Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saturday in the Week after Easter

Psalm 145; Isaiah 25:1-9; Acts 4:13-31

I think I was in elementary school when I first read a choose-your-own-adventure book.  They were mostly mysteries, with treasure to find and artifacts to unearth and spooky passages to explore.  But instead of reading about a super-sleuth doing all these things, you were the super-sleuth, and at the end of each short chapter the book let you choose what was going to happen next: If you want to go into the dark, scary cave, turn to page 35.  If you want to go around the cave through the alligator-infested swamp, turn to page 37.  If you want to go home for coffee and cake, turn to page 39.

Except that the choices weren’t actually that straightforward.  The diamond might be just inside the dark, scary cave.  There might be a ninja waiting in the kitchen pantry.  You never really knew.  I was spectacularly unlucky at choose-your-own-adventure books, usually ending up as alligator bait long before I solved the mystery.  

 If you want to be arrested along with Jesus, speak up and turn to page 41.  If you want to save your own life, run away and turn to page 43.  Except that the choice hadn’t been that straightforward.  They might have been spared arrest, imprisonment, and perhaps even death; but still they suffered, painfully aware of how they had denied and betrayed Jesus by their silence and their absence.  And now Jesus was dead.  End of story.

Except that it wasn’t... We had a choice of gospel readings for Easter Sunday this year, and the parish where I supplied chose to read Mark’s account of resurrection.  It began as all the other stories do, with women going in the pre-dawn dark to the place where Jesus was buried.  They had nurtured him in his life; now they were going to anoint him in his death.  But the stone rolled away reveals an empty tomb, and a dazzling stranger appears to tell the women that Jesus has risen, and that they were to go and tell 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 isn’t 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?  It’s all over long before the mystery is solved.  The women thought Jesus would be in the tomb.  But when they arrive, instead of Jesus, they find that stranger who tells them, He has been raised; he is not here.  The stranger tells them everything is okay.

Except that it wasn’t... Nothing was okay.  Mark uses words like alarm, terror, amazement, and afraid to describe the women.  Of course they were all these things, and probably confused and angry, too, on top of all the shock and grief of the past two days, of witnessing the death of their teacher and friend.  Nothing was okay.  And they went out and fled to who knows where, to say absolutely nothing to anyone.

Mark ended in the middle of the story, at least, in the middle of the story as we have come to know it.  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 when we read the story in English, but if read the Greek literally, the end of the gospel would sound like this: 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.  If you want to see the risen Jesus, turn to page 52.  If you recognize Jesus when he appears, congratulations - you have solved the mystery!  Twelve more verses were added to bring Mark’s story in line with other gospel accounts, so that Jesus does appear several times, in fact, and he gives the disciples a new mission with a clear, strategic vision for winning the world over for God, 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 that was gone, too.  They were afraid because there was no category called life after death in their experience.  They were afraid because those who knew Jesus best were still cowering in an Upper Room.  The women - all his followers - had probably wished 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 and hard as life sometimes was and as it certainly was those last two unspeakable days, pain and suffering and death and despair were at least familiar.  The women knew where the spices were, and they knew the prayers to say over someone who had died.  They could cope with the way of the 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 amazing new adventure they were being offered?  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 much more to their story than alarm, terror, amazement, flight and fear, although they couldn’t hear it at first.  Listen - 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 tell Peter, who had failed Jesus perhaps most miserably, who had denied even knowing who Jesus was, who was afraid because...

But on this impossible, incomprehensible day, they were all being called back to Jesus’ side to follow him once more, back to Galilee where it had all begun, back to where he had first called them to follow.

There’s another choice to make, then.  Mark ends in the middle of the story, I believe, because the next verse belongs to the women, to the disciples, to us, and to all who would follow the risen Christ.  Verse nine, had Mark written one, would then read: Insert your choice, your story, here.  

Today we hear a part of the adventure that Peter chose.  The last time we heard his voice he was swearing to those in the courtyard of the high priest’s home, I tell you, I do not know this man.  Peter’s story might have ended right there.  He was afraid because... 

And now listen: The leaders in the temple, perhaps some of the very same who were deciding Jesus’ fate the night Peter stood in the courtyard and swore he did not know Jesus... The leaders in the temple were now deciding the fate of Peter and  John, who had been arrested for healing and preaching (choose your own adventure!) in the name of Jesus Christ.  Just before our reading picks up the story, the temple leaders had asked Peter and John by what authority they did and said all these extraordinary things, and Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, had answered that it was by the power of Jesus Christ, the author of all salvation.  

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.  This was exactly what Peter had once feared would be his ending.  But the temple leaders could not deny that God was working through these two men, and they agreed to release Peter and John on the condition that they not speak of Jesus any longer.  Not so very long before, Peter would have gladly accepted this condition.  But today his choice was clear.  If you want to deny him again, turn to page 64.  If you want to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, turn to page 65.

Peter and John made their choice.  Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.  They were released, and returned to their friends, who gathered around them and prayed, “Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  When they had prayed, the writer of Acts continues, When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

In this season of resurrection, what adventure will we choose?  Jesus is calling us all back to his side, back to Galilee, back to the place where he first proclaimed with boldness about the coming of God’s kingdom into the world.  No matter how far off course we have fled, no matter what we have denied, no matter how silent or absent we have been, for we were afraid because... At what seems like the end of the story, we are invited to choose a new adventure.  We are faced with a life-altering decision, like the women, like Peter and John and the rest of the disciples.  How will the next verse of the story of resurrection read?  Will we go with him to Galilee and beyond to proclaim with boldness the coming of God’s kingdom into the world?  We have the prayers of our friends and communities, and the promise of the Holy Spirit.  How will the next verse read?  Or are we afraid because...

Jesus Christ has risen; he is not in the tomb but here among and within and around us, and he promises we will see him as our stories, our adventures, move forward together.  Let us proclaim with boldness all that we have seen and heard.  Insert your story here...

Artwork: "Two paths", by James Burkhalter; "Femme au matin de 3e jour", by Macha Chmakoff; "Road to Emmaus", by Daniel Bonnell; "The Road to Blacksburg", by Susan Goff; "Light #4", by Krystyna Sanderson 

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