Death and Hope
All Souls' Day: 2nd November, 2009
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Today, on All Souls' Day, we remember those who have died, especially those dear to us. And we're reminded that although our sorrow for them is real and deep, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. In the first reading (Isaiah 25.6-9) we heard Isaiah's prophecy that death will be swallowed up, and that 'the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.' This is our hope: that there is life with God beyond the grave.
The basis of this hope, St Paul tells us in the second reading (1 Corinthians 15.12-26), is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christ has been raised from death to life, so shall we be raised from death to life. And, conversely, if Christ has not been raised, our faith, our hope, is in vain. Our hope of life after death is entirely, as St Paul sees it, dependent on the fact of Christ's resurrection.
But how can we be sure about this, sure that Christ has been raised, sure that there is life with God beyond the grave? How can we face death, our own death, the death of those we love, with hope, with confidence? How can we be sure that Christ's resurrection is true, that our hope has this firm basis?
Because we have not had the experience of the first disciples. We've not met the risen Christ, as those two disciples in St Luke's gospel did, walking on the road to Emmaus. Nor has the risen Christ appeared to us as he did to the eleven apostles at the end of St Matthew's Gospel, when he sent them out to preach to all nations. He has not come to us in the upper room and shown us his wounded hands and side, as in St John's Gospel. We're not in the position of Thomas, who believed because he saw the risen Christ. 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe', Jesus said to Thomas. We have not seen, and perhaps it's not so easy for us to believe.
And then we come to the gospel I haven't mentioned: St Mark's Gospel, from which this evening's reading is taken (15.33-39, 16.1-6). This reading brought us almost but not quite to the very end of St Mark's Gospel. The women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body. The tomb is open, the body gone. An angel says to them, 'He has been raised; he is not here.' That's where our reading ended. Two verses follow which we didn't read: 'Go, tell his disciples and Peter', the angel says to the women, 'that (Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' Then the final verse of St Mark's Gospel: 'So 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.'
And that's it. St Mark's Gospel ends — ends very abruptly; so abruptly that many have thought that the last page of the gospel has been lost, and various attempts have been made to supply a more satisfactory conclusion. You'll find one or more of these in your bible; but they're certainly latter additions, and most scholars nowadays hold that St Mark intended to end the gospel where it now ends: with the fear and perplexity and silence of the women who'd come to the tomb. In the other three gospels the disciples encounter the risen Christ. Their hearts burn within them, they rejoice, their eyes are opened, they believe. But not in St Mark's Gospel: St Mark reports no appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples. The women say nothing to anyone for they are afraid.
I'm inclined to feel that St Mark's account of the resurrection may speak more helpfully to our generation than do the other gospels. I think it's true to say that nowadays people find it much harder to believe in life after death than they did a few generations ago. More are agnostic about it. And perhaps we may feel that when we're confronted by death we have more in common with the perplexity and fear of those women than we do with the joy of the disciples who met the risen Christ.
The angel said to the women who came to the tomb, 'Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' Galilee is where it all started for the disciples. This is where they first met Jesus, where he called them to be disciples. Galilee is where they came to know Jesus, as they travelled with him. Galilee is very much the place of discipleship. And I suggest that this is the message that St Mark in his gospel has for us: it is in Galilee, that is to say, through our discipleship, that we find and know the risen Christ.
'He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him;' going to the place of discipleship. And it's as we come to that place, as we live as disciples, seeking to follow the risen Christ, seeking to be faithful to his call; it's then that we begin to know he truly is risen and alive. For as we follow Christ in trust as his disciples we experience him more and more as our strength when we're weak, enabling us to do what we never thought we could do. We experience Christ making good our failures. When we make a mess of things, we find he's able to bring a good outcome from what we thought was a disaster. We experience the hope the risen Christ gives us when we're despairing; the comfort he gives us in our sorrow; his light which shines through when everything seems black.
And as we experience the living, risen Christ in these ways in our life of discipleship, then we become more and more certain that this will not end with death. We come to know that he is risen, alive, and stronger than anything else. And we know that even when we face our final enemy, death, Christ will be stronger. He will not let us down then, just as he has not let us down before. He will not let us down — indeed he will raise us up, raise us and those we love — to share in his eternal life.
And then as in our discipleship we know the risen Christ, we are able to say with St Paul, both for ourselves and for those we love who've died, 'I am convinced that neither death, nor life . . . nor things present, nor things to come . . . nor anything else in all creation' — that nothing 'will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Romans 8.38f) Or in the words of the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, that 'all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.'
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.