Sermon for Easter Sunday 2018
When I was a child, our family had a custom for the birthdays of my brothers and myself. We always had a treasure hunt. My mother would write rhyming clues that sent us all over the house and garden, following the trail she had laid, until we finally reached the place where the presents had been hidden. We knew we would get to the prize in the end, though we had to solve lots of puzzles along the way, looking inside the washing machine and cupboards and under pillows and behind the sofa to find the next clue and working out what it meant.
Many of us continue to enjoy puzzles and treasure hunts into adult life. Recently I took part in a themed 1960s night where we had to be Cold War spies and work out from various clues who had acted as a traitor. Dozens of grownups happily passed a whole evening trying to solve the mystery, interviewing suspects and studying papers and racing each other to be the first to find the correct answer.
It’s human nature to want to solve mysteries and complete puzzles and find prizes. We want to know we’ve got the right answers. There are few things as satisfying in a small way as putting the final solution into a cryptic crossword or a Sudoku.
When it comes to the biggest questions of all, the ones about the meaning of our lives, it’s equally natural to think that we may find the right answer, the one that explains everything, if we just look in the right place or consult the right authority or work strenuously enough at trying to solve it. Surely our 21st century brains are capable of tackling this problem.
We live in an age that loves explanations, that wants to reduce things to their constituent parts and see how they work. It is a wonderful thing that human beings have discovered so much about the universe that we can solve problems of many kinds by this very method. I’m reading a book at the moment about how geneticists came to understand the very building blocks of life. Having successfully mapped all the human genes and thereby completing the fifteen-year-long Human Genome Project, scientists can now apply new knowledge to fields like congenital disease, viruses, medication and many different aspects of biotechnology. We can be deeply grateful that we live in a time of such new benefits for the wellbeing of life on this planet.
But we are no nearer answering the question that remained with Professor Stephen Hawking, whose funeral took place yesterday, until the end of his life: why does the universe exist at all? He said that if we knew that, we would know the mind of God, though by the word God he meant simply a metaphor for the theory of everything. I assume that by now he knows more than he ever did in life on this subject!
To face the question, why are we here at all? What is it all for? it is useless to go on a treasure hunt or a mapping project or to break down anything into smaller and smaller parts. We will never find a neat answer. The universe does not offer an explanation of its own existence. We have to look beyond.
But if we are willing to enter into a deep mystery, we will receive, not an explanation, but an invitation. The story of Easter morning, especially as it is told in Mark’s gospel, gives us hints of what that means. The reading we have just heard is actually the ending of the book in the oldest text of the gospel. Later editors, perhaps shocked at the abruptness of the ending, added other verses. In fact if you look at a modern Bible translation, and I do urge you to do this, you will see that there are two alternative longer versions of Mark, in which Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and then the other disciples and commissions them to take the good news to the whole world. But the footnotes will point out that the gospel originally ended with the words “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.”
Who tells a story that way? A mysterious young man with an improbable message, the Lord’s body missing, three woman so thoroughly confused and terrified they were unable to deliver the news they were given. The end.
You can imagine an editor tossing the script back with a frown and saying, This certainly won’t do! Try again. As, apparently, someone then did.
But even the later, longer endings of Mark’s gospel leave us wondering what on earth is going on. After the extended, detailed story of the torture and death of Jesus that we heard sung on Palm Sunday and then in another version on Good Friday, we have this very abrupt announcement that he is risen. No further information is provided.
This is not a mystery with a solution we can grasp. It is not a puzzle that can be completed. It is an invitation to step into a new and strange world. Many commentators have noted that the ending of Mark with the women saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid leaves us in the frame ourselves. OK, the first witnesses were too scared and confused to do what they were told. What about us? Are we ready to witness to the new and risen life? What can we say about it?
Many people will not unreasonably say, we weren’t there. What could we say? We have nothing but confused and conflicting hearsay to go on. And that is exactly what the disciples thought too. All of the resurrection stories in the other three gospels begin with people being uncertain of Jesus’ identity or suspicious of his reality. He seems to be a gardener, or a pilgrim stranger on the road. He appears in locked rooms. He comes and goes in the most alarming fashion. But what he consistently does is call people by name. He knows all about them. “Mary”, he says to Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel, and suddenly she recognises him. “Simon Peter, do you love me?” he asks the disciple who denied knowing him. “Put your finger in my wounds,” he invites Thomas, who can’t believe he is really alive.
You may notice that we have no account of Jesus appearing victoriously to convince Pontius Pilate or the high priest or the soldiers who crucified him that he is risen from the dead. He makes no public entrances. He doesn’t seek out his enemies to crow over them. He comes instead to those who loved him and failed him, and he forgives them and commissions them to walk with him in his risen life. And their own eternal life begins at that moment, when they recognise and worship the risen Lord.
There is no clear narrative as to what happens next. There is no explanation about how Jesus overcame death. Jesus does not explain, he just invites. Throughout his earthly ministry he said “Follow me” to those who wanted to know more. And now, in his risen life, he continues to walk on ahead of them. The angel says to the women, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee.” In order to understand anything, we have to stay in his company, and that means being always on the move.
Being in Jesus’ company, sharing his eternal life, starts with baptism, and Easter was always the traditional time for new Christians to be baptized in the early Church. It is still a day on which we normally renew our baptismal vows. We did this at the dawn eucharist at 5.30 and got extremely wet in the process. At this service we will shortly celebrate an actual baptism as we welcome Amelie into the family of God. As she is baptized, we will join with her parents and godparents in affirming our commitment to walk in the way of Christ.
We baptize babies and children because becoming a Christian is not about having a set of answers to difficult questions. It is not about understanding a belief system. It is not even about making promises for ourselves or others. Baptism is a gift from God. It is an invitation to enter into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are given a road to follow in the company of Jesus, and it is the way of eternal life. The 13th century Persian mystic Rumi once said that in this life, we’re all just walking each other home. We travel together, making mistakes and wrong turns and sometimes going in circles, but the risen Lord is always going before us, inviting us to keep in his company. And today Amelie’s parents have accepted that invitation on her behalf. We pray that she, and every one of us who is baptized into Christ, will find our way home with joy.