Mark 16:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Signs and secrets
Today, the fish is a symbol of Christianity that we use on keyrings and bumper stickers. But 2000 years ago, it played a much more dangerous role – 2000 years ago, when Mark’s Gospel was written, Christians lived in fear of their lives because the Roman Emperor Nero wanted to wipe them all out. The fish was chosen as a secret password, partly because Jesus’ disciples had been called to be fishers of people, and partly because the Greek word for ‘fish’, Icthus, is formed of the first letters of the words ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.’ So the fish was used as a secret symbol between Christians – they’d use it to mark meeting places and tombs, and if two people met in the market place, one would draw an arc in the sand with their foot, and if the other was a Christian as well, they’d draw in the other line to make a fish.
Mark’s Gospel was written during this time when speaking out about Jesus was an incredibly dangerous thing to do – something that could easily cost you your life. That’s probably why it’s a much more secretive gospel than the others – often, when Jesus healed someone, according to the author of Mark’s Gospel, he’d tell them not to tell anyone else. The story of the resurrection in Mark’s Gospel is, in some ways, deeply unsatisfactory – in the other gospels, the message of the resurrection spreads, Jesus meets, eats and talks with his friends and tells them that they will receive the Holy Spirit. But in Mark’s Gospel, the women who are told about the resurrection by the stranger at the tomb flee in terror, and don’t tell anyone because they’re afraid. Ever since the second century, various people have tried to tack alternative endings onto the story – Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and some other disciples, commissioning the disciples and then ascending into heaven. The story is much neater this way, but the oldest, most reliable manuscripts finish with the terrified women, running from the tomb, too scared to talk to anyone about what they’ve seen. And actually, I prefer it that way. I’m sure it would have made a lot of sense to the Christians at the time who were faced with the difficult decision of whether to speak up about Jesus and risk a painful death. And it reminds us that the story didn’t finish 2000 years ago – our story today is a continuation of the story of the women running from the tomb. It finishes with the stranger saying to us ‘Jesus is risen – go, tell everyone.’ It’s our decision whether to keep the secret or share the story.
Some of you will have seen that Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a rather strange article for the Easter edition of Premier Christian magazine, that ended like this: “So I end my argument with this: I hope everyone can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out. Those values and principles are not the exclusive preserve of one faith or religion. They are something I hope everyone in our country believes. That after all is the heart of the Christian message. It’s the principle around which the Easter celebration is built. Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever.”
I imagine that this must have been a difficult article to write, as Prime Minister of such a diverse country, and not wanting to offend or exclude any particular group of people. But I’m afraid I can’t agree that Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility and doing the right thing for our children. Certainly, none of those are bad things – but I don’t believe that’s the story that this Easter Sunday, we’re called to share. It certainly wasn’t the message the women received at the tomb and were too terrified to pass on. If the man (who we assume was an angel) had told them simply to remind the other disciples of the importance of change, responsibility and doing the right thing for their families, I’m sure they wouldn’t have been too scared to speak up. Similarly, if that was the only story that Christians had to tell at the time when Mark’s Gospel was written, I’m sure they wouldn’t have been such a threat to the Roman establishment that they had to communicate through secret signs and symbols. Because the Easter story, the story we have to share, is something far more radical and revolutionary. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead isn’t even the most radical thing about the story. The radical thing is that it’s not about what we can do – however much we try to be responsible and do the right thing for our families, we will always mess it up from time to time, and fall short of the expectations God has for his children. That’s what’s so wonderful about Easter – it’s not about what we can or should do, but about what God has already done for us. It’s about the fact that God so loved the world that he allowed his only Son to suffer a painful, horrifying death and then raised him to new life. It’s about the fact that death is no longer a terrifying full-stop at the end of our lives, because we can have eternal life with God. It’s about the fact that God did all this for us before we could know anything about it, because he loves you so very much.
We’re very fortunate to live in a country where we can meet freely to worship God without fear of being arrested and thrown in prison. Many don’t have that freedom, and we’ll be praying for and writing to some of those people a little later on. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to share the Easter story. In such a diverse country, surrounded by people of all faiths and none, we’re scared to give offence, or often just scared of looking silly. And that’s how we end up with the watered-down version of the Easter message in David Cameron’s article – a version that misses the miracle entirely. We can find ourselves feeling like the women in Mark’s Gospel – too scared to speak up.
But of course, we know that the story didn’t end at the tomb. We know, because we’re sitting here today, that the women must have found their courage and their voices. Paul tells us that Jesus then appeared to Peter and to the rest of his disciples, and then to a crowd of over 500 people. Paul also reminds the church in Corinth of the importance of preaching the truth about Jesus. It can’t always have been easy for Paul to tell the story, as someone famous for persecuting Christians. But he reminds us that we’re not on our own – God’s grace and the Holy Spirit will help us to find the words to say.
A little while ago, I realised that because I attend a Methodist church and work for the Methodist Church, I meet very few people who don’t identify as Christians. So I said a prayer on Sunday morning, asking God for more opportunities to share the Gospel with people, and promptly forgot about it. The next day, I went swimming. I was waiting for the sauna to be empty before going in, as I always find it a little creepy to be in there with strangers. So, as soon as it was empty, I scurried in, only to be followed in by a man in swimming trunks. ‘Drat,’ I thought. But then, that man asked me whether or not I thought Jesus was the Son of God. If we ask God to send his Spirit to help us share the Easter story, that’s just what he’ll do. You just might want to request that he doesn’t do so in a sauna.
So I encourage you, as the angel encouraged the women – Jesus has risen. Go, tell all the world what Jesus has done. Pray that the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say and the opportunities to say them. Tell the story with love, with sensitivity, but tell it true – don’t settle for anything less than the full glory of the resurrection. Amen.