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Sermon: Bishop of Guildford's Easter Eve Baptism and Confirmation Sermon 2015: "Till death us unite"

Andrew Watson
Saturday 4th April 2015
Easter Eve Baptism and Confirmation Eucharist
Mark 16:1-8
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Monday, May 25th 1992: I’ll never forget that date: because that was the morning when I was woken up in the early hours by the cries of a lady dying in the nursing home next door. As I got up to dress, my wife stirred, and then started making strange noises of her own. She was heavily pregnant at the time with our second child, and the contractions were starting to come thick and fast. And although my brain was still taking a while to wake up, I knew where my priorities lay: that I had to get my wife to hospital, and to do it NOW! And as I later sat by her hospital bedside, and witnessed all the raw emotions involved in a birth: the fear and the pain and the relief and the joy, so memories came back to me of the cries of the lady in the nursing home next door. Birth and death: they suddenly seemed linked in a way that I’d never understood before, evoking the same raw human emotions, and connecting us with the very heart of what it means to be a human being, wholly dependent on the grace and protection of God.

Now the story of the Resurrection in Mark’s Gospel is almost certainly incomplete. Like Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, or Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, most scholars now believe that Mark didn’t quite get to the end of his gospel, or that a part of it was lost at a very early stage. Later on, a couple of people tried to finish it off themselves, and their efforts are still printed in some Bibles. But in its original form, Mark’s Gospel finishes with the words,

‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’.   

An unusual ending, yes. But there’s something rather powerful too about this incomplete record of the resurrection of Jesus: because it reminds us of the sheer strangeness and the rawness of the emotions involved on that first Easter morning. When we look back on events, especially joyful events, we usually sanitise them a little, we forget the fear and pain and relief and joy involved in giving birth in the face of the deluge of cards and chocolates and flowers and baby clothes that follow. But what if we had the time and energy to record every emotion along the way? I guess that wouldn’t fall far short of our gospel reading this evening: that words like ‘alarmed’, ‘trembling’ and ‘bewildered’ would take their place alongside the joy and wonder of new birth.

So that’s what we have here in Mark – an unfinished, unvarnished account of the first Easter day. It records the story of three women getting up very early that morning to anoint Jesus’ body, two of whom had previously seen that body laid to rest. It records what they were discussing on the way: the practical question of how to shift the large stone in front of the tomb. It records their fear – a kind of spooky fear in the early light of morning – on finding that the stone had already moved, and that a strange man in white was calmly sitting inside the tomb. It records the message that the man delivered to them: that Jesus was no longer there but had risen from the dead; that they were to tell the disciples that he was going ahead of them into Galilee, where they would meet him again. And finally it records their response to the news, which was one of complete bewilderment. 

These weren’t people who were expecting some great miracle to take place. They were people who were going to pay their last respects to the dead. And the fact that Mark, along with all the other gospel writers, emphasises that it was women who first witnessed the empty tomb is itself intriguing. In the law courts of their day, I’m sorry to report, the testimony of women wasn’t taken seriously at all – they were regarded as unreliable witnesses: so that the only reason why Mark, in common with the other evangelists, makes them the first witnesses to the Resurrection is that they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. What we have here, in Mark’s Gospel, is based fair-and-square on eye-witness accounts.

Of course joy would come later as the full implications of the young man’s message began to dawn on those women – and especially as they, along with more than 500 others, were later to see Jesus alive. Of course joy lies at the very heart of the Easter story, a joy that reminds us that birth and death are indeed linked, because birth leads to death and death leads to new birth: 

‘Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
Endless is the victory Thou o’er death hast won!’

But there was nothing domestic about that first Easter morning, nothing cosy or comfortable. Here in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God’s power was revealed at its most mysterious, its most overwhelming, its most glorious. So that our service this evening is not just something customary, some empty piece of religious ritual: it is a response to the most extraordinary fact of human history, without which the story of Jesus of Nazareth would have become the tiniest of footnotes in the annals of ancient history. 

So if Jesus is risen, and he is; and if Jesus continues to call disciples to Himself, and he does - then this evening is a most exciting time in the lives of our baptism and confirmation candidates. For our candidates tonight are not just committing themselves to a particular philosophy or religion; they’re rather embracing a living relationship with God their Father through our Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes confirmation is seen as a kind of graduation ceremony: you’ve all been to your classes, you’ve done well, and now you get a certificate to prove it. But in reality confirmation is more like a wedding: a commitment to live the whole of our lives in relationship with the God who knows us inside out and who loves us through and through.

And so to another red letter day in the story of the Watsons, Saturday, August 23rd 1986, when I stood up and spoke these words in the presence of many witnesses:

I Andrew take you Beverly 
to be my wife,
to have and to hold
 from this day forward,
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish 
till death us do part,
according to God’s holy law,
And this is my solemn vow.

On one level they were only words, of course: but on another, they were something far deeper: what the Bible calls a covenant between Beverly and me, which continues to shape and enrich every day of my life 28 years later. And the same is true of the vows in this service – that here are words which establish another covenant relationship, a relationship between us and the God who created us and loves us – a relationship with the potential to shape and enrich every day of our lives from beginning to end. The wedding vows could almost be used in today’s service:

I, Andrew, take you Jesus to be my Lord…
For better, for worse,
For richer for poorer,
In sickness and in health…

EXCEPT that the line ‘Till death us do part’ can now be gloriously replaced with the words ‘Till death us unite’ in the dawning light of that first Easter morning.

A death. A birth. I experienced both on Monday May 25th 1992. And in a different way I will experience both on that day when my earthly life comes to an end. For that is the hope held out by the resurrection – a mysterious hope, an overwhelming hope, a glorious hope: and in the light of that hope my prayer for myself, for our candidates and for each one of us is that we might daily make the decision to live the resurrection life, a life informed and inspired by the experience of those three scared women on the first Easter morning.