should note that Christianity still occupies an extremely privileged position in our nation.) Like them, we work as ‘pockets’ of Christianity – individual, often small, churches working as a network – rather than as ‘Christendom’.

Crucially, like the Early Church, we encounter people who are at very different stages of their Christian journey and who are walking at very different paces along ‘the Way’. Some – like the Ethiopian eunuch – already have a lot of information about the scriptures and are striding along the journey of faith; they need to have their detailed questions answered. Others are walking at a snail’s pace, and have only just begin to discover Jesus for themselves. Still others, have no knowledge whatsoever and seem to be on a completely different road altogether!

Like all ministers, I am continually challenged by this need to match the pace at which others are walking. The young teenager who is preparing for confirmation at Pentecost is walking at one speed. The folk who came to our Lenten Bible study, taking a detailed look at Mark’s gospel, were bowling along at another. And the people who read the weekly Bible notes that I am writing for the Methodist Church’s national website are at yet another.

I was brought face to face with this challenge most acutely a few months ago. A woman whom I did not know came to one of our evening services at Putney. Unfortunately, it was the second in a series on the letter of James in the New Testament that I was leading. I knew that most of the folks who come to that service are life-long Christians, who need to be challenged, and so we were looking in detail at a few verses. Afterwards, she confessed that this was the first time that she had ever entered a church to worship, and that she had, in fact, received no formal Christian education since the age of seven! She had had a personal crisis, which had led her to our doors. However, the speed at which we were moving was light years ahead of where she needed to be – and she confessed that she almost ran out, because we seemed to speaking another language! Luckily, she gave me another chance and we were able to engage in individual conversation on a number of occasions. I was able to lead her to some more suitable material that we could discuss together, looking at the most basic (and most important) elements of Christianity. I needed to slow my pace right down, though, to walk with her on those first, tentative steps along the path to faith. The whole experience felt rather like speeding along at 70 mph in the fast lane on the M4 and then suddenly putting the car into first gear!

menologion_of_basil_006.jpgThis is the challenge that both the Early Church and our modern churches face. How to accompany people at the right pace for them? How do we walk alongside the chariot both of young children and life-long Christians? Of those educated to a postgraduate level, with deep questions about evolution, artificial intelligence and scriptural authority, and those who are simply uninterested in such issues. Of those who have been listening to sermons for forty-odd years and have ‘heard it all before’ and those who have come for a baptism of their friend’s child and have not stepped into a church since they were a child themselves?

The challenge can leave many of us gasping for breath, desperately trying to change our pace to suit the needs of our listeners. More often, sadly, it leads us simply to adopt a ‘one pace fits all’ attitude. To settle for some sort of average that suits the majority of our members, and leaves the rest to take care of themselves. To produce sermons and worship that neither help those new to faith, nor truly challenge those whose faith has grown old and staid. As the alternative words to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ appositely bemoan:

Like a mighty tortoise
moves the Church of God.
Brothers, we are treading,
where we’ve always trod.

We are not adapting our pace – as Philip did – to suit that of the people we are trying to help. Instead, we are expecting them to match our own.

The challenge for us a church is to determine how we follow Philip’s example and walk alongside those in our community whom we are called to serve, and who want to engage with our faith. Of course, we cannot be ‘all things to all people’ and we need to recognise the limitations of our resources. But we need to be conscious of our calling and to be deliberate about our pace. We need to be sacrificial in our life as a church, perhaps moving at a pace that we personally find uncomfortable, in order that we can walk alongside others. Who is the Ethiopian eunuch of our own day whom God is calling us to accompany?

In doing this, we are seeking to follow the example that not only Philip, but God has set us. For that is precisely what we celebrate in the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is God choosing to walk alongside us, at our pace, in order that we might have life in all its fullness. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn puts it so eloquently:

Not throned above, remotely high,
untouched, unmoved by human pains
but daily, in the midst of life,
our Saviour, with the Father reigns.

