Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:30 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
“Tell the disciples that he will meet you in Galilee,” the angel said. . . . In Galilee, at work, in our home, in the familiar places where we break bread and drink from the cup and share the friendship of one another. The risen Lord will meet us in Galilee, on our way, in the midst of life, in the days that are not Easter as well as on the morning that is.
“I Love You”
A sermon for Easter 2012
Alleluia! The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.
Yes, that promise is how we expect a Gospel to end, isn’t it. That promise is what we come into this place expecting, needing, longing to hear proclaimed all throughout our Easter celebration worship. Perhaps that promise is what gave us courage to withstand the shadows of Good Friday and the overwhelming stillness and quiet of Holy Saturday. This promise of Easter alleluias undergirded our steps and whispered “Just a bit longer; almost there” in our ears.
And yet this Gospel of Mark, this Gospel we have inhabited since Advent, does not end that way. It does not end with Easter alleluias. Rather, the original Gospel of Mark ends with fear and silence. In our English translation, Mark tells us that fear and amazement seized the women, the faithful women. The original language, the Greek, is even stronger and claims that trauma and ecstasy seized the women that early morning. However we want to put it, what happened was not a big alleluia. Instead, we are told the women ran away from that empty tomb as quickly as they could and did not say one single word to anyone about what they had seen and heard. Fear and silence are what make up Mark’s Easter ending.
Now, our pew Bibles actually have two additional endings after verse 8—the shorter ending and the longer ending. Most biblical scholars agree that likely both of these two additional endings were added very early on to the original Gospel by some of our Christian brothers or sisters. For you see, those early Christians knew what you and I know: fear and silence are not the most effective ways to end the Jesus story. So both of these extra endings do a little clean-up work for Mark. They add some “happily ever after.” As Brian Blount has written, “They [the early church] added some good to Mark’s rather ambiguous news” (Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 261). Frankly, it is because of Mark’s rather ambiguous news that I don’t often preach this text on Easter, opting for the John passage instead. But today we are sticking with Mark, and according to the way he tells the story, fear and silence dominated the scene on that first Easter.
The women had been some of Jesus’ most faithful followers up to this point. When push came to shove, the other disciples betrayed Jesus or denied Jesus or just plain ran from his presence the moment the soldiers showed up. But the women followed him all the way to the cross. They kept vigil at the crucifixion, praying and weeping as Jesus drew his last breath. They silently watched as Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ crucified body down off the cross and wrapped it in a linen cloth for burial. And they formed their own kind of funeral procession, slowly walking behind Joseph as he took the corpse to his family’s tomb.
And then, on this morning, the day after the sabbath, these same women felt called to continue their care and provision for Jesus. So they woke up early, brought the appropriate spices, and slowly began their walk to the cemetery. They wanted to clean up his body, to show their devotion to him just one more time. They wanted to try and begin the illusive practice of finding closure—something that we all long for after a loved one dies, but something that rarely comes fully and completely. Perhaps the day eventually arrives when you find yourself laughing more than crying at the memories of someone you’ve loved and lost, but you never get over it.
Yet I doubt the women even wanted to talk about their deep grief on that early Sunday morning. It was too fresh, too new. Instead, they did what we all do when someone dies. They focused on the details, the logistics. They focused on the checklist of tasks that one does after a death. “Salome, could you make the phone calls to those followers out of town?” “Mary Magdalene, what do you think we should do about flowers or memorial gifts? Have you finished work on the obituary? Do you know the paper’s deadline?” “Mary, can you and your son James go through Jesus’ few possessions and decide what will be given away and to whom?” And, of course, they needed to figure out the answer to the most pressing question: ”Once we arrive at the tomb, how are we going to roll away that huge, heavy stone?” Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome walked to the tomb, carrying all of the accoutrements of death, with their minds consumed by tasks as they tried their best to ignore the cold shock of fresh grief.
But we might wonder if they felt something else on that early morning, too. We might wonder if, mixed in with the grief, was a small sense of relief (D. Cameron Murchison, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2). We are probably not supposed to talk about this in church, but we have to wonder if, as they wept tears of grief, they also found themselves feeling like a burden had been lifted from their shoulders. Let’s be honest: following Jesus had gotten harder and harder for them. It was a dangerous time to be a disciple. Threat hung in the air. Crosses were being burned on their lawns. People were being disappeared. And those were only some of the physical threats that Jesus’ followers faced.
The women also knew in their bones that it was just plain hard to live as Jesus’ disciples. He was constantly asking things of them, questioning the ways they had always lived their lives, encouraging them to take risks and to stir the societal pot. As philosopher John Caputo suggests, Jesus was always pushing those who followed the Way, his disciples, to embody a different kind of politics: “a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home; a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad; . . . a politics not of sovereignty or of top-down power, but one that builds from the bottom up, where the ‘nothings’ enjoy pride of place and a special privilege” (quoted in Brandon Ambrosino, “The Wicked Irony of Holy Week,” Boston Globe, 1 April 2015). Jesus preached those kinds of things both in his words and certainly in his deeds. So frankly, when the women were being honest with themselves, they admitted that being a disciple could sometimes be exhausting.
