But go, tell
Sermon preached on Easter Day, 1st. April 2018 at Enmore.
Reading: Mark 16.1–8.
I heard a story recently about an Anglican Minister in another diocese who was wanting to challenge the thinking of his Christmas Day congregation so he began his sermon by asking a number of rhetorical questions: ‘Do we actually know when Jesus was born? And do we know where he was born and do we know who his parents were?’; and he continued in this manner for some time until a little girl in the congregation could contain herself no longer and shot her hand up and declared loudly, “Well I know!” Given his experience it is with some trepidation that I pose the questions this morning: “What do we know about the resurrection of Jesus?” And why should we, 21st Century sceptical people, believe in the reality of this event?
The starting point to answer these questions must be the text of Scripture. Immediately we have a problem. We have four accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel records and they differ significantly. Critics of Christianity have often used this as an argument for their unreliability- if the Gospel writers can’t agree on the details why should we believe them? However, given that the Gospels were written by four different authors, writing to varied audiences, sometime between 50 A.D. and the late 90’s A.D., finding differences in their accounts should be expected. Indeed uniformity would be evidence of collusion and later editing. This morning we have read the oldest record we have of the Easter event- Mark’s account. Mark is our shortest Gospel, a mere sixteen chapters, his Greek is rough and unpolished but it has an immediacy that holds our attention. His account of the resurrection is so short and the ending so abrupt that later editors felt impelled to tidy it up and fill in the missing bits. (That is why most translations of the Bible will give you a couple of alternative endings but they are not original).
So what does Mark tell us? He starts with the women and here he is in accord with the three other evangelists. Mark tells us that three women go to the tomb early on Sunday morning at the break of day: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. In the previous chapter he has mentioned these same women being part of a larger group of women standing at a distance and watching the crucifixion. The elephant in the room in the accounts of the crucifixion is the question, ‘Where are the men?’ John’s Gospel alone tells us that ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ was there at the foot of the cross with the women but otherwise the male disciples are nowhere to be seen at the cross or on Easter morning. It is the women disciples of Jesus who stay with him to the end and who go in sorrow to the tomb on Sunday morning to anoint the body of the man they have loved and followed so faithfully and at such cost. The task of embalming was normally the responsibility of the blood relatives of the deceased. Mary the mother of Jesus had been a witness to the crucifixion but she was not present. The little group of women who go to the tomb were part of that extended family that Jesus had talked about-the family that had God as their father and Jesus as their brother. To these women was given the great privilege of being the first witnesses of the empty tomb and being entrusted with the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. At that time the word of a woman was not trusted because in the words of Josephus the “levity and temerity of their sex” (Josephus) — in a court of law a woman’s testimony had to be confirmed by the word of at least two men. In his life Jesus had given women a dignity and status not common in his society; he had affirmed Mary of Bethany when she had taken the role of a disciple saying, “Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken from her.” Sadly the later church did take away much of that status and denied women the equal role in leadership in the church- an injustice which continues in many places today as we are aware.
Finding the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene and the other women are greatly alarmed to be confronted by a mysterious young man who tells them not to be frightened because the crucified Jesus they are seeking is no longer dead but alive. An empty tomb is in itself an ambiguous sign. The women are alarmed to find the tomb empty- in John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene is sorrowful when she finds it empty because she believes her Lord’s body has been stolen. With Karl Barth I believe that “Christians don’t believe in the empty tomb but in the Living Christ.” But the empty tomb is important in at least one regard- it secures the reality of the resurrection of Jesus’ body. Writing around the time of Jesus, the Roman philosopher Seneca expressed his hope of being freed from “this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me.” Plato and most other philosophers of the time would have agreed. But in its insistence on the resurrection of the body Christianity went against the prevailing view and affirmed in the words of Tertullian “that God would not destroy something that he had made and pronounced good.” The resurrection body may be in many ways different from the earthly body but the Christian hope is not for an ethereal spiritual existence but for a new body. To affirm that we believe in the resurrection of the body is to declare that the human body is a good thing, not to be disregarded.
The women are not only told that Jesus has risen but that they are told “to go and tell his disciples and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee: there you will see him just as he told you.” Galilee was where Jesus had spent most of his ministry-it was there that the disciples had travelled with him and listened to him and watched all that he did. He was always going before them-he had led, they had followed, sometimes reluctantly. He was always ahead of them too as he tried to teach them what life in the kingdom was all about. They were so slow to understand the things Jesus taught-it involved unlearning so much. The messenger particularly mentioned Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. The guilt ridden Peter would have been both troubled and yet grateful that he was mentioned by name.
We expect Mark to tell us that the women are obedient and do just as they are told but we are surprised and perhaps shocked by his ending: “so they went out and fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” What a strange ending-it leaves us hanging with all sorts of questions: Did they recover from their fear and deliver the message? Did the male disciples meet Jesus in Galilee? What happened after that? We know what happened next because we have read the other Gospels but even if we didn’t have the other Gospels we would know that something extraordinary happened on that Sunday morning. Jesus was crucified around A.D.30 and Luke tells us that post crucifixion he had about 120 people who were still willing to be called his followers. Just twenty five years later without the aid of Facebook or twitter or any other form of electronic communication, and without jet travel, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire so there were Christian house churches in every major city including Rome itself. Men and women from every level of society and from every major ethnic group were meeting on a Sunday morning, breaking bread and praying together and declaring, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. Meeting the risen Lord changed fearful men and women into people who were so passionate about sharing this knowledge with others that they turned their world upside down. The birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church remains an unsolved problem for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church.
Mark’s abrupt ending is intentional. He wants the reader to finish the story. He wants us to go and tell our world that Christ is risen. The testimony of the apostles and the women who found the empty tomb on that first Easter Day is compelling. But in the end I suspect that the reason why most Christians believe in the resurrection is that we ourselves have had an encounter with the living Christ. So this Easter let us throw off our fear and the temptation to say nothing to anyone and show by our words and deeds that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.