Jesus walked at the pace of all those he met: encouraging, cajoling, leading them on. And he continues to walk beside us all, every day of our lives, matching his pace to suit our own: sometimes striding ahead in the full confidence of faith; at others, patiently waiting at the roadside for us as we are overcome by doubt and sin. Without that accompanying presence, without that selfless act of love and grace on God’s part, we would all be lost. It is a selfless, sacrificial example that we are called to follow. I pray that – as a church and as individuals – we might not only know that presence in our lives always but be inspired to walk along others that they might the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Writing the next chapter

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Putney Methodist Church. It was the day of our Annual Church Meeting, where we considered the past and future of our congregation. The text was Acts 6:1-7

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_projectThe Acts of the Apostles is one of those books of the Bible that we often over-look, sadly. We all know the stories from Luke’s gospel very well and many of them are the most popular in our scriptures: the shepherds and the angels at Christ’s birth, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Supper at Emmaus, to name but a few. When we come to the second half of Luke’s gospel, though – and we should always remember that that is precisely what the book of Acts is – our knowledge tends to peter out a little.

We almost certainly know the story of Christ’s Ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost from its opening chapters. We also know, I am sure, at least some of the details of the conversion of St Paul and some of St Peter’s experiences. There is so much more to the book, though. So many more of the first disciples’ fascinating adventures – and there is no other way of describing them – as they begin to tell all sorts of people the good news of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps most importantly, in these 28 chapters of scripture we see more clearly than anywhere else the beginnings of what will become Christ’s Church on earth. As so often in life, they do not start with a clear blueprint of what they are seeking to create; they did not begin by saying, “We want something that looks a bit like that Putney Methodist Church”! They knew what they wanted to do – tell people the story of Jesus, and especially his death and resurrection – but how to do that remained the key question. In the book of Acts, we see them proceeding by that ancient method of trial and error. We read of people like Paul and Barnabas, going from place to place, sometimes being heard and accepted and sometimes being driven out of town. We read about early congregations being established across the eastern Mediterranean, and facing challenges both from within, and without, as they established a pattern of worship, prayer and evangelism that worked for them. We hear of councils and controversies, as they sought to discern what it truly meant to follow Christ, often taking incredibly hard and brave decisions. It is an incredible story of people faithfully building God’s Church up from nothing, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Apostles church RomeWhy I have chosen this particular passage today, and why I am speaking about this subject at all, is, of course, because today is our Annual Church Meeting. This is the occasion when we, as a congregation, have the opportunity to look back at all that God has done for us in the past, and to renew our trust in him for the year that is to come. It is also traditionally an opportunity for us to undertake some necessary business and to engage in that traditional pre-occupation of church navel-gazing!

From long experience, I know that many of us cannot stand such meetings and will make a bolt for the door as soon as the notes of the last hymn die away! If you possibly can stay, though, I would strongly urge you so to do. Why? Because just as Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the story he began in his gospel, so is our Annual Church Meeting merely another chapter in that glorious story. It may not feel like it is, and it is certainly not as adventurous as Paul’s shipwreck off Malta (Acts 27), say, but it is unquestionably part of the same narrative. It is the same story of God’s people trying to serve him in this time and place. The same story of people from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities coming together to glorify Christ’s name. Working out, through the same method of trial and error, how we can best worship him, serve him and his people, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with all who will hear it. The same story of God’s Holy Spirit at work amongst his people, if we but look for it.

seven-deaconsCrucially, the passage that we just heard read – like so many others in Acts – reminds us that that story belongs to us all. The church of Acts was struggling to cope with its mission both to preach the Word of God and to serve those in need, in this particular case the widows of the two communities. The apostles were learning that vital lesson, which all pastors have to learn, that no one can do everything that needs to be done. That while individuals like Paul and Peter might, rightly, hog the limelight, their work is ultimately in vain, if it is not taken up and championed by the entire community. It reminds us of so many other passages in the New Testament, perhaps particularly 1 Corinthians (12:12-31), where churches realised the Spirit moved among them all, and that all had vital gifts and graces with which to bless the community and one another. That God called, and calls, all kinds of people to bring about his Kingdom on earth.

