05 April 2015: Easter Day
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Acts 10. 34-43; Mark 16. 1 – 8
John Grubby who was short and stout
and troubled with religious doubt
refused about the age of three
to sit upon the curate’s knee.
G K Chesterton, who wrote those lines, was a man of deep Christian conviction. John Grubby, the subject of his poem The New Freethinker, is most certainly not. Chesterton would probably not have conveyed John Grubby’s early religious doubt in quite the same way had he been writing today, of course. Be that as it may, as the poem progresses it becomes clear that John, later Sir John, Grubby is at best sceptical, at worst downright cynical about religious belief. And for latter-day John Grubbys Easter Day is almost certainly the day on which religious doubt, religious scepticism, even religious cynicism, will be most to the fore.
Growing cynicism about religious belief has been one of the defining features of our western culture for many decades. Chesterton was challenging it in his poem a century or so ago; and in our own time the playwright David Hare, in a memorable image, used the football club Accrington Stanley as a symbol of this cynicism. Accrington Stanley were forced out the Football League through bankruptcy in the nineteen sixties. A character in Hare’s play Racing Demon says: God and religious people are the Accrington Stanleys of the world. (In parenthesis, it’s worth remarking that Hare might want to rework that image today: Accrington Stanley re-joined the Football League ten years ago. The nineteen sixties were not quite the last hurrah.)
One of the contributory factors to religious cynicism is a fundamental mistrust of the grand narrative, the sense that our stories are only part of a story that is wider, deeper, and more transcendent; beyond time. This mistrust arises, in part, from a deep disappointment that the values and assumptions that many of us hold in the west are being challenged in ways that appear incomprehensible. For the challenge comes partly, and precisely, from an aggressive religious certainty, manifested for example in the fanatical brutality of so-called Islamic State, or the frankly bewildering – though thankfully usually non-violent – fundamentalism of the over forty percent of Americans who refuse to accept a theory of human evolution on the lines proposed by Charles Darwin. Such religious certainty squeezes out the voices of those who recognise that religious belief does not, cannot, preclude a certain reticence, even a certain doubt. Yet being comfortable with this reticence, this doubt, enables our questions and our answers to live alongside each other and, I would argue, enables our faith to develop and mature.
The original ending to St Mark’s Gospel is certainly not conducive to the offering of any kind of certainty to its readers: (The women) said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. What a downbeat note on which to end a Gospel reading for Easter Day! No resurrection appearances; no conversations with the twelve disciples; no account of Jesus ascending into heaven. We must look to the other Gospels to provide us with these. In Mark, the earliest Gospel of all, we have only these three fearful women. In what possible sense is this Good News?
We should not forget that these women had seen Jesus being laid in the tomb after suffering a painful and degrading method of execution reserved for common criminals. They were now coming to anoint his body – the first opportunity they had had to perform this solemn religious obligation since the Sabbath day of rest had ended. What do they find? The stone at the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away; inside a young man in white tells the women that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and that they are to give a message to his disciples. Don’t the words which Mark uses to describe the women’s reactions ring true? Alarmed, terrified, amazed. These are women whose emotions have been rubbed raw through the events of the past few days. They were not expecting a joyous victory to arise from the ashes of Good Friday, they were not anticipating a reversal of the harrowing events which led to the crucifixion. Their terror is consistent with their emotional state. They stand at the very beginning of the Easter story without the benefit of mature reflection.
It is only in the light of the early Christian community’s subsequent experience of the risen Christ that the silence of the women gives place to words, words with which Peter, as we hear in our first reading, begins to frame a new narrative for humanity. In this new narrative the raising of Jesus from the dead becomes what Rowan Williams has called a hinge between two histories: a pre-resurrection history and a post-resurrection history. It is these histories that together constitute our grand narrative as Christians; a story of God’s love for his people that is wide, deep, transcendent, and eternal. As we heard in the words of St Paul at the start of the Eucharist, Jesus has become, the first fruits of them that slept. At the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, at the beginning of time itself, God’s creative word was spoken into the eternal silence and became known in and through God’s creation. In the same way God’s word of creation renewed, the resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, speaks out of the silence of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome at the empty tomb and becomes known in and through us, the new creation in Christ, now no longer sleeping. We are become the stewards of and tellers of, we are become the actors in, this wide, deep, transcendent, and eternal story of God’s love.
Easter Day sets before us a challenge to share this story of God’s love. We begin this sharing by learning to look at the world through the eyes of hope brought by Jesus’ resurrection and to commit ourselves to serving that world through our own actions of practical and self-giving love. But we do not do this in our own strength. We do this in the power of the spirit of the risen Christ: a spirit which acknowledges and embraces our reticence and our doubt; a spirit which does not limit its concerns to the Church but blows where it wills; a spirit which strengthens us for service in and to God’s world. Alleluia Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!