April 1, 2018

Mark 16:1-8

“Will you be my witnesses?”

“Go!” That is what the angel at the empty tomb told the women to do. “Go, and tell the other disciples that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And they did GO. 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.

Strangely, that is exactly how the Gospel according to Mark ends. Mary doesn’t see Jesus in the garden and have a conversation with him. The women don’t run to tell the other disciples that Jesus’ body is gone. And the male disciples don’t come to look in the tomb themselves. Jesus doesn’t make any sort of appearances either, and he doesn’t give his followers a final commissioning before he rises up into heaven.

Instead, the story ends with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome receiving the instruction to GO and tell, but being overcome with terror and dread, fleeing, and saying nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

This disappointing conclusion to Mark’s Gospel has bothered Christians throughout the centuries. The other Gospels tell us more, and give us stories about Jesus’ reassuring appearances – encouraging the disciples and inspiring them to GO and get about the work of continuing Jesus’ ministry. A shorter and a longer ending have even been added to Mark, as if a few pages must have gotten lost or destroyed, and someone needed to re-write the most important part – the ending.

But I really like the ending of Mark. I like it for a few reasons.

I like the ending of Mark because I can relate to the women and how scared they still were.

Just think about the story we have been reflecting on this week. When Jesus was arrested, the disciples got so scared. They abandoned him, and denied even knowing him. And that made perfect sense because their Messiah had been captured, and he was going to be put to death. Unless they wanted to suffer a similar fate, they should get away from there and distance themselves from him.

Even the women (who didn’t run) stayed at a distance. They watched as Jesus was crucified, as he died, and then as his body was taken down, wrapped in a cloth, and placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

They kept their distance on the Sabbath day, but first thing in the morning on the first day of the week, they go to the tomb. They will prepare his body for burial as it should be prepared – a final act of care and compassion for this man that they loved.

Those who have accompanied their loved ones through the process of dying may have a sense of what the women were feeling as they went to the tomb that morning. They had been there to watch his agonizing death, and it was finally over. As much as they must have wanted him with them again, there was a feeling of relief also – that his pain and suffering were finished… that the agony of watching was also over.

And very much like we make funeral arrangements and lay our loved ones to rest with care, Jesus’ friends got up early that Sunday morning to do for him what was customary in that time and place.

Perhaps there was a sense that once this final act was done, things might go back to normal. They would go home. They would do normal things. No more wandering from town to town. No more miracles, but also no more murders. All this would be over and done with.

But that’s when they discover that Jesus’ body is gone! “Don’t be alarmed!” a messenger tells them, but how could they not be alarmed? Their world is being turned upside down again, and as much as this is supposed to be good news, it just seems strange, and confusing, and they are afraid. They thought this would be their last act of service, and then they would go home. But now?… now they have the challenge of dealing with the implications of the fact that he might possibly have been raised from death.

I think “afraid” is how we feel sometimes also. When we consider the possibility that Jesus has been raised and that we are supposed to be his witnesses, we sometimes feel afraid.

When we realize that this good news of a living Lord is not just good news for us (that we’ll get to go to heaven when we die) but that it’s good news for us to share, to enact, to live out in our words and actions each and every day of our lives so that others may come to believe and follow the way of Jesus… we sometimes feel afraid.

I like the way Mark’s Gospel ends because I can relate to the fact that the women were afraid… that although they were told to GO and to TELL, they stayed silent… at least for a while.

I also like the ending of Mark’s Gospel because there is no PROOF that Jesus is risen… and that’s closer to my own experience.

Yes, there are stories. Four Gospels tell of Jesus’ resurrection, with different details, but a consistent main point. And yes, there are witnesses… angels, and apostles, and people like Paul who had visions and told about what they had seen.

But there isn’t actual proof, is there? It’s really only by faith that we have come to believe, and that’s why I like the ending of Mark’s Gospel. I can relate to the women who received no special resurrection appearances, because I haven’t had any either. And so my believing, like theirs, is a leap of faith. I believe despite not knowing for sure.

And finally, I like the way Mark’s Gospel ends because it’s not really an ending. I know, because of history, that after some period of scared silence, the women told someone what they had seen. I don’t know the details or how they got up the courage, but somehow they opened their mouths, or they dragged someone back to the tomb to see for themselves.

I like the ending of Mark’s Gospel because it’s not really an ending, it’s more of a beginning… and that is closer to my experience also.

I have listened to Christians who were nearing the end of their lives in this world, and I have heard many of them express a sense of peace that they lived their lives for Christ in the best way they could. They served, they gave, they shared their faith, and they tried to live by it as best they could. None have claimed to be saints, but many have come to the end of their lives in faith and trust in God’s grace, and with a sense of being finished.

Well, I, for one, don’t feel finished. And I hope you don’t either. I hope that as a church and as a congregation, we don’t feel like we’re finished… like this is the end of the story.

I know that I’ve been with you as your minister for eight months already, and I feel very settled and happy here. But I also feel like I’m just getting started, like we are still at the very beginning of the ministry and mission that God has prepared for us to do together.

Some of you are new to this community also, some have been here a while, and others have a long, long history of being a part of this church’s ministry. Some of you can look back and remember times when it was a little more crowded in the pews on Sunday mornings, when there were more children and young people around, when most people in society went to church on Sundays and you could count on that at least.

This is a moment in history when some of us may be feeling rather afraid. Crazy and terrible things are happening in the world around us. Hatred and violence seem pervasive in our world. Secularism seems to be taking over, and we are struggling to pass on our faith to the next generations. Things are changing so quickly, and the church seems more vulnerable than ever.

The temptation we face is to move into a mode of finishing things up and closing things down. Like the women going to anoint Jesus’ for his burial, we could decide to just do what’s needed for each other until the church is no more. We could resign ourselves to an ending.

But today’s Gospel isn’t an ending. It’s just the beginning! That’s why the instruction from the angel is to GO and tell. Yes, it will be challenging. Yes, it will be scary.

But Christ is risen, and therefore we have hope. God has overcome hatred. God has overpowered evil. God has triumphed over death. And so we can trust that God will be victorious over every evil power that seeks to hurt or destroy.

Mark doesn’t tell us what the women did next… how, empowered by the Spirit and filled with the gift of faith, they went and told what they had seen and what the angel had told them.

Similarly, we don’t know exactly what our future will be like – our future as individuals, as a congregation, as the Christian Church in the world… But our instruction this Easter Sunday is to GO and tell others that Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The promise for us is just the same as the promise the angel gave to the women at the empty tomb. When we GO, when we tell, when we live as disciples of the Risen Lord, we will see Christ, just as he promised. Thanks be to God.