On the Move 04/01/18 (Easter Sunday)

On the Move
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
April 1, 2018 ~ Easter Sunday (Year B)


“Immediately.” “Suddenly.” “At once.” These are the kinds of words that the author of Mark’s Gospel employs repeatedly as he tells us about Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Rarely pausing to paint the scene for us, Mark tumbles from one episode to the next, leaving the reader with a sense that Jesus is never still; even when he pauses to eat or pray or – infrequently – sleep, it’s only for the briefest of moments. Before we – or the disciples – have had a chance to catch our breath, he’s on the move again.

In fact, so full of movement is Mark’s Gospel that it begins with a sentence fragment, as if the author can’t even take the time to flesh out a full sentence, let alone an introductory paragraph:

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)

Mark promptly launches into the story: we meet John the Baptist by the Jordan River, and by only the ninth verse of the first chapter of Mark we encounter Jesus for the first time, an already full-grown adult who has come to the river to be baptized by John.

Mark isn’t interested in infancy narratives. He isn’t concerned with angelic visions and shepherds with their flocks at night. He doesn’t care who Jesus’ parents are or where they live. He has no interest in genealogies or wise men from the East or King Herod or the census. There’s no star, no manger, no blessed Mother. There’s no presentation at the Temple when he’s a newborn and no conversation with the Temple priests when he’s twelve. There’s just a grown man being dunked under the water by a strange prophet wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. We are dropped into a story already under way.

And a mere sixteen chapters later (as opposed to Matthew’s twenty-eight, Luke’s twenty-four, and John’s twenty-one), Mark’s gospel draws to a sudden close. If the opening of Mark’s Gospel is terse, the ending is even more abrupt. The Greek says:

And coming out swiftly they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid for. (16:8)

That’s literally how it ends. The final word of Mark’s Gospel is gar, the Greek word meaning “for.” “Because they were afraid for.” The Gospel just…stops. “It’s as if Mark just didn’t – or couldn’t – finish the story.

While Mark’s Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence, the other three Gospels end not just with the dead man rising from the tomb, but also with the post-resurrection visits he pays to his disciples. But just as Mark doesn’t give us any stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, or earliest days, neither does he tell us what happens after he was raised. Here is the story Mark tells:

When Sabbath was over Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb to anoint Jesus with spices, a loving act undertaken to alleviate some of the smell of his dead body. They don’t know how they’ll get to his body, though, because the tomb had been sealed with a massive rock. But of course, as we know, the tomb has already been opened, the body is gone, and a young man is waiting for them.

Legend has it that this young man was an angel, and that seems as good an explanation as any. After all, he performs the job of all angels: he is there to deliver a message. He even begins with the same words used so often by angels throughout the whole of Scripture: “Do not be alarmed.” (16:6a) He then goes on to assure them that he somehow knows what the women are there for:

“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.” (16:6b)

Having shown them that he knows what he’s talking about, he gives them the final instruction:

“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.” (16:7)

An aside: some of you may have noticed at one time or another that your Bible’s version of Mark doesn’t end with verse 8, about the women fleeing in silence. Apparently the monks or whoever else was tasked with the job of copying out manuscripts of this gospel were unsatisfied with this incomplete ending. And so in various manuscripts we have additional endings, one called “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and the other called “The Longer Ending of Mark.” By and large scholars agree that these endings were added later, possibly as late as the second century. Despite these later attempts to tidy things up and give us a feeling of resolution, it seems that Mark really did want to end by giving us a sense of ellipsis, of incompleteness – so he ended without even finishing the last sentence.

To return to the story as Mark has given it to us: the women are instructed to tell the disciples – especially Peter, who had denied Jesus three times – that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee, where they will see him, just as he told them. The women flee in terror and amazement, and they say nothing to anyone.

And so it ends. The male disciples have already withdrawn from the story, having hidden after Jesus’ arrest. And now even the three women who were present for his crucifixion and who have come to take care of his body flee in silence. We may find ourselves terribly disappointed in all of them. And then no sightings of the resurrected Jesus? We may find ourselves terribly disappointed in the author of Mark’s Gospel, too.

Let us return to the young man’s instruction to the women:

“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.” (16:7)

Why Galilee?

Because that’s where the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, primarily happens. “It was to Galilee that [Jesus] came with his proclamation of the good news of God. (1:14) Galilee is the site of his ministry of teaching, healing, exorcism, and feeding such that his fame spread (1:28), and a great multitude followed him (3:7). [1]

The women and the male disciples are enjoined to go back to the place where Jesus did all of his ministry. They – and we – are not to sit around at the empty tomb, wondering what happened. They – and we – are not to waste time creating elaborate theologies of the resurrection. Jesus is on the move: there is work to be done. And Jesus wants us to be on the move too: he can’t do the work alone. We mustn’t tarry at the tomb.

So the question we are left with is: will we go? Will we take up the unfinished story? Will we feed the hungry, and tend to the sick? Will we overturn the tables of injustice and restore the outcast to full membership in community? Will we celebrate with joy and weep with sadness? Will we exorcise the demons that plague those around us? Will we walk side by side with the oppressed and the lonely, the imprisoned and the isolated? Will we tend his flock and feed his sheep – even the ones who belong to other folds?

There’s no time to waste. There’s work to be done. It’s time to get moving.

But here’s the other thing about this as-yet-unfinished resurrection story: yes, Jesus is beckoning us to come work with him. But he has also promised to appear to us. We all have tombs that threaten to seal us in a place of lifelessness. You know what your tombs are, so I won’t make a long list right now. Just as Jesus is working on behalf of life and love wherever there is pain and oppression in the world, so he also works on behalf of life and love for us, here and now. It isn’t all about those people “out there.” Jesus is not only a prophet, urging us to action. He is also a compassionate friend, a loving brother who shares a divine Parent with us, a companion on the journey of our lives. The resurrection is– each of us. Just as Jesus has been raised, so he offers to raise us as well. He comes to our tombs and extends a hand, lifting us to new life.

In her thirties, author Anne Lamott began attending a small church near her home. She had no desire to be a Christian; the thought repelled her and her shame about the state of her life – which was admittedly a total mess – led her to the conclusion that God wouldn’t want her anyway. She went for the music, always leaving before the sermon. [Don’t get any ideas!]

In 1984, Anne found herself suicidal, a raging alcoholic, and pregnant by a man she hardly knew and certainly didn’t want to make a life with. Knowing she was unable to support a child, she chose to have an abortion, and then went on a seven-day bender that nearly killed her. After seven nights of heavy drinking and drugging following the abortion, she found herself hemorrhaging and terrified. Here’s what she says about that night:

After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my [deceased] father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left. [2]

A week later, Anne screwed up her courage and swallowed her shame and went back to church. In spite of her deep-seated reluctance to become a Christian, she found herself literally moved to tears by the singing and even the sermon. She says:

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head, [swore], and said: “I quit.” I took a deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”

“So this,” she quips, “was my beautiful moment of conversion.”

So here’s why I love the way Mark leaves us hanging, with no resolution, with no neat and tidy little ending, even without a resurrection appearance.

You see, Jesus is still on the move. He has gone ahead of us; he is waiting for us even when we feel stuck at our tombs.

And he’d love for us to open the door and welcome him in.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Lance Pape, “Commentary on Mark 16:1-8” at workingpreacher.org. 2015.

[2] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies. pp. 49ff.

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