Sermon for Easter Sunday
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 1, 2018 10:30 AM
⸂Καὶ ἐξελθοῦσαι⸃ ἔφυγον ἀπὸ τοῦ μνημείου, εἶχεν γὰρ αὐτὰς ⸀τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις·* καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν·* ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ.* ⸆
They went out, running away from the tomb, for trembling and disorientation had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
Mark must have flunked resurrection writing in college. Mark’s account of Easter morning features no soldiers seal this tomb or guard it against body snatchers? No angel in breathtaking, snow-white clothing rolls back the stone from the mouth of the sepulcher or dazzles Pilate’s guards into catalepsy. In fact, Mark’s story even doesn’t even have Jesus (except in endings to the Gospel added later). The risen Lord doesn’t appear to Mary in the garden or to the women on their way back to Jerusalem. He doesn’t appear in the upper room—or in any other room, for that matter—and doesn’t meet Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. Jesus doesn’t even cook fish for the disciples as John’s Gospel insists. A young man dressed in white is as close as Mark gets to having an angel, and neither Peter nor any of the apostles run to the graveyard to see whether the women are telling the truth about the empty tomb because in Mark the women are too frightened to tell the disciples anything. And we might well wonder how Mark missed all these details we find in the later gospels of the New Testament until we realize that Mark told the story first, told the story in its bare bones, told the story without an embellishment, without any miraculous enhancements.
Three women came to Jesus’s tomb to anoint the mangled and abused body of our Lord. The disciples should have done it, but they were nowhere to be found. They had run away and hidden themselves after Jesus’s arrest for fear that they would be implicated in the insurrection the authorities claimed Jesus had instigated against the temple and against Roman authority. Only the women in the Galilean’s following had the courage to remain visible as their Lord breathed his last on a Roman cross, and only they had the courage to buy spices and betake themselves to the tombs to find the body of Jesus and anoint him properly for the time it would reside in its borrowed tomb.
But even their audacity had its limits, and finding the tomb opened with a stranger inside and hearing the stranger’s message about Jesus being raised and about seeing him again back up north in the Galilee was just too much. Finally, even the women fled; and the final two words of the Gospel of Mark explain their actions, ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ, “for they were afraid.” At last, even these three resolute women were afraid. Despite the young man’s instructions, they don’t tell the disciples anything. Shock and heartbreak had taken their toll. That first Easter Day had dawned not with joy and exultation for these women but with foreboding and even terror.
Mark does not romanticize the Day of Resurrection for us but insists, instead, on telling us the truth about it in stark, unenhanced prose. In particular, Mark tells the truth about the most courageous of Jesus’s followers, and in so doing tells us the truth about ourselves and about our relationship with the Jesus whose body was absent from the tomb that morning.
You don’t anoint a body to preserve it. The women hadn’t come to perform mummification. At best, the application of pungent ointments to the body might suppress the natural odors of decay for a short time and thwart the interest of the fly population for a while. Visitors to a grave, after all, usually come in the first few days after burial when such temporary measures are most effective. But it was also a sign of respect and love for family members, friends and neighbors to leave the remains of the deceased as decently arrayed as possible. The bereaved could derive some comfort from that, perhaps, some sense that they had done their best for their friend or family member by performing such simple human rituals as they said their silent goodbyes. Then somebody could roll the large, carved stone along its track across the entrance to the tomb, and the matter would be at an end. Grief would now have to run its course.
The empty ledge in Joseph’s tomb and the young man dressed in white sitting beside it made all that impossible. Whatever the young fellow might have meant when he told the women that Jesus had been raised, the truth for them was an absence, not a new and glorious presence. No body lay there to anoint but not resurrected Lord stood there to be adored either; no goodbyes could be said, and the empty stone slab hardly evoked alleluias either. Even if they began their journey back to the Galilee that very morning, what could they expect to find there—some kind of apparition, a ghost? They were no less bereft in that tomb than they had been minutes before entering it.
That’s how Mark describes the truth of the resurrection. He does not soften the horror of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion by telling us that everything came out all right, that somehow Jesus hadn’t really died or that we had just suffered through some kind of cosmic joke and could now laugh and play again. Mark’s final scene contains Jesus’s most loyal and courageous companions unable to cope with what they saw and heard on what for us is such a joyful occasion. They don’t even have a body to prepare, and for their comfort they possess only the unintelligible words of a white-robed stranger.
Above all, Mark’s story about the tomb raises questions without providing any easy answers. What now? What can these women believe? How can they live and hope and love again? But the questions are really for Mark’s readers, for you and me. What these women discover about the living Jesus will not depend on their credulity but upon their faith, upon that bond of trust they established with Jesus before his crucifixion. That was the bond they knew when they accompanied him, when they learned from him, when they hoped in him. The resurrection would consist of finding him in the Galilee and wherever else their faith and trust in him would lead. And if they were frightened now, they had the best track record of all of Jesus’s followers of overcoming that fear to serve him.
Mark’s story includes us in much the same way. The story of an empty tomb cannot create faith in us, and the words of an unexpected visitor dressed in white can be as disorienting as they are clarifying. If we find ourselves uncertain, even afraid, we are in good company; but the promise is still that we shall see him in the Galilee or in our case maybe on North Main Street or Riverside Drive. The empty tomb and the young man’s words don’t solve anything for us; but what we see and do next will be more important than our disorientation and fear.
The women’s story is our story as well. Mark does not leave us with the idea that Mary, the mother of James, or Mary of Magdala, or Salome would forever hide away in their grief and fear. They are, after all, among the most resolute of Jesus’s close company. But their answers to the mystery of the empty tomb do not lie in empty speculation or even in religious devotion, but in the faith and courage that brought them to Jesus’s tomb that morning in the first place. The same holds true for us. Whether or how we meet the risen Lord depends upon the faith and hope God has put within us, not in our willingness to credit a theological theory about resurrection or life after death. That kind of believing is always secondary. The question Mark poses asks us what we intend to do after we leave the tomb. Will we hide fearfully from our trip to the Galilee or leave now for whatever future God has prepared for us there?
The life of faith—the women’s faith and our faith—amounts to simple acts: calling a long-neglected neighbor before the day is finished, getting involved in service to poor people, to illiterate people, to people without hope and doing something about that commitment before the sun sets. What you and I decide to do now, how you and I choose to believe now, will depend on one thing, our love for our living Lord.