When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to 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, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he 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.
Easter Sunday at Holy Trinity was quite an event! Undoubtedly the most important day of our Christian faith, Easter is the event that completes the gospel story. It resolves all tensions we have with our faith. It turns the agony of the crucifixion on Good Friday into more than just some masochistic wallowing in blood and pain. It is the relief we have been waiting for since the beginning of Lent, and brings us hope in all of those desperate times when we are faced with death. And there you were, all gussied up wearing your Easter best, shiny and new, like you just stepped out of the Sears catalog. I must say that I was impressed. You all looked just like an Easter egg!
But I must say I was also a bit perplexed. In fact, Easter Sunday, is a mystery to me. Now I’m not referring to the narrative of Jesus’ last days, or any of the evidence regarding his resurrection and appearances afterward. I have actually been to Jerusalem and looked inside the supposed tomb where Jesus was laid. I had one of the most amazing experiences receiving communion in a small service outside this very tomb. Whether that was the actual tomb of Jesus, or not…the experience of seeing the empty tomb is a mystery to me. It’s a mystery because it is an unfinished story. Our sacred story this morning concludes rather abruptly. It is a story without an ending. Now you must be thinking, “What? Did I hear the preacher right? What is he saying? Has he gone bonkers? We all know the end of this story! My goodness, we just sang about it! Jesus is alive! But is that the real ending of the story? Well, before you get your Easter bonnet in a twist, let me explain.
Mark’s original telling of the Easter story ends without Jesus being seen. We enter the story following the death of Jesus on the cross after he has been laid in a grave carved out from a rock. Three women journey to the tomb at dawn; Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a couple of her friends, Mary of Magdala and Salome. They come to anoint Jesus' corpse, for it had been removed and placed in the grave without being properly wrapped in the traditional burial spices. These women were on a mission to make sure things were done right. As they walk to the tomb they are concerned about the stone that had been placed over the entrance to the tomb. Who would roll it away for them? They could not do it without assistance. And how else would they have access to the body? And when the women arrive, they find, to their amazement, that the stone has been rolled back. Even more amazing, they find a young man, dressed in white, sitting there. This unnamed stranger is bearer of news about this Jesus of Nazareth who has been crucified; "He has been raised; he is not here,” he says.
If you are looking for resurrection appearances, if you are looking for closure of the Jesus' story, you will not find them in Mark. For many biblical scholars agree that verse 8 marks the original end of this gospel. There are in fact several different versions of the Gospel of Mark. There are short versions, ending at verse 8, and longer versions which go on to verse 20. Even though most of our Bibles include these additional 12 verses which do record 3 subsequent sightings of Jesus, they differ so much in literary style from the rest of the gospel that they cannot have been part of the original text. These additional 12 verses which make up the longer ending are clearly added on to the original text. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8 with an empty tomb and the word that Jesus is not here. So listen closely, I am clueing you into a bit of information that has been disregarded or intentionally hidden from the majority of Christian civilization. We have, in effect, a real Davinci Code dilemma on our hands. The earliest ancient writing of this text, the oldest version of the Easter story, records no historical account of Jesus appearing after his death.
All we get from the writer of Mark’s gospel is an empty tomb and the news that the Jesus we are looking for is somewhere else. In itself, of course, the empty tomb means nothing. All it means is that there is no corpse. In other words, Mark is not trying to substantiate the resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. For Mark no such demonstration is possible. Jesus is not there means Jesus no longer exists within a conventional frame of reference. "He has been raised." The message is a dramatic conclusion to the tragic story in which Jesus had been betrayed, abandoned and murdered. Yet within that tragedy lays a great mystery. Jesus is not here. He is somewhere else.
