Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tomb Raider or Resurrection?

Mark 16:1-8
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo'me, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; --it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Well, here we are; finally. It’s Easter Sunday; undoubtedly the most important day of our Christian faith. Easter is the event that ends our Lenten journey and completes the gospel story. It is the relief we have been waiting for since Ash Wednesday, and brings us hope after being faced with the cross of death on Good Friday. And look at you, all gussied up wearing your Easter best, shiny and new, like you just stepped out of the Sears catalog. I must say that I am impressed. Turn to someone next to you and say, “My, you look good!” Today is quite the day for us Christians.

But I must say I am also a bit perplexed. The Easter story, as told in the Gospel of Mark, is quite a mystery to me. It’s a mystery because, unlike the Easter narratives in the other two synoptic gospels, the author of the gospel of Mark tells an unfinished story. It concludes rather abruptly. It is a story without an ending. It’s like a soft boiled Easter egg. When you crack it open, it reveals a runny, uncooked center that you wouldn’t think of swallowing. For me, today’s Easter message is a little hard to swallow.

Now you must be thinking, “What? Did I hear the preacher right? What is he saying? Has he gone bonkers? We all know the message of Easter. Even kids know how this story ends. My goodness, we just sang about it! Jesus is alive; risen from the grave! Death has no victory. Trumpets sound! Angels sing! Hallelujah! But is that the real ending? Well, before you get your Easter bonnet in a twist, let me explain.

If we read very closely, we have to admit that the gospel of Mark’s telling of the Easter story ends without Jesus being seen. We enter the story following the death of Jesus on the cross after he has been laid in a grave carved out from a rock. Three women journey to the tomb at dawn; Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a couple of her friends, Mary of Magdala and Salome. They come to anoint the body of Jesus, for it had been removed and placed in the grave without being properly wrapped in the traditional burial spices. These women were on a mission to make sure things were done right. Thank goodness for women. Amen?

As they walk to the tomb they are concerned about the stone that had been placed over the entrance. Who would roll it away for them? They could not do it without assistance. And how else would they have access to the body? And when the women arrive, they find, to their amazement, that the stone has been rolled back and Jesus’ body is missing. They are shocked to discover that someone has raided the tomb; perhaps this young man, dressed in white, who is sitting at the side of the grave. This unnamed stranger is bearer of news about this Jesus of Nazareth who has been crucified; "He has been raised; he is not here,” he says.

If you are looking for resurrection appearances, if you are looking for closure of the Jesus' story, you will not find them in Mark. For many biblical scholars agree that verse 8 marks the end of this gospel. There are in fact several different versions of the Gospel of Mark. There are short versions, ending at verse 8, and longer versions which go on to verse 20. Even though most of our Bibles include verses 9-20, which does record 3 subsequent sightings of Jesus, they differ so much in literary style from the rest of the gospel that scholars agree they cannot have been part of the original text. These additional 12 verses which make up the longer ending were clearly added to the original text. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8 with an empty tomb and the word that Jesus is not here.

Now listen closely, I am clueing you into a bit of information that has been disregarded or intentionally hidden from the majority of Christian civilization. We have, in effect, a real Davinci Code dilemma on our hands. The earliest ancient writing of this text, the oldest version of the Easter story, records no historical account of Jesus appearing after his death. All we get from Mark’s gospel is an empty tomb and the news that the Jesus we are looking for is somewhere else. Apart from a resurrection narrative, the empty tomb means nothing. All it means is that there is no corpse. In other words, Mark is not trying to substantiate the resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. For this is not the message of Mark. Jesus is not there means Jesus no longer exists within a conventional frame of reference. "He has been raised." The message is a dramatic conclusion to the tragic story in which Jesus had been betrayed, abandoned and murdered. Yet within that tragedy lays a great mystery. Jesus is not here. He is somewhere else.

Now when this information was revealed to me in seminary, my first thought was…What? Are you kidding me? Is that really it? Are you telling me that my entire faith, not to mention my call to ministry, might be based on a sham? Had I invested my entire life in an Easter story that may have never happened? What about the usually ending I knew and loved? What about the later appearances of Jesus on the road to Emmaus? What about the conversation between Mary and Jesus at the tomb found in the other Gospels?  What about the triumph of resurrection over death? What about the nice, tidy, upbeat ending that Easter is supposed to represent? It’s like watching one of those Hollywood movies that end with a disappointing cliffhanger…the hero is dead and all hope is lost. To be continued….

