Sunday’s sermon: Life Interrupted

Women empty tomb

Text used – Mark 16:1-8

  • What a truly perfect gospel text for this topsy turvy Easter, friends. Today’s Scripture reading is a topsy turvy gospel story. It’s a topsy turvy resurrection retelling. No matter how you turn it and twist it around, no matter what angle you approach Mark’s empty tomb from, it doesn’t fit. It feels out of place. It feels raw and vulnerable. It feels abrupt and fragmented. … Sort of like the world right now, right? Truly, friends, this is the perfect Scripture for this day.
  • To start off with = historical context of when Mark’s gospel was written
    • First of the 4 gospels to be written – somewhere around 70 C.E.
      • Consequently used as a source for both Matthew and Luke which were written later
    • Time in which Mk’s gospel was written was a dark and difficult and dangerous time for Christians
      • Falls under the rule of Roman Emperor Nero à time of great persecution for Christians
        • Both Peter and Paul martyred during this period
      • Time that saw Christians meeting for church in their homes for the purpose of safety and security
    • And as I stand here in this empty sanctuary this morning surrounded not by smiling faces and a vibrant Easter memorial garden but by cords and a computer screen and streaming equipment while everyone shelters in at home – for our own safety, for our own security, and to protect those we love and those among us in society who are the most vulnerable in this time of pandemic – I cannot help but feel the fear, the uncertainty, and the isolation that those 1st century Christians must have felt deep down in my bones and my very soul. Because of the disconcerting parallels between our situation and the situation that those early Christians faced, truly, friends, this is the perfect Scripture for this day.
  • Probably the most startling element of Mk’s gospel story is actually what’s missing from this story = JESUS. → In all of the other gospels, we get an encounter with the risen Christ. We get Jesus and Mary in the garden. We get sunrise and light and a vision of hope. We get Jesus’ own words of reassurance and peace: “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”[1] We get further interactions with the risen Christ: along the road to Emmaus, on the beach for breakfast, in the upper room, and so on. But Mark is appallingly and frustratingly silent about any such appearances.
    • Only word of good news and resurrection that we get from Mk = from the one waiting for the women in the tomb: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”[2] → That’s it. Two simple, understated lines. Two short sentences … that changed the entire trajectory of the world. “He has been raised. He isn’t here.”
      • Feels subdued to us
      • Feels anticlimactic
      • Leaves us wanting more – more fanfare, more pomp and circumstance, more razzle dazzle → Frankly, it feels unfinished.
  • So let’s talk about this abrupt, unsatisfying ending to Mark’s Easter story. Let’s wrestle with it a bit. Really, when we compare it to the other 3 gospels in which Jesus appears and speaks with at least one person and interacts with the disciples again and all is well and beautiful, Mark’s swift and sudden full-stop ending – “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”[3] – almost feels like a non-ending … like the ultimate and most aggravating cliffhanger.
    • Quick overview of the multiple endings of Mk
      • As far as scholars can tell, that ending is the original ending → ending that shows up in the oldest (and therefore most authentic) versions we have of the Greek text
      • 2 other endings that tend to be included in Bibles with some heavy footnotes/caveats included
        • Shorter ending = single additional verse in which we get a brief statement about the women sharing the news after all and Jesus sending the disciples out to declare “the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation”[4] → agreed that this is a later addition because the writing style doesn’t match the rest of the gospel
        • Longer ending = 12 whole verses that include multiple appearances by the risen Jesus, Mary Magdalene sharing the good news, a much-truncated (single-verse) version of the road to Emmaus story (in which the resurrected Jesus travels with a few unnamed disciples), a commission to take the gospel out into the world, and even a brief ascension scene in which we see Jesus lifted up to heaven → Phew! As you can imagine, scholars aren’t really buying that much longer ending either. They believe it was probably written a good 100 yrs. after the original portion of Mark was because despite being the first gospel written, the stories and experiences in those last 12 verses actually draw on elements from the some of the other gospels. (Which is, of course, historically impossible.)
      • Difficult way to deal with an ending, to be sure → There’s a part of us that doesn’t like the ending of Mark’s gospel, from the young man’s muted pronouncement of the resurrection to the lack of a Jesus appearance to the women fleeing. It makes us cringe and shudder when we read it. It makes us squirm with discomfort. And I think that’s because it hits a little close to home. These women approach the tomb expecting one reality, having one plan … but when they get there, that plan is shattered and they’re confronted with a wholly different and frankly unbelievable reality of an empty tomb and a random stranger and a missing-but-supposedly-risen Savior. And they are terrified. And in their terror, the only reaction that we see is … silence. But really, is that a terrible thing … or is it exactly what we need?
        • Rev. Barbara Kay Lundblad (author, preaching professor, and ordained ELCA minister): Of all the Easter Gospels, Mark’s story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood. Those three women didn’t see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn’t hear Jesus call their names. Neither do we. They weren’t invited to touch his wounded hands. We haven’t touched Jesus hands either. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are our silent sisters. The narrative is left for us, the readers, to complete.[5]
        • Rev. Serene Jones (theologian, Christian feminist, ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City): God is present not only in the loud hallelujahs and glorious proclamations of a grand, churchly Easter morning … God persists as well in the midst of speechlessness, in death, in the outer regions of our own experiences and of our social lives, where life unfolds underfoot, as it were. Mark gives us a powerful account of God’s good news by giving us these traumatized, determined women as witnesses to God’s truth – it is not just pride or falsehood or arrogance or violent boasting that God redeems. It is also the nether regions of life where we are broken by violence and by love and by the sheer exhaustion of the labor it takes to go on. Here, where we expect to find him dead, the tomb does not hold him, as well. And with often unspoken force, grace abounds.[6] → Truly, friends, this is the perfect Scripture for this day. It is a gospel for an uncertain time. It is a gospel for a worry-strewn moment. It is a gospel for a life interrupted.
  • And friends, here we are. Here we are worshipping in our homes instead of together in community on this Easter morning – the most holy day in the entire church year. Here we are missing one another … missing family … missing friends … missing human interaction … missing normalcy. Here we are anxious and restless and afraid because the world we live in has been turned topsy turvy by the unexpected. Just like those women on that first Easter morning. They fled, yes. They harbored and lived into their fear for a time because that’s what they needed to do. But eventually … eventually … they emerged from that fear. They spoke. They shared their story. They shared their faith. They shared the good news of the gospel – that Christ has died and is risen! They must have … because here we are. That’s the unwritten end to their Mark narrative. What will yours be? Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mt 28:10.

[2] Mk 16:6-7.

[3] Mk 16:8b.

[4] Mk 16:9 [shorter ending].

[5] Barbara Kay Lundblad. “Mark 16:1-8: Beyond Fear and Silence” from HuffPost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mark-16-1-8-beyond-fear-and-silence_b_1402710. Posted Apr. 4, 2012, accessed Apr. 10, 2020.

[6] Serene Jones. “Easter Vigil – Mark 16:1-8, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 356.