As we hear the Easter story today, I want to take a moment to think about some other stories you know. Think for a moment about truly great stories: A Tale of Two Cities; Frankenstein; Spongebob Squarepants… It doesn’t matter if the story is in books, on tv or in the movies, but I want you to think about the way great stories are told. All great stories share some key characteristics, and one of them is an ending that leaves you wanting to know more. In any great story, you get to know the characters and become invested in who they are. At the end, you don’t want it to end. You want to know more about what happened to the characters next. How did they grow up, or grow old? Did they live happily ever after? What was the next challenge they faced? Good endings leave us pondering, wondering, imagining about these things. Bad endings tell us too many of the answers, and stifle our imagination. So a good author knows when to quit.
In the Bible there are four tellings of the story of the Resurrection of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The shortest version is also the oldest one we have, written down around 55AD, and it appears in Mark. If you go home and open your Bible to read it, you’ll find that Mark’s Resurrection narrative is 20 verses long. But: in all of the oldest manuscripts we have, this story only goes until verse 8. The story ends with the verse where I ended the reading this morning: “[The women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Mark leaves out all of the post-Resurrection stories some of you may remember. In Mark’s telling, there’s no story about Mary mistaking Jesus for the gardener, no Doubting Thomas placing his hands in Jesus’ side, no appearance to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, no Jesus cooking fish by the Sea and asking Peter to feed his sheep. None of those things happen in Mark. In Mark, the women fled in terror and amazement and told no one, for they were afraid. What kind of an ending is that? It’s so abrupt that historians say this is what happened: at some point, an early Bible copyist came along and added verses 9-20 to those oldest manuscripts, added it so that readers could get some kind of satisfying answer to what happened after Jesus was raised. In those twelve verses we get an abridged version of how Jesus appeared to the women and the disciples. These additions to Mark are sparse, but at least, that Bible copyist must have thought, the story doesn’t end in fear. There is a strong view in the scholarly community that the original author, Mark, stopped at verse 8, and he did this on purpose; he knew what he was doing. (for more on this history, see Placher, Mark, in Belief Commentaries) I like that interpretation. Just like any truly great author, Mark knew when to quit. He wanted us to imagine for ourselves what happens on the other side of the Resurrection. He wanted us to be inspired by the thought that it is our task to discover what happened next and to keep the story alive.
If ever there was a year to talk about death and Resurrection, this is the one. David Gerson wrote this week in The Washington Post that this past year has been perfect for Good Friday. (Gerson, The Washington Post, April 2, 2021) Good Friday is a story of disillusionment. Just about everyone in the story of Good Friday ends up looking bad. Government is weak and dysfunctional—Pilate tries to pass the buck because no one knows what to do with Jesus. The religious authorities look bad—they want the government to do their dirty work for them. The crowd looks bad—they choose a common criminal and murderer over the Savior of the world. Even Jesus’ friends look bad—Judas betrays Jesus and Peter denies him, and the rest of the disciples just kind of disappear. There are lots of reasons to be hopeless and discouraged on Good Friday—that’s just the kind of story that it is.
All of us can tell stories from the past year about feeling discouraged or hopeless. It’s been quite the marathon. Do you remember Good Friday a year ago? We had just begun to worship remotely—to do everything…remotely—and most of us were thinking bravely to ourselves, “I can take this for a month…maybe two…” How naïve we were.
It may have been the perfect year for Good Friday, but it’s also a great year for Easter, a great year for Resurrection. Of course, there are still lots of reasons to be cautious and play it safe, we are not yet out of the woods with COVID. But a week ago, NPR ran a story about leading epidemiologists saying for the first time that we might be near to the end of the pandemic. (NPR, The Future of the Pandemic in the US, March 26, 2021). If the liberals at NPR are saying we’re close to the end, well that’s a first for sure! We are so hungry for news of resurrection. For rebirth, new life. When can I hug my grandchildren? When can I share a meal with a friend? When will church get back to normal? What kind of vaccine did you get? These are the hot topics these days. We’re so hungry for resurrection!
These signs of new life—this is what Resurrection really is, this is what Resurrection means, a chance to imagine a different kind of life! Tradition has taught many of us to think narrowly about Resurrection—it’s this one thing that happens one time to one guy who got out of one tomb, and we puzzle about whether or not we believe it. But that’s not really the point. Resurrection is a chance for all of us to imagine a different kind of life.
