…For They Were Afraid…(Isaiah 43:1-3a; Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8) EASTER
Today we have used an age-old Easter greeting and response: “Christ Is Risen! He Is Risen, Indeed!” And, though it is true, we also proclaim that this resurrection was not Jesus’ own act, as if he rose up all by himself. Jesus’ resurrection is primarily God’s act; an act that vindicated Jesus’ life and death. In the Gospel Lesson this morning the young man who spoke to the women at the tomb did not say that “Jesus rose from the dead.” He said, “He has been raised.” He means “raised by God, as Peter made abundantly clear in his sermon in Acts 10 when he said, “God raised him on the third day.” In Jesus’ resurrection God was witnessing that the divine character was still as the Prophet of the Exile had painted it in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson, in which God promised as our creator who has called us by name to be with us through the waters, the rivers, and the fires that we be not overwhelmed and burnt up.
In Jesus’ resurrection, God is acting as creator, redeemer and saviour. Of course, the images of the fire and the river and the water in Isaiah 43 remind us of how life can be for us, and they surely could remind us of how life was for the women at the tomb in our Gospel Reading. I suppose that, of all the Gospel lessons that we might choose to read, or ministers might choose as an Easter text, Mark’s would be the least popular. The others all might seem to have much more “meat” to them. The Lectionary even gives an alternative in John’s account, in case we don’t find “enough” to read or preach here in the oldest gospel. The reason is that the genuine text of Mark brings us up short. It leaves us with people running from an empty tomb, too terrified to speak.
I just used what may seem like a troubling word about the Bible, the “genuine” text of Mark. Those who spend time at TEE think about these kinds of things all the time, and we don’t have time on a crowded Easter day for a lot of technical information. But, you know me, and you know that I think that we who preach must sometimes do a little teaching as part of that. So, on we go.
There is virtually no doubt that the genuine text of Mark’s Gospel ends at chapter 16, verse 8. Everything that follows is from another person or persons, probably at least a century or two later. Even such a “no-frills” edition as our pew Bibles show what are called shorter and the longer endings of Mark. Both these simply sum up what is in the other Gospels. The vocabulary and style is different from what goes before.
As I said, the authentic story in Mark leaves us with no good outcome. The story seems so truncated or cut off. Jesus makes no appearance after the resurrection, even though he had said, “When I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (14:28), which is confirmed by the young man at the tomb (16:7). The authentic text of Mark simply says nothing about what’s after the resurrection. There’s no doubt about this, so why did we even keep Mark’s version, when we already have so much more about the resurrection from other sources?
I would suggest to you that, in spite of brevity, Mark affirms the basic resurrection claims of the other Gospels at an early date. It may be that Mark pared down the detail of these claims, but the basic story is there. He says that three women went to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath was over (Saturday at sundown). They went to anoint his body. On the way, they wondered who would move the stone at the door of the tomb so they could get in? When they arrived, they found that the stone had already been moved, and on looking into the tomb, the women saw a young man dressed in white. Now the other gospels all identify this person as an angel. Luke and John say it was two angels. Matthew puts in some special effects: the angel had the appearance of lightning and clothing white as snow, and descended from heaven in an earthquake (28:2-3). Mark has one young man. Period. No embellishments. The young man said several things: First he said, “Stop being afraid,” then validated their experience, “You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified.” According to Mark, he had really been crucified. Then he said, “He has been raised; he is not here.” “Come in closer and see where he was.” The young man then told them to go tell the disciples (including old Peter who had denied him three times) that Jesus was going ahead to Galilee as he promised (see 14:28 again), and you will see him there. As I said, the same basic story as in our other sources. And he left us no doubt that, for Mark, all this was the reality, the truth.
For me, the major value of Mark’s story is that it can help us to understand that simply being confronted with the claims of Easter is not enough. We cannot be transformed by data alone. People do not become or remain disciples by submitting to facts. Much as I suggested to you last week, Mark allows us room to question, think and interpret. Look at the end of his story.
