“So they went our and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
Talk about a cliffhanger!
In spite of later efforts to append a more conventional ending onto Mark’s Gospel, this sentence is identified by most scholars as the final words the Evangelist writes to those who will hear and read his account of the Good News of God in Jesus. No beautiful flowers. No magnificent trumpets or celestial harps. No angelic chorus rustling through the early morning mist. No beatific vision of spic-n-span Jesus, cleansed from the residue of his violent death, and miraculously robed in resplendent, post-resurrection glory. No disciples skipping merrily down the street singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” in anticipation of lamb chops, deviled eggs and a chocolate cake.
Instead, we get a haunting narrative about already grief-stricken women who receive a shocking message from a mysterious messenger. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” The entire experience is too much for them. They flee. In Mark’s telling, Easter offers very little in the way of serenity and assurance. To the contrary, Easter explodes everyone’s expectations and leaves everyone awash in terror and amazement.
The Easter moment SEIZES these first witnesses. They are seized to the point that their lives cannot possibly return to anything resembling normal. The body of Jesus is gone. Absent a body, what were they to believe? What are we to believe?
The claim Christians have made since the earliest days of the Church has been that, in Jesus, God travels among us as one of us. We celebrate this enfleshment, this Incarnation, this God-with-us, at Christmas. But God-with-us did more than look adorable in swaddling clothes. God-with-us did more than teach us good things and tell interesting stories. God-with-us did more than a few sleight-of-hand tricks to impress us with the miraculous. God-with-us lived the life of a human being. And, at the end, on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, God-with-us participated in the ultimate identification with the human condition.
God-with-us breathed his last and offered up his spirit into the Divine Life of the Trinity. In a final act of unrelenting love and extravagant faith, the Son of Mary and Son of God wrapped himself in death. Jesus held nothing back for himself or from us. The surrender was complete. Good Friday ended in darkness. And Easter dawns — not as happy ending, but as confusing beginning.
The Child of Promise is born on Christmas. The Crucified God is lifted high on Good Friday. The Resurrected Lord is born in a grave on Holy Saturday and walks out into the Unfinished Future of God on Easter morning. All he leaves behind are some grave clothes, an empty tomb, a cryptic messenger and some fuzzy directions: “I’m going ahead of you. Meet me out there…on the way.”
Rather than warm the heart, Easter in Mark’s telling grips the gut. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tie up loose ends left over from Good Friday. Instead, this Gospel account turns Jesus loose from the tomb and out into the world. The women witnesses race away from the scene — seized with terror and amazement. And somewhere along the way, somewhere after those first terrifying and amazing moments, something happened.
Mark doesn’t tell us when it happened. But it DID happen. It had to have happened, or else we wouldn’t be sitting here today, 2000 years after the events Mark records. These women, these first witnesses — however haltingly, however tentatively, however cautiously — TOLD somebody what they had seen and heard. They TOLD somebody and they TOLD it all! They told about the heavy stone being moved. They told about the discarded grave clothes. They told about the mysterious messenger and the message he had given them: “He is not here. He has been raised. He is going ahead of you.”
And the Easter message began to spread. Other Gospels relate Jesus appearing to more of his followers — to a weeping Mary Magdalene in the Garden at the Tomb; to the frightened disciples in the Upper Room; to a couple of dejected believers as they walked toward Emmaus on Easter evening. In today’s Epistle reading we hear Paul relate other appearances of the resurrected Jesus as he recounts his own encounter with the Risen One. Throughout the centuries the story has been told and told and told. “He is risen! He is risen! He is risen!”
There were plenty of people in those first few terrifying days after that first Easter morning who did not believe it. The message wasn’t received with joy by all who heard it. But enough people did believe and enough people did rejoice.
Yes, I know this is the part of the Easter message that makes us nervous. It’s far easier to talk about the renewal of life than to speak about the obliteration of death. It’s far easier to talk about notions of Jesus’ “presence” amongst his disciples than it is to proclaim he got up and got out of the Tomb. Easier to dye eggs and cuddle bunnies than to stand before the impossible story of Easter and allow the Mystery to seize us — to catch us up short with the possibility that we really don’t know it all and that there is more to reality than meets our eyes, or can be externally verified through rational analysis.
There are plenty of people who come to worship — week in and week out, year in and year out, for a lifetime of Sundays — and just can’t bring themselves to believe. They can appreciate the teachings of Jesus. They can recognize a glimpse of the Holy in the life of Jesus. They receive comfort from participating in the life of a community of faith and receiving the Eucharist. They do their best to emulate the example of Jesus as they work and pray and give for the benefit of others in the world who are poor, hungry or marginalized. But they just can’t wrap their intellect around something that doesn’t add up. Dead people stay dead and that’s that.
I’m not asking anyone here to change your mind about the Resurrection today. The great theologian Karl Barth once said, “Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.” And preaching, telling the Good News is what those terrified women did. It’s what the confused disciples did. It’s what the confounded St. Paul did. It’s what generation after generation of people have done. The people of God have told the story and of the ways that story has changed their lives — and that is preaching and such preaching can be done by anyone, any time, any place (no fancy robes necessary!). Whatever faults and foibles still exist in the followers of Jesus, the fact before us is that the story of Jesus doesn’t end with his death. The next chapter of the story begins on that first Easter and it’s still being written today.
In a few moments, Shelly, Ben and Kenneth will be baptized into the story of Jesus. They will be buried with Jesus in Baptism and raised to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t ask folks to pass a “doctrine test” before they are baptized (and for this, some of us can say, “Thanks be to God!). That’s why we can baptize babies. What Shelly, Ben and Kenneth will receive this morning at this Font cannot be learned from a book. It will be learned by living.
They will all learn to be followers of Jesus just as we have learned — by hearing the stories of Jesus — the stories that are plausible and the stories that are impossible. They will learn to be followers of Jesus by living with this fellowship of followers, here at Trinity Church. They will not simply learn the stories of Jesus. Over time, they will become, just like all of us, participants in the story — living witnesses of the Good News — the amazing and sometimes terrifying Good News that Jesus isn’t back there, captured by words on an ancient page and stuck on a shelf; neither is he behind a rock in a deep, dark cave. He is not back there. He is OUT THERE — going ahead of us! And if we keep the eyes of our faith open, however fleeting or tenuous our faith might be, we might just catch a glimpse of him.
Alleluia! He is Risen.
The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.