Text: Mark 16:1-8 (the empty tomb)
Easter Sunday confronts us with big issues like the meaning of suffering and death; the nature of resurrection and the mysteries of eternity.
Most ministers choose to hear the story of the empty tomb as told in the Gospel of John on Easter Sunday. That is the version in which Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb a second time. There she encounters a man whom at first she imagines to be a gardener, but who is revealed as the Risen Christ when he calls her by name.
But for the third time in the six Easters I have been at Mill Woods United, I have chosen to hear the story as told by the earliest-written gospel, the Gospel of Mark.
Mark’s version is the only one with no appearances of the Risen Christ. It is the only one in which Mary Magdalene and two others find a mysterious person in white in the tomb who says Jesus has been raised and will meet them back in Galilee. It is the only one in which they flee in terror and tell no one. And it is the only gospel in which this detail is the end. The passage Ethel read for us today is the end of Mark.
I like this version because it presents us with mysteries. How did Mark come to know of this story if the three witnesses at the tomb told no one? Why does Jesus not appear to anyone if he has been raised? What is actually going on here?
I like this version because it puts us in the same position as Jesus’ friends. Like us, they are told Jesus has been raised to new life, but they don’t see him. Like us, the three women are presented with the mystery of an empty tomb but without a good explanation; and perhaps like us, their reaction is to add fear to their grief.
In the face of death, the promise of resurrection, and eternity, both grief and fear seem like reasonable reactions; and that has sometimes been my experience.
And yet, the Risen Christ is here today, living as a Spirit within us.
For me, the Risen Christ becomes real in everlasting instants, which, with Grace, sometimes follow loss, grief, and acceptance; and I imagine that all of us have experienced such moments. I urge you to reflect on ones from your own life and to see them as your entry into the Easter story. Easter was Mary’s story. Easter was Jesus’ story. And it is also our story.
I got the title “The everlasting instant” for this sermon from the hymn of response we will soon sing. Called “You, Christ, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd,” we have only sung it once before in my time here, and it may not be well-known to many. Each of its four verses end with the suggestion that the Christ is an everlasting instant.
This statement is a paradox, but a true one. Eternity is a difficult concept to grasp, and perhaps an off-putting one. As Woody Allen once said, “existing for all of eternity could get a little boring . . . especially towards the end.”
When I was a child, the concepts of eternity, infinity, and life after death puzzled and frightened me. So, as a teenager, I was pleased to be introduced to the poetry of William Blake. Blake was an English mystical poet and illustrator who lived from 1757 to 1827. I chose my favourite line from his poetry as the epigraph to this service — “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, to hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” This is how Blake starts a poem titled “Auguries of Innocence.”
Blake suggests that Heaven is for real . . . and that it can be a wildflower. Blake views infinity and eternity not as concepts that are impossible to grasp, but as realities that can be held in the palm of your hand and experienced in an hour.
In Blake’s conception, eternal life is something that, with Grace, we might stumble into at any moment. For me, these are everlasting instants are ones in which our egos drift away and the Risen Christ appears in our hearts. They are moments of being in the flow or in the zone, and in union with all of life.
Infinite and eternal moments are ones in which we realize that our individuality is an illusion. Such moments are a foretaste of what it might mean to return to Source after one’s death. They are everlasting instants of Easter bliss.
Heaven is not a human fantasy. It is the ecstasy we feel when we encounter beauty. Eternity is not the horror of one’s petty fears and desires being extended into an endless nightmare. It is an everlasting instant when the Risen Christ replaces our suffering egos.
I was reminded of Blake’s poetry this spring when the choir that Kim and I belong to, the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus, prepared a performance of a new piece inspired by Blake called “Ancient of Days.” Our performance of it at the Winspear, alongside the Concordia Symphony Orchestra, four soloists, two actors, and projected images of Blake’s paintings, happened this past Monday evening.
I was pleased that one of the lines of poetry the composer, Allan Bevan, chose for the actors to recite was the phrase I quoted above.
I’m not sure that Bevan’s piece nor our performance of it conveyed the full mystical power of Blake’s romantic and mysterious vision. But I loved singing in the chorus, and I was pleased at how well the assembled groups came together to perform it.
Our performance may not have been in-and-of-itself an everlasting instant of the beauty that Blake’s poetry — or the writings of St. Paul, or the words of our hymn of response — point towards. But performing this work reminded me of Blake’s mystical approach to death, eternal life, and our struggles as individuals and communities to live in accord with our sacred values.
When we become aware of the Risen Christ in an everlasting instant, we are freed from our petty fears and desires, which enables us to love with wild abandon and to struggle for peace with justice without fear or either failure or success.
When we become aware of the Risen Christ, we remember that we are healed; that we are saved.
Friends, Easter has arrived again. We have heard a story of an empty tomb. We have sung Hallelujahs. And soon we will leave this sanctuary to continue living a new life with the Risen Christ.
May we experience innumerable everlasting instants amidst the ups and downs of our days. May we use the beauty of these Easter moments to continue down paths of faith, hope and love with family, friends and fellow pilgrims. And may we again be surprised by joy when we find ourselves holding infinity in the palm of our hands and experiencing eternity in an hour.
And in such instants, may we feel free to shout, “Christ is Risen. Risen Indeed!
And now, as a hymn of response, let us sing “You, Christ, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” VU #210 (words by Sylvia Dunstan, 1984)
You, Christ, are both lamb and shepherd. You, Christ, are both prince and slave.
You, peacemaker and sword-bringer of the way you took and gave.
You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.
Clothed in light upon the mountain, stripped of might upon the cross,
shining in eternal glory, beggared by a soldier’s toss.
You, the everlasting instant; you who are both gift and cost.
You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow, have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our pilgrim guide.
Worthy is our earthly Jesus! Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and victory. Worthy still your peace and strife.
You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our death and life.