An Unsettling Morning (Easter, 2020)
Mark 16: 1-8a
An Unsettling Morning
This is not normal. We know what normal looks like. We know what Easter looks like, or at least we know what Easter has looked like for the better part of 2000 years. It is Christians gathering together to celebrate and worship the risen Lord. Christians gathering together, from small churches in houses, to groups of six or seven or even three, all the way up to mass gatherings in large churches that have to rent out sports arenas for 40 or 50,000 people to come and worship together. We know when Easter looks like: it is an empty tomb, it is trumpets, praises, it is joy; it is new dresses, best suits, funny ties.
But this year is different. For the first time in your life you don’t have to be perfect on Easter. For the first time in your life there isn’t a fancy new dress. You don’t have to get your best clothing on. You don’t have to spend an hour on makeup, you don’t have to have the perfect worship service. For the first time Easter is different. And it might feel like it’s not Easter. I want to take a moment to say that’s OK. I want you to feel like it’s not Easter; because I’m going to tell you this is the most Easter that Easter Sunday has been in our lifetime. Take the time this year to reflect on the actual story being told. Take the time this year, on this “Easter in your PJs,” take the time to listen and let Easter this year be about the tomb, and about the risen Lord, and about the body that’s not there; and less about the church building and your favorite new tie.
Remember that Easter does not happen for our perfection. Easter does not happen because of us. And regardless of where you are, regardless of what you’re wearing today, the tomb is still empty. Remember that.
This is indeed not what Easter normally looks like. But perhaps it is the closest to what Easter actually looked like on that first Easter Sunday. Mark gives us a beautiful glimpse into the mindset of those early Christians on that first Easter morning. We like to paint a rosy picture of what the morning looks like. You look at the artwork that’s posted around and you can see this beautiful picture: the women bowing down to Jesus, the disciples overjoyed and overcome with their emotions as Jesus appears to them in the Upper Room. We like to believe that those Christians started on the Easter Sunday, and by the time pentecost rolled around they were already having to rent out the Colosseum, complete with fog machines. That just wasn’t the case. Combining stories from multiple Gospels, we see women at the tomb who don’t recognize Jesus and think that he is a gardener, we see disciples who doubt that Jesus is the one who’s in their room, we see Thomas doubt the disciples when they become convinced, we see two disciples heading back home late in the day to Emmaus not believing what they had heard, we see the key disciples of Peter, James and John heading back out on the boats to fish as if the story is over.
That’s what the first Easter really looked like. But I think that the Gospel of Mark offers us a beautiful picture into that moment if we allow it to speak to us. The Gospel of Mark is interesting in that it ends here, or really the traditional ending of Mark ends right here. Which is very unsettling. It’s very different than what you might expect. I want you to take a moment and notice what isn’t here in this passage, which might help explain why Christians throughout the centuries, even the very early centuries, tried to help Mark with this. Notice what isn’t here.
There is no appearance by Jesus. Jesus has gone ahead; he's in Galilee already; he's already in the ministry. He doesn’t have time to wait in the tomb for disciples who didn’t get it with all the predictions. Jesus is on ahead, and there’s no appearance by Jesus here. There’s no disciples coming to the tomb. It’s only the women who come to the tomb to bury Jesus, to provide the ointment and the spices necessary to prepare him for burial. They don’t go back to the disciples and have Peter and John run up or any of that stuff. There’s no appearance for the disciples at all, but certainly no appearance for disciples at the tomb. And furthermore, there is no one telling anyone anything. The angelic men in white robes tell the women to “go and tell others about this wonderful thing” that they have seen, but they don’t. The last words of the gospel are “they run away terrified and say nothing to anyone.”
It’s easy to see why people were unsettled by that, and why they didn’t necessarily like it. And we find that there are additional endings that were added to manuscripts. They’re not in the oldest manuscripts we have, but they’re in some very early manuscripts that we have. And these get included because we don’t like the ending of the Gospel of Mark. So you see a traditional ending of the Gospel, which ends after the first part of verse eight. And then there are two additions to it: one called the shorter ending to the Gospel according to Mark, which is just the second half of verse eight. And then the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark, which is the rest of chapter 16 here. These contain a different vocabulary, they’re different sentence structure, they’re clearly written by different people than the one who wrote the rest of the Gospel. What we think happened here is that scholars just assumed that he was bad at endings, or the ending was lost, so they helped him out. The longer ending of Mark borrows from the other Gospels.
It’s not really that different from today. We like stories that have closure; that wrap up in a nice bow. We want a nice happy ending. We don’t like stories that leave us unsettled with loose ends; that leave us seemingly unfinished. And yet that’s not what Mark offers today. And honestly it’s not what we see in our world at this very moment. We want to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We want to know that God has power over this event that is encompassing everything in our lives. We long to know that we will be unaffected by this. And there is some of that in the tomb being empty on Easter morning, but it’s not a delivery from pain and suffering, it is a delivery from the death of the soul. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel offered here. There’s an exit to a different tunnel that we know is coming up in the future, but we don’t know how far away it is. Real life is an unsettling story, and I think the Gospel according to Mark is offering us a gift in this unsettling ending that he has here.