Jesus lived a different kind of life—a Resurrection life—all along. Think about the kind of things Jesus did: He found his disciples living lives they didn’t want to live, collecting taxes, struggling to catch fish…he said, ‘come with me and imagine a different kind of life…let me teach you how to fish for people.’ Jesus met people who were stuck; consumed by their hatred and resentment toward other people, and he said to them, let me show you another way: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. [Don’t let resentment dominate your life].’ Jesus spent time with people who were suffering, people who most other people ignored, and then he walked up onto a mountaintop before everybody and he said to the enormous crowds, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” One time Jesus was asked, “who is my neighbor?” and so he told a story about a Good Samaritan who helped a man who was dying in a ditch. The “Samaritan,” in today’s language, is the person on the other side of the aisle. Jesus sees the value—the neighborliness—in the liberal or the conservative who you think is a fool. Jesus was living a different kind of life all along. He saw life differently. Jesus was living a Resurrection life.
If we’ve been paying attention to Jesus all along, to his vision of a different kind of life, the Resurrection on Easter morning isn’t such a surprise. On Good Friday Jesus is laid in a tomb. Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome, they return on the first day of the week. They come to anoint him with burial spices according to their religious practice. They fully expect to find him in the tomb. But he is not where they expect to find him. The life that he has in mind is different, and he imagines a different future for them. So when they arrive, he has been raised.
Of course the women are shocked. The story says, “terror and amazement seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is where Mark’s telling of the story comes to an end—because—this is Mark’s way of inviting us to imagine what happens on the other side of the Resurrection. It’s an invitation for us to dream.
It deserves to be said that when Mark ends the story this way, he does not seem to be speaking literally. The women were afraid, so they told no one? Of course they told somebody—for otherwise, how would we all have learned about it? How would Mark himself know? How would the Resurrection story ever have been told? How would Christianity ever have become a thing? So while it may be cause for some head scratching that terror seized the women and that they were afraid, it seems to have been their amazement that carried the day. At some point, they started to share the story of what they had seen.
The other thing that deserves comment is what the women are told when they arrive at the tomb. Mark says there is a young man in a white robe seated by the tomb—tradition calls him an angel. He is the one who speaks to the women. He tells them, “[Y]ou are looking for Jesus of Nazareth…He has been raised; he is not here… 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.” You will see him in Galilee, the young man says. That phrase is important because of what it has meant throughout Mark’s telling of the story. Galilee, for Mark, is where ordinary life takes place. It’s where Jesus’ life happened; it’s where he found and called all of these disciples in the first place, living their regular lives. It is where he invited them into a new way of life. So when the women are told to look for the risen Jesus in Galilee, that’s not just an invitation to them, it’s an invitation to all of us—anyone hearing the story.
Jesus isn’t just present in a Bible story, wandering around outside the tomb. He’s out there, in the world. He’s once again out doing the work he’s been doing all along—he’s living a resurrection life, a life of possibility and promise, and he’s inviting other people to live that life too. So you yourself may not have been present with the women at the tomb that first Easter morning, but that does not matter. You’ll see him in Galilee, Mark says.
The risen Christ is out there, in everyday life. He’s at the grocery store, and on the driving range, and helping kids and parents and teachers with online school. He’s among those who suffer—on the sidewalk or on the border, in an unemployment line, or struggling to make rent. Jesus is in the lives of those who help others: he’s in the ICU helping COVID patients, and he’s administering tests and vaccines. He’s driving the school bus and sweeping the floor, fighting the fire and driving the ambulance. Jesus is everywhere with servants and victims alike, he’s serving and protecting, and he’s serving hard time. Jesus is out there in the world; it’s what he came for in the first place at the manger in Bethlehem. God came into the world so that we would know that God cares about the everyday lives that we live. And so we are called to look for him in Galilee, in the everyday, and to see his face when we look at others. We are called to love one another, just as he has loved us.
This is the miracle of Resurrection: not just that it happened once in a tomb to Jesus Christ, but that it might begin today, for you. A different way of thinking about your life. Freedom. A chance to be released from whatever has you trapped, or stuck, or feeling as if you have been forgotten. A chance to come to what might seem like the abrupt end of the story, and imagine what might happen next. To tell the story yourself, and in doing so, to keep it alive. Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed! Amen.