Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 4, 2021
Mark 16:1-8 Commentary
[Note: John 20 gets assigned by the Lectionary for every Easter Sunday in the three-year cycle. Since I have posted sermon ideas on that text often over the years, this year I will go with the alternative text from Mark 16. But if you want to view a John 20 sermon commentary from last year, you can click here.]
Suppose a grandfather calls his granddaughter over and says to her, “Sweetie, out on the back porch I have a special surprise for you: a new bike!” Upon hearing this news the little girl will probably quickly run out to see the bike. If so, you might describe her as sprinting away from her grandfather, maybe skipping out to the porch, or perhaps as dashing or bounding out with glee. You would not, however, say, “Upon hearing about the new bike, the little girl fled from the presence of her grandpa.” End of story.
End of story?? Really? Fled?
Not much of an ending. Weird response, too, to happy news.
The first Greek word of Mark’s Gospel is arche, “beginning.” “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Now the last word is gar “for/because . . .” The beginning seemed promising. But what about this ending?
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . .”
“They said nothing to anyone as they were afraid because . . .”
Mark tells us that the women fled. They ran away but not with a skip in their step. They were bewildered. They didn’t even tell anyone a single, blessed thing because, as Mark tells us in the end, they were flat out “afraid.”
“They were afraid because . . .”
And that 8th verse really is the end of Mark as there is now near-universal agreement among biblical scholars and commentators that the last seventeen verses of Mark 16 were not written by Mark but were added on later by someone who clearly believed Mark had not ended his gospel very appropriately. True, my former Greek professor from college told me that it’s not too unusual for a Greek sentence to end with gar the way it would be in English, so grammatically maybe we cannot make too much out of that final Greek word in Mark 16:8, but the sense of ellipsis, of incompleteness, persists even so. “For they were afraid . . .” Really? End of story?
Mark concluded his gospel with the bewildered silence of women who were too afraid to speak. But why? Surely Mark knew what profoundly good news this was. Surely Mark knew that these women did not remain silent forever–if they had, how could he have even written even verses 1-8? Mark was not there in person but somebody told him this story eventually and if it was not the women themselves, then it was someone (perhaps the Apostle Peter, who may have been Mark’s source for this gospel) whom the women did tell. They did not remain silent. That much we know and can infer. So why end the gospel in that silence?
Maybe it fits a larger theme Mark is working on. One of the most striking features of Mark’s telling of Easter is how it is framed by motion. The women begin in verses 1-4 moving toward the tomb, and they end in verse 8 moving rapidly away from the tomb. Indeed, that last verse shows them almost exploding away from the tomb, hurtling outward like projectiles from the middle of an explosion.
Verse 8 is almost like some freeze-frame which catches the women in mid-flight. Picture them with eyes wide in surprised terror, mouths hanging open in shock, their arms outstretched like some sprinter racing for the finish line, their feet a blurry smudge of rapid motion. They flee the tomb, and Mark snaps a photo for us, freezing the action, showing the women in motion.
But in between this to-and-fro movement of the women is still more motion: Jesus is also on the go. The women arrive at the tomb and encounter a young man who says, “You are no doubt looking for Jesus.” Yes, they were. Since he was, as the young man admits, “crucified,” it made sense to seek Jesus in a cemetery. But he’s not there.
“You just missed him,” the young man as much as says.
Why couldn’t Jesus have waited!? Why do the women need to deal with a proxy, a stand-in, a substitute whose only purpose seems to be to tell the women that, indeed, they just missed Jesus. He’s gone, on the road, moving right along to Galilee. “He’s going ahead of you,” the young man says. So if they want to see Jesus, they need to get going once again themselves. Because for some reason Jesus did not hang around to be encountered at the tomb. Easter morning, according to Mark, is not about running over to where we think Jesus is and then sitting down with him for coffee and conversation. Easter morning is not about throwing a party, it’s about Jesus in motion. It’s about our being in motion, too, if we hope to catch up with and so see him.
