Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

Sunday 14th April, 2024

The hymn mentioned in the text is “Walking In A Garden” by Hilary Greenwood. A copy of the lyrics is at the bottom of the page.

“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’ ‘See that it is I myself.’      [Luke 24: 36-38]

I think all commentators will agree that the risen Jesus was different: coming from the dead and saying ‘Don’t be afraid, it’s me’ is a pretty non-human thing to say.

In the first place it is a psychological truism that telling people not to be afraid is almost never effective – they already are afraid, and a word is not going to change that any time soon. Secondly, ghosts were generally considered to be malevolent spirits – certainly dangerous and unpredictable spirits – so any sort of appearance would have been scary. We have to remember that we inherit two millennia of stories about Jesus’ resurrection, but his disciples were hit by it between the eyes. Some Gospel passages cite Jesus predicting that this would happen, but they often say the disciples did not understand or even did not believe him. So “don’t be afraid” is no real help. Think of Saul and the witch of Endor: Samuel’s spirit, or ghost, was summoned at great risk, then condemned him and predicted his imminent death! Not a happy occasion.

“Don’t be afraid” has a long and unhappy history in the bible. Look at Genesis chapter 3: this scene was poetically abbreviated in our opening hymn. Adam hides himself and explains to God:

“I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” [Gen. 3: 10]

Adam’s fear stems from shame and guilt – different emotions, but the second heaps up the pressure of the first. Adam – newly conscious, having eaten the apple – is ashamed in his nakedness, but he’s also feeling guilty because he knows this shame has arisen from his disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. When God didn’t find Adam in the garden, as formerly, He might as well have said to him “don’t be afraid, it’s me” and Adam did a runner. Adam was still afraid, and all the more fearful for knowing it was God, and not some wandering antelope. “Don’t be afraid” is particularly unhelpful when said by the person we fear.

In the second verse of our opening hymn, the garden scene is that fateful evening in Gethsemane. Jesus has predicted arrest and death: he’s wracked with doubts and fears – by most accounts. Yet his closest disciples doze off. In this instance they have either missed the point or they have blotted out their fear entirely. They might have been thinking… Jesus is here. He has an answer to everything. He’s done miracles before. And, even without them, when threatened previously he’s always managed to slip away into the crowd.

So they’ve re-written the situation, they’ve prejudged the case,  and so completely that they can sleep – even though Jesus has told them he’s going to pray. Probably they think: he’s gone off to do that by himself at odd times before now. When the armed gang do turn up and do seize Jesus  they panic. Some lash out, some freeze and some flee. St Mark tells us of the young man who fled away naked – his fear overwhelming his shame, in an uncomfortable echo of the story of Eden.

So when, in today’s passage from St Luke, the risen Jesus says ”why are you frightened?”  the reason is pretty obvious! Resurrection into this life is unimaginable to these first-century Jews. And they’re afraid of ghosts. Even if – or when – they take the enormous leap of seeing this as a new miracle, it’s still a scary one! How should they respond? What are they expected to believe? Are they hallucinating ? Hence the idea of eating some fish in front of them.

And then Jesus sends them to proclaim a novel message – to all nations! This demand is more fearful even than seeing him.

If we think back to the final verse of our opening hymn we encounter another possible form and expression of fear: when Mary Magdalen recognises the risen Jesus she is portrayed as less startled than the other disciples – she hears him call her by name and she responds. But the next thing she wants to do is cling on to him. Her fear is that he will disappear again, die again – if you like – but permanently. Does Jesus pry her off? Or is the instruction “do not hold on to me” sufficient? Is it any better than “do not be afraid”? She is trying to hang on to the Jesus she knew, to avoid facing the fear of ‘what next’. Because what she and all the apostles are called to next  is to step out into the unknown, into a new form of discipleship in relationship with a new form of Jesus. No longer will the teacher be there with them, operating on a human scale and asking the same sort of things that they might ask – where to spend the next night, where to buy food, how to escape a crowd or meet the needs of a crowd, how to avoid the challenging – and disapproving – scribes and pharisees. Instead they are being sent to proclaim: not just ‘repent and believe’ but a new message about a new thing God has done and a new discipleship. There is no promise of miracles – though some will take place. There is no simple following, but the expectation that they will make their own decisions – largely – about where to go and how to tell. The promise they do have, Luke tells us, is that soon God will send them the Holy Spirit, to be with them for ever. A new sort of teacher who will remind them of everything Jesus taught. They must watch and wait, in prayer.

We too, in our discipleship, are often called to overcome our fears, to step out into new spaces and proclaim the new thing God has done in Jesus Christ. We too must often watch and wait in prayer. Let us  pray earnestly that God will teach and equip us, through His Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Abbot Thomas

Image: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?. Christ Appears to the Disciples at the Table after the Resurrection, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=49184 [retrieved April 28, 2024]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_017.jpg

Hymn Text:

Walking in a garden
At the close of day,
Adam tried to hide him
When he heard God say:
‘Why are you so frightened,
Why are you afraid?
You have brought the winter in,
Made the flowers fade.’

Walking in a garden
Where the Lord had gone,
Three of the disciples,
Peter, James, and John;
They were very weary,
Could not keep awake,
While the Lord was kneeling there,
Praying for their sake.

Walking in a garden
At the break of day,
Mary asked the gardener
Where the body lay;
But he turned towards her,
Smiled at her and said:
‘Mary, spring is here to stay,
Only death is dead.’