Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday B

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:14-17, 22-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Mark 16:1-8

Jesus Christ is risen today! Our beautiful church is filled with light and lilies and alleluias on this day of celebration, this day of resurrection. Our beautiful Easter liturgy is filled with songs and stories about new life. We are filled with joy, and maybe a few jellybeans! We’ve come here to celebrate because of the story we heard just a moment ago, the story that started it all. The women went early to the tomb but found it empty. A dazzling stranger appeared and told them Jesus Christ has risen today, and that they were to go and tell all the others. 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….

….If you’re waiting for more, there’s not any. That’s the end of Mark’s gospel. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Alleluia?!? What kind of Easter story is this? Where are the happy, enthusiastic, confident disciples, fired up with their new mission and a clear, strategic vision, ready to win the world over for Jesus Christ? Where is Jesus Christ?

The women thought he would be in the tomb. They had followed Jesus and nurtured him in his life, Mark tells us, and now they had brought spices to anoint him in his death. But when they arrive, instead of Jesus they find a stranger who tells them He has been raised; he is not here. He tells them not to worry - everything is okay.

Mark speaks of the women with words like alarmed, terror, amazement, afraid….of course the women were all those things, and probably confused and angry, too. Everything is okay? How does the stranger think they will respond? “Oh, oh, thank goodness. You know, for just a minute there, we were starting to get worried….No, it’s not okay! It’s terrifying and mysterious and distressing! Don’t try to tell us it’s okay when it manifestly isn’t!” And they went out and fled to who knows where, to say absolutely nothing to anyone.

Mark ends in the middle of the story, at least the story we know. The women, of course, did not yet know there would be so much more. In fact, Mark ends in the middle of a sentence. We don’t hear it in this translation, but if we translate the Greek literally, the end of the gospel reads, They said nothing to anyone. They were afraid because….And that’s it.

Certain that Mark had simply run out of ink, scribes scrambled to give the gospel a more proper ending. In fact, they added twelve more verses to bring it in line with the other gospel accounts, so that Jesus himself appears, and gives the disciples a new mission with a clear, strategic vision for winning the world over, and then he ascends into heaven….Alleluia!! Now that’s an ending! That’s Easter!

The oldest texts, though, just end at verse eight, and most scholars now think Mark intended to end in the middle. They were afraid because….They were afraid because all they had left of Jesus was his body, and now it was gone. They were afraid because there was no category called life after death in their experience. They had no compass to navigate the reality the stranger was telling them about. The women – all his followers – had probably wished a thousand times already that they could go back to a day when Jesus was alive. It would never have occurred to them to wish they could go forward to a day when Jesus would be alive again.

They were afraid because, as painful as life sometimes was and as it certainly was those last two unspeakable days, pain and suffering and despair and death were at least familiar. The women knew where to find spices, and they knew the prayers to say as they anointed the body. They could cope with the way of cross. But the way of resurrection would prove to be their Gethsemane, when they would be faced with a life-altering decision: would they drink from the cup being given them? Would they choose God’s will for them, though it seemed impossible, incomprehensible? Or would they silently, fearfully, let it pass?

Mark doesn’t have to answer that question, of course – that he had a story to tell at all is evidence that the women eventually chose to tell theirs. And it turned out there was, though it seemed impossible, much more to their story than alarm, amazement, terror, flight, and fear – there was also grace and forgiveness and hope. Did you hear it? The women didn’t, not at first. The stranger had said to them, 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. Tell his disciples, those who had abandoned Jesus, who had fled, who were afraid because….And Peter, who had failed Jesus perhaps most spectacularly, who had denied even knowing who Jesus was, who was afraid because….

But on this impossible, incomprehensible day, they were being called back to Jesus’ side, to follow him once more. They were being called back to Galilee, where it had all begun, where Jesus had first called them to follow, where they had first heard him proclaim, The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. What grace. What forgiveness. What hope.

Mark ends in the middle of the story, because the next verse belongs to the women, to the disciples, to us, and to all who would follow the risen Christ. Verse nine should read: Insert your story here. Part of Peter’s story would be the speech we heard today from Acts, in which he no longer denies Jesus but boldly proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all. What grace. What forgiveness. What hope.

In the gospel of Mark, resurrection is God’s impossible, incomprehensible, wonderful invitation to begin our faith journeys all over again. There is a new category – life after death – and we have a new compass pointing us toward the One who offers grace and forgiveness and hope no matter how far off course we have fled. At what seems like the end, we are invited back to the beginning, to hear the story again now that we know just what is possible. And here’s what we get if we go back in Mark’s story: In the first verse of the first chapter, he writes, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

There’s our alleluia, there’s the hint at a happy ending! Right back at the start of the whole thing. Mark knew the story – he knew that alarm and terror and amazement and fear and silence were not the end. The whole gospel then would be the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, and in the middle of his last sentence, Mark leaves space for us to write.

On Easter day – on every day – we are faced with a life-altering decision, like the women, like Peter and the rest of the disciples. How will the next verse read? Jesus has offered us a new beginning, a new category, a new compass, a new life. He has invited us to go back with him to Galilee, to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come, to tell the impossible, incomprehensible, strange, wonderful, good news. How will the next verse read? We are afraid because….

Of course we are afraid. But the risen Christ goes ahead of us, and promises we will see him as our stories move forward together. Easter Day is happy, but not as a happy ending – the good news of Jesus Christ is that there is no ending, but life everlasting. Thanks be to God! Alleluia, alleluia!

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