Of what are you afraid? All of us are afraid, of something, in some ways, at some points in our lives. It is all part of being human. Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, appears to have wrestled with his own fears, as he waited to be arrested, tried, and cruelly killed. Yet, as Jesus above all showed us, perfect love casts out fear (I John 4.18). The Resurrection is the greatest proclamation of this reality. For all fears are taken up in the cross of Jesus. All fears are transformed by the perfect love of God shown to us. And all fears are declared void by the power of the Resurrection offered to us. Will we grasp this however? Our Gospel reading today is the Resurrection story according to St. Mark (chapter 16, verses 1-8). It is an extraordinary ending to Mark’s Gospel, for it doesn’t really end at all, properly in literary terms. It just stops, literally, in mid-sentence, and invites us to respond. For we are told that the women at the tomb were both asked by Jesus to share the Gospel and they were grasped by fear. So what is our response? Are we grasped by a similar fear? How will we complete the Gospel which St. Mark gives to us?...
Fear is not generally a healthy feeling or attitude to have. Fear diminishes us. Fear confines us. Fear traps us in a living death. Above all, this is true on the spiritual level. For if we are too obsessed by the fears I have already mentioned, then our lives will be less than they might be. If you, like me, are afraid of heights for example, then you, like me, might miss out on some glorious views. Yet, though we might work on it, that is not a terribly debilitating kind of fear to have. What matters much more is whether we are afraid, deep down: afraid of God, of love, and of life itself, and of life’s little sister death. It is amazing how many of us are afraid of those things, evn though they are the gateway to the overcoming of fear itself. Many people do not live the fullness of life which Jesus came to show us, because they are actually scared of God, scared to love or to receive love, scared of life, and/or scared of death. I don’t know about you, but I have of all those fears myself, to varying degrees, from time to time. I suspect we all do, which is why today’s Gospel is so very, very important.
As some of you know, I’ve been mentioning the American Christian teacher and writer Richard Rohr quite a bit lately. This is partly because Richard Rohr is a very good contemporary teacher about how the Gospel helps us overcome fear. Fear, he rightly says, is almost always connected to a fear of losing something. Some of us cling to status or success or a degree of superiority over others. Some of us cling to money, or power, or achievements or possessions of various kinds. Some of us cling to family, or race, or nation, or a relationship we have. All of us have something to lose. If we become too attached to these things, even the best of these things, then we become enslaved to them. We become overly fearful about their potential loss, even if that loss is not very likely. For, as Richard Rohr puts it: ‘
The fears that assault us are mostly simple anxieties about social skills, about intimacy, about likeableness, or about performance. We need not give emotional food or charge to these fears or become attached to them. We don’t even have to shame ourselves for having these fears. Simply ask your fears, “What are you trying to teach me?” Some say that FEAR is merely an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.”’
Instead he says, we must learn to be like Jesus. We must learn, daily, to let go of our fears and attachments. We must learn, daily, how to die to ourselves, so that we are filled with love, not fear.
Religious people are not immune to fear, even when they say they love God. Actually, religious people, of all faiths, can be very fearful and they can use religious things to protect them. They/we can even use religious means and scripture to keep love at bay. That is why Jesus upset so many people in his own day, wasn’t it? Jesus wasn’t very interested in reinforcing protections against fears. He was much more interested in helping people to be released from their fears. No wonder that some form of the word ‘fear’ is found hundreds and hundreds of times in the Bible. The Gospel of St Mark is certainly keen to use it. You may remember the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark chapter 4. It is a story which sums up our human tendency to fear and how the presence of God transforms the situation. So it is with the end of Marks’s Gospel and with the Resurrection. The disciples are full of fear. Yet, even in the face of the death of Jesus and the loss of everything they held dear, the presence of God breaks through. Can they trust God in the face of their fear?
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us a neat ending to the story of Jesus. In its original form, it ended just where we ended the Gospel reading today: at verse 8, in the middle of a sentence (at least in the original Greek). Years later, other Christians added other endings to Mark’s Gospel: partly, as they imagined, to tidy it up, or becasue they they thought there was more to the original ending which had been lost; partly because they had heard the Resurrection stories in the other Gospels. Yet biblical scholars today generally agree that verse 8 is the original ending which St Mark intended. For it ends with fear, and the challenge of God to go beyond fear: the challenge of Jesus to us to let go of what we cling to so that we can embrace the uncertainty of love.
For it is indeed perfect love which casts out fear. Only perfect love, the love of God, can set us free. For perfect love is not ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. Perfect love is the gateway to truth, to freedom and to beauty. Perfect love is the pathway to real life, here and eternally. This is the truth of the Resurrection according to St Mark.
Mark’s Resurrection story is actually quite fabulous. For it faces right up to our human fears and offers us the only true and real way out, challenging though this may be. The antidote to our human fear, as St Mark and other parts of the Bible put it, is another kind of ‘fear’. This is what some biblical passages call the ‘fear of God’. This is not a human type of fear. It is not about being scared of God. If we are only Christians for instance out of fear of punishment, we are still full of human fear. For biblical ‘fear of God’ is really much more like reverence, or awe. To be full of the ‘fear of God’ is therefore to be overcome by the awesomeness of God. Especially, to be full of the ‘fear of God’ is to be overcome by the awesomeness of the love of God, by the sheer perfection of God’s love. As we sing in the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all’. I think that this is ‘the fear’ that those women felt at the tomb in Marks’ Gospel story, don’t you? Like the greatest human love we can experience, it would have felt kind of scary, wouldn’t it? Yet it was the kind of scary love which impels us to let go of all our fears and to step out on a new adventure. That is what St Mark is saying to us, and what he is inviting us to share.
One of the symbols of St Mark is a winged lion, with good reason. For a lion is typically, except in the Wizard of Oz, unafraid: and, in the Wizard of Oz, the lion is only afraid because he has no heart and no courage. St Mark’s Gospel therfore calls us to take God’s heart and to be full of Resurrection courage: to do what the women at the tomb did, to let go of human fear and to share the ‘fear of God’, with all who would receive it.
So may God fill us with that same awesome love that we may be lions of Gospel love for others today. Amen