Conditions in our world may enable some of us to hear the Easter story in a new way this year. Many have had carefully tucked away retirement funds evaporate, others have experienced the loss of a treasured dream or the death of a professional pursuit. Some struggle with intellectual doubts and discouragement and many of us may grasp onto the good news as a much needed and timely reassurance. Pope Leo said Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for Easter. Easter is the high point of the church year no matter the state of the world around us.
The lectionary offers us four different versions of the Easter story to choose from. In Acts 10:34-43 Luke passes on to later generations and to us what others shared with him of their recollections of the witness of Peter. While maintaining its unequivocal character of Good News, a lot of the more controversial traditions that have grown up around the Easter story are absent from Luke’s version. He reports that an anonymous ‘they’ put Jesus to death and God raised him allowing him to appear to a chosen group of witnesses with whom he ate and drank.
Paul’s contribution in 1st Corinthians 15:1-11 is similarly a second hand account. He narrates his confidence in the resurrection story as a tradition passed along to him as vivid personal experiences of others. Paul declares that according to the scriptures and by the grace of God Christ died for our sins, he was buried and on the third day was raised; and Peter, the other disciples, James and the other Apostles and more than 500 additional men and women were witnesses to the resurrected Christ.
Much more familiar and satisfying to us is the John 20:1-18 resurrection narrative. Fearful and anxious women, angels, linen wrappings, a foot race, a weeping Mary, more angels and a not quite recognizable Jesus are the ingredients that hold this affirmation of the resurrection together. John tells us that Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. There is a great Easter message for us in that line alone, but he goes on to say “But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.
The fourth passage we have to chose from is Mark’s version in chapter 16:1-8. Most Biblical scholars agree that Mark ends with the eighth verse and the remaining material has been added later. It is by far the most unsettling account of the resurrection. It is as if Mark invites us to struggle with the mystery, fear and astonishment that seemingly overwhelmed the first disciples. We prefer endings that tie up loose ends, answer our questions, and leaves just about everyone happy! This version leaves us with no appearance of a risen Jesus to put a nice, happy ending to this tale of suffering and death. Listen to these words of scripture:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; 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.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
When these women started out that Sunday morning it was grief that overwhelmed their hearts and minds. To the minds of the men, Jesus was dead and buried. The movement was over. For the men there was no need for further aggravation – for them there was no need to return to the place of burial. For the women, however, they still had a work of love to complete. Their minds were turned toward Jesus’ body and the tomb! And according to Mark it wasn’t all that early in the morning either – he tells us that the sun had already risen. Maybe that makes some of us who didn’t go out the cemetery at six this morning feel a little better. Mark evidently wants us to know that what happened happened in broad daylight! That morning, according to Mark’s story, the two Marys and Salome had already gone to the market and purchased spices. Mingled with oil they intended to use them to anoint the body of Jesus. They anticipated that for them the tomb would become one of those very special “spaces where so much of life unfolds,” where as Serene Jones writes “the hard work of loving, of being present,” where the grit that allows human life to keep going in the very moments that it encounters the reality of violence and the relentless march of death is called for”. She claims that it is in places like that where we meet God, even in the places where we are “broken by violence and by love and by the sheer exhaustion of the labor it takes to go on.”
But it didn’t turn out the way they expected. What happened was quite different than anything they could have anticipated. On reaching the tomb Instead of finding Jesus’ body a young man greeted them saying: “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” The event itself was too much for them, their fear caused them to tremble even the words of the angelic youth did nothing to calm them. Some of us may know what that is like.
And what of that stone over the mouth of the tomb? That was only concern the women expressed on their way that morning, about the stone that sealed the sepulchre’s mouth. Would moving it really beyond their strength. Could that stone be a metaphor for everything that keeps us from faithfulness? What do you imagine to be immovable and fear it will make faith impossible? Could that be the meaning the stone holds for us in our generation. It is indeed a very large stone. A piece of the good news for us is how Mark’s narration tells us that even at a distance when these heavy hearted women looked up they could see that the stone was already rolled away. No need to catastrophize, the problem they imagined didn’t materialize.
What do you make of this call to go to Galilee? Mark tells us that at least five of Jesus’ disciples, and probably more, were from the territory of Galilee. Further gazing into an empty tomb would serve no purpose. With this chapter of their lives closed, it’s a pretty good bet that they would be heading for home. There was work to be done. So, before they got home, Jesus was already there! Jesus doesn’t follow them there, he goes before them! The place they will see the risen Jesus is back at home — perhaps, we might even say, in the ordinary stuff of life. For the women, the other disciples, Mark’s community, and for us today, is this not a call to a new beginning? A setting out on the way again, even after our failures and fearfulness; to follow Jesus faithfully, but this time with the terrible knowledge of his suffering and death but also with the world-changing awareness of his resurrection?
Douglas Hare in his summary of Mark’s gospel said it this way: “Mark’s story of Jesus’ ministry, passion, and resurrection terminates abruptly with fear, flight, and silence.” And then he adds: “Or does it?” The story of the resurrection of Jesus, Hare says, is not primarily about Jesus but about a God who is powerful enough to raise Jesus up. Did you get that, Easter isn’t primarily about Jesus. Jesus didn’t just get up. God had to act in a way that overcame death itself. And Easter isn’t primarily about Jesus’ followers and their fear or us and our failures and frustrations. It is about God! The common witness from each of these different versions of the Easter story is that God raised up Jesus.
The Easter stories from Acts and 1st Corinthians proclaim the profound meanings of the resurrection: God has raised up Jesus; we have been raised up “in company with Christ.” The ancient horror of death has been overcome; God’s gift of life can never be snatched away. In ancient thought a tomb was not simply a place where a body was put; it was the gateway to the realm of the dead. The empty tomb is a vivid symbol that this realm has been emptied of its power. Mark proclaims this most simply: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” No place of death can contain Jesus. No stone can destroy our trust. The chamber of death becomes the doorway to life. Instead of mourning his death those of us who love Jesus discover that he lives with us, within us, day by day, in ways that transcend our hopes.