Today is not just about ‘keeping the show on the road’ or the usual call for people to ‘fill the jobs’. This is about us recognising our part in God’s story of salvation. Then as now, this is a counter-cultural message that we often struggle to hear. Today we live in what is often described as a consumerist society, where we have a huge variety of goods and services at our disposal. When we go to a shop, we expect it to have what we want immediately, in the colour, size and at the price we desire. If it does not, then we will go elsewhere. Often, we feel very little loyalty to those providing the goods or services, and will now happily shop around online until we find the best deal for us. To some extent, this was just as true of the marketplaces of ancient Jerusalem and Antioch as it is of Westfield today. The difference is that many people today have come to apply the same philosophy to nearly all their dealings, even seemingly to the field of friendship. On Facebook, and other social media, we can simply delete someone from our lives, if we no longer believe we are getting good ‘value for money’ from our friendship. Relationships are in real danger of becoming solely consumerist transactions: “What do I get out of this? What’s in it for me?”.

A macro detail of the book of Acts in the Christian New TestamentSadly, many people are applying the same philosophy to churches. We encounter that attitude occasionally here, with people shopping around, trying to find the ‘perfect church’. The one that does things exactly the way they like; that provides the services they need; and the one that makes no demands on them, apart from occasional attendance on Sunday mornings. If it fails so to do, then they will simply go elsewhere. In many respects, I fully understand that attitude. All of lead busy lives today, with enormous pressures on our time and resources – people simply do not have the leisure time to devote to church life that once they had. I also feel that some pressure of this kind is useful to churches: it makes us reflect on whether we are simply pleasing ourselves with the way we worship and function, or are actually meeting the genuine need for people to encounter God in the most appropriate way for them.

There is a real barrier to cross here, though. Because the church – our little church here and all congregations everywhere – simply cannot operate in that manner. We cannot be ‘all things to all people’ without a responding commitment from those who attend. On one of my first Sundays here at Putney, I encountered a couple with a young family, who were clearly disappointed by what they had found here. They had come from a large, thriving church in the USA, with a flourishing choir, children’s work, etc. Typically, they had come on a Sunday when there were very few people here – as periodically happens – and at the door the woman effectively told me off because the church had not met her expectations. As always, I humbly accepted the criticism and I had a lot of sympathy for her critique. But part of me also wanted to say, “Well, why not join us and be the change? You can see the need and the potential here. Why not make a commitment to help us become the church you want us to be?”

Now, I know the reasons why that was an impracticable suggestion: they were both busy parents, with demanding careers and many calls on their time. It is the same for so many of us here today. But as we read the book of Acts, we see time and time again how one person can make a huge difference to the life of God’s church. We know that from the life of this church. How one person – someone “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) – choosing to make a commitment, to do one thing well, can have such a huge effect on the lives of so many others. The book of Acts tells me that I cannot fill this church with the Holy Spirit by myself, no minister can. That requires the ministry of the whole people of God, working together, bringing their different gifts and graces to serve us all, and enrich the life of our community. As Christians, we are not called to be solely consumers of church: picking the bits we like and which serve our needs, and rejecting the rest. We are called to be integral parts of the one body of the church.

So, I make my appeal today, brothers and sisters. The same appeal that Peter and the apostles made to the church two thousand years ago. Can you be part of the 2,000 year story of God’s church? Can you help shape its next chapter? Is God calling you today to be part of that glorious story and that fascinating future? We have so much work to do here, and I see so many promising signs of hope and growth. Truly, the harvest is great but the workers are few (Matt. 9:37). Can you spare just a few hours each month to serve your church – by committing to prayer, to helping with worship, by working with our young people? Is God calling you today, in the same way that he called the seven in the time of Peter? If so, I believe fervently that our future, by God’s grace, can be as bright as its past. That the word of God can continue to spread and the number of the disciples increase greatly. Together, let us write the next chapter of Christ’s story in this place. Amen.

Peter anointing seven deacons

Section of a fresco in the Niccoline Chapel by Fra Angelico, depicting Saint Peter consecrating the Seven Deacons. Saint Stephen is shown kneeling. Source: Wikimdeia.

