April 12 : Easter

The gospel according to Mark, the 16th chapter“Glory to you, O Lord”

Mark 16:1-8

1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus’ body. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 

5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be afraid; 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. 7 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.” 

8 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 gospel of our Lord

So… that’s it. That is the end of the gospel of Mark.  Isn’t it great? It’s my favorite ending of the four gospels – I think it’s perfect. There are other endings – two of them, actually – that you will find in your Bibles, but they are believed by virtually all scholars to have been added centuries after the original writing. They were written by monks who were charged with copying the scripture by hand, and thought Mark was really bad at endings.

And we can see why.  Because, while Mark starts this familiar narrative in the usual way – it’s early Sunday morning, it’s still dark, the women are going to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body, the sun rises, the stone is rolled away, they hear hear the word that Jesus has been raised, and they’re sent back to tell about it -it is at this point that Mark seems to have lost his notes for the ending.  The women run away from the tomb, full of terror and amazement – and they say nothing to anyone, because they are afraid.

This can’t be the ending! First of all, it’s the only resurrection story in the New Testament where Jesus doesn’t actually makes an appearance. Ever! He said he would meet the disciples in Galilee, but we don’t know for sure. So, that’s something…

And secondly, the women disciples utterly fail. Which seems a little surprising. The women have been Jesus’ best, most intuitive, disciples in many ways. And here the young man in white has met them with the classic greeting that always signals good news: “Do not be afraid.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Throughout the Bible — from the prophets of old to Gabriel greeting Mary — every time someone starts a speech with “Do not be afraid,” we know that what they’re going to say will be be good news. So the young man greets Mary Magdalene with the signal that what he’s about to say is wonderful news, and then offers the best news the women could have imagined: “Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. He is not here.” He gives them clear and simple instructions: “Go and tell his disciples  and Peter (even Peter who denied him!) that he is going ahead of you to Galilee … just as he told you.” And yet, after all of this, they fail — miserably — fleeing the tomb and saying absolutely nothing to anyone.

And so there we have it: a resurrection scene without Jesus that ends in failure and silence and fear. Not much of an Easter story, actually. 

Well, maybe Mark just wasn’t very good at endings. To be truthful, he’s not all that great with beginnings, either. There is no genealogy in the opening verses of Mark’s gospel like there is in Matthew linking Jesus back through all the generations.  There’s no version of a Christmas story with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, or angels which is how Luke begins. The opening verses of John’s gospel are beautiful, profound theological poetry – a hymn to the Living Word. But look at Mark: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..” period.  That’s all. No drama, no poetry, not even any verbs, just thirteen little words that sound more like a title than an introduction, and then he changes the topic and starts talking about John the Baptist. He would never get published today!

But, this ending actually fits into a pattern that shapes the whole gospel. The first part goes like this: The people who should know what’s going on, like the disciples, don’t. Jesus constantly has to explain things to them. He predicts his passion, his death, three different times – and yet they still don’t understand, they are still surprised by what happens, and don’t believe what he said. 

Again and again, the disciples miss the point.  The women had the courage to stay with Jesus to the very end and have come back to his tomb to make the final preparations for burial, but now – at the very end – they fail like the rest of the disciples. The people who should know what’s going on….don’t.

The second part of the pattern goes like this: The people who do realize who Jesus is can’t be trusted. Take, for instance, the legions of demons who possessed the man living among the tombs in chapter 5. He recognized Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The demon knows who Jesus is, but would you trust a demon for honest testimony?! 

And at the end of the gospel there’s the Roman centurion, who immediately after watching Jesus die states, “Truly, this man was the son of God.” But would you count on a Roman centurion to tell you the truth?

So there we are. All the people who should know, don’t. And those who do, can’t be trusted. Their testimony won’t hold up in court. Except … except there’s one other person who has seen and heard everything Jesus has said and done. There’s one other person who’s heard Jesus’ predictions and then watched as they came true. There’s one other person who listened to the amazing news at the empty tomb and heard the instructions to go and tell. 

That person is you. And all the readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel, from every age and in all places and circumstances.

Mark writes an open-ended account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus that threatens to end in failure…. precisely to place the burden of responsibility for telling this ‘almost too good to be true’ news squarely on our shoulders. 

Mark isn’t so terrible at endings. As it turns out, he’s rather brilliant; and by ending his account in this way, he invites us into the story, to pick up where the women left off and, indeed, to go and tell that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, who has been raised, is going ahead to meet us, just as he promised.

Once you realize that Mark is better at endings than we thought, we get a different idea about the beginning, too. When Mark says, “This is the beginning of the good news,” he doesn’t mean just that one verse; he’s talking about his whole gospel. All sixteen chapters are just the beginning of the good news because the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ resurrection and the women running away in fear and amazement; it continues, moving forward all the way up to our own day and into our own lives.

And this is the important part – shake yourself awake for this: What was true for the disciples, is true for us: our fears and our failures are not the end of the gospel, our doubts don’t have the last word. We too, are an open-end of a never-ending story, a once-and-for-all resurrection that shows itself again and again, generation after generation in lives that are somehow changed.. transfixed, transformed…  The stones have been rolled away from the tombs in which we are sealed. Will our lives, your life, announce that good news through word and deed?

For those who have felt the claim of redemption and new life, Mark’s remarkable ending is a reminder that this resurrection is a beginning, not an end. And for those who are skeptical or curious about this seemingly impossible claim, it invites us simply to go to Galilee, to go to wherever Jesus meets us, finds us, and see for ourselves. It dares us not simply to write our own ending to the story, but to enter into the ongoing story of God.

We may not always see it, we may never understand it, … but God will be there, because Jesus promised to go ahead. Whatever is broken, whatever is wounded, whatever is ashamed or heartbroken or guilty, whatever is perfect and hopeful and true – Jesus has gone on ahead, and we are called to follow.

Those faithful women approached the tomb early in the morning very long ago. They got caught up in a story with an ending that, while it may not have been what they expected or wanted, was nevertheless precisely what they needed. 

And so also, I believe, have we.
Christ is Risen– thanks be to God!