Now, don’t get me wrong: as I said, they, we, loved Jesus and had really hoped that he was who he said he was and that he would do as he said he would do. But on that early Sunday morning, the women were on their way to anoint his body and to grieve his death. And those acts meant that starting with that day, starting with that early morning, they were also off the discipleship hook. They could go back to the way things had been before they had seen the world through Jesus’ eyes. They could go back to making an uneasy peace with “the way things are.” The gap between the rich and the poor; the reality of domestic abuse and violence; the existence of slaves and masters; the everyone has his or her place mentality—now that their dream of God’s reign embodied by Jesus had died, they could go back to life as usual.
Was life without the presence of their crucified Lord heartbreaking and terribly disappointing? Yes. But was life without the presence of their crucified Lord easier and less controversial? Yes. If Jesus is in the tomb and the obituary is in the paper, then you go back to living the life of this world. Everybody is on his or her own. Good luck and Godspeed. Hope you have a powerful family lineage so you know the right people, or that you have strong bootstraps so you can more easily pull your own self up. The women must have felt some relief mixed in with their grief. With Jesus in the tomb, things could now go back to their old version of normal.
So what about us? What will happen with us, after the “Hallelujah Chorus” has been sung and Easter brunch is finished? What will we do when the egg hunts are over and we are ready for a Sunday nap? Maybe we will be disappointed that Easter has come and gone and that another regular Monday is on its way. I imagine I will feel some relief that I made it through my first Holy Week with you and we can now get back to “ministry as usual.”
But what do you think: will our dream of God’s reign embodied by Jesus get put back in the closet next to the ceramic bunnies and old Easter baskets until we pull it all out again next year? After today’s pageantry and celebration die down, will we, like the women, make our uneasy peace with the way things are and go back to living the old version of normal life? Life without the presence of our crucified Lord is heartbreaking and disappointing, but it’s also less demanding.
I imagine if any of those women felt any sense of relief, any sense of a burden being lifted from their shoulders, they did not let it show. You just don’t talk about that kind of thing in church or in the cemetery. It is not proper. But their secrecy did not end up mattering anyway. Any relief those women might have felt was sucked right out of their souls when they arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away. Mark says they were “alarmed.” That is a gentle way of putting it. Those women walked into that tomb and found some strange young man sitting there where Jesus’ body was supposed to be.
And then he speaks to them. “Don’t be alarmed,” he proclaims. “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.” What? It’s not over? The women stood in that empty tomb holding all the accoutrements of death, feeling an intense mixture of grief and relief, only to hear this startling pronouncement of life. “He is not here,” the stranger said. “He is going ahead of you; you will see him, just as he told you.”
In one of her haunting short stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Jesus thrown everything off balance” (the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”). Indeed! And the women simply could not comprehend what had just happened, all of that unbalance, so they fearfully fled from that tomb, and Mark claims they said nothing to anyone. And we are right back to where we began. Fear and silence.
Yet, or to use a great Gospel word “Nevertheless,” Mark may have intended for his Gospel to end with fear and silence in verse 8, but I do not believe he intended for the Easter good news to end that way. On e reason I make that conclusion is because Mark’s last sentence actually reads this way “and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid for . . .” Or, to use Bill Placher’s translation, “They were afraid was why.” Mark ends his report with an abrupt hanging conjunction. He closes his Gospel report mid-sentence. That tells me Mark fully intended for us to come to the end of his report, put our Bibles down, and say to each other, “Well, how are we going to finish that sentence? What might we do about it?”
In other words, Mark knew exactly what he was doing. By ending his Gospel mid-sentence with fear and silence, he passed the torch to us. The male disciples are locked in a room. The female ones are running away in fear. That means it is up to us now. The Lord is risen, and we are the only ones left to spread that good news. We cannot rely on Peter or Mary Magdalene or anyone else to do the telling. Because of their fear and silence, we are the ones called to speak the power of Easter. We are the ones now charged with proclaiming that Jesus is on the loose and is still at work just as he told us he would be.
But here is the kicker: in order to overcome the fear and the silence, we are not just called to tell the good news of the Easter story, we are called to believe the good news of the Easter story. And I don’t mean some intellectual assent to a doctrine of the resurrection. I mean we are called to trust and live the crazy and sometimes unbelievably good news that silence and fear and death are not the end of the Jesus story. Silence and fear and death are not the end of our story. Silence and fear and death are not the end of creation’s story. God is not done with any of us yet. God is not done with this world yet. Jesus the Christ was not just raised as a past action, but Jesus the Christ is risen. Jesus is currently on the loose in this sanctuary, in this city, in our world. The dream of God’s reign is not over by a long shot.
And sisters and brothers, the power of God’s Easter good news will not end after the “Hallelujah Chorus” has been sung and we’ve all gone home. The claim of God’s Easter good news will not disappear once Easter Sunday gives way to Monday morning and it looks like things are getting back to normal. The promise of God’s Easter good news is that because the risen Jesus is on the loose in our world, in our time, in our history, and in our lives, things will never be back to old normal again.
Let’s just be clear, shall we? As Easter people, there is no turning back now. There is no getting off that discipleship hook. We cannot roll the stone back in front of the tomb and keep Jesus contained, because Jesus, God-with-us, is alive. And he is calling us to move on down the road and to join him in proclaiming God’s Easter Yes! to this Good Friday-looking world. For is a life lived with our crucified and risen Lord far more abundant and hope-filled and life-giving than we could ever ask or imagine? Absolutely.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! No more fear. And no more silence.
Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church