“The Beginning of the Good News”
April 8, 2012
That was a wonderful Easter hymn. But it might see somewhat at odds with the Easter story that we heard from the Gospel of Mark this morning.
“They were afraid.”
That’s how Mark concludes the Easter story—with women running away from the tomb, “for they were afraid.”
What kind of ending is this?
Well, not a very inspiring one, obviously.
Mark, as you know, is the earliest of the four Gospels. It was written around thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most biblical scholars think that Mark’s gospel originally ended in the way we heard it read this morning. But that ending is one that some early Christians found in need of some editorial reworking.
The Bible up here in the pulpit—and probably the one you have at home—offers what is called “The Shorter Ending of Mark,” extending the eighth verse so that it reads: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” That might be a more satisfying conclusion, but it really doesn’t sound like the rest of Mark.
There is also what is called “The Longer Ending of Mark”—some twelve extra verses that tell of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, to two other followers, and then to the eleven remaining disciples.
But the most ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end with the women fleeing from the tomb, and saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
What kind of ending is this?
Well, it’s not an ending.
In fact, I think that in order to understand these words, we need to go back to the start of Mark’s gospel, to chapter 1, verse1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The whole thing—Jesus’ baptism by John, the temptation in the wilderness, teaching and healing, confrontations with religious and political authorities, all the events that we have recalled in recent days: betrayal and arrest, trial and crucifixion, death and burial, and yes, resurrection—all of this is just the beginning of the good news.
The story isn’t over at Easter—and Mark’s gospel doesn’t need an inspiring ending. This is the beginning of the good news.
Sure, at first the story seemed to have an ending. The ending was the usual one—death. Jesus of Nazareth is not alive. He is, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.”
The women know this. Like proper women of their time they kept their distance at the public sites of crucifixion and burial on that Friday. But they were at least present, unlike the men who betrayed, denied, scattered, and ran away.
Now look at the women as darkness turns to early morning light. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome purchase spices and go to the tomb to anoint Jesus. This purchase suggests that they expect to find a corpse, not the One who had stated three times that after three days he would rise from the dead.
Still their arrival at the tomb should be seen as an act of faith.
Faith that sustains does not overlook the harsh realities of our lives. Life doesn’t always go as we would want it to go. Friends betray, marriages fail, children get ill. We know that violence is all too real and there is enough injustice in the world to make us heartsick.
Many people want to skip over the events of Good Friday—going quickly from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the brass accompanied Alleluias of Easter—and we can understand why. Many would ignore the shadow side of life. But until we recognize that we walk in the valley of deep darkness we can go no further in claiming the power of the resurrection.
Easter has an ending and it is death.
And yet when these faithful women arrive at the tomb they do not find death. They find something greater than death: the life-giving power of God.
The stone that sealed the tomb, as big as it was, is rolled to the side.
Something more is going on here besides feats of strength. The stone is a sign of God's power over death. Even more the stone is a sign of God’s power over the power of sin to crucify, to destroy. The stone gives silent testimony that God has done what is impossible for us to do.
We don't know what resurrection looks like.
No one saw the stone roll away.
No one saw the tomb open.
No one was present to see Jesus come out of the tomb.
All we know, all we have, is the good news that was told to us: “He has been raised. He is not here.”
And this message rings true in our hearts. God is able to do what we cannot do on our own. God gives us life that we might enjoy all things. Forgiving us, God gives us new life in Jesus Christ, overcoming the death in which we find ourselves. And by God’s grace we are part of a community that seeks to love one another as we ourselves have been loved.
We look into the tomb and discover Jesus is not there. We look into the tomb and discover the triumphant power of God for our lives and for all creation.
Christ is alive in the world, leading us with the good news of a new power unleashed on the earth.
The risen Christ is always going ahead of us.
When we refuse to give in to evil,
When we will not give in to the cycle of violence,
When we seek to love one another,
then we discover that the risen Christ is always going ahead of us.
The crucifixion seemed to be the end of the story, but it was not.
The resurrection is not really the end of the story either.
Look at those women once more.
Faithful to Jesus through his crucifixion.
Faithful to Jesus through his burial.
How do they respond to the message they receive: Go, tell?
“They went out and fled from the tomb; for terror and amazement has seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”
To end the story on such a resounding note of fear is very upsetting for many. In The Women’s Bible Commentary, Mary Ann Tolbert says that after watching Jesus' continual struggle to make his male disciples understand his teachings and seeing their ultimate failure, we want someone to prove faithful. And so it is devastating to watch those women, who have already demonstrated more faithfulness than the twelve, fail as well. But women are human too.
If the women do not carry the message, is there anyone else who can? Is there anyone else out there who has heard Jesus' preaching, seen his acts of healing, watched his crucifixion and burial, and listened to the wondrous announcement of his resurrection?
We all have.
And so we are all challenged to become faithful disciples, carrying the message into the world.1
Mark makes it clear that the story of Easter is to be continued. We who have heard the story continue to bring it toward fulfillment in our world, in our time. As individuals, and a congregation, our actions determine where the story goes from here.
Will anyone live as though love is stronger than death?
Will there anyone go and stammer out the strange and wonderful news that Christ is risen?
Maybe you will when your friend says that life seems to be without purpose.
Maybe you will when you face the choice between doing shoddy work that gets by and pursuing excellence at school or on the job.
Maybe you will when given the chance to tell of the hope that drives you.
Those early Christians who added those two endings to the Gospel of Mark were onto something. There is a message there for future generations—for people like us.
We are always writing new endings to the gospel story, because we are always just beginning to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
When, after centuries, Christians recover the basic equality between men and women that the early followers of Jesus knew and lived, we are beginning to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
When, after centuries, Christians recover the message of peace, the message of concern for the poor above concern for profits, the call for justice in the public square, we are beginning to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
When, after centuries, Christians recover the biblical call to stewardship of the earth, we are beginning to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
When, after centuries, Christians awaken to God’s unlimited love for all people—of all races, gay or lesbian or straight, rich or poor, we are beginning to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
Always the story of Easter is to be continued as we live out the wonder of the resurrection.
No ending that we propose can contain the risen Christ, any more than the tomb with a great stone could. Always he goes ahead of us; we never know where or when we shall see him; we only know we cannot escape him.2
The story goes on. And each one of us has a part of it to share.
Now, with lives of love, with generous lives that show mercy and kindness, with lives that work for peace in the world, with lives that find and offer courage in the face of adversity, go and tell.
1. See discussion by Mary Ann Tolbert in her commentary on Mark in The Women's Bible Commentary, 1992, Westminster Press, pg. 274.
2. See Lamar Williamson, Mark, Interpretation Commentary Series.