“The End (?)” – An Easter Sermon on Mark 16:1-8

In Sermons by Natalie Webb

 

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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.” 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.

THE END.

That’s it. That’s not just the end of our reading for today, that is how the gospel of Mark ends. Here’s a quick recap in case you weren’t paying attention:

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, who followed Jesus in Galilee and provided for him as his benefactors, the same women who watched as Jesus was crucified and died on Friday, who followed and saw where his dead body was laid to rest – are now, at the first moment they can, headed back to the tomb with spices, intending to grieve and honor their friend with proper burial rites. They’ve been worried about the stone, but when they look up, it’s already been moved aside. Without hesitation, they duck into the tomb to find out what’s going on. These women are devoted, persistent, brave disciples. But apparently, they are not prepared for what they see inside the tomb: an empty space where their dead friend should be, and a young man in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised. He’s gone to Galilee. Mary, Mary and Salome – these most devoted, persistent, and brave disciples –  are frozen in fear and awe. The young man gives them these instructions: “1. Do not be afraid; 2. Go & tell.” And what do they do? Mark says, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

THE END.

If you are feeling unsatisfied by this ending, or if you’re scratching your head, or wondering if I’m playing an April Fool’s Day joke on you (I’m not!), you’re not alone. But the earliest and best copies we have of Mark’s Gospel end with those 8 verses we read today. That’s it. Page break. Moving on to the Gospel of Luke.

“Wait a second,” I hear some of you thinking, “My bible has some more stuff after that.” Yes, if you look in your bible you’ll see two other endings added on, usually in brackets. The “shorter ending” and the “longer ending” of Mark. These are two additions that are found in later manuscripts. The early Christians weren’t any happier with the original ending than we are, so they tried to fix it.

The so-called “shorter ending” ties a neat bow by telling us that the women did tell the other disciples what happened, and it ends by saying that Jesus himself, sent out through them… “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” You’ve read Mark before. We spent some time there during Epiphany season earlier this year. There’s no way our plain-spoken, to the point, cut and dry Mark uses phrases like, “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” The “longer ending” is even less subtle. For the most part, it’s a compilation of verses cherry-picked straight out of other gospels. If I had a screen, I would color code Matthew, Luke, and John and show you where each piece of this “long” ending came from.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these extra endings – we might think of them as fan fiction. But no one thinks they are original. They show that people have been trying to fill in this big awkward gap of an ending in Mark for a really long time. One current theory is that the last page of the original got lost somehow, or accidentally torn off the back of the codex. Another theory is that Mark dropped dead mid-paragraph. (We are willing to kill off Mark to try to explain this perplexing ending!) We cannot deal with an ending that leaves us in fear and silence. And yet, wild guesses and fan fiction aside, fear and silence is what we’ve got. This is how Mark closes his account of Jesus’ life. This is the end of Mark’s gospel. Or is it?

As uncomfortable as this ending makes us, the good news is that the end of the text isn’t necessarily the end of the story. We know from other gospels that the women don’t stay silent forever. The very existence of the Gospel of Mark testifies to their eventual witness. There wouldn’t be a story if they never told it. Other gospels give us proofs of the resurrection. Mary holding on to Jesus’ feet outside the tomb, Thomas poking at the wound in the raised Jesus’ side, Jesus walking to Emmaus of eating fish on the sea shore with his friends after his resurrection. But we don’t get any of that in Mark. Why not? What in the world is he doing? Mark’s ending leaves us hanging. It puts a big question mark in our minds. It invites us to fill in the blanks, to become a part of the story, to do some detective work, to make a decision.

What if Mark’s ending is not really an ending at all? What if Mark’s deliberately incomplete conclusion launches us back to the beginning of the gospel, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. “You’re looking for Jesus?” the angelic figure asks. “He’s not here. You just missed him! He’s gone on ahead into Galilee. That’s where you’ll find him.” Galilee, the place where Jesus began his ministry, the place on the margins of Israel, the place where the first 9 chapters of Mark’s gospel take place. Jesus is leading the way back to Galilee, so that’s where we need to go to find him. Back to the beginning. This was one technique sometimes used in ancient novels – an author would sometimes leave a book’s ending ambiguous, requiring the reader to go back and start over, and this time pick up new understanding; then re-read again, and unlock even more meaning as they go. Mark’s gospel is supposed to be read, not in a straight line from beginning to end, but in a circle.[1]

If you want to the see the resurrected Jesus, go back to Galilee. Read it again, look for the risen Jesus here. This time we see that Jesus is blessed and claimed by God from the very beginning: “You are my Son the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” In Galilee, Jesus doesn’t just miraculously feed thousands – When he spreads out the feast, the desert becomes green grass – and now we get the hint! This is the Messiah. In Galilee, Jesus doesn’t just perform an incredible magic trick by walking on water, he calms the chaos and takes on the divine name: I AM. It’s in Galilee that the disciples see Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop and surrounded by the presence of God. When we go back to Galilee, we see that every appearance of Jesus is a resurrection appearance.

