A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 16:1-8
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            It is tempting to think of the Last Supper, that scene in the Upper Room that we remember on Maundy Thursday, as a dreamy, candle-lit fellowship meal, rather than, as Ched Myers has called it, “the conflict-ridden final hours of a fugitive community in hiding.”

Likewise, it’s easy to imagine Jesus praying at Gethsemane in a calm, resolute manner, at peace in his submission to a pre-ordained plan, rather than the deep, sweaty struggle of a man coming to terms with the consequences of his revolutionary vision and calling.[1]

It is easy to hear the story of the so-called trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate and blame all the Jews.  The gospels seem to do a pretty good job of this, making it seem as if everyone in Jerusalem was standing outside Pilate’s palace shouting, “Crucify him!” when, in fact, whatever mob might have existed were more likely the sycophantic toadies of the religious elites and collaborators with the Roman occupation.

It is easy to forget that crucifixion was the Roman form of execution, so Jesus was executed by the Roman government, by the Empire, not the occupied Jews.  He was perceived as a threat to established order and the power held by the 1% of his day.  Have done with him.  Get rid of him.  End this threat.  So Jesus was executed by a detachment of Roman soldiers on orders from their government.

One chilling part of the story is how Jesus faced this execution alone.  One of his disciples betrayed him.  Peter followed at a distance, but when pressured to admit his association with Jesus, he denied knowing him.  The rest of the male disciples ran off.  Only the women and Joseph of Arimathea (who we meet for the first time at the end of Mark’s gospel), knew where Jesus was buried.  There is nothing pretty about the last days of Jesus’ life.  Nothing romantic or dreamy or calm.  Jesus was cruelly tortured and killed by the Roman government and the powers that be.  And one would think that this was the end of the story.

But it’s not.  Early on Sunday morning, some women went to the tomb where Jesus’ body was buried, but the corpse was not there.

Gathered here today, I suspect we have just about every opinion and belief about the resurrection represented.  There are probably some here today who believe that Jesus’ body was as alive again as is possible without needing to die again:  close to a resuscitation, something akin to the resuscitation of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, but different because it was something even beyond the bonds of death.  There are probably some here today who believe that the resurrection is a story made up by the followers of Jesus to keep the Jesus movement going.  There are probably some here today who believe that “resurrection” is the word we use to describe the indescribable experience of the presence of Jesus even though he had been killed.  There are probably some here today who have no idea what happened and have no idea what to believe about the resurrection.  And there are probably some here today who think it doesn’t really matter what happened back then, because for us today, the resurrection is a metaphor, a sort of parable that points to deeper truths about God and God’s action in the world today.

Mark doesn’t tell us much about the resurrection.  It is a short eight verses and it ends quite poorly.  These women go to the tomb to anoint the body, not knowing how they’ll get in to the tomb to do the task.  They get there, the stone is rolled away, the body isn’t there, they are greeted by a “young man” who tells them to return to the disciples with a message, and the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I’m not a Greek scholar, but I’ve been told[2] that the Greek ends even more abruptly than the English translations we have.  The Greek seems to end mid-sentence, and would translate something like:  “The women went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, and they, being afraid”

You can’t stop the story there!  You can’t stop mid-sentence.  You can’t stop saying that they said nothing to anyone!  That’s no way to end a story!

No wonder that over the centuries, additional endings have been added to the text.  Go look at a Bible, and if it’s a decent translation, anything beyond verse 8 will be noted as being from manuscripts that aren’t as old as the oldest ones that are available, and that the oldest ones stop abruptly with verse 8.  It is such a dissatisfying ending.  It’s like the ending of The Sopranos, where nothing is resolved.[3]

It’s a failure of an ending.  Jesus doesn’t even bother to show up.  Fail!  The women, who are directed, “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,” run off afraid (just like the male disciples did on Thursday night) and don’t tell anyone anything.  Fail!

