A sermon for the Easter Vigil, with the first celebration of the Resurrection. The Gospel is Mark 16:1-8.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Whenever I work on a sermon or whenever I write something, I tend to start at the end. In other words, I usually have a point to make, an ending in mind, a destination I want to reach; and so the writing is really just filling in, along the way to the place I want to end up. The problem with this is that I sometimes miss all the possibilities along the way. Because I already know where I want to go, my perspective is limited, and my vision narrower.
But I don’t only do this in my writing. Maybe some of you are like me, that often, when we see someone approaching, we already have in our mind an “ending place”—a certain assumption or expectation about how the person might sound, what they might think, where they might come from.
We can do this in other parts of our lives—where we live as though we know the ending of the story—the course of a date or interview or meeting, the result of a special occasion, the journey through an illness or another kind of challenge. Again, like in writing, the problem with expecting or anticipating a particular ending is that we might miss other options, other possibilities, other courses or experiences.
Our Gospel tonight represents one ending of the Gospel of Mark. You probably know that the Holy Scriptures come down to us from various sources. There are numerous versions of most books of the Bible and scholars still try to determine which are earliest and which came later. Sometimes versions of the same book of the Bible differ, and that’s part of what’s going on with the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Some early sources end with what we heard tonight, at Chapter 16, verse 8.
Jesus has been crucified and his body has been buried in the tomb. But the next day, Mary Magdalene and some of the other women take spices to anoint the body and make final preparations. But the stone entrance to the tomb has been rolled away. They encounter a young man (Mark doesn’t say he’s an angel) and the young man tells them “He has been raised; he is not here.” And the young man tells the women to go and tell the other disciples this good news.
But in this ending of Mark, the women leave, terrified. And they say nothing, because they are afraid.
This is a bleak ending, a sad ending. In some ways, it suits the rest of the Gospel of Mark, which is spare and short. There’s no mention of John or Mary being right there at the cross, and we’re told that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women are looking on, but from a distance.
But other early versions of the Gospel of Mark add a longer ending, which is printed in most Bibles. This longer ending does not leave the women paralyzed by fear. Instead, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, then to two other disciples, and finally to all eleven disciples. Mark’s longer version ends Jesus commissioning the disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” And finally, Jesus is taken from them, ascending to God.
Scholars and theologians wonder about these different endings and what Mark might have meant, what early Christian communities might have meant, and certainly, what God might be meaning by giving us these scriptures to wrestle with. At Holy Trinity, we’ve explored these questions this Lent, as we’ve studied a book on the Gospel of Mark by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Williams suggests that the Gospel of Mark leaves off the way it does because it’s FOR US to finish the story. The ending has not been written, because we are a part of it. As Williams writes
What Jesus did and does has no end, and certainly not in the pages of a book, because the work he does he is doing in every new reader, and there will always be new readers….[I]t’s for us to decide whether we become part of the that process of spreading the word of the resurrection that the women at first are too frightened to. The work of Jesus in the reader the “end” of the Gospel. (Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, p. 72)
And that only ends, when we see God face to face and hear how God REALLY wants to end the story.
We might feel like we’re living in stories that have already been written, that have particular endings, and are restricted to specific characters and plot lines—but one aspect of the Good News of Easter is that the story isn’t finished. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a misnomer, because with faith—with you and me—who knows? Maybe the story is just getting to the good part!
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!