“The Easter Event in Mark -- An Unbelievable Story”
The story of Easter, as Mark tells it in the original Gospel, is about as uncooperative a story as anyone could imagine!
The women (who have come to anoint Jesus’ body for burial) hear the glorious good news -- that Jesus, who was crucified, is not in his tomb because he has been raised, and furthermore that Jesus continues to go ahead of them! -- but the message leaves them so amazed (and so frightened) that they flee the graveyard in a panic, and they say nothing about it to anyone! They hear it … and they fear it! They fail to spread the word.
Fear can do that … shut things down… make people “hunker down” and go into hiding… “For safety sake, we shelter in place.” I mean, just look at us! The reason we are connecting over the internet – holding “virtual” worship via video – and not “congregating” in the sanctuary on this Easter Sunday is due to the state-wide “lock-down” emergency declaration by our governor, on advice from health-care bureaucrats (who know the statistics of the global COVID19 epidemic) and who caution us to stay home – stay away from group settings (like church) – and to keep a safe distance between people… because any one of us might be a novel corona-virus carrier.
Yes, the virus is contagious. Fear itself is contagious! These women flee from the graveyard in a panic, and they say nothing to anyone because they were so afraid.
According to Mark’s Gospel, the experience of that first Easter morning was an event which generated not faith, but fear, in the people who first encountered it! (“Phobos, exstasis, & tromos” it says in the original Greek text. “Phobos” from which we get all manner of “phobia,” fears. “Ecstasy” which also means “amazement, wonder, or awe.” And “tromos” which is not only “trembling” but also “trauma!”) The very thought of Jesus’ “resurrection” pushed the women beyond their ability to comprehend! Filled with phobia, they ran away! Trauma overwhelmed them! Awestruck... they were dumb-struck! Mark says they ran away in fear and in silence.
How in the world does Mark expect anyone to carry forward the mission and ministry of Jesus -- so that the church will survive beyond Jesus’ death on the Cross -- if the “resurrection” itself comes across as so unbelievable and so frightening that the first witnesses to the Easter event clam up and run away!? (!)
Do you see why I say Mark’s account of Easter is as un-cooperative a story as anyone is likely to find? (!) All our hopes are invested in these early-morning visitors to the tomb, but the story ends with uncertainty. Do they carry the message back to Peter and the rest of the guys -- who, we must admit, have themselves failed to support Jesus in his hour of need -- or do the women scatter in fear, saying nothing to anyone? Do they, too, hunker down and hide out… playing it safe, until things settle down?
I mean, these three women, who were brave enough to enter a dark graveyard before the dawn, are now so frightened by the young man who has news of Jesus’ resurrection, that they flee in terror… and tell no one!
This is no way for a Gospel to end, if you ask me! How can the Easter event be proclaimed if the women who were there keep silent in their church!? They are commissioned “to go & to tell!” These three women were sent out by that messenger angel to be the first apostles of the resurrection... the very first evangelists! How can they keep quiet? (!)
This is where Mark’s gospel originally ended – a conclusion in which we see nothing of (and hear nothing from) the Risen Christ himself… but only from a young man in a white robe who is seated inside the tomb -- and which ends with the women running away in fear, and not telling anyone... (!) This abrupt ending fails to satisfy us, the readers!
And yet, Mark’s telling (the Gospel of Mark) is the oldest written record we have of the resurrection. It’s no wonder that, when Matthew and Luke wrote their versions of the Gospel (building upon Mark’s original several years later), they augmented the women’s account with other eye-witness reports... John’s Gospel (which was written decades later) even has conversations between Mary Magdalene & the Risen Jesus. (Now, that is much more satisfying to our imagination. Wouldn’t you say?) In John’s Gospel, there is no fear… no “ambiguity” anymore! Jesus is alive, and he’s still in charge… as always! The one who was dead is alive again! Hallelujah! Praise God! Like “doubting Thomas” (who is another memorable character in the Gospel of John) we want to see Jesus alive again, in the flesh, with all the marks of torture and death on his body -- otherwise, we (too) might refuse to believe the news of resurrection.
I’ll admit it is uncomfortable to be left hanging at the end of a story, as Mark leaves us at the end of verse 8 (which is all that Lynn Borke read for us this morning). Over the centuries, Bible scribes have tried to correct Mark’s uncooperative ending by adding a series of resurrection appear-ances. If you have your Bible at home, let’s read verses 9 through 15…
In verse 9, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (a story which probably came from John’s gospel)... but when she went to tell those who had been with him, while they were (in verse 10) mourning and weeping… Mark says: When they heard that [Jesus] was alive, and had been seen by her, they would not believe it! (Mark 16:11) “They would not believe it!” (!)
Then, in verse 12 (referring to a story from Luke about two disciples on the road to Emmaus) Mark says that Jesus appeared in another form to two of them as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. (Mark 16:13) (!)
It seems to me there’s a whole lot of “not believing” going on! – and these are Jesus’ main disciples… on Easter day!
