Sermon for Easter Sunday
As a rule, it is fair to say that a decent writer is made better through the work of a good editor. I should know… I’m married to a good editor, who on more than the odd occasion has tidied up, corrected, and otherwise improved my writing. And then there’s Kyla Neufeld, the managing editor for our website, who has a knack for making things all read a bit more cleanly.
- To hear the sermon, simply click the link:
So it might be tempting to suggest that Mark could have used a good editor. The biblical scholar Larry Hurtado characterized Mark’s Greek as being “simple and unsophisticated,” noting that he uses “many simple sentences connected by the [Greek] word for ‘and.’” The novelist Reynolds Price writes of Mark’s “pawky roughness of language and movement—Jesus came here and did this; then at once he turned elsewhere and did that,” adding that this Gospel, “reels out its jerky, very peculiar story at full-tilt speed and with what seem the first words at hand—a small and modest vocabulary.” It is true; Mark does seem to grab the first words he has at hand, and he keeps tying it all together with the Greek word kai, or “and.” “And he went,” “And he did,” “And entering the place,” and, and, and…
Mark’s other favourite word is eutheOs, generally translated “immediately.” Someone—usually Jesus—is forever “immediately” doing something or going somewhere, which is part of why Price refers to the feel of the whole as being reeled out at “full-tilt speed.” Implying no disrespect—not to the editors in the crowd, nor to Mark himself—I suspect that in a modern context Mark’s draft would have been sent back to him for some serious rewrites.
I suspect that when you heard the gospel read aloud tonight, you will have noticed the abruptness of its ending. According to Mark, the women have gone to the tomb, yet when they arrive they find the stone has been rolled away from its entrance, and that inside there is a young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised. This figure in white then instructs them to “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.” Their response, according to Mark, is anything but joyous: “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.”
That’s it. They fled in terror and amazement, and said not a word to anyone, for they were afraid. Not only was that the end of today’s reading, but in the best and most ancient manuscripts that’s where the whole gospel ends. The women are amazed and frightened, and so they run from the tomb and don’t even speak of the experience to Peter. Silence. Fade to black. The end.
That’s it? Better call for an editor before this goes to print… which in some respects is exactly what happened. There are other quite ancient manuscripts in which an ending seems to have been appended, and in any good modern translation this will be indicated by added brackets or by a footnote. For instance, in the so-called “Shorter Ending of Mark,” an editor added this:
And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterwards Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.
A nice two sentence conclusion to tidy it all up; the problem is, the character of the Greek is utterly unlike that of Mark. And then there is the eleven verse “longer ending,” but again it doesn’t really fit with Mark’s writing style. Sometimes editors can miss the target.
While some biblical scholars are convinced that Mark did write a longer ending, and that it was lost or damaged somewhere along the line, I really do think that he intended to end his gospel in this manner. He is not going to draw his gospel too neatly to a close, because all the way through his book Mark has been refusing neat closure and easy conclusions. He moves his story quickly and without apology, painting a Jesus with such broad strokes that it can be quite difficult to really bring him into focus. There is no birth story in Mark, and no genealogy; Jesus simply materializes at the Jordan River, looking to be baptized by John. Mark gives only a very few parables and almost no extended sections of teaching. No Lord’s Prayer, no beatitudes, no sign of Mary and Martha much less of their brother Lazarus. And from the cross, the only thing Mark records Jesus as having said is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What Mark does bring into focus, though, is the impact Jesus has on those around him, almost as if he believes the best way to tell his audience about Jesus is by showing what he does to people. Mark spills a fair bit of ink on the healing of the blind, the maimed, the leprous, and the spiritually oppressed. He keeps showing us how quickly people in need recognize the healing and restorative power of Jesus, and at the same time he shows just how little the poor disciples really understand any of it; how often they are pictured as being left in fear or puzzlement by something Jesus has said or done. We watch as Jesus evokes resistance on the part of the authorities, a very real yet still fragile loyalty from his disciples, and a rather fickle devotion from the crowds who see him as having something for them. At the beginning of the Gospel, the voice of God calls Jesus “Son,” and then several times during the narrative the unclean spirits do the same. At Jesus’ death, it is the centurion—an enemy soldier and executioner—who utters those famous words, “Surely this man was Son of God.”
No other human person makes this confession in Mark, all of the other human characters remaining pretty much in the dark. At the very end there is only the sight of those women—devoted followers, who had known Jesus well—running in fright. What can that possibly mean?
“Mark intended to end his story as we have it,” suggests Price, “in literal midair while the women flee the tomb in terror. Such an apparently reckless last-minute abandonment by an author of his reader’s keenest final expectation is thoroughly characteristic of the kind of narrator Mark has been throughout his book. This is my story, suddenly told—you tell it from here.”
“This is my story, suddenly told—you tell it from here.” Or put another way, can you see past the fright of the women, the confusion of the disciples, the demands of the crowds, and the hostility of the authorities, and see what that centurion was able to see? And if you can, then you need to “tell it from here,” both in your words and in the way your lives are re-shaped in light of this new thing that God has done and is doing.
Though he’s inclined to think that Mark probably did write something by way of a conclusion to his gospel and that it was lost or ruined somewhere along the line during those dangerous decades of hidden meetings and religious persecution, N.T. Wright does offer another way of thinking about Mark’s clipped ending. Wright suggests that given that this gospel was written to be read aloud in community, perhaps the expectation was that when the reader came to the end, it was his or her job to put down the scroll and take up the story; to tell of all that had unfolded since those women fled in fear on that resurrection day, and to proclaim that the risen Lord is very much present in the life of the reader, the community, and the world.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/2652544253/