Easter Sunday 2012
Mark 16 : 1 - 8
On Tuesday I conducted a parish funeral for a poor man who lived in Blackburn. The singing of the hymns was weak and uninspiring. I looked out at the faces of those who were present. Some of the women were trying but some of the men were completely silent not making the slightest attempt to sing. They stared ahead or down with sullen faces etched with their own griefs, burdens and life problems. Not a word passed their lips. For them what we were doing had no life in it. They were dead to the risen Jesus Christ and their eyes showed it. At the graveside in Bathgate and before I was about to speak family members came forward to place flowers in the grave as people do these days. One of the family, a burly fellow, came forward, leaned over the grave, sprang open a can of Tennants lager which frothed and bubbled, and poured it on to the lowered coffin with a less than wholesome grin in his face and then stepped back to his place. One of Grieve’s drivers told me that he had earlier smelled what he called ‘the wacky baccy’.
It was an archetypal moment symbolic of Scotland’s problems with alcohol. It was also a moment which spoke of total lack of respect for, understanding of and reverence for a Christian funeral service. Maybe it was more realistic for those present than what I was saying about the resurrection and the life through our Lord Jesus Christ. I could have walked away and refused to continue and maybe I should have. To make the point. I think that mayhem might have broken out and perhaps I’d have found myself on the front page of The Daily Record. Minister walks out on family at graveside service. There have been occasions in the past at funeral services where tensions have been about to erupt and I have been very glad that peace just managed to be maintained. Maybe this was another.
This is an illustration of how far people are from faith in God, how far they are from knowing the salvation of Jesus Christ and how far they are from living positive human lives. They are lost sheep at best and wilful sinners at worst. We should weep for them rather than be angry with them. There but for the grace of God go you or I. Our celebration of Holy Communion should not reflect some claustrophobic piety, some uptight, uncomfortable moment, some less than convinced sharing in the bread and wine. Neither should our worship be a retreat from the society and world we live in and which is around us, in which we live and move and spend our days and years. We are not in Church to lick our wounds from the hurts of human existence. We are not here to close the door on reality. We have not come to pretend that we ourselves are perfect in any way.
But Jesus Christ is alive to us. 'Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me'. Jesus has made Himself known to us. He has made a difference in our lives. We are here to testify to His resurrection and living presence, to sing with joyful hearts and to share in these physical historical evidences of His life on earth and His gift of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life to us.
Mark’s account of the resurrection is basic. It is the value story, the stripped down economy version. It is the car without extras. No less of a car for that. It is the tourist class aeroplane seat. It gets you there just the same. It is the simple dress or suit, coat or jacket. It serves its purpose. It does not adorn. It is neither luxury or extravagance. It is not over the top nor is it embellished with literary flair. All this is important. Atheists and sceptics today think that the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are fictitious, poetic imaginations made up by deluded propagandists. But if they were - they would have been more elaborate and would have made a greater effort to convince through style and argument and multiplicity of back up.
Mark 16 begins with a historically authentic note. Three women went to Jesus’ grave to anoint his body. There may have been insufficient time to do that on the Friday afternoon just before the Sabbath began at
6 00pm and they could not do that task on the Sabbath itself. Anointing was an important ritual in Judaism. Corpses were not usually anointed prior to burial. What was done was that the body was washed before being placed in a burial shroud. In a few cases where they feared decay may set in before the burial, and so as not to make it unpleasant to those coming to honour the dead person by attending the funeral, aromatic spices were placed on or in in the shroud so as to mask the smell. This was commonly done for people who died on a Friday or before a major holiday in case there was no time to bury them before sunset. However, embalming also occurred and if the person was important or wealthy, this was done in due proportion. St John’s Gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea who probably paid Pilate a price to have Jesus’ body given to Him for burial bought 34 kilos of embalming fluids, spices and oils. This was a clear sign of his great respect for Jesus. It may have been therefore that either the embalming process had not begun or been completed on the Friday afternoon or possibly that it had been only partially completed requiring the women to come back on the day after the Sabbath to complete the process and use up all the 34 kilos of spices and oils that had been provided.
The women were concerned that they would not be able to open the door of the tomb - another authentic note in the account. The stone was usually very large and circular like a coin and groove was cut in the rock like a tram line. The stone was rolled down into the groove which held it fast and meant that more than one man was needed to roll it up out of the groove to gain entry to the grave itself. The first thing they’d need to do was find someone to help them open the grave door. The text says when they looked up and this may only mean that the grave cut out of the rock was slightly higher than the path they had walked along to get there. Their problem was solved but it would have been concerning to them that the stone had been rolled away. This was not what they had expected and it suggested trouble. They went into the grave. At this point the account takes in the visionary, the supernatural, the spiritual, elemental and the divine. Here history moves to the faith experience, that which can only be accepted as a true account but is out with the physical material conditions of normal human life.
Agnostics and atheists simply deny the validity of the testimony. But we can place it in its context. Throughout the history of the Jewish people, people encountered God in various ways. By this very nature, it cannot be only humanistic and materialistic, historical and physical. God is greater than our physical condition. Secondly, Jesus Himself had shown repeatedly that he was of an order and existence greater than our human limitation. He had healed people blind from birth. He had stilled violent weather patterns. He had even given life back to people who had died. Therefore, it was consistent that these women should have this visionary experience of a young man dressed in white, an angelic presence. Mary had been visited by Gabriel. Angelic communicators were an orthodox part of Judaism. These women were freaked out as they say today - scared - frightened - taken aback. You may believe that angels exist but you never expect to encounter one.
And now they women received this first Gospel message. 'He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him'. Further confirmation was given. 'But go, tell his disciples and Peter'. Another of these authentic notes. Peter was named especially. Why? Because he had betrayed Jesus the most obviously. He had been the most wrong. Because Peter had to stand up and lead the new Church. 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him just as he told you'.
Mark’s truthful account continues. The women were not convinced, not happy, certainly not rejoicing. They were confused and bewildered, shaking with the effects of this supernatural experience. Most honestly, the text says the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Profound experiences of God are not easily discussed. There is something awesome about them which makes silence appropriate. No doubt, it took some time for the women to gain enough confidence to tell the disciples and Peter about their experience. At least there were the three. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome could corroborate one another’s testimony. And perhaps soon after they did so as Luke’s Gospel testifies. Matthew’s Gospel says they were both afraid and filled with joy. John’s account backs up Mark’s. Mary Magdalene says 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb , and we don’t know where they have put him'. Mark also adds 'When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons'. We know that the first reaction of the men was that they did not believe what the women were saying about Jesus. However, they were sufficiently concerned to investigate and then some began to understand. It was not however until Jesus Himself appeared to them in the upper room that they were fully convinced.
So - here we are - undoubtedly - God has spoken to you or you would not be here. You are alive to Jesus Christ because He is alive to you. These simple elements of bread and wine confirm the truth of your faith. Together we experience the life of our Maker and risen Saviour through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It is true - Jesus has risen from the dead.