Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Not the End of the Story." A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 on Easter Sunday.

"Not the End of the Story"

Mark 16:1-8

         The Sabbath day has passed and it is the dawn of a new day.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus.  For the disciples, it has been a long and painful Sabbath.  The women had seen Jesus’ body placed hurriedly in the tomb late Friday afternoon.   Now the three women are headed back to the tomb, wondering among themselves, who would roll back the large stone that covered the door.
            Their relief at finding the stone rolled back turned to fear when they get there. Jesus’ body was gone.  Instead, there’s a young man, dressed in white.
"Don’t be alarmed;" he says, "you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.   He has been raised.  He is not here.      Now, go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going before you to Galilee.  You will see him there, just as he told you."
            The women flee from the tomb, filled with terror and amazement.  They say nothing to anyone-- for they are afraid.   Mark’s gospel ends here.
            This unfinished story bothered people in the early church enough that they wrote two different endings to tack on.  It's bothered a lot of scholars over the years-- so much that some of them developed theories about how the last page of Mark's gospel was lost…  or how it wore out and fell off.
            However, the consensus of biblical scholars today is that Mark did indeed end his gospel with verse 8.   In Mark’s gospel, there are no joyfully amazed women rushing back with news of the empty tomb…no awestruck exclamations to the disciples that “he is risen!”   There are no reassuring appearances by the risen Christ himself.   We have to read the other gospel accounts that were written later to find these things.
            The three women are filled with grief, and overwhelmed with amazement and terror.  On this Easter Sunday in the year 2018, can you relate to their response? What do you feel when you hear the news of the resurrection? Are you confident and joyful? Are you ready to go and tell?
            Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect that there are a lot of people in the pews of churches-- and outside the church this Easter Sunday who feel like they’re living in a Good Friday kind of world. 
            If you feel like you've been living in a Good Friday world, maybe you can relate to the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning.  They'd hoped that Jesus was going to be the Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman oppressors.  But things haven't turned out the way they'd hoped.
            The women didn’t expect to Jesus to be resurrected, even though Jesus had told his disciples three times that he would suffer and die and then be raised again. But they hadn’t understood.
             The women had seen Jesus executed on the cross with their own eyes, and they thought death had won the day.  They’d come to anoint his body for burial.
            As far as they knew, nothing had changed. They were still living under the oppression of the Roman empire. The empire had executed Jesus because they saw him as a threat to the stability of the Palestinian region of the Roman empire, because he dared to disturb the peace of the “Pax Romana” by causing the ruckus at the Temple, calling out the hypocrisy of the temple leaders, seeking to cleanse it and reclaim it from those who were colluding with Rome.
            The empire executed Jesus because he had been proclaiming a rival empire-- the Kingdom of God.[1]
            As Roger Wolsey points out, those who worshiped Caesar as god executed Jesus because his followers were describing him with the titles they reserved for Caesar: “Lord,” “Son of God,” “Lord of lords,” Prince of Peace,” and “King of kings.” 
            Jesus lived a life of radical, self-giving, unconditional love, teaching subversive and counter-cultural things that challenged the empire’s authority.[2]  He preached the kingdom of God. The confession of the earliest Christians was “Jesus is Lord,” which means Caesar is not.  
            So much had happened that first Holy Week, and the women were overwhelmed and terrified.  The young man at the tomb says, “Don’t be alarmed. Don’t be afraid.”  That’s easier said than done. “You came looking for a crucified Jesus, but he isn’t here.  He has been raised. Go and tell his disciples and Peter-- even Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. Tell them that you all need to go back to Galilee, and you will see him there, just as he said.”
            I think maybe Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection could have a neat and tidy ending. One of the themes throughout Mark’s gospel is how the disciples just don’t get the meaning of a lot of his teachings. We keep hearing Jesus ask, “Don’t you understand?”
            Three times the disciples had heard Jesus predict that he is going to have to suffer and die and then be raised again-- but they end up dazed, confused, and arguing about who’s the greatest.   Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah-- but completely misunderstands what that means, and actually rebukes Jesus when he explains.  
            Judas betrays Jesus.  Peter denies him 3 times.  All of the disciples desert him at the time of the crucifixion, except some of the women who followed him.     
            Finally, even these women, who up to this point had proved to be faithful disciples, are too afraid to go and share the good news. And so, Mark ends here, with failure, with an invitation to pick up where the gospel leaves off.[1]
            Maybe this is Mark’s way of telling us that Jesus meets us at the point when we are broken, when we have failed, when we’re afraid, and turns what seems like an ending-- into a new beginning.  
            The story isn’t over.  With the first disciples, we need to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee.   Like the first disciples, we can’t understand the story the first time.  We need to go to the cross and to the empty tomb… and then read the story again and find ourselves in the story.   We need to go back to “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[2]   This time, we need to hear the gospel with post-resurrection eyes. 
            When we go back to Galilee, we see Jesus healing and teaching and casting out demons, but always being misunderstood, even by those closest to him.  Mark is telling us that the saving action of God in the world is always hidden and ambiguous. 
            We go back to Galilee, and the second time around every story in the Gospel of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.  What we see is a God who surprises us at every turn in the road, a God whose power is expressed finally in weakness.[3]
             Mark wrote an open ending to his gospel in order to invite the disciples and everyone who reads it to jump in and take up our part in continuing it.   You see, the story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb.   It’s only just getting started.  
            Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and to continue the story of God’s redeeming work in the world. 
            Mark intentionally left the story unfinished-- because it isn't just a story about something that happened long ago.  It's the story of the church, and the story isn't finished.   That first Easter, the whole urgent, world-changing story was hanging on the testimony of witnesses who run away in fear and silence.   
            Yet, they must have gone out and told. They must have gone to Galilee and seen the risen Christ. They must have proclaimed the good news to the others-- or we wouldn’t be here today. 

