A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on April 8, 2012
I’m guessing most of us here today have been hearing about Easter since we were in diapers. So I know what I’m about to ask will be difficult. But I’m asking anyway.
Pretend like you know nothing about Easter. Somewhere along the way you heard that a man named Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God 2,000 years ago, was put to death on a cross late in Jerusalem one Friday afternoon after three years of amazing ministry. Then Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb just before the Jewish Sabbath began Friday night. But for some reason you never read or heard anything about a supposed resurrection of Jesus from the dead on Sunday morning. As far as you know, the story of Jesus ends where all human stories end—with his death.
Now, with those limits of information in place, you wander into a church on Easter Sunday and hear the Easter story for the first time as told by the Gospel of Mark:
When the Sabbath (observed from Friday night to Saturday night) was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint (Jesus). And very early on (Sunday) the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to (Jesus’) tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance from the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, here is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that (Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So 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.”
Three women return to Jesus tomb not because they expect him to be alive but to complete the anointing of Jesus’ very dead body, anointing that had been done hurriedly late Friday just before the Sabbath began. They worry about how they will move the ponderous stone in front of the tomb. But surprise, surprise the stone has been moved to the side and the tomb is open to the public. Jesus isn’t there, but some guy dressed in white is. And he says, “Don’t fret. Jesus isn’t here because he’s been “raised” (whatever that means). Go tell Peter and the disciples to head to Galilee and Jesus will meet them there.
These three poor women come unglued! They run as fast as they can from the tomb and never speak of that day again, not even to each other. Instead, they shake off the whole weird “empty tomb” thing like it was some sort of bad dream, and carry on with their lives, disappointed they were robbed of the opportunity to give a proper burial for a man they loved so much.
Okay, so if you’ve never heard any other versions of the Easter story—like those told by Matthew, Luke, and John, or Peter and Paul, that include appearances of the Risen Christ to his disciples and hundreds of others, and include stirring commissions to go into the world and share the gospel so that people everywhere will become followers of Jesus—if all you know is Mark’s version of Easter, you’re intrigued…maybe...but that’s about all. You wonder who moved the stone and stole Jesus’ dead body and where they hid it and why…maybe. After all, you’ve seen more interesting shows about dead bodies on television’s CSI!
But wait a minute! Someone points out to you that there are alternative endings to the story. You don’t believe it. You don’t know much about the Bible, but you’re certain no gospel in the New Testament could have multiple endings! But when you open a bible to Mark 16, you notice that after verse 8 there’s a section marked, “The Shorter Ending of Mark”, which seems to be added on like some sort of postscript. Then, there’s another section entitled, “The Longer Ending of Mark” that adds eleven more verses to the story.
Contrary to what you’ve just read, the shorter ending says the women did in fact share what they had experienced at the empty tomb with the disciples, who in turn were sent out by the Risen Christ to spread the gospel to the four corners of the earth. The longer ending makes a similar point but portrays the disciples as remarkably resistant to the idea that God had in fact raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus confronts the disciples and crawls all over them for their lack of faith, then sends them out to be his witnesses and says many signs will accompany their ministry... like believers being able to handle poisonous snakes and drink poisonous liquids in Jesus’ name without doing harm to themselves. (Yes, if you are wondering, this is the scripture used to justify snake-handling!)
Now, you are completely weirded out! The idea that a man was raised from the dead is weird enough. But to hear about multiple endings to the story, with both the shorter and longer endings directly contradicting what’s said earlier, and the longer ending describing true disciples of Jesus as people who can handle poisonous snakes and live to talk about it—that makes the Easter story so weird nobody could take it seriously!
Later, just for kicks you do some research on the Internet, and you learn that most biblical scholars believe the original ending of the Easter story in Mark 16 was verse 8, even though in the Greek the verse ends very awkwardly with the word “for”: as in “they were afraid, for”. Despite this odd ending scholars note that the earliest of the 5000 manuscripts we have of the New Testament all end at verse 8. Some of the later manuscripts have the shorter ending, some the longer ending, and some actually have both. Why? Because apparently scribes who followed Mark sometime over the next three centuries decided Mark’s original conclusion that ended so abruptly and negatively was just too weird, so they added alternative endings to smooth out and fill out the story.
Now what I have just described is a hypothetical example, but all the information is accurate. New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper calls the convoluted ending of Mark one of the great mysteries of the New Testament. Quite simply, Mark’s Easter story is a mess, which is why you hear very few Easter sermons based on the gospel of Mark. Most of us preachers avoid Mark’s account of Easter like the plague, and I will confess this is only the second time in thirty years I’ve used Mark 16 as my Easter text!
It wasn’t an easy call, because as usual the lectionary encouraged us preachers to avoid Mark and use the Easter story in John, the most popular version of the story by far. But as I prayed over what to do this year, I kept getting pulled back to the weird ending of Mark, sensing that Mark’s weird 8 verse version of the story had much to teach us, not only about Easter but what it means to follow the Risen Christ.
