Grace Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2015, Easter B
1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
The Unfinished Gospel
Really, this is the word of the Lord. No fooling.
OK, I’ll admit it’s not the most satisfying ending, but there it is. Every shred of evidence insists that Mark, or the author of what is in fact an unsigned gospel, ended his account with what we label the eighth verse of this chapter, with the announcement that the women who came to the tomb and saw it empty were on the run because they were afraid. Yes, you can probably look at your pew Bible and see a bunch of other verses, but you can also see some the longest footnotes in your Bible explaining that the best evidence shows that these verses were added later, by another author. So, despite the title on this sermon, this gospel really does seem to finish with this strange ending.
C’mon, pastor, is this really the scripture to preach today? I mean, there might be visitors present.
Just hang on, folks. Not only is this most likely how Mark meant to end his novel, but if you spend time with it there’s a really good reason he did so. But in one way this gospel of Mark is a lot like those tricky mystery novels my wife likes to read so much; you really do have to remember what happened in previous chapters for the ending to make any sense.
It helps if we spend a moment with verses six and seven of this chapter. The unnamed messenger waiting at the tomb breaks the news to the women – “he has been raised; he is not here” – and even invites them to see the place where he had been, now empty. It’s simple enough, and not unlike similar accounts in other gospels Matthew and Luke.
But the messenger doesn’t leave the news there; there are instructions. “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.” “Just as he told you?” Here we need to look back to several verses from this gospel; from chapters eight, nine, and ten, in which Jesus repeated his warning that he must be rejected by the religious authorities and be crucified and raised again. We also need to look back to chapter fourteen, the night when he was betrayed, the night he broke bread and poured a cup of wine to give those disciples a sign and seal to hold them (and us) together as the body of Christ. It was that awkward moment when Jesus told them that “you will all be deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But even here, Jesus instructs them again, “but after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Even in that bleak and despairing moment Jesus is preparing them for what is to come, for a resurrection – one that at this point is just assumed, “after I am raised up” – and the order to go out to Galilee to meet him.
Now I’m not going to pretend that after this, verse eight and its portrait of fear is anything but a disappointment. After what should be news both joyful and familiar, we get instead something quite the opposite. Still, as strange and uncomfortable as it sounds, it might be exactly the message we need to hear this day of all days.
For one thing, in the context of Mark’s gospel it completes a theme that was apparent from its early chapters; the ones closest to Jesus repeatedly don’t get it. Just to give a few examples; in those three examples in chapters eight, nine, and ten in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, in every case the disciples immediately reveal themselves to be more concerned with very earthly ideas of power and influence. Another example follows after not one, but two miraculous feedings recorded in the gospel. The famous feeding of the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish is recorded in Mark 6, and two chapters later a second feeding, in which four thousand are fed off of seven loaves and a few small fish. Still, just a few verses after that second feeding miracle, the disciples think Jesus is lecturing them over forgetting to bring bread on a boat trip across a lake. If anything happens here, these women who had been following Jesus from very early in his ministry have their moment of weakness every bit as much as the twelve who fled when the authorities arrived to arrest Jesus in the garden.
And if these disciples, these women, who shared so much time and so much travel and so many meals and so many miracles and experiences during the ministry of Jesus, if they failed and fell short so spectacularly in the time of trial, we who follow at a remove of so many centuries, cannot necessarily expect to do better. When we fall short in following we can at least know that we aren’t the first to do so, and that we are preceded in this failing by those closest to Jesus.
Of course, logically we can guess that at some point, somebody must have said something. After all, if nobody had ever announced that Jesus was out of the tomb, if nobody had ever followed up on Jesus’s command to meet him in Galilee, why would Mark even be writing this gospel? Why would there even be some community, some church to whom Mark would be compelled to write? The word is out, and people are gathered together in community around the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark has his reasons for not sharing these things, or relaying the kind of post-resurrection appearances that Matthew and Luke and John do.
Our reading from 1 Corinthians also points out that there are stories about the life and death and life again of Jesus that our gospel authors don’t necessarily tell. In his letter to the church at Corinth (which was actually written down before any of the gospels) Paul, in this chapter near the end of his first letter, lays out the most basic tenets of the faith as shared by Paul and countless others, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Then, to support this story, he cites witnesses; Cephas (or Peter), and later to the twelve; and then Paul mentions an appearance to “more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,” and another to James (whether the apostle or to his earthly brother Paul does not say). Some of these we can possibly equate to appearances recorded in the gospels, but they don’t contain anything quite like that appearance to more than five hundred.
So if Mark is choosing to withhold any stories of Jesus appearing to his followers, what is his purpose? What’s he’s trying to do? Maybe the answer has to do with what Mark wants to do in response to this gospel.
The women were charged to tell the disciples – and Peter, even Peter, poor foolish Peter who denied Jesus three times – that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they should get on their way. What if that’s our challenge as well? What if we come to the end of this gospel, and we are confronted with the question of whether we will follow Jesus who has gone ahead of us, not content to wait around an empty, useless tomb? What if that’s our question to answer today, this holiest of days?
What if, instead of a comfortable, happy ending, Mark is intent on provoking us to action? What if our calling is not to linger at that empty tomb, but to go where Jesus is leading us? Not to seek closure, but to continue the story?
For indeed, in perhaps the most important way, this is an unfinished gospel after all. Mark has no intention of wrapping up the story and putting a pretty bow on it so we can feel good that it “all came out right in the end.” We, like those original followers, like those in the community to whom Mark writes his gospel, have a job to do. We have a living Christ to follow back to the place where it all began, to following and living with Christ and living with one another in a Christ-like community of faith. Death took its best shot, and could not keep Christ down. So for us, it’s time to get back to work, to get back to proclaiming the good news, to be about the business of telling the world about how “the kingdom of God is near,” as Jesus proclaimed back at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, and how now is the time to “repent and believe in the good news.”
Ultimately there is joy and celebration at this news, but unless we are following where Jesus is leading us, breaking through the surprise and fear and telling this good news, that joy and celebration ends up a bit pointless. This tomb is empty, and Jesus is gone ahead of us; it’s time for us to follow, to continue this unfinished gospel and live out and live into this kingdom of God come near.
For the empty tomb, the unfinished gospel, and Jesus gone ahead of us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: (PH ’90): “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!” (104); “Christ Is Alive!” (108), “The Day of Resurrection” (118)