Not so Super Jesus

This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton. The text for today was John 20:24-29 (Jesus and Thomas), often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas‘.

unnamedI am sure that all of you here today are completely addicted to superhero movies. No doubt, you are all familiar with the most recent cinematic outings of Superman, Wonderwoman and Spiderman. You know your Captain America from your Thor; your bedrooms are full of Hulk posters; and you are on the edge of your pews in anticipation of the latest Avengers’ film. Well, perhaps not!

Whatever our views, though, it is clear that superhero movies are, once more, all the vogue. Every few months, a new film is released, detailing the exploits of the latest creation from DC Comics or Marvel. These are accompanied by endless comic books, action figures, duvet covers and other merchandising opportunities. And they are all incredibly popular. I, for one, know that, if I wish to have an extended conversation with my godsons, I must have at least a passing knowledge of some of these characters.

For some children, though, we know that this passion for such superheroes goes beyond a mere passing interest. Many commentators have observed that for certain children – and perhaps more than we might think – these characters speak to a deeper psychological need. They provide a beacon of hope in a constantly changing and potentially dangerous world. For children who see their mothers being abused, for example, or who are themselves being bullied at school, it is understandable that some of these characters’ stories would speak deeply to theirs. The sudden acquisition of enormous strength or super powers, like Peter Parker in Spiderman, would be a dream come true for many children, who long to be vindicated and see their own tormentors – and the tormentors of the ones they love – receive their just desserts. No need for a trial, or for the slow process of human justice. Just a quick punch up in a back alley, and ‘Pow!’ – everyone gets what they truly deserve.

f17b5e7157caf51a86acd4d921123e74Unfortunately, many Christian organisations that work with children and young people discover that they hold similar beliefs about Jesus. To some extent, we in the mainstream church are responsible for that through the way we often talk about Christ. ‘Jesus’ is the answer to all questions; he can perform any miracle; he can triumph over any foe, even the arch-nemesis himself, Satan. As the popular children’s song goes: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do.”

This is especially true in the story of the resurrection perhaps. Indeed, the Easter story could, arguably, be an episode straight out of a comic book, in many respects. The misunderstood hero is hated by those he came to serve; his true identity is hidden from even his closest friends and family; and the bad guys have their moment of triumph, when it looks like our hero is down and out for good, unable to use his powers. The cross is his kryptonite. Yet, just when everything looks bad, and it seems that evil has indeed triumphed, the Man of Steel rolls away his own tomb stone and confounds his enemies.

alonso_lc3b3pez_de_herrera_-_the_resurrection_of_christ_-_google_art_projectTraditional depictions of the Resurrection in Christian art arguably aid this interpretation of events. Jesus is usually portrayed as literally bursting out of his tomb, with the previously smirking guards now quivering in fear at his feet, and his grave clothes artistically fluttering in the breeze behind him, much like Superman’s cape. He is ‘Super Jesus’: faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive; able to escape even the most gruesome of deaths in a single bound!

Today’s reading from John’s gospel, though, puts the lie to that interpretation of Jesus and his death and resurrection. While the traditional focus of the passage is poor Thomas and his – arguably understandable – doubts, for me the crucial part of this passage is what Jesus tells us about himself:

Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (John 20:27)

Jesus does not emerge from the experience of Easter unscathed. He is explicitly unlike the superheroes of our comic books and films, because he still bares the scars of his torture and execution. Bullets, or nails in this case, do not bounce off his skin, like Superman’s. His wounds do not miraculously heal themselves, like one of the X-Men. Even after his glorious resurrection, and his triumph over the grave, he is still able to say to Thomas, and the other disciples, ‘Look upon my scars.’.

the_incredulity_of_thomas2c_who_places_his_finger_in_the_wound_28f-_142v29_croppedJesus, as one commentator has observed, is not an ‘Etch a Sketch’ Messiah. His wounds do not disappear but will remain with him, for the rest of his earthly life. And not only the physical scars, but the mental and emotional ones too: the experience of betrayal, loneliness and despair in the days and hours leading up to his crucifixion. They do not vanish overnight, either.

That is what is so important about this story of Thomas for me, and speaks deeply to my own experience. On several occasions, and one in particular, I, as a minister, have been called upon to lead my congregations in Easter praise and joyful celebration. To sing the inspiring, upbeat hymns and to deliver a positive, smiling sermon, to a church full of families and daffodils. Yet, in all honesty my heart has still been in the tomb. I have still been contemplating my own sadness and worries; and I have known that many members of my congregation are there too. The rolling over of the calendar from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday has not changed their lives. It has not taken away their grief, their pain, their anger. They have still been in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping with Christ, or on the cross of pain, writhing in agony.

The reality is that, even in the face of Easter joy and the good news of death overcome, we still bear the scars of life on our bodies, in our hearts and in our minds. And that is what makes Jesus our true superhero. Because he bears them too. He cannot simply brush aside the crown of thorns and nails; he cannot forget what his best friends did to him on that night, he still bears those wounds now. Yet because of what God did through his supreme sacrifice, he gives all of us the courage to believe that these scars are not the end of the story. That pain, and terror, and loss shall not have the final word. He is not like a false friend telling us to ‘buck up’ or ‘pull yourself together’ – ‘everything’s fine now!’. He is our closet companion, telling us, ‘Yes. I know what it is to hurt, and to suffer, and to fear death. I know the absolute reality of grief, anguish and loss. We can sit down and show one another our scars. But when you are in a place to hear it, I have good news for you: those wounds are not the end of our story.’ Truly, the prophet Isaiah was right when he said: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). For it is through the scars of Christ, borne for Thomas and for us all, that we know the true love of God. Not a false superhero, impervious to pain and want, but a true Saviour and friend, who shows us how to live the best life we possibly can, and who waits to welcome us all into eternity. Alleluia. Amen.

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas

April Fool?

Happy Easter! This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. The set reading was the account of the resurrection from Mark’s gospel: Mark 16:1-8.

Today is, as you all know, April Fool’s Day. The day when people traditionally play pranks on one another, and our newspapers drop in a few fake stories to try to fool us into believing that there are such things as spaghetti trees, and the like. It also happens to be Easter Sunday, as I am pretty sure you also all know. Given that Easter can fall on any Sunday between 22nd March and 25th April, that is not terribly shocking, and indeed – according to Wikipedia – it will happen again in 2029. I shall be sure to save this sermon for re-use then!

Resurrection (St John's, Cambridge)This coincidence of dates has already given rise to much comment and some mockery in the media and online. There will no doubt be several commentators today who suggest that the billions of Christians across the globe celebrating Easter with us are, in fact, being taken for April fools. We will be told again that the resurrection story is just an elaborate prank or myth. Nothing more than “a conjuring trick with bones”, as a former Bishop of Durham allegedly said.

This is nothing new, of course. Similar suggestions have been made ever since the time of Jesus and, while untrue, they challenge all of us to reflect upon our own understanding of the Easter story. Many of our hymns today speak of the absolute triumph of faith on this day. As we shall shortly sing:

No more we doubt thee,
glorious prince of life

Yet the truth is that we all have doubts and questions about the Easter story and exactly what happened.

One of the passages of scripture that gives me such faith in the Easter story, though, is that curious ending from Mark’s gospel – or the lack of an ending really – which we have just heard read. Some of us have been studying Mark’s gospel this Lent and I hope that we all found it a very useful and fulfilling experience – I certainly did. We are so used to hearing a conglomeration of the gospel stories, especially in Holy Week, that it is helpful occasionally to focus in on one particular evangelist’s viewpoint and style.

codexaureus_21Mark, as most of you will know, was almost certainly the first gospel to be written, perhaps 30 or 35 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, as one participant in the Lent course observed, it often has the feel of a first draft. This is not to deny its wonderful narrative style and pace, often breathlessly driving the action on, where the other gospels linger awhile. We also highlighted those places where we seem to detect the extra details about a scene that only an eyewitness could have given, and many of us felt that the stories often feel like they were transcribed from someone speaking aloud, rather than an author sitting alone at his desk. Perhaps they come from the apostle Peter himself, who has often been associated with Mark’s gospel, telling and re-telling the stories to the first Christians as he travelled across the Mediterranean. It really is a wonderful and endlessly rewarding text. Yet for all that there is an undeniable rawness and lack of polish to the text. Matthew, when he copied large sections into his own gospel, even had to correct Mark’s grammar and syntax!