We don’t have a story that ends in a nice little bow here; what we have are three terrified women, two men in white robes and an empty tomb. Jesus is not visible to the people, the disciples are locked away in an upper room because of the authorities, perhaps quarantined in their own little area, they only leave for the essential activities such as preparing a body for burial. Sounds familiar. This Easter may not look like any other Easter you have ever experienced, but let me tell you this Easter might well be the closest glimpse we have to what the first Easter felt like. Let this Easter feel unsettling, because the first Easter was unsettling as well. And remember, even if we aren’t in the building, even if we’re sitting in PJs instead of our Sunday finest; the tomb is still empty and God is still God.
So this story seems like our Easter, Pastor, but what do we do with that? Let’s take a look at some of the lessons that can be learned by trying to figure out how we got from the end of the traditional ending of the Gospel of Mark to say the Gospel of John or to Easter 2019. What we recognize is that eventually things change from where we see them at the end of the traditional ending. Eventually the disciples leave their quarantine in the upper room; actually they’re driven from the quarantine by Jesus, who shows up not once but twice in the upper room to tell them to “go to Galilee, meet me there.” So eventually they leave their quarantine.
Also, we know that eventually somebody talks. We know that because the Gospel of Mark exists. Someone existed to write it, and a church existed to read it or listen to it, so someone eventually must’ve told somebody something about this. And these women must eventually talk because the story exists in every Gospel. So at some point these women must’ve told the story to somebody. At some point someone talked. The stories that these two angelic men say at the tomb must really have happened. According to the book of Acts, in just 50 days Peter will not be in an upper room; he will be standing in the streets of Jerusalem loudly proclaiming the same story these two men said, and 3000 people will join the movement. And they’ll tell another, and they’ll tell another, and they’ll tell another, on down through the centuries until eventually someone told you. And Jesus now asks “who are you going to tell?”
The story of Pentecost is the second lesson. Jesus appeared to the disciples yes, but he eventually left. And the Church kept growing because the Spirit came. I’ll almost guarantee that Jesus won’t show up to you in your quarantine today in a physical manifestation, but I am very confident that Jesus won’t do that. But I’m also very confident that God will come tangibly into your presence in the midst of the service, because the Spirit is present with you. The Spirit is always present within you and around you. The reality is that when the church is working, the Spirit is already in the ministry field working around them and multiplying their labor.
One of the beautiful things about the Gospel according to Mark that I just love is that it doesn’t really end. The two alternate endings are also Scripture, they are inspired of God as well, and they can teach us as well; but if you remove them for a moment and you just look at what Mark gave us, it doesn’t really end. I think it is so beautiful because at the very start of the Gospel, his first line is “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” If you say that that’s not a first line but rather a title, then the entire Gospel is merely the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ; a story of Good News that continues on beyond anything that he could have known. This is just when he stopped writing, the story continues. The Gospel of Mark continues today.
As the writing ends here, we have women who are commanded to go and tell someone, but are too terrified. We have disciples who were locked away in an upper room terrified. No one is following the angels’ command. The Gospel of Mark’s ending here leaves you wanting to know who is going to follow the angels’ command? Who is going to tell the world of this wonderful thing that has happened? And I can just watch Mark smiling and saying “yeah, who is going to say that? Who is going to tell the world?”
Now, I want to be clear. I am not saying go out right now and knock on all your neighbors’ doors and tell them the wonderful news. People right now are reacting in emotions; people right now or a lot closer to the women at the tomb than the women who are telling the story. And I don’t believe that it is prudent to look at this as an opportunity, to look at this moment where we are all more aware of our own mortality as this kind of opportunity as if we’re perfume salesmen. That’s just not what I think the Church is to be. In this moment, you love. In this moment, you serve.
But I recognize that even though it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel will end. There will be a time when we are released from this quarantine and the world attempts to go back to normal. So during this period of quarantine, as you are serving others, as you are loving others, as you are like a member that texted me this week about sending cards to the nursing homes, as you’re calling on your neighbors, as you’re checking up on people; as you’re doing more of these kinds of things, I also want you to mentally try and prepare for the end of this quarantine. I want you to mentally prepare for when things are going to go back to normal. And I want you to be thinking about what parts of normal you want to go back to, and what parts of normal are you going to change. What parts of normal are worth returning to? The disciples left a quarantine and they tried to go back to normal: they went back to Emmaus, they went back to fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus had to gather them back in like a shepherd gathering his wayward sheep. They changed because of Easter. Our life will change in tangible ways as well because of what is happening right now. And your job is to, in prayer, consider what should be and what should not be changed. Allow Jesus to shepherd you better. May God bless you, and Happy Easter. Amen.