Text: Mark 16:1-8 (Jesus’ empty tomb)
Easter reveals many happy truths — that the death of our illusions can lead us back to our sacred values; that hitting rock bottom can open a path to recovery; and that at the end of life, we return to the Love from which we have all come.
Today is Easter Sunday, and so we bask again in spring sunshine and in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. “Jesus of Nazareth . . . has been raised,” says a young person in a white robe in an otherwise empty tomb. “Tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” With these words, our journey of Lent is over and we have landed where we had hoped.
Except . . . we have also just heard of the reaction of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome to this good news. Mark writes: “they fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling and said nothing to anyone because they were so afraid.” This is the final sentence in the whole of Mark’s Gospel. It seems like an odd place to end, don’t you agree?
If the women didn’t tell anyone, I wonder how the story ever spread. And despite the assurance that Jesus has been raised, Jesus does not appear again in Mark.
The three later Gospel writers include post-Easter appearances by Jesus, albeit ones that are different from each other. If the Bible only contained Mark and not also Matthew Luke and John, I wonder if we would still proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.
During Lent and again today, I have focused on Mark’s Gospel. Starting next week, we will return to the Lectionary, which continues to leave Mark to one side for the next few months precisely because Mark contains no post-Easter stories.
But despite the lack of resurrection appearances in Mark, I appreciate his Easter account. The directive of the young person in the tomb that the disciples return to Galilee where they began gives the Gospel of Mark a circular shape.
In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John and then returns to his home in Galilee to teach, preach, and heal. At the end of their ministry in Galilee, Jesus admits to Peter that he is the Christ — one who will be betrayed, killed, and then raised on the third day. After this, they set out for Jerusalem. And at the end of that fateful journey, a young person in Jesus’ empty tomb directs the disciples to return home to Galilee where they will see the Risen Christ.
This cycle could also describe life and ministry for any of us, I believe. First comes baptism, then love and service, then a journey to confront authority that involves the cross and defeat, then new life at Easter, and finally a return to where we began to start the process all over again . . .
Further, it may be incorrect to say that there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus in Mark. Perhaps every appearance of Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan in chapter 1 of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.
According to Paul, when we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). Perhaps it is the same with Jesus. He is baptized by John and then spends 40 days in the desert praying and being tempted. When Jesus returns from the desert to Galilee to start his ministry, he has accepted his baptism. His old life has died in the Jordan River. He is now living a new life as God’s Christ.
Jesus begins ministry with a full awareness of his coming death. He has taken up his cross, and he urges us to do the same. He demonstrates for us what new life in the shadow of the cross looks like. In every joyous meal he shares with friends and sinners, in every healing, and in every parable he tells about the kingdom of God, Jesus shows us what resurrection looks like. Jesus has been raised from death by God in his baptism, just as he is raised on Easter after his death on Good Friday.
To know what resurrection looks like, we don’t need to wait for the later gospel writers to write about Jesus’ post-Easter appearances. We only need to read the Gospel of Mark again, to puzzle at the parables, to marvel at the healings, to be inspired by Jesus’ joy and courage, and to follow him to the cross despite having the same fears and doubts that beset his first disciples.
Christ has been raised, declares the young man in white. Now go back to where you began, to Galilee. This circle of life and ministry helps me to think of resurrection as God’s gift of Grace this side of the grave. The new life in Christ that we enter at baptism is the start of our resurrection.
We don’t always live into our post-baptismal state, of course, any more than do the disciples. Like them, we often stumble, get things wrong, deny Christ, and even betray him. But over and over again, Jesus reaches out to his friends to help them follow him down the road. God’s Spirit offers this same support to us today — as many times as we need it.
As our song put it earlier, “every morning is Easter morning from now on.” Every day is another chance for an ordinary Easter miracle.
The other Gospel writers — Matthew, Luke and John, who write 10 to 30 years after Mark – don’t create the same kind of circle for me partly because they do have stories of post-Easter appearances by Jesus. Perhaps Matthew, Luke and John didn’t find Mark’s account compelling enough. Perhaps they thought their hearers needed the extraordinary miracle of a body walking out of a tomb after 36 hours with no blood flow to the brain in order to accept the Way of Jesus.
In the 1997 movie “Amistad,” which is about the fight against slavery in the United States in the 1830s, there is a scene in which two African slaves learn about Jesus from an illustrated Bible. Neither one can speak English or read the Bible that was given to them by a preacher. But from the halo the illustrator always draws around Jesus’ head, they identify him as the hero. They know from the pictures that Jesus is a healer. They see how he is executed on a cross. And they see that he appears to his friends after his death and then ascends into the clouds. Just by looking at pictures in a Bible they cannot read, these two men get the message that Jesus is God and that following him can lead to eternal life.
I like the movie “Amistad” and this scene. But what works for these two African slaves no longer works for many of us. Today, the miracle of bodily resurrection can be more of a barrier to faith than an aid to it.
For me, the power of God in Christ is not revealed by the miracle of a dead body coming back to life, but by the Grace given to us by God’s Spirit to worship and serve in love despite the many disasters of life.
The disaster for the first listeners to the Gospel of Mark was the destruction of Jerusalem. When Mark wrote his Gospel in the year 70, the Romans had just destroyed God’s Holy Temple. The news that their Holy City was in ruins and that 10’s or 100’s of thousands of Jewish rebels had been killed ended their dreams for a new Israel led by a Christ anointed by their God YHWH.
In writing down the story of Jesus from 40 years earlier, Mark helped his listeners to understand that Love can survive even the burning of God’s Temple or the execution of his Christ. Mark showed that worship and mission could continue outside of the rules and restrictions of the now defeated Temple leadership.
Mark’s Gospel helped them know that Christ could be reborn in the hearts of all who seek to love God and neighbour; and that in a simple meal of bread and wine we can taste again that we are part of YHWH’s divinity and of Israel’s King.
I love the resurrection appearances in the other three Gospels, some of which we will hear in the weeks ahead. But none of them are required for me to trust that God’s Love lives on after all life’s disasters. With or without illustrations of Jesus’ appearances after Easter, I know that Love triumphs over death in ways that we can barely imagine this side of the grave.
Mark wrote his Gospel 1945 years ago amid reports of disaster from Jerusalem. It had an immediate and electrifying effect on his first hearers. And it continues to have a similar effect on me.
Like the followers of Jesus in the First Century, churches in Canada in the 21st Century face difficult new realities. Like the first Christians, we cannot continue to worship or serve as we did in the past. Our situation, of course, is nothing as dire as theirs was following the execution of Jesus or the destruction of Jerusalem. For us, it is just the tides of secularism, which have eroded the religious paths forged by our ancestors.
But our situation is not nothing. And so I am cheered by Easter’s good news that God’s Love lives on after the destruction of old ways of worship, mission and life.
In the ashes of defeat, whether as individuals or as a church, we sometimes enter a tomb to find not a corpse, but a mysterious young man who says that all is not lost. God has raised Love to new life. Return to where you began, he says, to worship and serve in a new way — a way shown to us by Jesus.
The good news is that God’s Spirit can help us in any moment to remember our baptism no matter how terrible our losses. It can remind us that we are already living a resurrected life in Christ. This joyous truth can help us find new ways to worship the one eternal God of Love, who is our source and our sure destiny, and to continue to serve our neighbours in love.
And so we say again, Christ is risen! Risen Indeed!
Thanks be to God.