Wow! Is that really it? What about the usually ending we know and love? What about the appearances of Jesus on the road to Emmaus? What about the conversation between Mary and Jesus at the tomb? What about the triumph of resurrection over death? What about the nice, tidy, upbeat ending that Easter is supposed to represent? But I ask you, is this ending so unlike the way we experience the mystery of God in real life? If you think about it, there are so many stories in our popular culture that end without really ending. Movies do it all of the time, especially when the studio hopes to make a sequel. The ends of these movies purposefully leave something yet to be resolved, or introduce something new to be solved in an effort to create an audience for the next money-making installment of Return of the Living Dead XXVI, or Batman Returns Again, or Alien Family Reunion. And you can be sure, that because of the enormous success of Titanic someone will attempt to make the sequel, Titanic II Jack’s Back. I think we can all agree that sequels are usually terrible.
Does Mark’s gospel story promise us a sequel? It seems that Mark suggests there is more to the story. "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." The second part of the text makes clear that what had happened before the crucifixion; the unbelief of the disciples and Peter’s denial are not the end of the story either. God will not give up on our humanity but responds to our unbelief through forgiveness and restitution. Even in the midst of failure, we can always choose to begin again. And that’s where we will meet Jesus. Not in some resurrection appearance, but back in Galilee, back in the places where Jesus did his work. For Galilee was not the site for magical appearances in Mark, it was the place where Jesus announced the realm of God. It was the place where he encountered opposition, disloyalty, rejection and defeat. And it was there that Jesus confronted the opposition to his ministry. It was in Galilee that he persisted, triumphed, and overcame, in spite of the odds. There you will see him.
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone.
And wouldn't you have been afraid? Wouldn't I? That last verse of Mark sets in motion the mystery of our Christian experience. It dispels the myth that Jesus will always faithfully do what needs to be done and that the predictions of Jesus will always find some sort of closure. They will not. The Gospel ends abruptly with no resurrection appearance to anyone and the last group of faithful followers are too afraid to say anything to anyone.
And that is precisely where Mark seems to leave us - waiting for the mystery to unfold and the remaining story untold.
But what if it is you and I that are responsible for completing this mystery? What if we are the ones given pen and paper to continue writing the Easter story? And what if we did what the disciples were told to do, go back into the Galilee of our daily lives, that place where we encounter opposition, disloyalty, rejection and defeat, to live our own lives just as honestly, just as lovingly, just as courageously, and just as humanly as Jesus lived his. What if that is where we will see Jesus? What if that is where we will meet him?
The mystery of the tomb, it seems to me, is the stunning reminder that Jesus isn't here. He is always out there ahead of us. He always was and he always will be. If we are truly intent on following him, there will always be some further desert to cross, some new challenge to meet, some new enemy to love, some new attachments to forsake, and some new boundary to cross. The realm of God is not a destination where, once we have arrived, we can rest in satisfaction.
Resurrection is not something we just believe in, it is something that we live. It’s not some concrete, concise, doctrinal statement that defines our statement of faith. It is about living the way Jesus always lived. Becoming more fully and completely human, no matter what the defeats and tragedies of our lives threaten to do to us.
That was the way of Jesus. Our Easter stories are still being written, for they begin like Jesus’ began; by trusting that God's realm is present here and now.
- Our Easter stories are written as we celebrate life when there is sorrow in death.
- Our Easter stories unfold as we create communities out of ruins.
- Our Easter stories are strengthened as we defend the weak and challenge hypocrisy wherever we find it.
- Our Easter stories are liberated as we confront some restrictive code of conduct in favor of an ever-expansive view of humanity.
- You are the Easter story.
- You are the mystery that no longer lives entombed.
Seeing our lives as Easter stories is more than a powerful metaphor. It is how we experience our lives in Christ. By embracing our story and our role in it, we can live more purposefully the kind of life that will give our own story meaning.
What is our good news today? What is the emotional experience of the Easter message? It’s sitting right in front of me, in personal stories of faith that include grief and amazement, sorrow and joy, fear and hope. You, my friend, are the mystery of God in flesh. You are the Easter story. Now go and live the resurrection! Amen! (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Jesus Isn’t Here” from April 20, 2003 – www.fernstone.org)