Finally, in verse 14 (in a scene reminiscent of Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20, & Acts Chapter 1) Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table, and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness -- their “hard-heartedness” it says in the RSV -- because they had not believed those who [had told them] he had risen. (Mark 16:14) Frankly, this description (rebuking them for their lack of faith) sounds a lot like the “Jesus” we meet all through the Gospel of Mark – the disciples just don’t seem to “get it” on the first go-around. (!) Maybe that’s why the messenger angel told them to “go back to Galilee” where Jesus first met them. Maybe they will do better the second time around… now that they know the whole story, and how it all ended.
Let’s bring it up to our day, shall we? In our scientific modern (& post-modern) world, we want proof! We want Jesus’ resurrection to be an established fact, with eye-witnesses... and (apparently) such has been the case since Day One! When the women get the word, Mark says they responded with fear and amazement, trembling and trauma! Fleeing from the tomb, they kept the news to themselves!
Then, say the later editors of Mark’s Gospel, even when Mary finally pulls herself together -- and risks interrupting the mourning and the weeping of the men -- to tell them that Jesus had been raised... they dismiss it!
Two more of Jesus’ followers come back from the country with the same incredible story, and the disciples again fail to take them at their word. They know better. Dead is dead! The stone slab was too big, too heavy to move. Even Jesus could not have done such a thing... es- pecially from inside the tomb. It’s unbelievable.
Well, when Jesus returns, it’s to reprimand them for their failure to listen to the others. After all, Mary Magdalene had been one of them from the very start in Galilee. These other two were also part of their crew.... on their team. Why do the others not open their minds to the possibility that they’re telling the truth. They say that’s what happened! These three -- or four, or five -- eyewitnesses to the Easter event had the very real experience of Jesus STILL being alive and available to them. That’s the Gospel truth!
Now, I certainly understand why the various scribes, editors and translators of this Gospel were unsatisfied with the way Mark leaves us hanging in suspense... But, frankly, these additional stories of repeated refusals to believe anyone else, doesn’t help much! (It’s like the group is falling apart before our very eyes! Nobody in the church is believing what others are telling them!) How can a movement like Jesus’ Way (what he called “the Kingdom of God”) ever become persuasive to others – how could it ever become effective in society – if the top spokespeople, the public leaders, are assumed to be lying!? If they themselves think the Easter event is “fake news”, who will ever believe them about it in the future? The Church would simply “crash” if it could not be trusted.
So, even with the longer endings that have been printed in our modern American Bibles, the Easter event leaves things unsettled. People are still uncertain. I say Mark’s Gospel is most uncooperative!
Part of the problem is that we interpret “resurrection” as an individual experience (a private affair between Jesus & God), where his body came back to life -- “resuscitated” would be a better word, I suppose. It’s natural to imagine it that way, because it gives us hope of the same thing happening when we die. That’s what we want, but that’s not what the Bible says happened on Easter!
Resurrection is an act of God, unaided by human efforts, which runs contrary to human expectations. No one, it seems, expected God to raise Jesus from death. That’s why it generated fear, not faith, in his followers.
2000 years later, we tell the story very differently than Mark wrote it. We think (like John’s gospel) that resurrection is ultimately a sign that proves the divinity of Jesus -- whereas it’s really about God, not Jesus.
As Christians, we think that the resurrection proves our claims once-&-for-all that Jesus was the Messiah. We wonder how anyone can doubt that “after Easter.”
But we must realize that Jesus himself does nothing in resurrection. God does! Jesus is dead. God rolls the stone away. Jesus did not re-sucitate himself -- God raises him and puts in his place the young man who speaks with the women, who tells them the good news and encour-ages them to start over again in Galilee where Jesus will be with them.
The Easter story (in Mark) does not prove anything about Jesus’ power, instead it tests our faith in God! It pushes us to risk believing something that sounds incredible! With no Risen Christ in our face -- with only the empty tomb and the messenger’s words to interpret it for us -- will we believe, or will we not? Will we risk trusting God beyond everything that we thought possible? Or, like the women, will we fail and flee, and say nothing to anyone? That’s Mark’s agenda. That’s the question he raises for us, Jesus’ followers in our day… in his final scene.
Will we risk trusting God beyond everything that we thought possible? Or have we become so convinced that death is the final frontier beyond which there is no life, no further possibility..? Have we become so convinced that death is the “great divide” across which no bridge may span, and hence no possibility of reversal, no exit, no return...? Have we become so convinced that “dead is dead,” that the very idea expressed by the messenger of God -- “he is raised, he is not here, he goes before you, you will meet him again in Galilee” -- leaves us (like the men in the story) stubbornly refusing to believe... or is there a chance that we will respond to this sudden reversal of our expectations with fear & trembling, with ecstasy & awe, just as we have at every miracle when we see God’s power turn the world around?
How Mark’s Gospel finally “ends” remains to be seen in us. Because God has acted to transform a tragedy into Good News (bringing new life out of death), the spreading of that unbelievable good news is up to us, who hear it... and who believe it... and then go out to live it! Amen.
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