But I ask you, is this ending so unlike the way we experience the mystery of God in real life? If you think about it, there are so many stories in our popular culture that end without really ending. Movies do it all of the time, especially when the studio hopes to make a sequel. The ends of these movies purposefully leave something yet to be resolved, in an effort to create an audience for the next money-making installment of Nightmare on Elm Street, part 9, or perhaps Batman Returns, Yet Again. And you can be sure, that because of the enormous success of Titanic someone will attempt to make the sequel, Titanic II. I think we can all agree that sequels are usually terrible.

Does Mark’s gospel story promise us a sequel? Mark does suggest there is more to the story. "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." The second part of the text makes clear that what had happened before the crucifixion; the unbelief of the disciples and Peter’s denial are not the end of the story either. God never gave up on the disciples, although they had scattered after the crucifixion. And God never gives up on us; always responding to our unbelief with forgiveness and restitution. Even in the midst of failure, we can always choose to begin again. And that’s where we will meet Jesus. Not in some resurrection appearance, but back in Galilee, back in the places where Jesus did his work. For Galilee was not the site for magical appearances in Mark, it was the place where Jesus announced the realm of God. It was the place where he encountered opposition, disloyalty, rejection and defeat. And it was there that Jesus confronted the opposition to his ministry. It was in Galilee that he persisted, triumphed, and overcame, in spite of the odds. There you will see him; the tomb raider says.

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone. 
And wouldn't you have been afraid? Wouldn't I? That last verse of Mark sets in motion the mystery of our Christian experience. It dispels the myth that Jesus will always faithfully do what needs to be done and that the predictions of Jesus will always find some sort of closure. They will not. The original Gospel text ends abruptly with no resurrection appearance to anyone and the last group of faithful followers are too afraid to say anything to anyone.

And that is precisely where Mark seems to leave us - waiting for the mystery to unfold and the remaining story untold. But what if it is you and I who are responsible for completing this mystery? What if we are the ones given pen and paper to continue writing the Easter story? And what if we did what the disciples were told to do, go back into the Galilee of our daily lives, that place where we encounter opposition, disloyalty, rejection and defeat, to live our own lives just as honestly, just as lovingly, just as courageously, and just as humanly as Jesus lived his. What if that is where we will see Jesus? What if that is where we will meet him?

The mystery of the tomb, it seems to me, is the stunning reminder that Jesus isn't here. He is always out there ahead of us. He always was and he always will be. If we are truly intent on following him, there will always be some further desert to cross, some new challenge to meet, some new enemy to love, some new attachment to forsake, some new boundary to cross, some new sin to confess. The realm of God is not a destination where, once we have arrived, we can rest in satisfaction. Resurrection is not something we believe in, but is something that we live. It is about living the way Jesus always lived. Becoming more fully and completely human, no matter what the defeats and tragedies of our lives threaten to do to us. That was the way of Jesus.

Our Easter stories are still being written, for they begin like Jesus’ began; by trusting that God's realm is present here and now. By praying that God’s kingdom will come and that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our Easter stories are written as we celebrate life when there is sorrow in death. Our Easter stories unfold as we create communities out of ruins. Our Easter stories are strengthened as we defend the weak and challenge hypocrisy wherever we find it. Our Easter stories are liberated as we confront some restrictive code of conduct in favor of an ever-expansive view of God’s creation and humanity’s possibility. You are the Easter story. You are the mystery that no longer lives entombed. Yes my friends, like Jesus, you must raid your own tomb of despair and death so that your own resurrection story can be told.

Seeing our lives as Easter stories is more than a powerful metaphor. It is how we experience our live in Christ. By embracing your story and your role in it, you can live more purposefully the kind of life that will give your own story meaning. What is our good news today? What is the emotional experience of the Easter message? It’s sitting right in front of me, in personal stories of faith that include grief and amazement, sorrow and joy, fear and hope. You, my friend, are the mystery of God in flesh. You are the Easter story. Amen! (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Jesus Isn’t Here” from April 20,

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