It says the women were alarmed by the presence of the young man at the tomb The word “alarmed” indicates deep awe before that which cannot be explained by natural means. The verb is only used by Mark in the New Testament. He uses it once to describe Jesus’ state in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark then uses words for fleeing, terror, amazement, and, concludes with the simple statement “for they were afraid.” In short, Mark did everything he could, within a few words to build up our sense of the women’s anxiety at the sight of an empty tomb, and not just any empty tomb, but this empty tomb, Jesus’ tomb. The young man claimed that the empty tomb was good news about Jesus, but was it? Jesus was not there! What did it mean that he was gone? There was terror, not only before the heavenly angel, but also probably because they couldn’t confirm what they were hearing with what they were seeing. Was it possible that they had been wrong about this whole Jesus business? All this leads to alarm, terror, amazement and fear. And silence. And flight from the tomb.
In a book popular a couple of decades ago called My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen wrote “fear is the friction in all transitions.” When we are in the midst of changes in life, fear (sometimes wisely) puts the brakes on. If the fear, the friction, is strong enough, we come to a stop. What if this transition leads to something worse? We opt for standing pat, for the status quo, for doing nothing. And we may miss good things because the good things only might be, and they require taking off the brakes and letting go of some other good things for some unknown things. Fear puts the brakes on.
These women were taken unawares by a huge and threatening transition. They thought they knew what they were up to. They were on the way to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They were prepared for a difficulty that they had foreseen. The stone was really heavy, how would they move it? Then a major transition is thrown right at them. “He is not here,” is the message. We always think Jesus will remain just where we put him. The difficulty wasn’t that heavy stone which they’d foreseen and worried about, but the empty tomb inside, which they hadn’t even considered. And the fear – the friction – made them unable to function. And they couldn’t say anything at all.
How many of us have come up against the hard edges of life – the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, the death of a child, or a spouse, or fill in the blank with your horror and disappointments – and have looked for God only to find an empty tomb. What does it mean? People tell you there’s good news, but is there? Even when we do the best we can, we sometimes wonder, where is God? Am I simply looking into an empty tomb? Is it just a dark hole? Mark is willing to tell a story that isn’t victorious, where the friction of fear makes those who have had all the facts stops in their tracks. Maybe we should say “our tracks”?
This is probably the reason more than any other why Mark’s resurrection account is so little read and valued. Mark refused to “fix” the terrified fleeing from the felt lack of Jesus’ presence. He saw this to be the story about how the friction of fear stops a transition to faith. What if the empty tomb is just empty? Is it also because Mark chose to do this that the others came later and “enriched” Mark’s story with accounts of the risen Christ? They show that, beyond the fear and the silence, God is, indeed, the creator who redeems (Isaiah 43) and who raised Jesus. They wanted to make sure that others knew that the young man really had good news of great joy. We have at least two different “endings” of Mark’s Gospel that seek to report the end of the process. But Mark honoured the process itself. And that’s important in its own right for those of us feeling the friction of fear in the transitions to new life for us.
In actual fact, what those expanders of Mark did in the 2nd or 3rd century (or whenever they wrote), is exactly what we must all do with the gospel in our lives now. We “write” our own ending to the story. How, beyond the fear and silence – through rivers, water, and fire – God’s presence has neither left nor forsaken us. To make it in the world we must do more than convincing ourselves that Jesus was raised a long time ago, or that faith is about affirming data. That doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily do much for us on this bumpy ride we call life, when what we need is to go well beyond simply affirming data that Jesus was raised once, to quelling the fear, to reducing the friction in those transitions to newness of life that we need. To do that, we have to experience the God who raised Jesus being with us. It’s not that we don’t pass through the waters, we do; it’s not that we don’t wade up to our neck and over in the rivers, we do; it’s not that we don’t walk through fire, we do; but we know that, whatever happens that God, our creator, our redeemer, is with us every step of the way, reducing the friction in each transition so that we can let the transition to newness happen. Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.