We would have been celebrating our Saint’s Day on the 26th of April so our prayers reflect that theme and not the third Sunday of Easter.
The gospel for St Mark’s Day contains the line – when you hear wars and rumours of wars, do not be afraid. This is a St Mark’s Day like no other.
St Mark’s gospel probably written around 30-40 years after the death of Jesus. It was written to be heard as so few people could read.
We are so used to reading stories in books that we can forget that stories that are created to be heard in a group are crafted in a different way to stories to be read individually. As the storyteller you need to grasp your audience’s attention and keep it. Jesus in this gospel is active and always off somewhere and on the move. There is no hanging about with description of what anyone looks like or the flowers, it is all action and onto the next event.
If you are telling a story in a community you have a lot of distractions as the children want feeding, the dog is stealing the supper so the storyteller needs bring his listeners into the story. We sympathise with or mock those early disciples who just don’t get it. What more evidence do you need we might think? Those disciples are too thick, too preoccupied to see what is in front of them. Surely we would have been different. We are in the story.
This sense of entering into the story is really obvious when we get to the end. Mark’s gospel ends abruptly with the women at the tomb so frightened they say nothing. To make any sense of it we have to go back to the beginning of the story and the first words of that gospel ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ The end leads us to the beginning.
This is not a gospel that ties up all the loose ends and does our theological and spiritual work for us. This is the work of a storyteller in a community. We can chew over the story with them and find out what everyone else thinks. We are invited to go back, again and again to witness the healings and hear the teaching and be present at the death and resurrection of Jesus and be with the women who are too frightened to say anything, but they must have or we wouldn’t be here today.
This is a story which is circular rather than linier, based on community rather than the individual where the story doesn’t end when we close the covers of the book. That is a challenge to the culture of the book with a beginning and a middle and an end which is put on the shelf when we have finished it.
At this time of social distancing it is worth remembering we are not at the end of the story yet. The next line in the verse at the beginning of this reflection is ‘do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come’ Yes our certainties have been overturned yet God is with us in Jesus. Perhaps it is our determination to have things neat and tidy and sorted and back on the shelf needs revisiting. Do not be alarmed.
In this time of uncertainty, the gospel of St Mark with its invitation to engage in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; to bring ourselves and our questions knowing that the answers may not be where we are looking for them is a place of hope.
Be more storyteller. Get involved with the story. Be more Mark.
Happy St Mark’s Day
We have many different ways of using words. There are times when words are so familiar that they pass us by. Amongst those are words used in many Church of England prayers addressed to God the Father which end with the words, “…through your Son Jesus Christ who is alive …”.
Notice the words, “…who is alive…”. Those words may have a bigger influence on people who are not regular church-goers than those who are. What do they mean? How can a man who died about 2,000 years ago, executed by the Romans, who were very efficient at execution, be alive today? Yet that is the message the Gospel writers wanted to tell us. There is a physicality about the Resurrection appearances. The disciples were not seeing a spirit, a ghost or an apparition but the man they had followed from Galilee. “See my hands and my feet, it is myself; handle me and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have…[Jesus] said to [the disciples] ‘Have you anything to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it before them.”. [Lk 24: 39, 41b & 42] “Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your figure here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’”. [John 20: 27] . “…to us…who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” [Acts 10: 41b]. “While eating with [his followers Jesus] told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” [Acts 1: 4a].
Jesus body had been changed by the Resurrection. He could materialize behind locked doors but notice the word materialize which the shorter Oxford English Dictionary says “…cause to appear in bodily form…express in material form.” Jesus had greater powers than his pre-resurrection body had but it could still be material, able to enjoy food, drink and the company of friends.
That is the promise which Easter holds out to us. Jesus offers to us resurrection bodies like his. We don’t know how that will happen but we know that it will. The God of hope gives us hope of our resurrection so that we can live with courage in the present.
(Image from Free Bible Images)
Anyone else feel as if time has done something odd. Working out which day it is requires serious thought, a diary and a good memory. Pity the clergy who are filming Easter Services on a Wednesday – quick the light is good let’s do Easter Morning.
