Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
We have four different official accounts of the Easter story, one in each of the four gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The version you’ve heard the most often is from John. It’s actually the last of the four. My favorite, though, is the earliest one, from the Gospel of Mark, and I’ll tell you why in just a moment.
We don’t have an original copy of the Bible. And we don’t have an original copy of any of the books of the Bible, either. The oldest biblical documents that we have are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies, and most of those are only tiny fragments. The oldest complete texts come from centuries later, and they have a surprising number of differences from one copy to another.
And I’m telling you this because one of those differences is very important for the Easter story in the Gospel of Mark, the passage that we are focusing on this morning. If you look in most recently published Bibles at the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you’ll find something rather strange. You’ll see the verses that we read this morning, and then you’ll see some other things afterward. Often the words that come after are put in brackets, or they come with a special note explaining that many of our oldest and most reliable copies of the Bible don’t include any of the words that come after verse eight. In other words, in many of our oldest and best manuscripts, the Gospel of Mark ends right where we stopped reading today. It ends with these words: “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
That’s the end. You can close the book there. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Actually, the Greek includes a double negative. It says, “They said nothing to nobody, because they were afraid.” The End.
You can imagine why some early Christians were uncomfortable with this ending. And some of them decided to write a little tag to the gospel in order to end on a more satisfying note and tie up the loose ends. In fact, we have preserved two different endings to the Gospel of Mark, one that we call the shorter ending of Mark and one that we call the longer ending of Mark. Again, if you look in most recently published bibles, you’ll find them both, along with an explanatory note.
But this morning, I want us to focus on what was probably the original ending to the Gospel of Mark: Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb, and they said nothing to nobody, because they were afraid.
Three women come to Jesus’s tomb early on Sunday morning. It is the first chance that they have had to attend to the body. He died on Friday, but they didn’t have time to do anything before the sabbath started at sundown. Like everyone else, they rested from labor until the sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday evening. In the dark hours, they prepare their spices and supplies. But they’re not going to go visit the tomb at night. So early on Sunday morning they go to the tomb, the first chance they have had.
Three women come to the tomb. The first we know: Mary Magdalene, who was one of Jesus’s closest followers; she had been with him supporting his ministry from the beginning. The second was also named Mary. There is good reason to suspect she might be Jesus’s mother Mary, but we can’t be certain. The third is named Salome. All three have been long-time supporters of his mission and ministry.
As they approach, they remember that they will need someone to roll the stone door away from the entrance of the cave-like tomb, because they probably won’t be able to manage it by themselves. But when they arrive, they realize the stone is already rolled away. The tomb is already open.
And contrary to what we might expect, this is bad news. If the tomb is open, and they hadn’t arranged for it to be opened, it probably means that Jesus’s body has been stolen. Someone has taken his body, and probably not with good intent. Maybe they want to mutilate or deface the body. Maybe they just want to hide it so that there is no place for Jesus’s followers to gather. There is no place for a shine to the martyred hero.
As the women enter the tomb, they find someone inside. Mark just describes him as a young man in a white robe. He’s not described as an angel or a heavenly being. He doesn’t shine or glow. But he does have a message for them. “Don’t be afraid. Jesus has been raised from the dead. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Go, tell his disciples.”
And they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to nobody, for they were afraid.
I love that ending. I do. Part of it is that I just love weird, quirky parts of the Bible. And you have to admit that ending a gospel by saying that everyone who knew anything was too afraid to say anything about it—well, that is pretty weird and quirky.
My family has movie night every Friday, and this Friday we watched the final movie of the epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We watched the extended version. The run time is about 4 hours and 20 minutes. But most of the action is over about three and a quarter hours in. The last part of movie, about 40 minutes of action, is just tying up all of the loose ends, telling us where each and every character has ended up. Everything is set to rights and put in order before the movie comes to an end. And they all live happily ever after.
But that’s not how Mark ends at all. Mark cuts the story off the moment that anyone has heard that Jesus has been raised from the dead. If it were a movie, everyone would be leaving the theatre scratching their ends, but everyone would know that the filmmakers were planning to make a sequel. It’s like ending a song just before the last note, just before the resolution…
The Gospel of Mark demands a sequel. But the author never wrote one. And I don’t think it’s because he never got around to it. It’s meant to end on the penultimate note. It’s meant to end before the resolution. All through the Gospel, Mark has been rushing us along. Immediately this happened, and then immediately that happened. “Immediately” is Mark’s favorite word. And the rushing holds up right to the end. A flash of extraordinary news—Jesus is risen—and then it’s over. It begs for more explanation, but the author refuses to give us any.
Mark’s Gospel begins with the simple words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” But we are never told anything about the end of the good news of Jesus Christ. For that matter, we aren’t told anything about the middle either. The conclusion of Mark is something like what Winston Churchill said after the British victory over Rommel’s army in 1942: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Mark does nothing to tie up the loose ends of the story, because Mark does not think that the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ has a tidy ending. Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. There is so much left to the story of Jesus’s good news, of Jesus’s gospel. We have not come to the end yet. And the middle is up to us to write.
They fled in terror and amazement and they said nothing to nobody, for they were afraid. We know that isn’t the end of the story. We know that they conquered their fear. We know that they shared the good news. We know that they evangelized and organized. We know that they created a movement—oftentimes an underground movement, because they we under threat from the authorities, just as Jesus had been. Have a Roman centurion read the end of Mark, and they will chuckle. “That’s right, you should be afraid. You are no threat to us.” But read the ending of Mark in one of hundreds of beleaguered house churches across the empire, and they will smile knowingly. They can see Mark winking at them. “They said nothing to nobody, sure. But we’re not nobody. They sure said something to us! They told us that Jesus conquered death! They told us that Jesus goes ahead before us, leading the way to freedom.”
Mark is written to a world and a church under threat. Later generations might be able to sing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” but the early church is little more than a rag-tag group of revolutionaries, working in the shadows, communicating in code and in metaphor.
We live in a world and in a church that seems under threat. For more than a year we have been living under the power of the coronavirus. It has changed nearly every part of our lives. It has certainly changed the way we do church. Today some of us are worshipping online. Some of us are worshipping in our cars in the church parking lot. That is a step forward, though I know it’s not where anyone wants to be. We would all like to be worshipping together in the sanctuary, singing the songs of faith together at the top of our lungs. We would like to be shaking hands and giving hugs. We would like to be gathering around a common table in communion and fellowship.
But we are not there yet. At this time the CDC still recommends that in our county there be no indoor gatherings with more than 25 people, and even those with a number of precautions in place. The downward trend that we had been seeing in Oregon stopped on March 8th, and case numbers have been steadily creeping up since then. Officials are warning of a fourth wave of illness, even at the same time that vaccinations are being given at an unprecedented rate. We are not through this yet, even though we all want to be. There is a amazing hope of new life in the near future. But the story is not yet complete. There is still more to be written. We have everything necessary to break the power of death, but it is not done. The last chord has not been played. The song is not yet resolved.
And it is in this moment of almost but not yet that we declare a message of hope. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. The power of death is broken. The work of resurrection has begun.
But this is not the end of the story. This is not even the beginning of the end. But may be, perhaps, it is the end of the beginning. The story is in our hands now. The gospel of Jesus Christ did not end 2000 years ago; it continues to this day and beyond. Today we proclaim Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia! And though we are still in some ways bound, we know that Christ’s liberation is coming. We know that the story does not end with fear and terror, saying nothing to nobody. The good news goes on. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!