The last time I preached Easter morning I chose John’s gospel, the most detailed and complicated version of the Easter story. It’s the one where two of the male disciples go to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, but then run off, leaving Mary alone weeping, and she meets the risen Christ.
This morning I wanted to listen to Mark’s account. It’s the earliest and simplest version, and it seemed to me that after the year we have been through, we could connect with the deep uncertainties reflected in Mark’s telling of the story.
Mark’s Easter story is in some ways also the most interesting. If you look in any modern Bible, you will find that right after the account we heard this morning, somewhere in parentheses, it will say “The short ending”. And there will be a space, and then another twelve verses, and another parentheses enclosing the description “the longer ending”. The additional twelve verses include three resurrection appearances (including a commissioning of the disciples by Jesus) and the ascension. Older Bibles, including the King James’ Version, don’t differentiate two endings, but simply include all 20 verses of chapter 16.
Modern scholarship has determined that there is an issue with what past generations accepted as the ending of Mark’s gospel. The “long ending” of Mark is actually a compilation of endings by authors other than the “Mark” who is responsible for the rest of the gospel. It is generally accepted, today, that the original text ended just as we heard it:
So 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.
At some point, generations and many decades later, other authors, unsatisfied by Mark’s ending, tacked on additional material.
Can you imagine why? Can you see what must have bothered them about the original ending? Did you notice, as we listened today, what was missing from Mark’s Easter morning story?
Mark’s original ending has no resurrection appearance. Jesus is not there. The resurrected Christ is missing: all we have is the word of the unidentified “young man” – presumably an angelic messenger – telling the women that “he has been raised” and “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” There is nothing that testifies to proof of the resurrection. For many Christians – though not all – the truth of the gospel story depends on a literal, bodily resurrection. No wonder that those later scribes, laboriously making copies of the sacred texts long before the printing press, felt that they just HAD to improve upon Mark’s ending.
So why didn’t Mark go further? As he was writing, perhaps 35 years after Jesus’ death, he must have known stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Immersed as he was in the story, he has to have appreciated what impact it would make to conclude his testimony by reporting that the women were terrified and didn’t tell anyone.
Many, in the recent decades since it became clear where Mark originally ended his story, have thought and written about this provocative question. I’d like to share and reflect with you on two observations that seem compelling to me.
Firstly – Mark wanted to emphasize the women’s fear and uncertainty, rather than rushing into the happy resolution of a resurrection appearance. Perhaps he wanted to allow us to identify fully with their experience, which is in so many ways like our own.
Mark's Easter Gospel ends with silence rather than "Alleluia!" “Alleluia” was simply not the word the women said at the end of their long night of waiting. “Alleluia” is not what they were preparing to say when the Sabbath was over as they made their way to the tomb. They had been there on Friday when Jesus died and the sky turned dark at midday. Mark remembers all three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They looked on from a distance when Jesus was crucified. Mary Magdalene had been there when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' lifeless body in linen and laid him in the tomb.
They asked a pressing question as they made their way toward the grave: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they neared the tomb they saw that the stone had already been rolled aside. But even then, they didn't shout Alleluia. Even after they heard the young man in white tell them that Jesus had been raised, they didn't shout "Christ is risen!" That's what we might want them to say, but they didn't behave as we would like.
They fled from the tomb for "terror and amazement had seized them." The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos (trauma) and ecstasis (ecstasy). So not just “fear and amazement” but trauma and ecstasy had taken hold of them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark's Gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.
Of all the Easter Gospels, Mark's story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood, and we can do so easily enough. The three women didn't see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn't hear Jesus call their names (as did Mary in John’s Easter story). Neither have we. They didn’t have the option to touch his wounded hands any more than we have. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters.
Haven’t we, too, known those moments of desolation in these past months of watching millions die of the virus that has ravaged the world? Haven’t we known the deep ache of bereavement? Haven’t we shared the fear of an unknown future?
Despite that morning’s fear, however, the women did renew their courage and their trust: we know they did. Between the women's experience at the empty tomb and Mark's writing, the three women did speak -- or we wouldn't know the story. They did speak, or we would not be here today.
The second reason Mark wrote the ending he did, suggest some commentators, is that it invites us into the story - not only by showing us how much these first disciples’ experience is like our own, but by suggesting that the gospel narrative is left for us, the hearers, to complete. This is what’s really important about today’s gospel.
In November, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our gospel reading was the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s first sentence is this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark doesn’t just mean that the first sentence he writes begins the story. He means that the whole story he tells – of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, of his healing and feeding and preaching, of his suffering and death – AND EVEN OF AN EMPTY TOMB AND THREE FLEEING, FRIGHTENED WOMEN – is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The story of the good news has continued with every generation who have felt fear and amazement at Jesus’ empty tomb and at all of the places where loss and fear touched their lives, but have lived lives of faith and service despite it. The story continues with us. Every time we confront our own moments of uncertainty, we are being told that Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised, and has gone ahead of us to Galilee – to the ordinary places where we live our lives – and we will see and experience him there.
The empty tomb promises an open future in which the Risen One goes ahead us as our companion and guide. Christ lives, and is visible to us in all of the dramatic resurrection moments we experience in our lives, where new life and new hope springs out what seemed dead and hopeless, as well as in the everyday gifts and blessings of relationship and of the opportunity we enjoy, every day, of making a difference. Christ is alive and in Christ’s resurrection, we can face the future with strength, and courage, and wisdom as we take our place as Christ’s body, as Christ’s voice and heart and hands and feet in serving the world.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.
Where the mystery comes in is the conviction for those who follow him (from the early days of the Jesus Movement, in fact,) that the cross, the execution of Jesus, is where the redemption of humankind is made complete. The mystery is the notion that we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Most of us learned to understand this – that Jesus’ death on the cross “saved us” and transformed our relationship with God - in a way that many of us can no longer affirm. You’ve heard me reflect on this before, but I think it’s one of those things that is worth returning to. I know that I continue to work at “unlearning” many of the “truths” I was taught in growing up.
Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, declared that “Christ died for our sins”. Certainly, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of those who sentenced him and supported that sentence. He died because sinful human beings sought to protect their own privilege and authority against the threat that his popularity seemed to represent.
Over the course of time, Paul’s notion of Jesus “dying for our sins” evolved into a complex theological doctrine in which Jesus’ death came to be seen as having been required by God the Father. The religious doctrine we were taught maintains that Jesus’ death on the cross served, in effect, as the payment for the sins of the world. (This language is still reflected in our liturgies.) This “substitutionary atonement” theology maintains that humankind was held hostage by our own sins until Jesus, in effect, gave up his life on our behalf, in our place.
Such an idea – that God required sacrifice of God’s beloved child in order to forgive human sin – doesn’t sit right for many of us. It’s not consistent with the God Jesus described in his parables, a God who longs for relationship, who seeks out the lost and forgives, recklessly. The notion that violence was the necessary and pre-ordained means of human salvation does not ring true.
Theologian Marcus Borg points out that the Greek root of the word “martyr” means “witness”. “A martyr, or “witness,”” Borg observes, “is killed because she or he stands for something – which in early Christianity meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.”*
The powers of the world are still enacting crucifixions,
The powers of the world still crucify, and our efforts to stand in opposition so often feel like shoveling sand against the tide of human selfishness and greed – both within ourselves and in the social and political world outside ourselves.
And yet we are still left with that conviction – articulated by Paul and central to the faith of the Church – that it is the cross that saves us.
Along with others, I have come to see that the cross was not required to change God, but to change us. Jesus’ death provides us the means to face up to our deepest failings.
One of the mysteries of the cross is that it is the place where God’s grace meets and coexists with human violence.
The old hymn puts it this way:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
As we contemplate the cross today we see the sorrow, the brokenness. We are in the fortunate position of knowing that the sin and the brokenness are not the final word.
The power of love gave Jesus the courage to submit to the worst the world had to offer. May that same love and courage inspire and transform us as we, too, join Jesus in the work of building God’s reign justice and peace.
The psalm we have read together this morning, the first part of Psalm 51, is a very Lenten psalm, a Song of Lament. It’s attributed to King David, a cry of sorrow and repentance. It is subtitled within the collection as being David’s response after being confronted by the prophet Nathan of having slept with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.
The poem expresses deep repentance, echoing the pain that comes of the burden of guilt. If it was, indeed David’s response to his wrongdoing, we can understand the depth of his remorse. The psalm calls for forgiveness and for cleansing.
Repentance and forgiveness are, of course, important Lenten themes; I invite you to think with me about them today.
Often the sorrows we suffer have to do with things that have happened TO us, things we haven’t been able to control, like losses, hurts, and disappointments. There are plenty of psalms that lament this kind of experience, bemoaning life’s general unfairness and the wickedness of others.
When wrongs are done to us by others, the unresolved hurt and anger can become a continuing burden that weighs us down and stands in the way of our living full and abundant lives.
The words we’ve read this morning, however, echo a different kind of pain.
In a moment that probably all of us have known at one time or another, the poet is confronting his own responsibility for that which brings him great sorrow:
I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
When we pray the confession each week, we acknowledge the repeated ways in which we fall short of God’s will for us. Most of our failings are not so much a matter of malicious intent, as they are the result of laziness and inertia – taking the easy way.
As David did, though, most of us also carry a few places of deep regret where we are burdened by our more serious errors – the choices that linger in our memory and, when we dwell on them, stand in the way of living with joy and freedom.
One of the themes to which we are called, in Lent, is that of repentance. In the call to repentence, the Christian tradition has often emphasized the judgment, shame, and guilt that we hear it in today’s psalm:
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
The repentence Jesus called for, I would argue, is not primarily about shame and guilt, but about turning away from small and self-serving ways of thinking and living.
The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims a message of acceptance, of affirmation and love that lead us to be outward-looking and life-affirming, loving because we understand ourselves to be loved.
But letting go of shame and guilt is not always easy.
Regret may be especially difficult in modern life because technology has enabled us to control so much of our experience. Technology allows us so many ways of enjoying “do-overs” that save us from having to live with our mistakes: we can just hit that little arrow and erase the words we’ve just typed; we can defriend and unsubscribe. Watching the lives of the rich and famous (as the media encourage us to do,) we know that some can buy their way out of many problems.
But the wrongs we can’t undo, the errors that result in broken relationships and harm done to others, cause us deep despair.
Let me suggest that painful as it is, a certain measure of regret and remorse can be good for us. They remind us that we can do better, they give us the incentive to repent, to recommit to who we want to be and how we want to live.
Further, experiences of remorse and repentance help us remember what matters. They put things in perspective and help us to see with clarity what is trivial and what is important.
The danger in regret, remorse, and shame is, as I’ve said already, the way in which they can disable us. They’re good when they remind and motivate us to work harder. When we cannot let go and move beyond remorse and shame, however, we become captive to painful memories that prevent us from experiencing joy, from exercising the giving parts of ourselves.
And, it seems to me, this is where this morning’s words from Jeremiah come in.
Jeremiah assures spoke to the people of Israel of God’s deep concern for God’s relationship with us. God expresses heartache over the sins of Israel, but looks toward time to come when God’s covenant will be written in people’s hearts – when relationship is not built on rituals and sacrifices, but on people’s genuine knowledge of and trust for God.
The last line in the passage is the important one here, in the context of thinking about repentance:
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
God promises forgiveness. Even more unbelievable, God chooses to forget.
Like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, God awaits us with open arms, ready and longing to celebrate God’s love for us.
God chooses to forget. God wants to wipe away the shame and guilt that shadow our hearts, so that our hearts may be open to God’s grace.
How much different would our lives be if we could forgive and forget – both one another and ourselves - as fully as God does?
As we approach these final days of Lent, preparing to travel with Jesus the final journey, anticipating the empty tomb, I encourage you to do some inventory-taking this week.
Where are the areas where you want to live with deeper commitment to the life of generosity and love to which we’re summoned?
What burdensome memories do you carry of your own mistakes and failures that still require forgiveness? Ask God to help you believe that you are forgiven, and ask God to help you forgive yourself.
What burdensome memories do you carry of wrongs done to you that YOU would like to let go of in order to lead a fuller, more free, more joyful life? Ask God to help you with these, too.
In the name of the One who spared no cost in giving himself for our redemption.
You remember it – “If I speak with the tongues of humans and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Lots of people like to read this passage at weddings, but Paul was actually not writing about romantic love, as that context would suggest, but rather, about the love between believers in the community of the Church.
Paul’s letter is also well known and much beloved for his discussion of spiritual gifts, and his likening the community of believers to the body, which has many members, all with different roles to play, but all equally important.
This morning we have heard another passage that is especially pertinent for us in Lent, as we prepare to face Jesus’ death on the cross in Holy Week. Today’s reading is a theological gem, acknowledging the fundamental paradox and mystery of the cross.
But let’s start with the bigger picture. Paul spent about a year and a half in Corinth during his second missionary journey, somewhere between 50 and 52 CE.
