Grace Presbyterian Church
April 4, 2020, Easter B (recorded)
Christ is Risen! Shall We Live Like It?
I am compelled to preface this message with something of a disclaimer. The good saints and scholars behind the development and organization of that road map for preaching and proclamation known as the Revised Common Lectionary would prefer that I not preach from this gospel reading today, or any Easter Sunday. That resource tends to favor readings and lessons from the gospel of John during Lent and especially Holy Week, and forwards John 20:1-18 as the principal reading for the day, with the Mark passage as an “alternate” reading. To be fair, that’s a lovely reading with the wonderful bit between Jesus and Mary Magdalene where she thinks he’s the gardener and all that. In fact, if it were up to the RCL you’d hear that passage from John every Easter Sunday, as Matthew’s and Luke’s resurrection accounts are also listed as “alternate” readings in Years A and C of the lectionary, respectively.
Others take up this push, such as the commentaries and other resources provided by, say, our denomination, which for the most part only acknowledge the reading from Mark as an “alternate” option for the day, and in some cases provide no support resources for it at all. For example, the lectionary-based commentary I use as a preparation starting point once I’ve made my way through studying the scripture reading itself doesn’t include any commentary for the Mark text. It’s John or nothing for Easter Sunday.
So of course I preach from Mark.
The Mark reading’s unpopularity isn’t that big a surprise, I guess, once you’ve actually heard the reading. Let’s not mince words: it is deeply unsatisfying. No celebration, no rejoicing, not even an actual appearance of Jesus. Just a “young man” announcing and women fleeing in fear. Frankly, having the Acts reading as a supplement, in which the Apostle Peter gives an account of post-resurrection appearances of and even meals with Jesus, feels probably more useful in this cycle than in any other.
The Mark account kinda makes that first hymn feel a bit out of place, doesn’t it?
(A few necessary disclaimers here: the “additional verses” found in most Bibles are almost unanimously understood now to be much later additions to the text of Mark – the style and language are unbearably different. Also, it’s not at all clear that this is where Mark meant to end his account; it is possible that some further original material was lost. To the degree that this matters, this is the position I would take.)
There is one virtue in Mark’s terse account as we have it, though, that isn’t really found in quite the same way in the other, more voluble readings, certainly not John’s. Note that the cast of characters is quite small. A few women are making their way to the tomb to finish the work of preparation that had been cut off by the sunset approach of Sabbath when the body was being buried. Their main concern seemingly was to wonder how they would actually be able to get into the tomb to finish anointing the body with spices and other elements for its residence in the tomb. When they arrive, in the tomb is not the body of Jesus, but a “young man” sitting to one side (not named as an angel, but fulfilling that role), who makes the announcement in vv. 6-7:
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. 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.
Their response, understandable but still terribly disappointing, was to run away: the three descriptive words that trail them are terror, amazement, and fear. Curtain falls.
As disappointing as this ending feels from a dramatic or literary point of view, or how unsatisfying for those weaned on a steady diet of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden, there is, I repeat, one significant virtue, one powerful advantage to this account and its abrupt ending: we have no one to hide behind. No Magdalene in the garden, no Peter and John racing back and forth, no other characters to detract from the one urgent, pressing, inescapable question posed by this gospel’s ending:
What are you going to do?
The young man’s statement rings out, hanging in the air. “But go … he is going ahead of you to Galilee … there you will see him.” Follow him, y’all. He’s gone on ahead of you; he’s waiting for you there; follow him. “There you will see him, just as he told you.”
Referring to those competing theories about the end of Mark’s gospel, one reason I’m disinclined to believe that this is the ending as Mark meant it is that if Mark had really intended to stop here, there would have been no reason to include even verse 8. The most gut-punch ending possible would have been simply to stop with verse 7 and let that call hang in the air forever.
Apart from what looks like a failure of nerve on the part of the women (but don’t dump on them, folks, since the men are nowhere in sight), we do have that question hanging in the air for us as Mark’s gospel closes, and it is left hanging for perhaps Mark’s most important audience: us.
It falls on us to decide, will we follow him? Will we go after Jesus?
And goodness, no, I’m not asking if we’re going to “be Christians.” Talk about a word that has been so badly misused and abused and misappropriated for such large swaths of the past two thousand years! Given the number of truly ungodly things that have been passed off over the last few years (but that hardly for the first time!) as being done by “Christians,” it’s fair to wonder if that label itself is finally outliving its usefulness. Wearing a favored label or being part of a particular favored group is absolutely not the point of any of this, any of what Mark or any other gospel writer has been laying out over the course of their particular accounts of jesus’s life and death and resurrection.
And to be frank about it, the term “believer” is equally useless, or maybe even more so. Though again, the answer to come is hardly unique in the history of the church, let’s take the faith (and the Protestant version of it to a great degree) as it has been worked out over the course of the more than four hundred years that it has been in action on this particular continent. Think of the various missionaries who accompanied Spanish conquistadores into places like Florida or what is now the US Southwest; the ever-so-high-minded Puritans who came ashore in New England; the wildly fervent proponents of various Great Awakenings across the continent through the nineteenth century; or the proponents of the great evangelistic crusades of the twentieth century. All of those movements, to a great degree, devoted their efforts to the propagation of particular points of belief. Perhaps somehow it was assumed that right action would automatically follow, but an awful lot of the emphasis was on right belief.
Did you ever get introduced to the “Roman Road” to salvation?
Did anyone ever talk to you about “steps” to being a Christian?
Did you ever get an evangelistic tract?
So let’s take a step back now, looking at our church and our society as it currently stands, the result of all those propagations of good belief. A country that has never truly lived up to its stated founding ideals; a society that has repeatedly shown itself willing to sacrifice “the least of these” as in Matthew’s gospel for the comfort and safety of the few; a church that even in non-pandemic times manages to be as fractious as ever and to be more segregated than just about any other entity around us; let us look at all those things, and let’s honestly ask ourselves: how’s that “belief” thing working out for us?
At this point, as Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee, about the only label that we should really be concerned about now is “followers.” Followers of Jesus. Followers who go where Jesus goes, regardless of the scorn or mockery or whispered asides or economic loss or really anything, even regardless of whatever danger might come to us for doing so.
Even though with the new liturgical season it is no longer serving as our charge, that charge at the end of the service we have been using through Lent is worth holding on to:
Disciples of Jesus, do not shun the way of the cross, but follow wherever your Lord may lead you.
Even though it’s not recorded in Mark’s gospel, we kinda assume that somebody must have gotten the message the women received at the tomb if only because, well, Mark must have been writing this gospel to somebodywho most likely wouldn’t have cared or even known any of this if the women had stayed terrified and fearful and never told anybody. That there was anyone out there at all for Mark to write to with this account of Jesus’s life and teaching and death and, yes, resurrection, does lead us to figure that somebody must have eventually spoken up, and gotten everybody to follow Jesus to Galilee.
And because of that, Mark’s challenge rings on to us. Are we, fearful and terrified as we sometimes are, going to follow where Jesus is leading us? Or have we lost the plot so badly that we can no longer even see where Jesus is calling us to go?
It’s not too late finally, truly, at whatever cost or risk, to be followers of Jesus, not merely in all that we think or believe, but especially and inescapably in all that we say and do. And this resurrected Jesus, out of the tomb and gone on ahead of us, is calling us to nothing less.
Let us follow him where he leads; there we will see him, just as he tells us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #254, That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright