View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
April 7, 2012 | 10:30 p.m. | Easter Vigil
Is This the End?
John W. Vest
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Each of the four Gospels found in our Bible tells the story of Jesus in a slightly different way. Each version of Jesus’ story represents the particular contexts, questions, and concerns of the individual Gospel writers and the communities for whom they were writing. To fully appreciate these distinctive tellings of the story of Jesus, it is important to hear each story on its own, without imposing what you know—or think you know—from the others.
So I invite you to listen to the ending of Mark’s story of Jesus, perhaps the most surprising and confounding conclusion of the four Gospels the church considers sacred scripture. I invite you to listen to it with fresh ears, as if you had never heard it or any of the other Gospels before. Forget what you think you know about Easter, forget what you think you know about Jesus’ resurrection, and listen for the shocking way that Mark concludes the signature story of our faith.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16:1–8, Common English Bible)
What kind of ending is that? Could this actually be the conclusion to the story of Jesus? Is this really the end?
If you read the last chapter of Mark in contemporary editions of the Bible, you will see that there are in fact some additional verses that tell a more traditional story of the resurrection. But biblical scholars are in almost universal agreement that these verses were added later to soften what was almost certainly the original, perplexing, troubling ending of Mark’s story.
Most scholars agree that Mark was the first of our four Gospels to be written. It was later expanded into the two versions of the story we know as Matthew and Luke and completely rewritten as the Gospel of John. These other versions highlight what’s so surprising about Mark’s story. The resurrected Jesus doesn’t actually appear. All we have is the report of a mysterious young man sitting in an empty tomb. The disciples aren’t there, and as far as this story is concerned, they never even find out what happened because the women who discover the empty tomb and talk to the mysterious young man are so frightened that they fail to tell anyone the news of Jesus’ resurrection. The greatest story ever told ends in fear and silence.
It’s not exactly the most inspiring Easter message. It’s no wonder the other three Gospels add the details we are more familiar with: appearances of Jesus and the responses of his followers. It’s no wonder that scribes were dissatisfied with the original conclusion of Mark and added a happier ending.
But filling in the blanks with elements from other stories strips Mark’s story of its literary and theological genius. The whole point is to leave us uncomfortable, to make us wonder what this strange story of Jesus could possibly mean.
Mark scholar Werner Kelber, my first Bible teacher in college, has suggested that the key to understanding this ending—and Mark as a whole—is to pay attention to its original context (Werner H. Kelber, Mark’s Story of Jesus). According to Kelber, Mark was written not long after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. It was a time of great upheaval for both Jews and Christians. Everything that they knew was literally crumbling around them. Jerusalem was burning, and the Jewish people—those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not—were suddenly faced with a profound crisis.
Kelber suggests that the writer of Mark was actually quite critical of the church in Jerusalem. The Christian community there was mostly Jewish, founded by the original followers of Jesus. They were quite conservative in their theology in the sense that they held tightly to their Jewish traditions. They were less open to the idea of expanding the community to include non-Jewish Gentiles. And like everyone in Jerusalem during the disastrous final years of the Jewish revolt against Rome, they were cast into disarray when the temple was destroyed and the city burned.
In this context, Mark’s story of Jesus—which is consistently quite critical of the twelve disciples—reads like a repudiation of the Jerusalem church. They missed the point, Mark is saying. They failed to fully understand the mysteries of Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom. They missed the point and held on to what they could more easily understand, what was more comfortable and reassuring. But when that grand temple came tumbling down, they didn’t know what to do. They failed to realize that Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom was much bigger than any temple made of stone.
So Mark ends his story of Jesus with a deafening silence. The people we expect to be the heroes—Jesus’ disciples and closest followers—utterly and completely fail to do what he asked them to do. But the writer of Mark didn’t intend this to be a simple tragedy. Rather, it’s an invitation to those who hear this story to pick up where the disciples failed. Having heard the story of Jesus and realizing that no one in the story succeeded in sharing it with others, we are compelled to do what the women at the tomb and the disciples could not do.
What a staggeringly subversive reading of Mark’s story of Jesus. Jerusalem may be burning, but Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom can triumph still. The establishment church may have failed—it may be burning right along with the city around it—but all hope is not lost. The faithful and the searching, who gather to hear a sacred story not in grand temples but around campfires on the margins—they are entrusted with a message of hope. Jesus isn’t here in this tomb. He is alive. Go find him. Go follow him.
Almost twenty centuries later, the faithful may find ourselves in a similar situation. Like the church of Jerusalem, perhaps the church we know and love has failed as well. On the right, the church preaches a gospel that is exclusionary, judgmental, misogynistic, and homophobic. On the left, the church preaches a gospel of social justice and being nice that doesn’t really even need Jesus at all. Perhaps we all need to rediscover Jesus’ gospel of God’s kingdom.
Like Jerusalem and the temple so long ago, perhaps our institutions are also crumbling and burning before our eyes. We live in a decidedly post-Christendom era. Long gone are the days when the church was at the center of culture. Relevancy is no longer assumed; it must be earned. On the right, Christians wage culture wars to regain footing. On the left, Christians stand by while the church quietly fades away.
And the world—the world is burning too. Kids are killing each other on the streets of Chicago. Bloody revolutions rock the Middle East. Children are bullied and lose all hope. Relationships fail and families are torn apart. People are hungry and homeless. People are lost and alone.
But on a night like tonight, we gather around fires and in darkened sanctuaries to be reminded of a story that has the power to save us. From creation to the empty tomb, it is a story of deliverance, redemption, and rebirth. It is a story that shapes who we are and how we understand the world in which we live.
What will we do with this story? Will we be like the women at the tomb who are too frightened to share it? Will we be like the disciples who don’t even bother to show up?
Friends, this isn’t the end of the story. This is only the beginning.