Easter Day: The Story We Complete
Easter Day: The Story We Complete
Living God, long ago, faithful women proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and the world was changed forever. Teach us to keep faith with them, that our witness may be as bold, our love as deep, and our faith as true. Amen.
16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; 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. 7 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.” 8 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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 10:34–43 or Isaiah 25:6–9
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
1 Corinthians 15:1–11 or Acts 10:34–43
John 20:1–18 or Mark 16:1–8
1. What is your most vivid Easter memory?
2. What does anticipation feel like?
3. Have you ever experienced hope and fear at the same time?
4. What does it mean to be a resurrection people?
5. How do you manifest a resurrected life?
By Cheryl Lindsay
There’s good news in-between the bookends. The Gospel of Mark makes a unique choice among the gospel writers. There’s no birth narrative and no resurrection sighting. This assumes acceptance of our focus scripture as the intended conclusion of the gospel (from the four possible choices). If the storytelling ends at verse eight rather than twenty, we might consider it a cliffhanger, inviting a sequel in much the same way as the Acts of the Apostles continues the story begun in Luke’s narrative. The different ending could also be attributed to the choppiness of Mark’s writing; he’s not concerned with literary style or convention and brings the take to a rather abrupt conclusion.
Another possibility exists however when we consider that Mark opens with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mark 1:1) and immediately recounts the story of Jesus’ baptism. That baptism serves as Mark’s representation of Christ entering into the human condition. It stands to reason that the empty tomb, for Mark, represents Christ leading humanity into the resurrection condition.
Hearers and readers of Mark’s account will not be confused by the doubts of the disciples, including but not limited to Thomas. They need not worry about who sees Jesus and the manner of those encounters. No, for Mark, the empty tomb and the assurance that Jesus had moved forward provide the revelation.
The women, who came to the tomb concerned about who would roll away the stone, found that time wasted as the stone was no impediment to their purpose on that Easter day. Yet, even as they articulate that concern, as Racquel Lettsome notes, “They do all the preparations for the anointing and depart for the tomb, thinking about the stone only as they arrive.” They expected to find Jesus there, and they did not anticipate any hindrance to providing this care for him. Upon hearing that Jesus has gone to Galilee with an expectation that his disciples would follow, the women respond with both emotion and action. They feel both fear and amazement, which is reminiscent of other heavenly appearances recorded in the biblical text and lends additional credence to the popular description of this as an angelic encounter even if Mark describes the announcer as a “young man.” They act by fleeing the scene…in fear and silence (as Mark notes, they do not share this experience as directed).
Yet, these were the same women named by Mark who followed Jesus to Jerusalem and who followed him to the cross. Peter also followed Jesus and accompanied him to Jerusalem for the Passover observation; however, unlike these women who braved public association with the Jesus who hung on the cross, Peter predictably denied his affiliation with Jesus three times. Is this why Peter is the only disciple explicitly named? Peter is invited, like all who fall short in their walk with Jesus, to resume the journey.
The other Evangelists have something to prove. Matthew makes the case that Jesus is the promised Messiah who fulfills the covenant; his genealogy points back to the line of David. Luke’s goes back to the first human and expands the reach of the good news to all people. John starts at the beginning and proclaims the divinity of Christ at a time when that was questioned. Mark tells the story, and sometimes the story speaks for itself.
And, sometimes, it doesn’t…completely…but that also forms and informs the narrative.
Easter is a mystery, and we covet answers. The other resurrection narratives tie up the loose ends, either in response to rumor, speculation, or even apostasy in their time or in order to frame their narratives for their respective audiences. Mark invites the hearer to fill in their own blanks and to sit with the incomplete ending. Mark allows the story to end without resolution. “Mark’s earliest audiences would have experienced the Gospel narrative through performance, whether through public reading or a more dramatic affair.” (Michael R. Whitenton) The gospel writer crafts the story to be received in this way.
Imagine a great, cinematic song rising in crescendo to that climactic moment and ending there. How would you respond? You’d probably hear that moment repeating in your mind for hours or days.
Christ has risen. Let it echo for a bit.
Don’t worry about the next actions of the first witnesses or the reaction of the disciples. We can even wait to consider what Jesus does next. Stay here for a moment. Don’t take the empty tomb for granted or rush to post-resurrection events, sightings, and encounters.
Life has transformed death.
The young man tells the women that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee. The expectation is that the disciples will meet him there. Mark reminds us that Christian discipleship entails following Jesus. The season of Lent reminds us that choice exacts a cost.