Good Friday is always a complicated day for Christians as the rest of the world looks at a four-day weekend, puts on its slippers and goes slow. On Good Friday us Christians are up, suited and booted and ready for a long day of services, walk of witness, hymns, sermons and the last hour at the cross. It is a busy one but not this year.
This year the festival is the same but we are not. The familiar routine is taken away and we are faced with the story in all its brutality of a man arrested, abandoned by his friends, whipped, mocked and killed by the occupying Roman state. It is a hard story of abandonment, betrayal and grief. Difficult emotions.
Some years ago I nearly disgraced myself at an ecumenical Good Friday service by losing my temper and (almost) storming off in a huff. I remembered myself in time and counted to 10, made my excuses and left discreetly. Looking back, I had found myself caught out of time with the preacher in the tragedy of the story as it had been read out from the gospel. I felt a deep need to lament. The preacher was in a different place and hurried on from Good Friday to the events of Easter Day and ‘give me and Alleluia!’ Our timings were out.
As Christians we know that Sunday is coming, that after the pain of Good Friday and the long Holy Saturday there is the joy and hope of the resurrection on Easter Morning. But as anyone who has been through deep grief knows, that process of mourning cannot be hurried and we mourn at our own pace.
As we live this unprecedented Good Friday, unable to meet up with friends and family and with all the familiar routines gone it is OK to be sad. It is OK to lament. It is OK to be angry and mourn the loss of what was planned. These things will pass but they are not passing today. In the Christian story we are at the trial, at the foot of the cross, at the tomb.
This Good Friday in a time of pandemic we need to be kind to ourselves. If we are low that is OK. If we need to be busy that is OK. If those we live with or those we interact with online are in a different place that is OK as well. Trauma is a grief reaction and does weird things to our emotions.
The Christian story reminds us that the time of grief and trauma are not the end. There will be joy and renewal and hope. Sunday is coming. Jesus was and is and is to come. Until then be kind, be safe, mourn if you need to.
Decisions, even in small matters, are not easy to make. And much less a decision which involves your own life or death but that was the decision which Jesus needed to make towards the end of the day which Christians call Maundy Thursday. Jesus had already celebrated the Passover Meal with his closest followers, the Passover which commemorated the deliverance centuries earlier of Jesus’ people from slavery to freedom. After the meal, Jesus took his followers outside the city to a place, thought to be an olive grove, called Gethsemane. There Jesus, “…began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” [Mk 14: 33b]. There, also, Jesus prayed, even whilst his closest followers found it difficult, if not impossible, to keep awake. The Bible records Jesus’ prayer in a few words, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” [Lk 22:43].
Over the centuries Christians have reflected on those few words and, perhaps, one of the best reflections has come not from a bishop, priest or pastor but from a song-writer: Tim Rice in his words for the song “Gethsemane” from the musical, “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”. The song has Jesus wrestling between his will and his Father’s will until it ends with the words,
“God thy will is hard
But you hold every card
I will drink your cup of poison
Nail me to your cross and break me
Bleed me beat me kill me take me
Now before I change my mind
Now! Before I change my mind.”
[Lyrics Tim Rice © MCA Music Ltd.]
Those words, “Now! Before I change my mind.” are important. Jesus was not God’s robot. He could have decided not to go through with the crucifixion and God would have respected that choice. Later, when an armed crowd came to arrest Jesus, and his followers wanted to fight them, Jesus stopped them Jesus had made his choice.
Most of us are not faced with that sort of decision but some are. NHS staff, pharmacists and care workers who, despite improvements in supply, may not yet have full personal protective equipment; or police who risk been spat at as they try to ensure proper physical distancing. Yet those people still decide to go to work. If we are people of prayer let us pray for them, knowing that Jesus has been there, understands and is with us.
Gareth Lawrence Reader at St Mark’s Church Teddington
Images from FreeBibleImages