Sermon: A story without an ending

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, 4th of April, 2021

Mark 16:1-8

Did you feel there was something missing in today’s gospel reading? Were you expecting the reader to read a little further on? Surely the story can’t end with: ‘So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ That is no great shout of joy and triumph. The other gospels all end with tales of meetings between the risen Jesus and the disciples: the great commissioning on the mountain in the gospel according to Matthew; the meeting on the road to Emmaus in the gospel according to Luke; the miraculous catch of fish and breakfast on the beach in the gospel according to John. When we think of Jesus’ resurrection I suspect that we include all those things, in the same way that we imagine both shepherds and magi at Jesus’ birth. The Gospel according to Mark in its original form, however, does not tell us of any such meetings. We do not see Jesus after his body has been placed in the tomb. This abrupt conclusion was such a problem for the early church that in the second century scribes added two further endings to the gospel: the shorter and longer endings of Mark. You can read them, they are included in all copies of the Bible, and you will find in the longer ending elements taken from all three of the other canonical gospels. But they are not the way Mark originally ended his gospel, and we need to ask why. Why does the gospel according to Mark end with a whimper rather than a bang?

Mark tells us that Jesus died on the cross, crying out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ as darkness fell over the whole land. Now, the sun rises, and three women go to the tomb. Between them, these women had followed and served Jesus; had watched from a distance as he was crucified; and had seen where he was buried. The last thing we were told on Good Friday was that: ‘Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.’ Unable to care for his body on the Sabbath, they now bring spices to anoint him. After the body has been so long in the tomb the spices will not do much to ameliorate the smell of decay, but the women who have served Jesus throughout his ministry want to continue to serve him after his death. They are more loyal than the male disciples, who fled and betrayed Jesus, but like the men these women have obviously not believed Jesus’ predictions of his death and resurrection. They are prepared to care for a dead body, not to be confronted by new life.

As they walk they wonder about the stone that had been rolled over the entrance of the tomb, a stone too large for three women to move by themselves. But when they arrive at the tomb they find that the stone had already been rolled back. By whom? Entering the tomb, they find a young man, a heavenly messenger, who tells them that Jesus has been raised. Again, by whom? Another actor has entered the drama, someone who rolls away stones and raises the dead. On the cross Jesus cried out his abandonment by God. Now we learn that God had not abandoned him. The stone has been rolled away and Jesus has been raised; he is not here. God has rewritten a story that would otherwise be about betrayal and abandonment and death.

The story Mark tells us is astounding. But it is not joyful and triumphant. The women are given a message to pass on to the other disciples, and yet we are told that because of their ‘terror and amazement’ they did not say anything to anyone. Why are they terrified? They may be afraid because this meeting with a young man is an encounter with the divine. The young man’s white robe reveals that he comes from heaven; that he is seated on the right shows that he speaks with authority. His first words to the women may be, ‘Do not be alarmed,’ but an encounter with the divine is always going to be alarming. And it is not as though they have seen Jesus himself. An empty tomb is no proof of resurrection. Jesus’ body might simply have been stolen by the Romans so that his followers could not care for it. The Romans themselves could be another reason for their terror. Their teacher and friend has just been executed, in the worst way possible, by occupying powers. To suddenly claim that those occupying powers have failed, that the criminal they executed has refused to stay dead in the world’s most wondrous example of civil disobedience, would be dangerous.

I wonder, though, whether the women are afraid to speak because they know they will not be believed. In Luke’s version the women do pass the message on to the other disciples, but ‘these words seemed to them an idle tale’. (Luke 24:11) I suspect that the reason the resurrection was announced first to women was because too often women have not been believed when they speak, women’s testimony has not been taken seriously. The God who created both male and female in God’s own image might be making a point.

Regardless, Mark tells us that the women do not pass the message on. All the way through, when the twelve, the male disciples, were getting it wrong, the women had been getting it right. They had served Jesus; followed him; witnessed his death when the other disciples deserted him; come to anoint his dead body when Peter and the others were nowhere to be seen. But now, finally, they too fail. No one, neither the twelve nor the women, completely succeeds in their discipleship.

One of the messages of Mark’s version of the Easter story is that this failure does not matter. Human beings may fail, all of us do fail, but God does not. Discipleship is not about success. The message of the young man to the women is that the disciples are to meet Jesus in Galilee. Despite their failure, they are still disciples and Jesus will meet them in Galilee, in their hometown, the place where their story of discipleship started, amid their ordinary life. And despite the women’s fear and flight and silence, their story has been told. Mark was writing for a believing community, and his gospel has been read by believers for thousands of years. The gospel itself does not tell us that the women overcame their fear and passed on the young man’s message. It does not show us the disciples returning to Galilee and meeting the risen Christ. But it does not need to. Just as there is no need to say who had rolled away the stone and raised Jesus from the dead, we do not need to see the disciples being recommissioned in the same place that they were first called. These things must have happened, or the gospel would never have been written. The story does not end with the end of the written gospel. The story continues in the lives of everyone who reads it.   

Who are the disciples that the young man refers to when he says: ‘tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you’? James and John and the rest of the twelve, obviously. Peter, mentioned by name, with the suggestion that this means he has been forgiven for his betrayal in the courtyard of the high priest. The rest of the women who had provided for Jesus in Galilee and followed him to Jerusalem. Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid. All of these, and more, are the disciples that the young man told the women to tell. But it does not end there. We are Jesus’ disciples too. We, too, are given the message that Jesus is going ahead of us, that we will see him in the future, just as he told us.

This, I think, is why the Gospel according to Mark ends so seemingly abruptly. Mark’s story of Jesus does not in fact have an end. Mark is writing a meta-narrative, the sort of story that leaps from the page or the screen into the everyday lives of the readers or viewers. Mark’s story of Jesus continues in the lives of the disciples, from those first ones who had followed Jesus from Galilee all the way down to us, here, today. Mark’s story of Jesus will continue, as we tell it to those who come after us. It will keep going, from one life to another, touching and transforming us.

The other gospels give us scenes of Jesus being reunited with his friends. Mark’s version does not. In Mark’s version that reunion is still only hope and promise. For this reason Mark’s version of the Easter story is the perfect one for a time of covid19. Last Easter churches were closed in Australia and this year they are open; we are luckier than Christians in many other countries. But there are still people who cannot physically come to church until they have been vaccinated; we are still wearing masks; we are aware that at any moment we may go into lockdown again. We are still living in the strange unreality of a global pandemic. We have not yet reached a happy ending, and so we are in the same ‘in between’ space as the women who heard the good news of the resurrection, but were still afraid. Like those women, like the other disciples, the message for us is that we will see Jesus, he is ahead of us. We may be filled with ‘terror and amazement’, but we have not been left alone.

Every time we gather around the Lord’s Table to celebrate communion we affirm that ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’ We live in the time between Christ’s resurrection and return. The gospel according to Mark reminds us that Jesus’ crucifixion did not end his story; but neither did his resurrection. The story of the disciples did not end with their fears and failures, but with Jesus beckoning them onwards. In the same way, our stories of discipleship and faith continue. The gospel according to Mark has no end because the good news of Jesus Christ will never end. We have our part to play in that story, as we share the good news and look for Jesus who is always going ahead of us. Let us follow him, today and all the days of our lives. Amen.

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