Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
“Terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So ends Mark’s gospel. The Bible gives two other endings, but most scholars say they are not original to the earliest manuscripts. And no wonder later readers thought Mark’s gospel needed help. What a disturbing way to finish! Not only is there no narrative closure but even the grammar is awkward. A more literal translation of the final words reads, “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…” The gospel of Mark ends with a dangling preposition!
It’s also painfully minimalist. Matthew, Luke, and John’s resurrection accounts give us a little more to work with. There are earthquake-toppled guards, dazzling angels, heartfelt reunions, and joyful shouts of “He is risen.” Most importantly, in the other gospels, Jesus appears sooner or later! Where, in Mark, is the resurrected Jesus?
Mark’s strange ending seems inadequate. But maybe it’s just as the author intended. Maybe Mark is inviting us to wrestle through our distress toward a different kind of Easter joy.
Mark’s gospel puts us right beside those first Easter witnesses, women who had witnessed the horror of Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial. They carry spices to the tomb in defeat, having lost not only a beloved leader and friend, but also the kingdom of God Jesus represented. Even their quest to properly bury Jesus’ corpse looks bleak, since they can’t imagine how they’ll move the enormous stone sealing the tomb.
They struggle to keep faith and fail, just like we do. If we’ve not yet experienced a season of failing faith, we surely will, when a loved one is dying, or a cherished relationship imploding; facing a dreaded diagnosis or a loss of livelihood.We often struggle simply as overwhelmed spectators to the horror of violence and suffering in our world.
And then, at the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, with the women, we are shocked and amazed, dangling between hope and fear, between disappointment and fulfillment. It’s a crisis of faith. If “dead things don’t stay dead,” anything is possible, the kingdom of God is alive after all!
But the women don’t see Jesus or hear him call their name. They must choose how they will respond, but they don’t get to touch the wounds in his hands. We don’t either. Like them, we are trying to believe, but sometimes we need someone else to believe for us, to encourage us to enter the now wide-open future.
What they and we receive is a messenger, the white-robed young man. What a mysterious figure he is! There are numerous theories about him, but most scholars just assume he’s an angel. In scripture, divine messengers bring surprising news, saying, “Do not be afraid!” The white-robed youth does fit that bill. But Mark never calls him an angel. Why not? What is Mark up to?
Maybe Mark’s using his faithful imagination and his authorial license to a deeper purpose.
In 160 A.D., Justin Martyr wrote describing the early church’s worship practices. In his era of persecution and martyrdom, becoming a Christian was serious business: it took three years of preparation to become a Christian. On Easter morning, candidates for baptism went naked into the water, “dying with Christ.” Coming out of the waters, “rising with Christ,” they were covered with white robes, and they received the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop has suggested that Mark intended his ancient church readers to see a symbolic connection between this white-robed youth and such newly baptized Christians.
I like this idea. It works, because God’s time is not linear. God’s time moves in spirals, in and out, above and around the day-by-day pace of chronological time. So why not a time-traveling messenger from the not-yet-existent church, going “Back to the Future” to encourage the women at the empty tomb? How appropriate that a representative of the unimaginable future points them toward their own “back to the future” journey: “Go…[for] he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
To go to Galilee is to return to the place the disciples first encountered Jesus, to go home to the place God’s kingdom reality broke into their world in Jesus’ healing and teaching, Jesus’ presence and purpose.
And how appropriate that this white-robed youth also travels to the future inviting us, today’s disciples, to return to Galilee. The story doesn’t end at Ch. 16. Turn the pages back to Ch. 1, where Mark’s readers first encounter Jesus: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” Read the story again, after the cross and the tomb, with post-resurrection eyes.
Soon you’ll see, the story doesn’t end at all! Easter is not the end but a new beginning; the tomb is a birthplace from which new life ripples out in expanding spirals of God’s time. Mark’s story has become your story, our story, and the Risen Christ is faithful to his promises. He is out ahead of you in your daily life, and you will see him there, as you return to the roots of your discipleship, studying and praying, worshiping and being nourished in Christ’s body and blood.
Maybe that’s why you’ve come to church this morning. You’ve come home to Galilee, to encounter again the Risen Lord in this place, in these people, in your own heart as you hear the preposterous news again. Friends, it’s hard to keep faith on our own. We need past, present, and future witnesses to encourage our faith through both death and resurrection. Today, we are sent to one another, like the white-robed youth, sent to every seemingly lifeless place in the world to share the Easter message. We are sent, on behalf of our sisters who could not speak to shout the news with joyful confidence. “He has been raised. He is not here. He is going ahead of you.”
Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
Notes: To the best of my recollection, I heard the suggestion from Gordon Lathrop came from a lecture or sermon at the “Walking Wet” conference at Austin Seminary in 2005.
I am also indebted to Anna Carter Florence, who I am quoting in the comment, “If dead things don’t stay dead…”