Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Can you see what it is yet? – Sermon Easter Sunday 2010

“Can you see what it is yet?”

The way Mark’s Gospel tells it, that’s how Jesus’ whole ministry unfolded, from beginning to – well, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t actually end, does it? It stops at chapter 16, verse 8, just breaking off, with the women faced with the enormity of the Resurrection, and running off in confusion and fear, confronted by something so enormous that they just can’t fit it in. They can’t see what it is yet…

Mark’s Gospel could be summed up in terms of a string of moments – the call, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, healing the paralysed man by forgiving him, feeding the thousands, mastering the storm, Peter’s confession – in which Jesus keeps asking the disciples  “Can you see what it is, yet?” Even as they move towards Jerusalem, the same question hangs in the air. The first huge, crude-looking but actually very sophisticated strokes give way to a filling-in, more subtlety, more detail and nuance. But still – nothing. Like one of those Rorschach inkblot tests, in which the psychologist shows you irregular blobs, the disciples are still just throwing back what they think they see in this abstract pattern of stuff happening.

And then, Maundy Thursday, that heavy, dark evening with its strangely timeless suppertime experience before the shadows come back, then the arrest, the rumours of “trials,” and the re-emergence of Jesus, beaten probably almost beyond recognition to stumble up the hill with his cross. At that point, something seems to emerge which can hardly have come from the disciples’ imagination, and is the last thing they wanted, though some part of them can hardly have been surprised by now.  “This is it…”

And then, death.

And then – this morning.

And it turned out that the pattern wasn’t complete after all.

Can we see what it is, yet?

We like to have the finished product to judge. We like to have the performance come to an end, so that we can say what we thought of it. That makes us the masters of the artist; however skilled she is, it means that she is painting for us, and we are in something like the position that rich patrons of the arts have always been in, and audiences too. We sit back, and say “Impress us!”

And sometimes, we do that in church. We come to the service, and say “Impress us!” And believe me, it isn’t just you! That’s what I do when I’m on holiday, and go into a new church.

But the Gospel doesn’t let us do that when we hear it. We are interrogated. We are challenged. “Can you see what it is yet?”

It’s been a harrowing week.  The ups and downs of Holy Week, the unease, then horror, of Thursday, the desolation of Friday, the numbness of Saturday – then, this morning, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” “The End” on the screen, credits roll, the lights come up, and we go out thinking “Wow! What about that…”

But it doesn’t end neatly like that.

Still the question hangs in the air “Can you see what it is yet?”

We need to get to Pentecost before we can start making sense of the Holy Spirit. Then comes Trinity Sunday, when we start to ask about what all this has shown us about God. Then twenty-four more weeks of trying to make sense of it all, and then we start again with the run-up to Christmas.

And the penny suddenly drops. It never ends! Even now, even seeing as much as we do – we don’t have the whole picture. John Robinson, the minister of the Puritans who set out for America in the Mayflower in 1620, died before he could join them. What he preached to them as they left was remembered as this by Edward Winslow, who became the colony’s governor:  “If God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be… ready to receive it, as …  the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.”

“More light” has always been a current of thought,  an attitude to faith, in our tradition, and there’s something marvellous about seeing it reassert itself in such places as the contemporary “More Light Presbyterians” movement in the States. It has always meant keeping open the possibility that we don’t see the whole picture yet, that we don’t fully grasp what is there, and that we need things added – and that when these things are added, what we see will actually be transformed. And there will still be more…

John’s Gospel tells the Resurrection story quite differently from the others. It isn’t the women, but Mary Magdalene on her own, who comes to thegrave. She finds the stone rolled away, and assumes the worst – that the body has been stolen. That’s the first “Can you see what it is yet?” moment – and she clearly can’t. She fetches Peter and the unnamed Beloved Disciple. He gets there first, but doesn’t go in.

He sees what’s there, though – the linen cloths folded up – and what’s not. Peter comes up, and does go in – and sees a bit more detail; the head-cloth folded separately.  Then, we’re told,“the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed…” Did Peter not believe at this point? Did he not “see what it is yet?” We’re just told that the two disciples, incredibly, “went home…”

Mary Magdalene stays.  And she looks into the tomb, and – a detail has been added. A flash of highlighting, which wasn’t to be seen when the two disciples left; “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

“Woman, why are you weeping?”

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

She still can’t see what it is yet.

Then a new addition to the canvas:

“She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus…”

She still can’t see it. But she can see something  – a form she can make out something of. Is it the gardener?

“Mary…”

And she sees him. This last little dab of detail paints in all she needs. And then, something very interesting happens.

She makes to embrace him. And as we know, Jesus’ words are usually translated “Don’t touch me!” – “Noli me tangere!” – and the translation is wrong. Don’t cling to me. Don’t hold on to me, clutch me, seize on this as something you can understand completely, as all you need to know…

Because in one sense this is all she needs to know. She has him back. But in another, it’s crucial that she doesn’t just hold on to this, because she still can’t see the whole thing, still hasn’t enough to make sense of it all. She has at some point to stand back and let go, otherwise she will never get how big this is, never get the enormity of it. She sees so much – but she still doesn’t quite see it yet.

Peter went home. Why? Presumably because he has had all he can take for one morning. Unlike Mary Magdalene, he can’t even see what’s there at the moment, can’t make any sort of pattern out of it. There’s enough there to point him beyond where he was a few hours ago – distraught, bereft, and full of guilt. There’s enough there to tell him that when he thought that that was the end of Jesus of Nazareth he couldn’t see what this was yet.

But poor Peter has so much to process before he can see. Something stupendous has happened, but he has no clue what it means. He knows enough to know that there is something there he can’t make sense of. And he knows enough to know that there is more to come, more to be revealed.  We’ll get back to Peter in the last chapter of John, in three weeks’ time, when he has some grasp of the resurrection as an event, but no idea what it might mean for him, and, as you remember, at a completely loose end – goes fishing. A bit like “going home” really. How can he make sense of all this? Apart from anything else, in his head, his relationship with this Jesus is smashed to bits, and he did it, denying three times to a servant girl that he even knew him.

But where does this leave us?

Well, in a sense – and as always, with the Gospels – it leaves us in the same place as the people who encounter Jesus in these stories. We love Easter Sunday – but does that mean that we see it all? We love the Easter Proclamation that Christ is risen – but when we repeat it, are we saying something that is over and done with, and in the past? Are we like people turning again to a favourite painting, knowing the effect it’s going to have on us, knowing just how it will lift our spirits? Worse, are we a bit like the art critics at an unveiling, who look at a picture and judge it and its artist?

Or does something different happen – if we are open to it?  Are we drawn in to something, as we – like the disciples – follow through from its mysterious but captivating beginnings, watching as strange shapes and textures and levels of colour start to turn into something.

Can you see what it is yet?

Well, after all these years, it would be astounding if we couldn’t see a lot. Not least because the New Testament tells us a lot of stuff so that we don’t have to keep guessing.

But if the story of Easter is ever a completed picture in our minds, we’ll know that the fault is ours, and that we are quite certainly missing something.

God always has yet more light to break forth from his word.

Always.

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