“It’s Only the Beginning”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 5, 2015 • Easter Sunday
Mark’s account of Easter morning is the earliest on record. The women, who had stood by the cross on Friday, go to Jesus’ burial site early on Sunday morning. They are there to do what women traditionally did in those days, anoint the body with spices. There wasn’t time before the Sabbath began on Friday evening to perform this duty, and so Jesus had lain in his borrowed tomb, uncared for, unwashed, unprepared for too long. They’d come now to do at least that for him after the horrible events that had taken place. But they are surprised by what they find. The grave is open. There is a young man in dazzling white standing within, who seems almost like some kind of heavenly administrative assistant explaining why they can’t have a quick word with the boss – “Jesus – no-he’s not here now. You just missed him. But he left a message for you; he wants you to tell the disciples and Peter that he’s gone on to Galilee and will meet them there.” You kind of expect him to say, “Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Have a nice day!”
But it is no longer a nice day for them; shocked and frightened, they run from the tomb and instead of going to tell the disciples, they run the other way. And Mark says, “They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Finis. Done. The End. Fred Craddock’s response to this version of the first Easter morning is to exclaim “Is this any way to run a resurrection?”[i]
Apparently not, because by the second century, scribes were regularly adding additions to the abrupt ending to bring some kind of closure to the story. If you look at the end of Mark’s gospel you can see both a shorter and a longer ending, where enough is added to make it sound like the other gospels: Jesus appears, the disciples rejoice, and Jesus tells them what they need to do next. These additions seem forced, a little bit too happy, and a little bit too neat and tidy. But we can understand the desire of the scribes to do something with that awkward ending that leaves everything kind of hanging.
But what if Mark meant it to be that way? If we can discount the imaginative stories that surmise he must have been interrupted mid-sentence by some terrible trauma perhaps a heart attack or arrest by a Roman soldier, or that his original conclusion was so shocking that those who’d inherited his manuscript just ripped off the offensive part and pretended that was all there was, we are left with the real possibility that he crafted an incomplete ending by design. That he left the story hanging on this moment of fear and silence for a reason.
What might that be? The women were totally silent. And to my way of thinking, silence is a first appropriate response. There are times, aren’t there, when we are afraid, shocked by what we have learned or seen, when we don’t know exactly what is happening or why, when we can’t figure it all out, and we are aware of how little we really do know and how little we can control. There are those times when silence is required, when we feel overwhelmed and need time to process, to evaluate, to think about what has happened. There will be time to talk later; but first we need to be quiet. Silence can be a good thing – “Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist wrote. “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” Luke writes about the birth of Jesus.
Fear is also an appropriate first response. The women have come to the tomb of their good friend who had been executed by the Roman government as a criminal. The disciples had all scattered; they hadn’t even stayed around to watch the crucifixion. Followers of Jesus were few and far between. And they were in a hostile place. What if they’d gone out and started telling the news they’d heard – Jesus is alive again. How long would they have been allowed to get away with that before word would get back to the powers that be? Luke says, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, he had 120 believers. That is less than the membership of this congregation! What chance would they have in a Jerusalem filled with a million or so pilgrims there for the Passover? Of course they’re afraid.
But maybe they are afraid and silent for other reasons as well. Maybe this news frightened them because they had begun to accept the death of the hope they shared earlier because of this friend who had cared for them and taught and shown them more about God than they’d ever imagined, and who had shared with them a dream of the kingdom of God where children had enough to eat, sick people got well, and old people would not worry about who would care for them.
Their hope had come crashing down on Friday when Jesus was put to death and buried. Peace on earth? Dead. Justice for all? Dead. Unconditional love? Dead. But the young man had said Jesus has been raised; Jesus is alive. God’s hope is still alive on earth. They were scared because in some ways, hope is harder than death. And they were silent because they couldn’t begin to imagine what that meant for them and for the others. They were in brand new territory where death was not the final answer. And if this is how God operates in the world, what will happen next? What might be required of them. Maybe they’d had enough excitement and danger; maybe they wanted to go back home and find some degree of normalcy.
Maybe they were afraid and silent because if Jesus were risen from the dead, then it meant that God had vindicated Jesus and was announcing that a new creation had begun, a new kind of order had been inaugurated. Not the order of Caesar, not the Roman rules that said might makes right, strike before your struck, watch your back, fight fire with fire, do unto others before they do unto you, but a reign of peace on earth, justice, equality, and unconditional love for all.
Maybe they were frightened too because this news was an invitation to participate in this hopeful new world. They could stop living scared because death had lost its grip on them, and without fear, there was nothing holding them back. But how do you do that when you’ve been scared for so long?
Fear and silence held them for a time, but not forever, because here we are today. Somebody finally found her voice; somebody finally overcame her fear. And, we have the same choices. Will we tell or won’t we? And each of us will have a different story because of our different experiences and understandings. For me, I have to say that over the years my faith has changed from thinking that resurrection is primarily about what happens after we die. I was taught as a child that God raised Jesus from the dead and took him to heaven, and because we believe in Jesus, God will do the same thing for us.
But I know now that we can’t simply worship Jesus in our private lives alone, look forward to going to “heaven” someday, and not be concerned about creating “heaven on earth” because resurrection is not all about having a get out of jail free card or an escape hatch from the world to an “otherworldly” heaven. Experience has shown me that resurrection is about so much more than life after death. It is about life before death. And our religion is not simply about going to heaven when we die, but about doing everything we can to enable God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We have received the same invitation that the silent women received on that first Easter Sunday so long ago. And just as it was a new beginning for them, so it is for us as well.
But first, we have to overcome our own silence and fear and replace them with resurrection hope that enables us to envision and work for a world where the old rules don’t apply: A world where the meek do inherit the earth. A world where the poor in spirit have the only riches worth having, and where among the poor, bread is blessed and broken and given and everyone has enough. A world where the peacemakers know everyone as children of God, where enemies are turned into sisters and brothers and weapons rust and corrode or are turned into plowshares.
There is still work to do; the kingdom has not come completely yet. Death may be beaten, but it isn’t gone yet. Caesar may be gone, but his successors are still in business. Food may be more plentiful in some places in the world, but not yet everywhere. Prejudice and ignorance and animosity have been overcome in many areas, but we know only too well that they can still raise their ugly heads just when we think they’re done.
The silence at the end of Mark’s gospel waits to be overcome by people of every generation, waits for you and for me to overcome our fears, and to share the good news of Easter, to proclaim through our words and our actions : “God’s hope is alive on earth. Though wounded, peace lives. Though killed, justice rises. Though buried, love goes ahead of us to Galilee; there we will see him, just as he told us.”[ii] Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Fred Craddock, “He is Not Here,” Christian Century, April 2003.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Sunday, 2006,” Canon Chapel, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.