Text: Mark 16 (the empty tomb)
"Jesus of Nazareth . . . has been raised . . . Tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." With these words of a young man in white robe in an otherwise empty tomb, our journey of 40 days and nights in Lent is over. We have landed where we had hoped: amid Easter sunshine and with the Risen Christ.
At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of both Jesus and of our ourselves. We are new people today -- no longer just ordinary citizens, but also blessed members of the Body of Christ. So it is every Easter and every Sunday. So it is with us today.
Except . . . we have also just heard of the reaction of the women -- Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome -- to whom this good news was first told. Mark ends our reading today by noting that: "they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." This is the final sentence in the whole of Mark's Gospel. It is a surprising way to end, would you not agree?
Today, I talk about the surprise ending of the Gospel According to Mark and how it connects us both to the fear felt by the three women and to Easter hope and joy.
In Holy Week, we read a lot of Scripture. At the Thursday evening communion service, we read most of Mark 14 -- about 1200 words -- that told us of Jesus' anointment by an unnamed woman at Bethany, his Last Supper in an Upper Room, and his prayers and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.
On Good Friday, we read the rest of Mark 14 and all of Mark 15-- about 1400 words -- that told us of Jesus' trials, his crucifixion, and his burial.
Now today, we have heard the last chapter of Mark -- all eight verses of Mark 16 -- that in a mere 200 words tell us the story of Easter morning. Mark uses 2600 words to tell the story of Holy Tuesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and only 200 words to tell the story of Easter morning.
This week, I came across a Facebook thread started by a United Church minister. She asked the following question, "Do you believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead?" I didn't join the discussion, but if I had, I probably would have said that I believe in the literal truth of all the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel of Mark.
My answer, of course, would have been a dodge because there are no resurrection appearances in Mark. There is simply an announcement by an anonymous young man in a white robe in Jesus' tomb that he has been raised and will meet the disciples in Galilee.
Not all Bibles have Mark end at verse 8 of chapter 16. Some of them have one extra verse that says the risen Jesus later tells the disciples to spread the good news. Other Bibles have another 12 verses that include a synopsis of the resurrection appearances of Jesus from the other gospels. But these endings are always bracketed and come with a footnote that says these alternate endings were not written by Mark. They were later additions by scribes who perhaps were disturbed that Mark ended his gospel so abruptly and in such a downbeat way. The Lectionary never uses these later endings. Scholars are clear that Mark does not include even one resurrection appearance by Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew is a copy of Mark that has some changes and additions. Matthew's additions include two brief resurrection appearances, first to the scared women on Easter morning and then to the disciples in Galilee where Jesus commissions them to preach to all nations.
The Gospel of Luke is also a copy of Mark with even more changes and additions. Luke's additions include a resurrection appearance by Jesus to two disciples as they walk home from Jerusalem, another in the Upper Room where he shows his wounds to the disciples, and finally an ascension scene in Bethany.
The Gospel of John is not a copy of Mark. It is a later account of the life of Jesus. John includes resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside of the tomb, to the rest of the disciples on Sunday evening, to doubting Thomas a week later, and finally to the disciples as they fish in Galilee.
These comprise all the resurrection appearances in the four Gospels. Because none of them are found in Mark, the Lectionary sets Mark aside for the rest of the eight Sundays in the season of Easter even though we are in Year B of the Lectionary, which is the year that focuses on the Gospel of Mark,
Despite the lack of resurrection appearances in Mark and its downbeat ending, I appreciate its Easter account. The directive of the young man in a white robe to return to Galilee gives the Gospel of Mark a circular character since Galilee is where Mark's narrative begins.
In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee after he is baptized in the Jordan River by John. Jesus teaches, preaches, and heals there for perhaps a year. At the end of his time in Galilee, Jesus admits to Peter that he is the Christ, but a Christ who will be betrayed, killed, and then raised on the third day. This admission comes as Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem. At the end of that journey in an empty tomb, the disciples are directed to return to Galilee where they will see the risen Christ.
The end of Mark's Gospel directs us back to its beginning. This arc also describes ministry for any of us, I believe. First comes baptism, then love and service, then a journey to confront authority that involves the cross, then new life at Easter, and finally a return to where we began to start the process all over again . . .
I said earlier that there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus in Mark, but perhaps that statement is wrong. Perhaps every appearance of Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan in chapter 1 of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.
