All Fools’ Day

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan

Easter Sunday, 1 April 2018

Readings: Psalm 14; Mark 16:1-8

Today is April Fools’ Day, sometimes called All Fools’ Day.  It’s a day of practical jokes, of pulling the wool over people’s eyes, of falsehoods peddled as truth.  My father, who was left-handed, sent me one April Fools’ Day to the local ironmongers for a left-handed screwdriver.  There was a funny look in the ironmonger’s eyes when I asked for it.  Maybe they were next to the tartan paint and the buckets of steam.  Later, I realised my folly, and both my older sisters told me they’d been caught out too in previous years.  Have you been fooled yet this morning?

But maybe we have all been hoodwinked, in chapel as we are to celebrate the resurrection of a dead man.  It often seems foolish to be someone of faith.  Students of science and medicine in particular will learn how science now explains what faith used to ascribe to God – such as the stars and planets, earthquakes and the weather, plants and animals, health and sickness, life and death.

Students of the arts and humanities may be particularly conscious how society has slipped past many religious views which now look foolishly old-fashioned – on women, on sex and sexuality, on race, on culture.

And we may all be aware that in a society which prizes hard work, self-development, being connected, enhancing body and mind, fitbits and facebook, the activities of faith seem so wasteful, and just a bit boring – being in church, praying, reading ancient stories, giving time and money to the vulnerable, loving the people difficult to love.  A foolish waste of time.

The ancient psalm we heard earlier begins:
Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
But perhaps the truth today, 3000 years or so since the psalm was first sung, is that Fools say in their hearts, ‘God exists.’
Are we all fools in chapel this All Fools’ Day?

They may well have felt foolish, those earliest followers of Jesus.  For three years they had devoted their lives to this man, a teacher, a healer, a worker of miracles, who cured the sick and raised the dead.  Three of these followers appear in today’s reading, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Mary Magdalene.  Last week I saw a new film called Mary Magdalene, which depicts her becoming Jesus’ disciple, following him, being at the cross, seeing him buried.  Her family thought she was foolish to follow this rabbi, to join a band of men, to leave her family behind.  Indeed, in an echo of the story of Peter and Andrew, she literally leaves her fishing nets to follow Jesus.  And surely it is foolish in a way, to shape our life around such a figure, and yet she felt called and could not stay the same.

But by the start of today’s story, Mary Magdalene, the other women and men too must have felt what idiots they’d been.  Stupid to trust that he, Jesus from Nazareth, was the one, the Messiah, chosen by God to lead them to justice and freedom.  For as soon as he came up against power, his resources were shown to be puny.  Just in the past week, he had driven out the temple’s merchants, he’d overturned their tables and seats.  He’d preached of God’s authority.  He told stories of the coming Kingdom.  But after a last supper with the disciples, he’d been arrested, tried, mocked, beaten, and crucified.  Where was this purity, this authority, this kingdom now?  All folly.  When countries intervene to bring humanitarian assistance, they do so with force.  How foolish of Jesus to offer compassion, integrity and grace unsecured by sufficient force to ensure their survival.

It was over.  Jesus was buried.  The experiment of love was done.  But the women still came to the tomb, not in expectation of resurrection, but with perfumed ointments to anoint Jesus’ body.  Last rites.  A crazy love, in a way, some 36 hours after he was buried.  Too late, pointless.

Of course it’s easy for us to be wise.  We know the story.  But they didn’t.  We see glory in the empty tomb, the angel, the message.  They felt astonishment, fear, even terror.  They’d brought spices for a body not even there for a Messiah who was dead.  Doubly stupid.  But we know they were not foolish at all, that they were right to trust in Jesus, because, as the angel says, in the most important words in the Bible, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised.”

Mark ends with the fear of Mary Magdalene and the other women.  But it is a fear pregnant with hope.  Jesus is alive.  They will see him.  His experiment of love is not over.  Even death, the strongest power of all, cannot quench it.  His seemingly absurd kingdom of love, of justice, of hope goes on, and now nothing can destroy it.

Turning to contemporary society, it is almost always easier to believe in power than in love.  Power makes the news, from Pontius Pilate sentencing Jesus to death, to a terrorist trying to plant a bomb on the tube, from the power of the wealthy buying off justice to government imprisoning the opposition.  Against such normality, it has always seemed foolish to take the path of faith.  But such foolishness does change the world – goodness, kindness, gentleness, self-sacrifice.

The story which has been resonating with me over recent days is that of Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame.  He is the French police officer who was killed after swapping places with a female hostage at the siege in the Super U supermarket in the small village of Trebes in southern France recently.  Beltrame was a professional who did what he thought was right in that situation.  But he was also a Christian, who, according to his priest, had rediscovered his faith some years before, making his first communion in his thirties.  As was said at his requiem mass:

These holy days recall the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Let us praise the Lord for having let Arnaud imitate Jesus, to live out the teaching that “greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13). Arnaud knew the terrible risk that he was taking in offering himself as a hostage to the terrorist. He did it to save a life—many lives perhaps—because such was his commitment as an officer and a Christian.

I hope we are not called to imitate Jesus in laying down our lives as was Arnaud Beltrame. But I do hope that we are inspired as he was, by the living presence of Jesus in our lives.  A living presence which his own death on a cross could not extinguish, and which was shared first with Mary Magdalene, and has spread today to us.

Tidy minds have, over recent centuries, struggled with faith.  In prizing intelligence, they have thought faith a silly business, sometimes dangerously so.  And students and others here have to face these questions.  Can we find our faith and our trust in science compatible, even mutually beneficial?  Can we see in our faith the resources for justice for people of different races, genders, abilities, sexualities?  For all that the psalmist thought the atheist was foolish, and the rationalist today says the same of the believer – I’d prefer not to make such accusations.  On this All Fools’ Day, surely it’s clear that we are all somewhat foolish, sometimes wise, capable of brilliant feats of intelligence, and astonishing stupidity.  But, on this first of April Easter Day, I simply want to say that I am glad that I, like Mary Magdalene, have foolishly followed Jesus through life, to his death and in his risen life.  And I hope you are as foolish as I am.