Psalm 62:1-8, Mark 16:1-15
March 23, 2008 Easter Sunday!
The part of Mark’s Gospel that we read today actually extended into part of what has been called the “alternative ending.” The earliest manuscripts we have of Mark end with verse 8. The angel at the tomb told the women to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that he was going before them to Galilee. Then verse 8 reads, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s how the earliest manuscripts of Mark end.
That’s notated differently in different Bibles. Look at your pew Bibles. Open them to page 55 in the New Testament. Look at verse 9. Do you see a little double bracket “thingy.” Look also at the end of verse 20. There’s another one. That’s how this edition sets off that alternative ending. It would be a good thing to keep that page open while we go this morning, because I’m going to refer to a number of parts of this passage.
I’ve actually come to love that “traditional ending,” because of a lecture I once heard in Seminary. A graduate assistant gave the lecture and he laid out some of the wonderful characteristics of Mark’s writing. For instance, he pointed out that when the soldiers were mocking Jesus, striking him while blindfolded saying “Prophecy! Tell us who hit you,” at the same time in the courtyard, one of Jesus prophecies was coming true. Peter was denying him at that very moment. He also pointed out that a number of places where Jesus healed someone and charged them to tell no one about it, they went and told everyone! Now here at the end, the women were asked to tell the greatest news, and they told no one because they were afraid. “And so,” he concluded, “who does that leave to tell the story? The Readers!!! I love that. It’s a wonderful way of looking at this story.
I wanted to go further, though. I wanted to get a little into this “alternative ending” because I wanted you to see what the reaction was when the disciples finally did hear the news. Look at verse 9. There it tells a quick version of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene. That’s the story that’s told more extensively in John’s Gospel. Here, it says he appeared to her, and “She went and told those who had been with him as they mourned and wept.” Then verse 11 reads, “But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” Luke adds to that in his Gospel, saying, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale – a fairy tale(!) – and they did not believe them!!” (Luke 24:11)
Then in verses 12 and 13 we have this next little vignette. “After this he appeared in another form to two of them as they were walking into the country.” What’s that sound like? The road to Emmaus. Luke spends almost an entire chapter telling that story. Mark tells it in one verse. And how does he conclude it? “And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.”
Mark is painting a picture of this entire first Easter Sunday that seems to be marked with disbelief. This was so unexpected! Even though Jesus had told them many times this was going to happen, still when it happened just like he said, they didn’t believe it. They refused to believe he would suffer and die like he kept telling them. Now, when the Resurrection itself happened, they didn’t believe that either! And I know that sometimes we can find ourselves thinking ill of them. “What’s with these guys?!” But I also know we probably wouldn’t have believed it either!
The Resurrection is the greatest affirmation of Jesus being who he is. This is the one thing that proved above everything else that Jesus was who he said he was – the Son of God. And that’s so important! Because either he was who he said he was, or he was the greatest fraud in the history of the earth! And sure, all the miracles and signs and fulfilled prophecies were also affirmations. But the Resurrection was the greatest. He said who he was, he said what was going to happen, and then it did. And if it didn’t, then we wouldn’t all be sitting here in the Eddington Presbyterian Church. For there would be no Christianity. Maybe we’d be in the Eddington Synagogue. Although we wouldn’t be there either, because the service would have been yesterday!
This event is the greatest affirmation of Jesus. It is so very important to our faith. I think we would all agree on that. But I suspect even we don’t believe it sometimes. It’s so unexpected! And sometimes that’s too much for us, too!
Think about this. In the early Church they celebrated the Resurrection every Sunday. In fact, that celebration was why they changed their worship day from Saturday to the first day of the week. It may even be why they changed their understanding of when a day begins. The Jews believed that a day began at sundown, not sunrise. That’s why their Sabbath, which is Saturday, has always begun at sundown on Friday – because that’s when Saturday begins for them. And it’s still that way today.