Jesus was not there that morning because there was too much work to do! A dying world was in need of the renewing grace which only the resurrected Jesus could give. This was a task that could not wait. Jesus could not and would not hang out at a tomb he no longer needed just to greet his friends and have a little celebration. He had to go on up ahead of them, demanding that if they wanted to see him, they’d have to get moving, too.
So why does Mark end so enigmatically? Why this puzzling final image of bewildered women, silent in their fear? Well, certainly fear was an appropriate thing for these women to feel. Not only did something totally unexpected take place, but this particular unexpected thing was fiercely cosmic. It shattered reality. It changed everything, and the first people to ponder that mind-addling fact were right to feel a little afraid. Any other reaction would have been downright weird!
But what about Mark’s leaving them that way? Why this snapshot of the flight in terror as Mark’s final word? Well, at the very least it creates some tension, a challenge for all of us. We see the silent and fearful women and exclaim, “But the gospel can’t end in silence! There’s just got to be more to the story than this!”
The Gospel cannot end in silence . . .
Yes. Just so.
Perhaps this, then, is where we come in.
“The Gospel cannot end in silence!” Mark agrees, nods his head, looks at the reader and then as much as says, “I know. So what are YOU going to do about that?”
“He’s not here. He’s going ahead of you to Galilee.” Thomas Long—riffing on Donald Juel and perhaps also Ched Meyers—has offered a clever interpretation of those words. Long thinks that Mark was about as highly skilled a writer as you could hope to find in the ancient world. And so for us readers of this gospel–for those of us who cannot and do not literally travel over to Galilee to see if we can find the risen Christ–this reference to Galilee may be a clever framing technique for Mark’s gospel. Jesus is risen, and we are directed to Galilee. But in Mark’s gospel where is Galilee? It’s in Mark 1:14. John the Baptist gets imprisoned and so Jesus launches his own ministry by going to Galilee and there preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand.
So Mark 16:7 may be Mark’s way of saying that as readers we now need to return to the beginning of the gospel and read the whole thing again. Now that we’ve been to the cross, now that we really understand what being the Messiah was all about for Jesus, we need to go back and read the gospel again. We need to hear Jesus’ parables afresh, see the miracles anew. We need to re-consider Jesus’ every word and act in the light of the cross and empty tomb. Because only then will we, by the Spirit, see and understand the nature of God’s kingdom. And the nature of that kingdom is grace, grace, grace.
Now that we’ve seen Jesus take our place on the cross, descending to the derelict agonies of hell and death, now we understand that so long as we think we can make it on our own we’ll never really “get it.”
Computers are powerful tools. Most people under the age of 30 can’t imagine what it was like back in the days of typewriters when every revision of a paper required re-typing the entire thing. Now we store our documents on hard drives or in the cloud and, even if we have already printed a copy, can easily make a few changes, and then re-print it without having to re-type.
One of the advantages of word processing is something called “global replacement.” Let’s say you had written an essay in which you used the word “society” a lot but when you finished you realized that you really should have used “culture.” With global replacement you can tell the computer to find each place the word “society” appears and automatically change it to “culture.” Even if you used “society” 200 times, the computer can change every one of them to “culture” in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes churches utilize this tool for documents that get used a lot. Some time ago I read about a church office which had stored onto its computer the standard funeral service. Each time a funeral had to be held the secretary would tell the computer to find the name of the deceased, replacing it each time with the correct name for this specific funeral. So one week Mary Smith passed away and the secretary had the computer put Mary’s name into all the right spots, such as when the minister would say, “We remember our dear departed sister Mary” or “May the Lord now give Mary his eternal peace.”
The next week Edna Jones died and so the secretary made the appropriate global replacement of names. But it was quite a surprise at this particular funeral when, in the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed, the congregation learned that Jesus had been “born of the virgin Edna”!
Well, that’s a true story but if my relaying this struck you as humorous, it did so because, like a joke, this story concluded with a surprise ending that took you off guard. A few years ago I heard about a curious tradition of the Orthodox Church–each year on Easter Monday they get together to exchange jokes. The idea is that since the Easter story has the ultimate surprise ending, they enter into the spirit of the season by exchanging other stories which also have surprise endings.
Not a bad practice!
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