Sermon for Easter Sunday
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.” It is such an abrupt way to end the story—just expressions of fear on the faces of the three women at the empty tomb—yet that is all there is in the best and most ancient manuscripts of the Gospel according to Mark. Shouldn’t there be something a bit more jubilant in a resurrection gospel? Is something missing? There are other quite ancient manuscripts in which a more complete ending has been added, which in most modern translations are printed in brackets. One of those additional endings runs fully eleven verses, while the so-called “Shorter Ending of Mark” adds just two sentences:
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.
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The thing is, the style of Greek in which these additional endings are written is quite unlike the rest of Mark’s story, and while it does draw things to a conclusion—it does take the reader past the look of terror and amazement on the faces of the women—is it what Mark actually intended?
Biblical scholars have long speculated as to whether or not some portion of Mark’s original has been lost. To just end things with nothing more than a look of fear on the faces of Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James seems so unfinished, right? Who can blame a later editor for wanting to draw things to a more satisfying conclusion?
Yet it is entirely plausible that this is exactly what Mark intended. Right from the start, Mark’s telling of the story is clipped, urgent, and fast-paced. As the musician Nick Cave characterizes it in his brief introduction to the gospel, Mark wrote “with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended upon it—which, of course, to Mark it did. ‘Straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence.” “A clatter of bones,” Cave calls this gospel, and I suppose you could say that the most notable clattering is found in that final scene, as the women flee from the tomb in fear. If it leaves us wanting for more, maybe that was precisely Mark’s point. As the novelist Reynolds Price puts it, in the end Mark’s message stands as a challenge: “This is my story, suddenly told—you tell it from here.”
I’ve told my story as best I can, Mark seems to be saying. Now what are you going to do about it? His is the oldest of the four gospels, written on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple at the hands of an increasingly hostile Roman empire. This claim of an empty tomb is one that should rightly fill its readers with both amazement and with fear, for if it is true that means that you must then make the claim that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar is not. And that’s a dangerous claim.
Mark ends by saying that the women said “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” yet we know that they did find their tongues and tell of what they’d seen and heard. The other three gospels are clear that the women do go and tell Peter and the others, and that as the days roll forward the resurrected Christ will appear to them; he’ll speak to them, eat with them, and in one particularly poignant scene from the Gospel according to John he’ll even grill a lakeside breakfast for them. And then there’s the passage we read from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians; an epistle that predates Mark by a decade or so. There Paul writes of how Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” The story will not be left hidden in the mute fear of the first witnesses; the resurrected Jesus will not be so contained.
“Last of all,” Paul adds, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” “As to one untimely born,” by which Paul is pointing to the fact that his own experience of meeting the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus comes not in the days or weeks following the resurrection, but several years later. Yet that experience moves him to take up the role of apostle; to proclaim this news that by grace the power of death has been defeated, so that people may “come to believe.”
Still, the challenge of Mark’s urgent gospel remained. “This is my story, suddenly told—you tell it from here.” Mark’s very earliest audiences usually would have heard the story read aloud, straight through from beginning to end. And at its end, the testifying would surely have begun. This is what I experienced; this is what this story has meant to me; this is how my life changed when I met the risen Christ; this is what I heard from Peter or from Magdalene or from James and John when they were still alive.
Truth be told, Mark’s challenge still rings true. “This is my story, suddenly told—you tell it from here.”
Tell it in words if you can or must, but tell the story from here.
Tell it in the fabric of your lives, in the choices you make and in the way you live.
Tell it by being a child of the new commandment given us on the night of Jesus’ arrest, to love one another as we have ourselves first been loved; to meet one another in a posture of servant-hood and of friendship.
Tell it by actually giving a damn about the people in your world who the world has sloughed off as worthless; tell it by “doing for the least of these my people.”
Tell it by taking seriously Paul’s words in Colossians, “[that] through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” All things reconciled, which means the things of this earth matter; which means the earth itself matters, and as a resurrection people we had better find ways to start living as if it does.
Tell it by living in the sure knowledge that Jesus is Lord, which means that there is no monarch or emperor or government or principality or power that can even begin to ask of us a life and death allegiance.
Tell it by not being afraid of death, for death does not have the final word; it didn’t for Jesus, so it does not for us.
In whatever ways you can, keep telling the story from here. Mark reaches across two thousand years and with his odd ending says “tell it from here.” Keep telling it from here. It’s our story; the one we wrestle in, the one we treasure, the one we proclaim, and the one we have to set loose however we can.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!