For starters, Mark’s rendition reminds us that then as well as now, the resurrection is no easy matter to wrap your mind around.
A retiring minister speaking to his congregation for the last time said, “The first person to be saved under my preaching has backslidden. The first persons married under my ministry have divorced. But the first person I buried has stayed there.”
Even we starry-eyed preachers assume that nobody gets up out of their grave. That certainly was the assumption of the three women who approached Jesus’ empty tomb. Mark communicates their despair in more ways than one. The Sabbath was over, Mark reports. Yes it was, in more ways than one. The women worried about how they would roll the stone away so they could access Jesus’ body. Of course they did. Who else was going to roll away the stone—God and his angels?
Then, when they arrived at an open tomb and found Jesus gone, replaced by some guy wearing a white robe, announcing Jesus had been raised from the dead; oh, and by the way, the verse says how about telling Peter and his disciples so they’ll go on to Galilee, which is where Jesus told them he’d meet them after he defeated death - their despair turned to dread. Like some deadpan news reporter, Mark minces no words: They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.
Which prompts Mary Gordon to make the following observation: “Mark, the harshest, the sparsest of the Gospel writers, gives us an unhopeful Easter. Many scholars believe the manuscript actually ended with a failure of nerve. The women, seeing the angel at the empty tomb, are terrified. The angel tells them to bring the message of Christ’s resurrection to the disciples but they don’t.”
Strangely enough, though, this failure of nerve gives me comfort. Maybe it’s because I’ve had my own moments when I could have taken a more public stand for Christ, or could have done been more obedient to God’s will, but in the 11th hour I wimped out, I had a failure of nerve. Maybe it’s nothing more than my misery loving their company.
But there’s also something very reassuring about the fear and doubt of these faithful women because they were behaving the same way I would. Had they said, “Jesus was raised from the dead. Cool! We knew while he was dying on the cross that before long he’d be jumping right out of that grave!” that would feel way too easy. It makes the story, weird though it is, feel more authentic to see that these women melt down as they try to get their frazzled minds around a miraculous resurrections. The weird messiness of the story makes it seem more, not less true.
And then there’s Mark’s declaration that Jesus is going ahead of Peter and his fellow disciples to Galilee. They should go to Galilee, says the man, who looks like an angels that place where they spent so much time with Jesus in ministry, and he would meet them there.
According to Matthew’s version of the Easter story, the frightened women ran to tell the disciples what happened, met the Risen Christ along the way, and were transformed into women of valor as they sought out the disciples to share the good news. The disciples then summoned up their remaining courage and journeyed to Galilee, where they met Jesus as promised. And we can be glad they did because it was there in Galiee that the Risen Christ issued what today we call the Great Commission that commands us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations.
Here’s my take-away from this piece of Mark’s story—every time I witness, or serve, or preach, or do anything in obedience to Christ, he’s moving ahead of me, paving the way for me, helping me in ways large and small as I go. That’s true even if I’ve failed him, or denied him in the past—like good ole Peter. Jesus keeps loving me and forgiving me and urging me on to be on the great journey of service and ministry he’s mapped out just for me.
And he’s doing the same for you, too!
Finally—and here’s what I like best about Mark’s version of the Easter story—God is looking to us to help him finish the story of Easter. What if Mark’s abrupt, seemingly incomplete ending of the Easter story is deliberate and not a case of poor writing? What if Mark is inviting us to finish the story of Easter, with God as our helper?
Look with me at the very first verse of Mark. What does Mark 1:1 say? The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Could it be that Mark never intended to offer a finished product? What if all sixteen chapters are meant to be only the beginning of the gospel? If that’s the case, Mark’s weird ending is actually just right. Mark wants us to complete this story.
Years ago one of the great preachers of a former generation named David H.C Read wrote a sermon entitled, “Unfinished Easter.” I don’t know if his sermon was based on Mark 16. What I do know is that he believed the end of the Easter story was not to be written on the page, but in our lives.
The first people to finish Easter in their lives were those times frightened women. See, I believe that soon after they fled the tomb they were met by the Risen Christ himself. And in that meeting they began a process of soul transformation that would continue for the rest of their lives. The first thing that changed is that they lived more and more out of faith, less and less out of fear. The second thing that changed is that they became more comfortable with speaking publicly about their experience with the Risen Christ—first with the disciples, then with anybody who would listen.
Here is where Mark’s version of Easter is so powerful. Mark says in effect to his readers, “Are you running from Jesus like these women? Are you keeping you mouth shut when you should be speaking for Jesus? Are you bypassing hurting and hungry people when you should be ministering to them in Jesus’ name?”
Only God knows how many days you have left in your life. But only you can write the final chapter of your life story.
As you compose the rest of your life, don’t worry about winding up with a weird ending. Just remember—Jesus is always blazing the path before you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Stick close to the Risen Christ, and the life story you write together can be an Easter masterpiece!