After a year of living in a pandemic, we have a greater understanding of Lent. It seems like we’ve been living it for that year–sacrifice and reflection. Emptiness and uncertainty. Physical and social distancing that has diminished our lives and challenged communities to remain connected and to redefine belonging. In some ways, we’ve become acquainted with tomb dwelling. Guy Williams reminds us that tombs, in the time of the resurrection, tombs were dangerous places. By attending to his body, the women would have subjected themselves to the pollution of a dead body, become ritually unclean, and exposed themselves to those who embraced dead places. Presumably, Jesus might have been anointed prior to being placed in the tomb, which was sealed with the stone. They knew the seal was in place by their question.
These women, who also journeyed with Jesus on the cross were not afraid of touching death. They watched him die and went to his grave. Perhaps they were like the woman who anointed Jesus with her tears…just wanting to do something for him. The first mention of fear occurs when they realize the tomb is empty. Many of us have personal experience that fear and excitement can reside alongside each other at a time of great transition. Resurrection is life made new and transformed.
Maybe the women weren’t afraid of the angelic young man and his pronouncements. Maybe they didn’t not fear the uncertainty of a risen Jesus. Maybe they were afraid…in awe…of an ending, they would need to resolve themselves through their own transformed lives.
Transformation can be terrifying. It forces us to encounter dangerous places and face the death of something closely held. Over the last year, we have heard the end of the pandemic–and its hold on our lives–as a return to normal. That’s not happening. We move through our lives from one normal to the next. We change and adapt, however reluctantly or excitedly, to new circumstances. Those stimuli originate from without and within us. That’s the nature of the life cycle, constant change with ups and downs. So little of life is level, but we often delude ourselves that a normal is available and accessible rather than allusive.
We weren’t created for normal. We have been crafted for transformation. We are capable of making extraordinary adjustments. Resilience grows in us when exposed to pressure and challenge. Like the metamorphosis of the caterpillar to the butterfly, a good thing can become a great thing when it enters into a process and changes location. The caterpillar is a fine creation, but the butterfly takes our breath away. Too often we settle for comfort when we should strive for an uncomfortable flight that will take us to places beyond our imagining. We’re content as caterpillars when we could become the butterfly if we’re only willing to complete the story and enter into uncomfortable places.
I recently re-read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. The book tells the story of a young man transformed into a horrible creature. Ultimately, the young man, encased in the body of the new creature, dies, but it isn’t the change that kills him. He starves to death because those around him cannot adapt to the shape of his new life.
The changes the church has undertaken during the last year won’t destroy the church of Jesus Christ. They invite us into the resurrected life, encourage us to eschew our comfort, and push us to become, live, and move as the body of Christ we were always intended to be transformed by what seems like a year of Lent.
Mark’s gospel takes us to the climax of the empty tomb and then leaves the rest of the story for us to tell. We, like the women witnesses, encounter the empty tomb and receive the message that Jesus is not there and has gone ahead with an expectation that we will follow:
Jesus’ promise—which the young man in the tomb echoes— that the disciples (we!) can meet Jesus in Galilee, in effect says that the crucified and risen Jesus is found in the everyday world, where there is illness, demons, oppressive political powers, poverty, and the need for a transforming word. It is difficult to see the crucified and risen Son of God in this everyday world. Indeed, the nightly news seems to make a nightly argument against it, with news of political scandals, international skirmishes, refugee crises, mass gun shootings, and the like. But, into this everyday world, the young man in the white robe says, “This newscaster is unable to tell the end of the story.” To see what Mark saw, we must look at the world through the lens of a christological parable that has the ability to turn our worldview on its head. Then, standing upside down and twisted all around by Mark’s narrative, we can see the Son of God anew and move a little closer to the boundaries of the reign of God. (O Wesley Allen, Jr.)
We can enter the resurrected life. I wonder if the women kept silent, not because they did not believe, but because they did. I wonder if the women said nothing because they knew that the others, who couldn’t face the tomb and the grave, wouldn’t not be ready to face the resurrected life. Perhaps they needed time and space to build their strength and begin to write the rough draft of the next chapter.
We too craft an ending to this Easter Day good news. It’s okay to take a moment, to be silent in the face of the empty tomb. There’s something very human about being struck by awe and fear in anticipation of Christ at work in and through us.
Jesus has gone ahead of us and is waiting for us to arrive…and complete the story. It’s Easter Day! Alleluia!
For further reflection:
“Jesus takes the Resistance beyond prophecy, beyond songs of hope and lamentation, beyond satire and mockery, and beyond apocalyptic visions to declare the inauguration of a new kingdom. With his birth, teachings, death, and resurrection, Jesus has started a revolution. It just doesn’t look the way anyone expects.” — Rachel Held Evans
“Easter is always the answer to ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!’” — Madeleine L’Engle
“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” — N. T. Wright
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer, and Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.