“A New Beginning to a Strange Ending”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday – 11:00am Service
16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6But 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. 7But 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.”
8So 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. (NRSV)
Jesus’ death was no great surprise. Indeed, it was predictable. Things would have been different for Jesus had he lived according to the ways and means of Caesar—the ways and means of weapons, wealth, and world domination. Had Jesus given into the temptations after his baptism and gained recognition for creating fear and enmity, or for belittling and persecuting opposition, or for flaunting wealth, Caesar would have seen in him an ally. For Caesar, there can never be too much fear and violence.
Jesus held firm in the face of temptation, though. He refused to live by the sword or by an angry tongue. He refused to shun the weak, the sick, the outcast, the refugee. His life was defined by justice, by steadfast love and mercy. And those who allowed their lives to be shaped and re-shaped by his life became hard to threaten. Jesus had given them everything that mattered—belonging, dignity, purpose, and not for themselves alone. Jesus had given them his peace, his eternal Shalom—he had given them himself as a vision for all Creation.
Caesar had no good answer for Jesus’ revolution of Shalom. To survive the threat of agape love, Caesar had to resort to the shock and awe of crucifixion. And that was natural enough for him. He’s been doing it for millennia.
Biblically speaking, Caesar is more than a Roman emperor. Caesar, like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Herod is a metaphor for human hearts turned toward greed and brutal power. All of these things make Caesar as predictable as he is destructive and timeless. And because Caesar’s means are effective—at least temporarily—by Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers have been reduced to three courageous women.
As those women go to the tomb on Sunday morning, they assume that Caesar’s realm still reigns. Following the narrative of the ordinary, they expect simply to cover Jesus’ dead body with fragrant spices because everyone knows what happens to moldering organic matter. So, on their way, the women have one primary concern: Who will move the stone for them? When they reach the tomb, however, they have an encounter that is as extraordinary as it is brief. They discover that the stone has been moved, and “a young man” in white says that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells them that they’ll find Jesus in Galilee.
Then the women run away, too terrified to speak.
Most scholars recognize the women’s speechless retreat from the tomb as the original ending of Mark. In all likelihood, verses 9-20 were added much later, but isn’t “For they were afraid” a rather unsatisfying ending?
It seems to me that Mark’s abrupt ending makes more sense if we tie it back to the opening verse of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” To me, those words feel laden with mystery, with breathless surprise, like someone asking himself or herself, Wait. What just happened?
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” are words inspired by the events of Easter. And they return us exactly where the young man dressed in white says to go, because eight verses later, after introducing us to John the Baptist, Mark says, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Mark’s ending deliberately returns us to the beginning of the story. And isn’t that what Resurrection is all about—new beginnings and new life? Let’s be honest: An empty tomb proves nothing. And we’re not called to prove the resurrection, anyway. Indeed, we can’t do that. It takes a fully human life committed to God’s justice and mercy to bear witness to the risen Christ. Following him is all about returning to his extraordinary story, and telling it by living it, living in the realm of Resurrection, the realm of paradox, mystery, and promise—the very place that Caesar does not want us to live, because he has no control there.
Easter people don’t obsess over pearly gates and fiery pits. Even Caesar welcomes that kind of religion, because it’s based on rewards and punishments rather than grace. And fear-based religion makes for vassals who, in the name of Jesus, tolerate the same winner-take-all violence and injustice that crucified Jesus.
Resurrection faith transforms us into Easter people, people who follow Jesus in losing our lives, over and over, as we become more fully Christlike. And by that I mean we become more alive, more fully human, truer to the image of God within us.
While Easter people choose to live fearlessly and lovingly, we also confess that when Jesus’ radical ways become too demanding, or when they feel absurd, we may run away, terrified and speechless. But Jesus always welcomes us back, and not because we’ve groveled in guilt and promised to do better. He welcomes us back because forgiveness is who God is. Forgiveness is the opposite of weakness and resignation. Forgiveness is the very power of Resurrection transforming the world into the realm of God.
I want to close with words written by Wendell Berry. This is an excerpt from a poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I hope that you will hear in it a description of, and a call to the paradoxical yet well-voiced joy and hope of resurrection life.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
1Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. Pp 151-152.