If death is not the last word... (4 April 2021)

4 Apr 2021 by Rev Paul Bartlett (Service), Mavis B (Photo) in: Worship Services: 2021




MESSAGE                                            “If death is not the last word…”

‘Terrified and afraid’ are the last words to the original ending to Mark’s Gospel, written in the form we have today, in the 60’s CE some 30 years after the life and ministry of Jesus.

This earliest of the Gospels displays all the hallmarks of those ‘untouched’ first Easter Day encounters. For while today’s Epistle Reading from 1Cor 15 is believed to have being written 15 years earlier it contains all the signs of being theologically massaged to what we now know so well.

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostle. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me”. 


All of the early disciples we know of by name were Jewish, steeped in the traditions of the Temple and its daily sacrifices to God to atone for their sins, to keep in relationship with God through the offering of sacrifices as instituted by Moses some 1,200 years before. That’s some tradition!

And this idea of seeing Jesus’ death as a substitution sacrifice (for us) permeated all their thinking just as was their searching within the OT for what must have been the clear signs, that nearly all had missed, of a Messiah who would come to redeem Israel through wood and nails.


Mark’s message is raw and brief but even still it contains the measured reflections and accuracies of three decades of sharing and insight. Nowhere does it seek to actually describe the resurrection.

What we have are faith inspired pointers: the stone rolled away – no body – grave clothes – angels saying ‘he is not here…he is risen…and has gone ahead’

And perhaps most historically important of all – that it was the women who first saw and spread the message. A most unlikely ‘credible’ source for the time: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome”. And these women, just like Simon Peter in other Gospel accounts, are firstly and most profoundly terrified, overwhelmed, afraid and run speechless from the tomb.


All thought of Jesus’ teachings are as of nothing. Nothing is remembered in those first few hours, days and weeks. It is only after Jesus’ other appearances through locked doors, on the Emmaus Road, beside the Sea of Galilee and in the Garden of Gethsemane do those early disciples, always in community, effectively say “well, if we believe Jesus to be Risen and for him to be the Messiah & God’s Son then there must be clues in our Scriptures (the Old Testament).

So a searching they went. Devouring the OT. Finding the passages we know well today that are used especially by Matthew and John that what had happened to Jesus was ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’, that they might ‘be fulfilled’. Here is no out of left field brainwave but God’s persistent longing and ultimate intervention – I will send my Son! Yes I have a Son! A one and only Son full of grace and truth, with God in the beginning, who along with the Holy Spirit is God the 3 in 1. Though it would take until Tertullian 200 years later for the Church to put all of that understanding in place.


So why are the women terrified, fearful and afraid?

Because if death is not the final certainty in life like ‘death and taxes’ then human life suddenly contains countless and unnumbered possibilities. All things are possible. And if death cannot separate us from God in Christ Jesus then neither can all the other things which we associate with ‘separation from God’ especially around issues of health and happiness or their lack of. And Jesus obvious focus on the little ones with no voice, who lived on life’s margins, that focus is vindicated in Jesus’ resurrection; and must be part of our focus and interactions too. Such a focus – life giving!


Throughout the Gospels we hear Jesus saying again and again ‘Do not be afraid’, ‘I am with you’,

‘I will not leave nor forsake you’. And that promise has sustained God’s people for 2,000 years as it did in the hymn of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which we sang on Good Friday, written from prison.


But like the first disciples, this message we have received is only one generation from extinction or to put it in another sense, we are but one generation from the Risen Christ and if his life means anything to us then sharing that good news is an important and crucial part of whose we are.


Understanding this Easter story is not just doing Unit 111 of Religious Studies in a University course. What Easter offers is an invitation to a personal relationship with our risen Lord. It is that relationship that loves, trusts and hopes and through which we are transformed and empowered and not just for ourselves but with and for the whole creation. All life on planet Earth is precious.

Yes we can be justice and peace makers but if our own daily lives do not live out these qualities then our words can never truly point to Jesus.

50 years ago I joined 2 people on a hunger strike for Bangladeshi refugees. That action was precipitated by a clear voice. ‘Paul, I want you to represent me in this. These Bangladeshi’s are loved by me’. That encounter changed my life and is the main reason I stand before you today as a disciple of the risen Lord Jesus. Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed! Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Amen