According to St. Paul, we are baptized into Christ's death and raised into new life in Christ. It is the same with Jesus. He is baptized by John where he is also anointed by a dove and hears a voice telling him that he is God's beloved. After the baptism, he spends 40 days in the desert praying and being tempted by Satan. When Jesus returns from the desert, he has accepted his baptism. His old life has died in the Jordan River. He is now living a new life as God's Christ.
Jesus begins his ministry in full awareness of his coming death. He has taken up his cross. He urges us to do the same. And he demonstrates for us what a resurrected life in the shadow of the cross looks like. In every meal he shares with friends and sinners, in every healing, and in every parable he tells about the kingdom of God, Jesus shows us what resurrection looks like. Jesus has been raised from death by God in his baptism, just as he is raised on Easter after his death on Good Friday.
To know what resurrection looks like, we don't need to wait for the later gospel writers to write their accounts of resurrection appearances. We only need to read the Gospel of Mark again, to puzzle at the parables, to marvel at the healings, to be inspired by Jesus' courage, and to follow him to the cross despite having the same fears and doubts that beset his first disciples.
Christ has been raised, declares the young man in white. Now go back to where you began, to Galilee, and continue ministry there in the Spirit of the Risen Christ.
The same words apply to us today, 2,000 years later. Like the three beautiful children who were baptized here in Coronach this morning, we too have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. We have all been marked by the sign of the cross. Our old life is dead, and we are living an Easter life that is beyond ego and individuality. It is a life within the enfolding Spirit of God's Love, a life in touch with the eternity of God's Kingdom, now and always.
Do we always live out our baptismal vows? Of course not. Even Jesus sometimes expresses fear and despair, as we heard this week in Mark's accounts of Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane and his cry of anguish on the cross.
Sometimes we may be like the women in the empty tomb on Easter morning. Sometimes we may respond with terror and amazement to the good news that we have been baptized into a resurrected life in Christ.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome show great courage in going to Jesus' tomb to anoint his body. But when Jesus' predictions that he would be raised are confirmed by a young man dressed in a white robe, they don't shout for joy. Instead, they flee in terror.
The women must have assumed that their exhilarating ride with Jesus had ended with his death. Though grief-stricken, they might also have felt relief. Jesus' crazy dream of God's Kingdom on earth had been dashed. Jesus' puzzling preaching was at an end. There would be no more confrontations with the authorities. They could now return to their humble lives as fishers and farmers.
Instead, when they hear that Jesus has been raised and are told to return to Galilee, they are afraid. Perhaps they feel burdened by this good news. Jesus has been killed, but God's Christ still lives. With the help of God's Spirit, they are called to continue Christ's ministry despite the crucifixion.
It is not the same with us? As a minister, I may feel burdened by the need to write a sermon that proclaims the good news every week. (And thanks to Arlene for agreeing to preside and preach next week while I enjoy a "spiritual Sunday," April being one of those blessed months in 2012 that contains five Sundays instead of four.) We may feel burdened at the thought of attending church every week. We may have visited the sick in the hospital last week. Do we have to go again? We just sang Hallelujah last Easter. Do we have to do it again?
And of course, the answer to all these questions is "no." God's grace means that we don't have to do anything to be healed.
But then, from time to time, we glimpse what post-baptismal life in Christ is like. We look into the eyes of our child. We spend time with our beloved. We listen to a friend in distress. For a moment, our egos and anxieties dissolve in acts of love and service. We touch God's Spirit that was first symbolized at our baptism. We feel the burdens of life dissolving away. So we preach again. We celebrate again. We sing hallelujah again. We reach out to family, friends, neighbours in love again.
On Good Friday, the Romans tried to kill Love. The good news proclaimed by a young man in a white robe on Easter morning is that God has raised Love to new life, and so ministry continues back in Galilee . . . or in Borderlands.
I love the various stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke and John. They contain an entire universe of the truth of God's love. But so, I believe, does the simple, stark, and realistic ending of Mark's Gospel.
In his ending, Mark directs us back to our baptism and to life and ministry in our home community. It is here that we will encounter the resurrected Jesus. He is the Christ into whom were baptized. He is the Christ we see in every person we meet and love. He is the Christ who draws us out of the empty tomb each Easter morning where, despite our amazement and fear, we say again, Hallelujah! Christ is risen!
Thanks be to God.