For me, though, this is a wonderful strength of the book not a weakness. If he had been setting out to deceive, to trick, to make April fools of us all, he simply would have done a better job! He would have spun his ‘fake news’ better – smoothed out the wrinkles, omitted all the embarrassing facts, and provided ready-made answers to some of the contentious issues of his own day. Instead, he provides us with a ‘warts and all’ record of the ministry of Jesus, including a devastating critique of the men who came to hold positions of great importance in the early church, the apostles.

sargis_pitsakThere is no better example of this than the Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel. At our last session, we read through this whole section, from the beginning of chapter 14 to the end of today’s reading, in one go. Despite its familiarity, we were deeply moved by what we read. Mark does nothing to hide the despair and loneliness of Jesus in these last few hours before his death. One by one his friends desert him, starting with Judas and ending with his closest companion, Peter. All those whom he has come to serve and whom he has helped so willingly, turn their backs on him at this hour of need. And finally, even God seems to abandon him. That heartbreaking cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 14:34). A troubling and disturbing cry for one who claimed to be the true Messiah, the Son of God. A verse that a cleverer and more deceitful editor would simply have removed.

Then we have that strange and mystifying ending. Not the glorious vindication of this rejected Christ but merely an empty tomb and a few women running away, seized by “terror and amazement” (16:8). If you were going to start an international deception, that is not how you would record it – and you certainly would not have based your testimony upon that of a few foolish women, whose word counted for very little at that time. Were you seeking to make April fools of a third of the population of the planet, you would have done a much better job of hiding your tracks!

Now the truth is that the ending of Mark’s gospel most likely got lost somehow, as often happened to ancient documents. It almost certainly originally ended with some of the same incidents as Matthew and Luke record. Yet, there is something wonderfully reassuring about these verses, and the fact that they were not suppressed by the early church. They record the genuine human emotions of people encountering something completely beyond their understanding. The terror and fear of the women are real, and Mark seems to have no qualms whatsoever about recording them. He does not seek to edit out their reactions and put them into a ‘stained glass attitude’ instead. He would only need to have done that, if he had had something to hide or if he wished to deceive us. And that was not his purpose in writing.

800px-Fra_Angelico_-_Resurrection_of_Christ_and_Women_at_the_Tomb_(Cell_8)_-_WGA00542He was not seeking to make April fools of us all. Instead, he wished to set down honestly and without omission the record of what his first readers knew to be the truth. The story that they knew so well, and which they had heard from the lips of eyewitnesses for decades, who had become the first preachers of the early church. The story that the tomb was empty. That the women did see something amazing. That Jesus had truly risen from the dead.

Whatever the women and the apostles saw in that tomb – or perhaps more importantly did not see – changed their lives forever. It made them abandon homes and families and careers, and become itinerant preachers, travelling thousands of miles between them and dependent upon the charity of others. It made them give up some of the most central tenets of their faith: their dietary laws, their Sabbath, even their belief that God could never have a son. It made them willing even to put their own lives on the line, so that you and I may hear this good news today.

This is no April fool, brothers and sisters. It is incredible. It is astounding. It is world-changing, and it seems unbelievable. If it had not been, then the women in our story today would have just neatly folded up the grave clothes and calmly walked home. Yet it is the truth. Pure and unvarnished by Mark. That somehow, in a mystery that we shall never fully understand in this life, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead on that first Easter Sunday, and that through that action, the power of sin and death over us all was vanquished forever.

This is no April Fool. This is no ‘fake news’. This is no ‘conjuring trick’. It is the truth; and it is good news for you and for me, and for everyone, forever. Alleluia. Amen.

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