That’s not actually a bad way to think about it, either. The day starts with the rejuvenation of sleep. Our sleep time is often seen as “recovery.” After a tough, stressful day, we crash and hope we can recuperate before a new day begins. (And that often doesn’t happen!) The Jews would start the day, no matter how hard the previous day had been, by saying that day is finished and done. God has given a new day, we begin it with rest and sleep! Not a bad way of thinking!
Even that thinking changed. Since the resurrection took place in the morning, the understanding of when a day begins began to change as well! So much of the life and thinking of the early Church was oriented around the resurrection! They thought about it. They talked about it. They celebrated it, weekly!
Somewhere in the great Church councils the “Religious Year” – the “Liturgical Year,” was established. And in doing so they changed the celebration of the Resurrection to once a year. And they assigned the formula for the date of that celebration to be (get out your pencils!) “the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.” So, did you see the full moon Friday night? It was only a day after the first day of Spring on Thursday, and then Easter is today. This is almost the earliest this celebration can happen. I’m told this will not happen again for another 150 years. And that’s just fine with me!!!
Something else happened, though. And this is the reason I say all this here on Easter morning. In changing the celebration of the Resurrection to just once a year, the Church Councils may have done us a disservice. Because now we may not be thinking about it enough. And though we may remember the importance of it, at times we may not do so well at believing it. In fact, we now think about it so little, that for many of us, the Resurrection may have drifted back into the realm of the impossible, and the unexpected. And because of that, that we might find ourselves backing off from it, talking less about it, and soft selling it when the subject comes up. We may actually be more in the “unbelieving” mindset of that first Easter than we think!
The Resurrection was and is unexpected! It is hard to believe! And I wonder if celebrating it only once a year has made it worse. And I don’t blame these disciples for not believing the women’s story. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have believed it either. And like all of us, I’ve sometimes felt my own doubts about the Resurrection rising within me. Even though I know by heart the verse that says, “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain!” (I Cor 15:14) I know it’s that important to our faith! I know it’s that fundamental. And though I never witnessed the empty tomb, I never saw the empty grave clothes, and I was not there for the Resurrection appearances of Jesus, I am very glad those who did had the sense to write about it, and to write about it honestly! Because they did witness those things! “Here’s what happened and we refused to believe it! We had even heard him say it was going to happen, and still we refused to believe it!”
By now you know my feelings about Thomas. I feel he’s gotten a bad rap over the years. I don’t believe Thomas was any more skeptical than anyone else in that group. He just happened to be the only one who wasn’t there that first time Jesus appeared to the disciples. If it had been one of the others we would have been referring to skeptics as “Doubting Johns” or “Doubting Matthews” for the last 2000 years!! I really believe that. And the evidence for it is in every one of the Gospel accounts – written frankly and honestly!! And I applaud them for doing so!
Remember they were the authors of the Gospels. They could easily have left out that “little part” about their own unbelief. And they could have just emphasized the “glory of the event.” But they didn’t. Think about it. How did the disciples deal with the unexpected? Not very well. How do we know that? Because they told us! Through all of Church history people would know about their unbelief that first Easter morning. And that’s good! Because it’s important to deal with our own unbelief. It’s important that we don’t just repeat the stories and sing the joyous Easter hymns without looking inside to ask ourselves it we believe it.
Maybe we should remember story of the man who said to Jesus “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) That’s so honest and refreshing! By the way, just a few verses after that in Mark’s Gospel we find one of those places where Jesus tells his disciples what is to happen. “‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’” And the verse concludes, “But they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:31-32) They needed help with their unbelief! And maybe we do too!
So I want us to be sure this glorious Easter morning that we give thought to this event that we celebrate – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. How are we dealing with that which is so unexpected? Do we believe it? Do we realize how important it is to our faith? Do we give it the importance it demands? Or like many people do we just kind of move it the periphery of our faith. Are we uncomfortable with the whole idea? Ask yourself those things and ask God for the faith to believe. Because the unexpected has happened! The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Eternal God by your powerful hand you have raised again to life your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Help us to be people who live in the power and glory of his Resurrection, and our new life through him. On that first Easter, the world was changed forever. May we remember this day that we have been changed, too. And we give you the glory and honor and praise this day, now and forever, world without end, Amen.