You gotta love the Gospel of Mark. It is short, it is snappy, it moves along at a lightening fast pace and it quits with a cliff-hanger. Mark seems to end his gospel rather abruptly at the end of verse eight, and that can be rather troublesome to some of us, and if it is, we are in very good company. Nobody really wants Mark’s gospel to end at verse eight, perhaps not even Mark. At verse eight, the three women who have come to Jesus’ tomb flee from it in terror and in amazement, taking the good news of Jesus’ resurrection with them, but not telling a soul about it.
And we’re all saying to ourselves, well, that can’t be. Of course they would tell somebody, and they did tell somebody, right? Besides, what are you talking about, Wayne? Mark’s gospel goes well into the next page, and look! The very next words, after verse eight say, “All that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterwards, Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” So there! They didn’t keep silent. They shared the good news of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Unfortunately, though, none of the stuff beyond verse eight fits at all. It has all been added on by someone else, or maybe lots of someone else’s, in the hopes of making up for Mark’s deficiency. And if you read some of it, it is all pretty weird and strange stuff. And none of it matches the style, or the vocabulary, or the flow of Mark’s gospel, and this is obvious, even in English. The best, and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s gospel do not include any of this later stuff. And so that’s why our pew Bibles separate it out, from the rest of the Gospel, and add lots of explanatory footnotes.
And so what is a reader of this gospel supposed to do? I am convinced that we are supposed to do exactly what Mark originally intended for us to do: we should quit reading at verse eight. And, in addition to that, we should be seized with terror and amazement, just like those women at the tomb. I firmly believe that Mark fully intended to leave us with a cliff-hanger of a gospel. Leaving us with a cliff-hanger of a story, fits perfectly with his writing style. Mark did not wrap things up, or neatly bring things to a close, because Mark is writing a story that has no end. And his readers and we are all a part of that story that does not end.
Scholars naturally disagree, of course, on when Mark wrote his gospel, but some of them believe that Mark is writing his gospel somewhere between 15 and 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection. Followers of Jesus are coming together, and establishing local congregations. Those congregations are growing both in faith and in numbers. There is a sense of excitement among the believers. Ministry is happening, and people are hopeful for their futures, whether those futures are here on this earth, or as gloriously anticipated, in the heavenly realms. All is good, all is wonderful, all is new and exciting. Mostly. On the down side, there is mounting persecution from the Romans. And now that the split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus is nearly complete and final, there is some opposition from the Jews. But it is not, for the most part, hostile opposition. Much of it centers around the emotion of grief.
In Mark’s day, most observant Jews believed that the followers of Jesus were participating in a dangerous cult. This is sometimes difficult for us to understand because we believe that Jesus, especially now that he is risen from the dead, is indeed the long awaited, and long hoped for Jewish Messiah. But like the pharisee Saul, who eventually became the Apostle Paul, most Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus’ profile, and that of the Messiah, did not match on several key points. And so when a family member became a follower of Jesus, there was grief, deep grief, because the sense was that their loved ones had been deceived or tricked into becoming a follower of Jesus. And so it was sometimes very difficult to make that decision to become a follower of Jesus, knowing, that in many cases, their family members would be heartbroken. These early followers of Jesus may not have fully understood that they were part of a never ending story, but they lived daily with the real hope that one day there could be reconciliation and restoration among the ones that they loved.
In spite of troubles and persecutions, though, the family of believers that Mark has in mind as he writes his gospel, is a church that is filled with excitement, and joy and anticipation. It is a church that knows the story of Jesus’ resurrection, because it is a church that is living out its daily life with resurrection faith. The believers to whom Mark is writing know the power and the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection, because that power and wonder is alive in their own hearts. And so when they read Mark’s gospel for the first time, they understood terror and amazement, because they understood how holy and wonderful terror and amazement can be.
And this they knew, and this they knew very well: the women did not keep their silence for very long. One does not keep one’s silence about news that is this good. One instead, proclaims it to all who will listen.
So how are we, as followers of Jesus, doing today in the department of proclamation? In what ways are we living out the words of this never ending story of which we are a part? How much joy and excitement and wonder is there in our hearts these days? Are we keeping the faith by keeping it to ourselves? Have we been seized with the wrong kind of terror and amazement? Can we recover, in our own lives, and in the life of our church, the glorious wonder of holy terror and amazement? Does our life and daily strength come from the one who miraculously overcame the power of sin and death?
We might learn the answers to these questions if we ponder for a moment, the actions of these three women that we find at the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning. Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James are all that is left. They are it. Everyone else has run away. No one else is sticking around. Jesus’ disciples have all gotten into the wind.
These three ladies, though, are headed for the tomb, not even sure that they will be able to get inside. But that is not at all a problem for them. They are going anyway. They’ll cross that bridge when they get there. This is not bad planning. This is faith. Sometimes, faith can look an awful lot like bad planning, especially to those who pride themselves on their practicality. The faith of these women says that they are going to do this. God will find a way to bring down the barriers. And because of their faith, God did just that. The tomb was already open. It is this faith, this faith of the three women, that continued to empower the earliest followers of Jesus. It is faith that we need today. This is faith that says, yes, there will be barriers, but because we are called by God, our mission is holy. The barriers will crumble.
But quite realistically, there will also be fear. Fear is always present when we move forward in faith. These ladies also experienced fear. Mark says that they were alarmed. But to check their alarm, God already had a messenger, in place, to ally their fears. And the message was awesome. It was not at all what they had expected. They had come to anoint a dead body. They received the startling news that there was no dead body. They learned instead, that Jesus was alive, and that he had gone ahead of them to Galilee. And so they fled the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them.
Today’s church needs to rediscover a sense of holy terror and amazement. We need to be re-invigorated with the power of the Risen Christ. We need to rediscover the wonder and the joy and the excitement that seized our earliest forebears. We need to believe in miracles all over again, and we need to stop fretting over barriers that stand needlessly in our way as we move forward in ministry. But more than anything else, we need to listen to and to heed the words of God’s messenger who said, “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.” And having listened and heeded, we will march forward with joy into the as yet unknown depths of this continuously unfolding and never-ending story of which we are today’s part.