Go back to Galilee. In chapter 2, Jesus takes Peter’s sick mother-in-law by the hand and raises her up, and she is healed. In the same chapter, he commands a paralyzed man to raise up, and he gets up, he raises, takes his mat and went home. In chapter 5, Jesus raises a child from the dead: “Talitha cum,” “Little girl, get up!” In chapter 9, he takes a little boy who couldn’t speak or hear, raises him up, and heals him. When we go back to Galilee, we see that Jesus has been about the business of resurrection all along.

Go back to Galilee. That’s where we find the risen Jesus in Mark’s gospel. And its’ also where we find Jesus now. Jesus isn’t at the tomb. HE IS NOT HERE! We won’t find him sitting around waiting for us. Jesus has moved on to other pressing business, and the angel invites us to get on the move with him. Go! Gather his disciples and meet up with Jesus. Not in the centers of power, not at the Temple. Not in some vision of hope for the sweet-by-and-by. In Galilee: the symbol of the margins of society. Among the sick and the dead, the poor and the hungry. If you want to find Jesus, if you want to find God, go back to Galilee, to the places that seem the most godforsaken. Jesus is there healing and feeding, driving out demons, preaching hope to the broken-hearted, and raising people up. Where the world sees only death and loss and pain, Jesus is at work bringing resurrection.

What are the places in our world that seem dead and deserted? What are the places on the margins that we hardly even notice? Where are the places in your own past, your own experience that seem beyond hope? The resurrected Jesus is waiting there for us. Where is the resurrected Jesus? He’s in Galilee, at the Karnes refugee detention center – a place that feels beyond hope. Jesus is there working life in the hands and hearts of those refugee mamas. Where is Jesus?  Jesus is in Galilee, at Stephon Clark’s memorial service, the black man who was shot 20 times in his own backyard while holding only a cell phone. Jesus is weeping with Stephon’s mothers, Jesus is marching for justice with Stephon’s sisters and brothers. Where is Jesus? He’s in Galilee, you know, in the Congo – a place where corruption is assumed as the norm and violence breaks out regularly. Jesus is bringing new life through the lawyers and judges that are doing unprecedented justice work there. Where is Jesus? Jesus is in Galilee, in the chemo ward of hospitals all over the world, speaking words of comfort and peace. Surrounding people with resurrection hope, bringing new life in the midst of their suffering. Where is Jesus? He’s in Galilee, that place in your own heart that you’ve tried to forget. The broken relationship, the feelings of failure, the places of need and uncertainty and fear. Jesus is there raising and healing and feeding, and he invites you to join him there. Where is Jesus? He’s not here giving us proofs of resurrection or making sure we get our doctrine right. Jesus is on the move, and he invites us to go with him.

In Mark’s gospel, you get to write the end of the story. And the ending is not for the faint of heart. Even his most faithful, persistent followers, are in the end, paralyzed with fear and awe, and Mark’s ending (or maybe we should call it Mark’s beginning) gives us the opportunity to step into their shoes. What will we do with our fear? Will we wall ourselves up like a bunker, hiding in fear from the outside world, waiting at an empty tomb for Jesus to show back up again? Or will we gather our sisters and brothers and follow Jesus back to all the little Galilees of our world? Will we join Jesus in the work of resurrection? It isn’t enough to know the truth. It isn’t enough to follow Jesus to the grave. The gospel calls us to act and to speak: Go and tell. To go where Jesus goes and speak the truth about the good news of resurrection life that we’ve seen there.

Covenant, on Easter Sunday, we gather at the empty tomb with a decision to make. Will we live in fear, or will we go and tell? The ending is yours to write.

 

 

 

[1] I was introduced to this line of thought by Dr. Tom Long at the winter pastor’s school at Truett Seminary in 2009.