So, what gives with Mark?  Is he just not very good with endings?  “After all, he’s not that good with beginnings, either.…  Matthew … gives us this long genealogy, tracing Jesus’ birth back to Abraham.  Luke tells this tender story of Mary, shepherds, and angels.  And John offers this profound theological hymn to the Word.  And then there’s Mark:  ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (1:1).  That’s it.  No drama, no poetry, no verbs even, just thirteen little words that sound more like a title than an introduction …”[4]

Mark does pretty well with the middle.  He tells a good story and it’s got a good pace to it.  But the beginning and the ending?  Actually, I think it’s a brilliant ending.[5]  Look at Mark’s gospel as a whole, rather than as a collection of bits.  “The people who should know what’s going on, like the disciples, don’t.  Jesus predicts his passion three different times and yet they still don’t understand, are surprised by what happens, and don’t believe what he said.  Again and again, the disciples disappoint, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that these women who, let’s remember, had the courage to stay with Jesus to the end and then ventured to his tomb to tend him, nevertheless fail like the other disciples.…

“[On the other hand,] the people who do realize who Jesus is can’t be trusted to tell.  Take, for instance, the demon who possesses a young man at Garazene.  He recognizes Jesus, asking, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ (Mark 5:7).  The demon knows who Jesus is, but can you count on a demon for a testimony?!  And then there’s the Roman centurion, who immediately after watching Jesus dies states, ‘Truly, this man was God’s son’ (Mark 15:39).  But can you count on a Roman centurion for a testimony?

“So there we are.  All the people who should know, don’t.  And those who do, can’t be counted on.…  Except there’s one other person who has seen and heard everything Jesus has said and done.  One other who heard Jesus’ predictions and then watched as they came true.  One other who listened to the amazing news at the empty tomb and heard the order to go and tell.”[6]

Of course, I’m talking about you.  “Mark writes this open-ended gospel that threatens to end in failure … precisely to place the burden of responsibility for telling the good news squarely on our shoulders.”[7]

That’s what makes this ending brilliant.  But ending the story mid-sentence, “he invites us into the story, to pick up where these women left off and, indeed, go and tell that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised, and is going ahead to meet us, just as he promised.”[8]

This ending even makes the beginning of the Gospel make more sense.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)  What Mark tells us in his whole Gospel is just the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The story keeps going – if we keep telling it.

So, what do you have to say?

As I’ve thought about this question this past week (I knew I’d be asking it), several stories bubbled up.  I thought about how I found new life by working through my grief after my mother died.  I thought about how God has used experiences – often failures – to bring deeper understanding, greater trust, and stronger fidelity to my life.  As I thought about these experiences, one experience stuck out.

I started thinking about becoming an ordained minister when I was in 9th grade.  For about a year, maybe two, I was pretty sure that was the career path I would follow.  In retrospect, I realize I was hearing God’s call to ordained ministry, though I wouldn’t have used those words then.

At about this same time, I started to realize that, as much as I wanted to pretend that I was heterosexual, the truth about who I am is that I’m gay.  And somewhere along the line, despite having liberal parents and attending a liberal church, I learned that being gay wasn’t okay and that it was particularly not okay with God.  I don’t remember every being told this directly, but I got that message.  It was as if it was in the air I breathed or the water I drank.

And so, by the time I got to college, I’d given up on the idea of becoming a minister and continued to struggle with my sexual identity.  During the struggle, as I started the process of coming to terms with the fact that I’m gay, I had to allow the image of myself as a heterosexual person die.

It was only when I let the hope that I might somehow become heterosexual die that I experienced the resurrection.  Sure enough, once I had allowed that false me to die, there was Jesus, waiting for me just like he promised he would be.  And that’s when I was able to experience the embrace of God and hear God’s call to ordained ministry again.

That, for me, is an example of how the story continues.  That, for me, is the profound good news of Jesus Christ.  God loves me for who I am, not for who I might think I’m supposed to be, not for what I’ve accomplished.  God loves me for being me.  And God loves you for being you.

Whatever it is you believe about the resurrection, Mark invites you to tell the story.

So, what do you have to say?


ENDNOTES

[1] Debra Dean Murphy, “Palms and passion,” The Christian Century Blog, http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2012-03/palms-and-passion (7 April 2012), including the quote from Ched Myers.

[2] This is from my colleague, David Borglum, in a conversation 6 April 2012.

[3] Kate Huey, “Reflections” from the weekly “Weekly Seeds” from the United Church of Christ (29 March 2012).

[4] David Lose, “Just the Beginning,” WorkingPreacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=574 (7 April 2012).

[5] This idea of the ending bring an invitation to be a teller of the Good News was first presented to me in a workshop offered by Dr. Mary A. Tolbert at the Earl Lectures some one to two decades ago.  The Earl Lectures are a biennial event sponsored by Pacific School of Religion.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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