            We live in a world can be a frightening place.  Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by all the pain and suffering... hatred and evil we see.
            The women came to the tomb expecting to see a place of death and defeat.    They thought the powers of this world had had the last word.
            But the God we worship and serve hears the suffering of marginalized and oppressed people and cares… and “acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.”  The Living God will have the last word, because love is stronger than evil.  That’s part of the good news of Easter.
            Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth[3]and “proclaimed the reign of God… preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives… teaching by word and deed…and blessing the children…healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted…eating with outcasts… forgiving sinners… and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”[4]   
            When Jesus challenged the religious authorities and the empire with his vision of love and justice and transformation, the empire executed him.
            Just as surely as that first Good Friday was the domination system’s “no” to Jesus, Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and his vision… and God’s “no” to systems of domination and oppression. 
            Our Easter faith assures us that in Christ's death on the cross and his resurrection, God has already overcome the power of death and evil.  The old life is gone.  A new life has begun[5]a life of gratitude and joy...  a life in which the Holy Spirit sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the church. 

God's redemptive purpose for the world will prevail through those who answer Christ's call to follow him and carry on his purpose and work.
            The good news is that we are not alone.  In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.[6]
            That’s how the rest of the story continues.

            Giacomo Puccini, who wrote such great operas as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme, was stricken with cancer in 1922.  He decided to write one more opera entitled Turandot. 
            One of his students said, "But suppose you die before you finish it?"
            "Oh, my disciples will finish it,"  Puccini replied confidently.  
            Puccini died in 1924, and his disciples did finish the opera. Puccini's best friend, Franco Alfano, worked from sketches left by the composer to complete the opera, which many consider it to be his best work.
            The premier took place in Milan, Italy, at La Scala Opera House.  Arturo Toscanini, one of Puccini's best students, was the conductor.  The performance began and continued to the point at which Puccini's work had abruptly ended.  Toscanini paused and said to the audience, "Thus far, the master wrote...   and then the master died." Then he picked up the baton and shouted to the audience, "But his disciples finished his music!"[7]

            As disciples of Christ, we are called, as individuals and as Christ's church, to be about the task of finishing the music whose melody and direction we can discern in the acts of God in history   and in the life and teachings of Jesus.
            God calls us to live beyond our fears and doubts.  In the resurrection, God showed us his amazing, life-giving power.  We know that the story of our life with God has a joyful ending.
            Go.  Tell.  As Christians, we are called to take risks...  to make ourselves vulnerable in love...  to share with strangers...  and to dare to challenge unjust power.  
God, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, is making all things new, and we are called to be a part of this new life  So, go.  Tell.
Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 1, 2018

[1] Roger Wolsey, “Why They Killed Jesus”, in Patheos (2015) at

[2] Wolsey, “Why They Killed Jesus.”
[3] John 1
[4] “Brief Statement of Faith,” Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.
[5] “The old life is gone; a new life has begun” is part of an assurance of forgiveness that we hear often during the corporate act of confession in Presbyterian worship.
[6] “Brief Statement of Faith.”
[7] I’ve read several versions of the story of how the opera Turandot was finished after Puccini’s death, which agree on most points. One source says the premier performance stopped at the point where Puccini died, and that it was followed the next day with a performance of the completed work. In any case, the disciples carried on and completed the work.

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