a sermon on Mark 16:1-8
preached on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
All too often, when I look around our world, all I hear about is death. Whether I turn on the TV or radio to hear the latest news, look up the latest news online, or check in with family or friends, there is some note about someone who has died. Our human stories, it seems, are very much set in stone: we are born, we live for a while and do a few things, and then we die. Life has a clear beginning, middle, and ending.
The story of Jesus ought to be the same, right? The gospel of Mark certainly starts out that way as he tells us that it is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” And everyone around Jesus certainly thought that his story was just like all our other human stories, with a clear beginning, middle, and ending.
On Friday when he was executed, it seems like his disciples, the women who supported and cared for him, and everyone at the crucifixion thought that it was the end of everything—the end of Jesus’ life, the end of their time together, the end of the story that he had begun by preaching and teaching and healing in Galilee and beyond. When we hear the story of Jesus, it can seem like all we need to remember from it ends on Friday, with Jesus dead after his execution on the cross by the authorities of the day, safely sealed away in the tomb, never to be heard from again.
When the women set out on that Sunday morning to go to the tomb, reality had firmly set in: Jesus was dead, and it was the end of his story. Little did they know, though, that it was really only the end of the beginning. As they carried their spices for anointing the body to the tomb, they were prepared to mark this end, to give Jesus the proper burial that he deserved rather than just the hurried dumping of his body in a friend’s tomb as the sun set to begin the Sabbath. Of course, they weren’t totally prepared—it was only on their way to the tomb that they realized that they might need some help rolling the stone away from the entrance—but they were most definitely not ready for what they encountered when they arrived there.
Their fears of not being able to get in the tomb were quickly replaced by a deeper uncertainty and greater alarm when they discovered that the large stone had already been rolled away—and that someone else had gone inside first! When they went in, rather than being met with a smelly, decaying body, a young man in a white robe was waiting for them. His words shocked them all the more:
Do not be alarmed; 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. 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.
As they left the tomb, the women found it difficult to understand all that was swirling around them. They were alarmed and afraid and terrified and amazed. Not only was the grave empty, but all their assumptions about beginnings and endings and everything that comes in between were turned upside down. While they knew that there was something special about their friend and teacher Jesus, it never sank in that the end of his story might not be the end—that it might be only the end of the beginning. They had never put all the pieces together, never fully listened to him and trusted his words, never sorted out that he might actually die, let alone be raised to new life. So they went away from the tomb, fearful and amazed and terrified at what they had seen and heard.
By all the most reliable accounts, in all the oldest manuscripts that we have, Mark’s story of the resurrection ends right there:
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.
There were no encounters with Jesus in the garden, no breakfast fish fries on the beach, no walks to Emmaus where Jesus suddenly gets recognized, not even an encounter with doubting Thomas in an upstairs room. Over the centuries, a lot of people didn’t like that ending, so much so that they wrote two other endings that got attached to some of the manuscripts that have come down to us over the centuries, but I think this is a wonderful place for the beginning of the good news to come to an end.
Even though we never actually see Jesus alive again, Mark makes it clear that the empty tomb is only the beginning, that this story does not end with Jesus’ death on a Friday, his resurrection on a Sunday, or even his ascension some forty days later, because the risen Jesus is on the loose in the world even now, and we too will encounter him along the way.
The things ahead for us and our world now that Jesus is risen will not be like the things that have come before—he is not resuscitated back into the life that he had but is risen into a new life for the future. The resurrection marks the end of the beginning of this good news—because the rest of the story belongs to the women, the disciples, and all of us who would dare to follow him. We are called to go forth with them, into the Galilees of our world, looking, watching, waiting for Jesus, confident that our redeemer lives and has overcome the powers of death, and encountering him wherever stones are rolled away, the power of death is overcome with new life, and the domination of a few is replaced with a future for all. We are called to meet Jesus on his own terms, not as a dead body hanging on a cross or decaying in a tomb, not trying to make his story look and sound like our own. We are called to meet Jesus as a living reality, uncontainable and unforgettable, who goes ahead of us so that we might encounter him again and again in the days to come.
And then we are called to bear the resurrection into the world, to be on the lookout for this Jesus who is on the loose, to live in ways that point to the kind of new life that comes when death does not have the final word, when our world is restructured to make mercy and peace the pattern for our days, when even the most broken things can be made whole again, when love triumphs over hate and life triumphs over death.
So may this Easter be the end of the beginning for us, the end of an old way of looking at things where death has the final word as we begin to proclaim and live the good news of the resurrection each and every day as all things are made new by the power of God who brings us from death to new life in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.