Corinth was a large, international metropolis, probably not too much different from any urban environment today. It was a place of diverse religious and cultural ideas and practices, and its population represented a wide spectrum of social and economic backgrounds.
During his time in Corinth, Paul was instrumental in nurturing and growing the small Christian community there, and he developed deep ties with its members.
When he departed to travel on to Ephesus, Paul remained in touch with his friends in the Corinthian church, including through the letters that the Church preserved, one of which we listened to today.
Paul had learned that the Corinthians had fallen into bad habits – they were making bad choices, as parents and teachers say today. This is not surprising, given the larger context of being situated in a city where a wide variety of ideas and practices were continually vying for adherents.
Members of the church were visiting prostitutes and eating food given to idols at local temples. Worse than this was the bickering. Disputes over proper moral practice, as well as clashes between those in the church loyal to Paul and those who favored Apollos had splintered the congregation. Community members were suing one another.
Paul’s thinking is that the elitism and class hierarchies of the larger society had snuck into the dynamics of the Corinthian church: the “haves” were refusing to wait on or welcome the “have-nots”, even at the Lord’s Supper.
In response to all of this bad news from Corinth, Paul reminded his friends of the foolishness of the cross.
The supposed “wisdom” and knowledge of the world and its value systems has been overturned by God in Jesus’ surrender to the world’s power on the cross, Paul tells his friends.
It’s no surprise that the wisdom of the cross may have been – and, for goodness’ sake, still is – a hard claim to entirely get on board with.
In his homily last week, Bill Hattendorf reminded us of the role and realities of crucifixion in the world of the Roman Empire. As he pointed out, crucifixion was not only a cheap and common means of execution, but also served as a political deterrent to those who would challenge the authority of the state. Crucifixion was ugly and debasing, which is why Jesus’ disciples repeatedly rejected his teaching that he would die and that his followers must “take up their cross and follow.”
No wonder the world beyond the Christian fellowship in Corinth did not see wisdom in the cross. The worship of a god who had been crucified was mocked in non-Christian society.
The earliest-know (presumed) depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion is a graffito – a single image of graffiti – that was found scratched into a plaster wall near Palantine Hill in Rome, in a building that was used as a dormitory for imperial page boys.
Dating from somewhere between the 1st and early 3rd century, it has an image of a figure on a cross: the figure is human but has the head of a donkey or mule. Standing next to it, looking on with a hand raised, is another human figure. The caption reads “Alexemenos worships his God.” Apparently, an early example of middle-school bullying.
(A worthwhile postscript to this story, however, is the fact that in a nearby room in the Palantine Palace is another graffito that reads “Alexemenos is faithful.” It would be nice to think that this one was Alexemenos’ own self-affirmation.)
It is to this theme of others’ contempt for what Christians’ faith in God’s saving love that Paul re-directed the quarrelling church members in Corinth. The world saw belief in the power of the cross to be foolishness, Paul knew.
The assumptions of the world and its wisdom are not the wisdom of God, he reminds them. The privilege systems of the world that have found reflection in the life of their church community are not the life to which God was calling them.
It is the cross in all of its apparent weakness where God’s love enters the world in its fullest expression, and where God’s love transforms the world.
In his commentary on this passage, Presbyterian Pastor Adam Hearlson observes that in his missionary work Paul was teaching that the crucifixion and Christ’s resurrection had ushered in an entirely new age, and that the assumptions and identities which had been thought to be “innate and immutable” in the old age must now be re-evaluated and re-valued.*
Hearlson reflects how very hard it is to revalue identities that we have assimilated as deeply truthful and essential. To illustrate this in a way we will recognize, he offers an analogy that I found to be incredibly striking.
“As whiteness has slowly (sloooooooowly) lost some of its privileges, resistance and anger have risen among those who feel the value of whiteness changing.”*
Observing and understanding this phenomenon in our own context can perhaps help us to understand the back-sliding that was going on among the Corinthians.
And so, what about for us? We can listen to Paul and invite his words to the Corinthians to speak to us.
How fully are we willing to believe and commit to the power of the foolishness of the cross?
How often do we fight to overcome what the larger society tells us is weakness, and instead adopt what the world’s wisdom says is strength?
Where do we, like the Corinthians, work to maintain the structures and hierarchies that, in fact, divide us?
As we continue traveling the road to Jerusalem this Lent, may the Spirit give us her wisdom, open our eyes to see, and fill our hearts with the grace to change.
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