A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on Easter Day [4 April 2021[: Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; mark 16:1-8
Filling in the Blanks
Of all the descriptions of that first Easter Sunday, I confess that I am most drawn to St. Mark’s version. I trust that you have noticed – at least this year, if not well before – the way Mark’s Resurrection story ends. Mark’s ending is, shall we say, inconclusive, if not incomplete. What do you make of this? My own response is that Mark is making sure you and I are paying attention. Let me explain by recounting his way of telling the Easter story.
At the dawning of the first day of the week, the Magdalene, James’s mother, Mary, and Salome brought their purchased spices to Jesus’ burial plot so that they could perform the ritual anointing of a proper, Jewish burial. Curiously, they had no plan by which to deal with the heavy stone that closed the mouth of the tomb. How were they supposed to anoint the Lord’s body, if they couldn’t gain entrance to the tomb? Nonetheless, plan or no plan, they were committed to this task. It was work that had to be done. So, they kept going.
Any anxiety over being able to anoint Jesus’ body immediately disappeared, as they came in sight of the tomb and saw that the huge, heavy stone had already been rolled away. Without an apparent concern for who or what might have opened the tomb or what danger might lurk nearby, the women entered the tomb and encountered what is described as a “young man, dressed in white, sitting on the burial ledge. In a dry, matter of fact fashion, Mark informs us (as do the other gospel writers) that the women “were alarmed”. (You think?!)
The response that the heretofore “young man” made to the women’s alarm proved to all biblical readers that he was in fact an angel because when we mortals are confronted by one of God’s holy messengers, angels always need to assuage those they meet with these words: “Do not be afraid.” Once the pastoral necessity is accomplished, the angel wasted no time in immediately identifying what was up. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”
With that, the women could see for themselves that the tomb was empty, but before they could register a word of response, the angel spoke again, telling them that they had some work to do, not anointing a body in death but in telling Jesus’ disciples to meet him in Galilee. Again, concerns about where in Galilee this meeting was to occur and what its purpose might be had no traction in their overwhelmed minds. The women turned on their heels in terror and amazement and bolted from the tomb. Telling anyone about this incident was out of the question. Who would believe them?
And as you heard, that is the end of the story, at least in Mark’s telling. Oh yes, there are two endings that most of our Bibles contain. One is a short, lifeless cobbling from a later date that attempt to tie loose ends up. The other is longer, twelve verses in length but is not found in the earliest and most reliable examples of Mark’s manuscripts.
A third and very possible explanation for the way our current version abruptly ends is that the original ending was lost. Yet, by Providential intent or the mishaps of history, we have what we have as an ending to the Easter story as Mark conveys it, which still means that we have to ask ourselves what to do with this awkward ending: the women running away in trepidation and saying nothing to anyone about their experience.
Well, you and I are here; aren’t we? — two thousand years later. We’ve just read the Resurrection story, which means – fellow detectives – that there was assuredly a leak amongst the women! One of them – or all of them – broke their fearful silence and did speak out about the stone being rolled away, the “young man”/angel and his message both of the empty tomb and the establishment of the Galilean meeting. Moreover, what they experienced that first morning evidently burst any and all their qualms about looking foolish or — worse — gullible. And with a bit more detective work we can surmise that the news was so stunning, so clear , so life-changing that they risked the historical notoriety of leaving the story’s ending just as Mark apparently told it.
So, I pose this question: What did the women know that we don’t know? I like to think that this is Mark’s implicit question and the reason he ends his Easter story the way we now have it. I say this because, as a teacher there comes a time when you simply have to let your students fill-in the blanks, which is a real test of what they have learned and what they know.
The other gospel writers (Matthew, Luke, and John all provide what we refer to as “post-resurrection” stories, stories of the disciples meeting the Risen One in Galilee and gradually learning what “resurrection” means and how to incorporate this new, stunning God-life into their own living orientation. In fact, in the six Sundays of Easter, the ones between this day and Pentecost, we will use John’s “post-Easter” stories to fill-in what Mark merely implies, moving us from the empty tomb to the genesis of what you and I know as the “Jesus Movement”.
But I think for the moment it is important for us to stay with Mark’s story and see ourselves as those women – and after them, the rest of Jesus’ disciples. With them, we need to put the pieces together to form a picture that changes everything. What are those pieces – for them then and for us now? I do think that this is the implicit purpose of Mark’s ending of the empty tomb story. What are those pieces that make for a complete resurrection story?
I say this because the empty tomb proves nothing, just as the women’s amazement and terror only indicate a reaction, not a transforming insight. Like them, you and I need to put our bodies and souls into the story; and if there is truth to be found in Jesus’ resurrection (and I believe that there is truth, deep truth; truth that that reveals what life with God is like: life that is stronger than death) –if there is truth, then we need to be willing to flesh out the story of Easter in ourselves.
“Resurrection” does not mean “life after death”. If anything, it means “life after ‘life after death’”. Resurrection means “to awaken to” as in “awaken to what life on God’s terms is like”; awaken to what attaching our life to God’s life can mean — for us and for the world.
For now, at this early stage of Easter’s reality, the headline God has written in terms of Jesus’ resurrection is this: “Nothing can keep my love in a grave.” This is the first step in dealing with what has done in Jesus’ rising. We will need to stay tuned as we flesh out this new life story, daring to be those pieces that continue to speak of this new life. So, for now, in amazement and no small amount of trepidation about the changes that lie ahead, all we can say is: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
Thanks be to God.” Amen.