The End is the Beginning – Mark 16.1-8 & Isaiah 25.6-9

April 5, 2015 – Easter Sunday

Compared with all the celebratory elements of this morning—music, flowers, even a beautiful sunny day—this story from Mark’s gospel seems so odd. Unlike in Matthew, Luke and John, where Jesus is seen again after his resurrection, there are no appearances by the risen Christ in Mark’s gospel. You have to take the young guy sitting in the tomb at his word that Jesus has been raised. And what we’re left with is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome fleeing the tomb and saying nothing at all.

(Which probably explains why we have both the extension of verse 8 called “the shorter ending of Mark” and verses 9 through 16 called “the longer ending of Mark.” People reading the gospel and its end at verse 8 said, “We can’t have it end like that! How will anyone be sure Jesus has been raised? How will future followers of Jesus be inspired to keep following Jesus?” They would echo Preacher Fred Craddock who, in a sermon on Mark 16, said, “This is no way to run a resurrection!”[1] And so they penned two more “suitable” endings—which few scholars who study Mark consider to have been part of the original writing.)

Incidentally, the Mark 16 telling of the resurrection is most likely what the window about the choir portrays. Mary Magdalene is the woman with her hair down, Mary the mother of James (who is likely the mother of Jesus as well) in blue, and Salome in green. Although what the stained glass artist portrays is much more serene than the actual story.
The story as it ends with verse 8 leaves us with a handful of startling emotions: the women are alarmed, they are overcome with terror and amazement, they are afraid. They can’t say a word to anyone.

Which is not exactly the sentiment we have come to expect on Easter morning!

The feelings the women have are strong and intense. The sense of the word alarmed is “beyond astonishment.” They are stunned, shocked, even immobilized. They can’t comprehend.

The Greek word translated terror is related to the word we translated as “trauma.” They are shell shocked. They are traumatized.

The word “afraid” is related to our English word phobia which carries with it dread and aversion.

And finally, “amazement” is translated from a Greek word that also means ecstasy or ecstatic which can be frenetic or rapturous. Either way, this too is an overpowering and intense emotion.

No wonder the women can’t say anything to anyone! For such an experience there are no words.

I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like that. An intense emotional experience that was beyond what you could comprehend, beyond what you could take in and process, beyond anything you had ever experienced or imagined before.    When you have no words to express what has astounded and confounded you.

Often after such an experience we begin to look for a way to express the inexpressible. And when an experience is beyond what we know how to describe, we look for images or metaphors, often poetry or song. Which is what those early followers of Jesus did too. They reached into the tradition that had shaped them and one of the poetic images they found was that of a feast.

Isaiah 25 pictures God preparing a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all people. Pastor Cynthia Campbell notes it is “not those who eat regularly and well who envision God’s [presence with them] as a banquet. Rather, this is the vision of those for whom providing food is a daily challenge, for whom eating well is not an option, and for whom eating at all may be very episodic.” Which is likely the circumstances of those who wrote this vision. Perhaps it is a reminder, not only of the lavishness of God’s feast which has something to do with expressing the astonishment and completely unexpected nature of the abundant life God brings, but also that the abundant life God cares about includes our bodies and is for everyone, including “the really poor among us, those who know hunger as a real and daily companion.” [2]

As followers of Jesus, when we come to this table, we invoke the images of God’s life-giving feast for this is one of the places where we meet Christ in the breaking of the bread.

Isaiah 25 also paints a picture of death being swallowed up, the burial clothes destroyed because there is no longer need for them, and all tears wiped away. The separation and loss of death is ended and even in death we belong to God. [3]

Perhaps this was part of the terror and amazement and alarm the two Marys and Salome experienced. They had come to the tomb expecting to anoint the body of Jesus—he was dead, after all. I wonder if there wasn’t some relief in that for them. As much as Jesus’ life had inspired them and the other disciples, it came with a high cost. At the same time people were helped and fed and found freedom, there was also suffering, threats, danger from the political and religious authorities. They had seen Jesus be arrested on false charges, tortured by the state authorities, condemned to death and executed even through he was innocent.   They must have wondered what would happen to them next. Perhaps, says Professor Emeritus Cameron Murchison, there was some relief for all of the disciples, even as they grieved, that they could go back to their regular lives, “no longer burdened by the challenge of costly discipleship.” [4]

Disciples of old who walked with Jesus and disciples today who read the Bible “know and half believe that the life embodied in Jesus” opens into abundant life “for all of life, even while it is intensely demanding. Experiencing the [great] love of God [also] involves [being ready] to risk [great] love for [our] neighbor.” But wouldn’t most of us like to have the benefit of the great love of God but not the cost of great love for our neighbor? [5]

So perhaps we can understand the response of the disciples who “thought they were off the costly hook of discipleship only to discover—to their terror and amazement—the challenge still before them.” [6]

It’s a challenge—and invitation—that is still before us.

Because of the abrupt ending of Mark’s gospel and the absence of any appearances by Jesus after his resurrection, some who study this gospel say its theological direction is to urge the reader to go back to the beginning and this time around to read the entire gospel as the story of the appearance by the risen Jesus—embodying the reign of God in the world.

The women at the tomb are told that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. That’s the place where this all started for Jesus and his disciples. God is not done with those who followed Jesus—just as God is not done with us. The young man in the tomb tells the women the risen Jesus will meet them if they go to Galilee where Jesus has gone.

Thomas Merton, in an Easter homily in 1967 wrote, The veneration of the [empty tomb] “is Christian only in so far as it is the [veneration] of the place where Christ is no longer found. But such a [veneration] can be valid only on one condition: that we are willing to move on, to follow him to where we are not yet, to seek him where he goes before us.” [7]

And that is the word to us as well. We cannot stay in the place where he was. We must move on to follow Christ to where he goes before us. There we will be met by the Risen One, if we go where he has gone. [8] And where has he gone? Into the places of suffering and pain. Into the places of oppression and torture. Into the homes of people who are not appropriate or approved. Into the company of people who break the rules, who make others nervous. Into communities of people who are afflicted and addicted, who are hungry and hurting.

Christ has gone into the places where healing and peace are sprouting up from the ground of suffering and pain. Christ has gone into the places where freedom and new life are coming out of prisons and dungeons. Christ has gone into the homes of people who once were estranged and isolated and now are communities of grace and welcome. Christ has gone into communities of people who were outcast and shamed and now are transformed and whole.

On this Easter morning, it is not over when we leave this sanctuary. This is just the beginning. The beginning again of the challenge to follow the Risen Christ to where we are not yet but where Christ is going into the broken and beautiful world that God so loves.

* * *
1.  Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 138.
2.  Cynthia M. Campbell, “Isaiah 25.6-9 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 360.
3. Ibid., 362.
4.  D. Cameron Murchison, “Mark 16.1-8 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 356.
5. Ibid., 354.
6.  Ibid., 356.
7. Thomas Merton, “He is Risen”, Niles, IL: Argus Communications, 1967. Merton uses the word cult where I have substituted veneration. I think veneration captures the sense of Merton’s intent without the contemporary negative associations of a cult.
8. Mary Luti, “Mark 16.1-8 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 532.

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