Shopping at Wal-Mart near the end of Lent, a priest ran into one of his parish children in the candy aisle. The little boy, Johnny, holding a giant chocolate rabbit, eagerly looked up at his priest and said, “We’re getting ready for Easter!”
The priest was understandably disappointed. He’d invested so much in the parish Sunday school program, only to see this doe-eyed child equate the church’s holiest day with a super-heroic rabbit. He looked very seriously at the little boy and asked, “Johnny, do you know what Easter is about?”
Without pause, Johnny responded, “Of course I know what Easter is about. It’s when Jesus went to Jerusalem, and he rode a donkey, and they waved palms at him. But Jesus made people angry, and they nailed him on a cross and he died.”
As you would expect, the priest was incredibly gratified. “Do you know what happened next, Johnny?” he asked.
“Well, sure,” Johnny went on, “Then they put him in a tomb and put a big rock in front of it. But three days later he got up and got out of there!”
Well, the priest was satisfied and excited that somehow Christian formation had trumped what the secular world had to offer. He patted the boy on the head and began to walk away, but Johnny grabbed his priest’s pant leg and stopped him. “Wait, that’s not all,” Johnny said, “When the rock gets rolled back, and Jesus steps out, he looks around. And if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.”[i]
The ending of the Easter story didn’t make good sense to Johnny. It seemed incomplete somehow, so he added something, not something that rendered the story less incredible, but that did make the story fit into some broader context.
That is actually not much different from what the early Church did with Mark’s Gospel. The Gospel of Mark originally ended exactly as our Gospel reading concluded this morning. In case you missed it, here it is again. (It’s only eight verses.)
“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘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. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
That’s it. That’s how Mark’s Gospel ends. What do you notice? For starters, the resurrected Jesus is not seen. At all. And second, the women who find the tomb empty don’t tell anyone about it. They leave the graveyard, fearful and dumbstruck.
“But wait a minute…” you’re thinking, “There are lots of stories of resurrection appearances: Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room. Jesus appears to Peter on the lakeshore. Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus. And of course the women tell people. Peter and John race one another back to the tomb when they receive the news.”
Not in Mark’s Gospel. Mark includes none of that. But we, like Johnny, want the ending to make better sense—we want it to fit with what we already understand—so we interpolate stories from the other Gospels. We tack on a new ending. The Church began to do this almost as soon as Mark had finished his Gospel. That’s why your bible at home actually has three endings for Mark’s Gospel: the original ending, which we read this morning, and what are labeled the “shorter ending” and the “longer ending,” which were written later and which were added to Mark’s Gospel by Christians who assumed Mark must’ve run out of ink.
He didn’t. Mark is a brilliant writer, and we fail to do him justice, to pay due attention to what he’s trying to tell us, when we tinker with his ending. So, what does Mark leave us with on Easter Day? What makes the women fearful and renders them mute? It can only be the proclamation of the young man awaiting them at the tomb. And what does he say to them? “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here…He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
See, this tomb is not in Galilee. It’s just outside of Jerusalem, miles to the south. Galilee is where these women, and Jesus, and the disciples have come from. It is the past; it is what many of the followers of Jesus believed (undoubtedly with some relief) they were leaving behind for good when the came with Jesus to the capital.
But the risen Jesus is calling the women—and, indeed, all those who would follow—back to the lives they’d hoped to leave behind, back into their past, back into the experiences they’d had but not fully understood, and surely not redeemed. Before they can move forward, they first have to go with Jesus back into the story that has brought them thus far.
In the light of the Resurrection, we are called to do the same, to plumb back into Mark’s Gospel, to look at Mark’s story a second time. It’s like watching a whodunit film again after you’ve seen the ending. We notice things we didn’t before. Events take on new and different significance.
Much of this is lost in our English translations, but if we read Mark’s Gospel in the original Greek, we would see, suddenly, that the unusual verb used by the young man at the empty tomb, this phrase by which he says, “Jesus has been raised,” this verb that means resurrection, shows up on the tongue of Jesus himself throughout the story.[ii]
In Mark 2, when a paralytic man is lowered through the ceiling of a house by his friends to meet Jesus, Jesus says to him in English, “Stand up,” but the Greek verb is “Rise!”
In Mark 3, when a man with a withered and gnarled hand plaintively seeks Jesus, Jesus says to him in English, “Come forward,” but the Greek verb is “Rise!”
In Mark 5 when Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter, Jesus says to her in English, “Little girl, get up,” but the Greek verb is “Rise!”
Do you catch what this means? It means that what Jesus ultimately accomplishes on the third day after Good Friday he has been empowering us to do all along. Every story in Mark is a resurrection story. “Be resurrected!” Jesus says, “Be resurrected! Be resurrected!” Again and again and again, whenever the least, the lonely, and the lost come to him. And with him, again and again and again, they are.
It is wondrous, this power. It is also terrifying, and it is what renders the women mute. Because in Mark’s Gospel it’s not a suggestion; it is a command. The young man at the tomb tells the women that the Jesus to whom they’ve committed their lives has gone back into those lives—back to Galilee—and he is calling them to follow him, back through their experiences, back through their pains, back through their failures and disappointments and loss. Is there anything more terrifying?
And it is also what Jesus calls us to do. I say to you on this Easter Day that we cannot move forward in our faith until we first move backward, back into the Galilees of our lives, back into even those places we’d prefer never to revisit. But we need not be afraid, because we don’t go alone. You see, Jesus goes before us: the Resurrected Jesus, the one whose words and whose touch heal, the one who negates the power of the past to harm us, who redeems all that has been and grants the power for us, too, to rise in new life.
It is Easter. The tomb is empty, but there is not yet an end to this story. The young man is telling us, “Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
He has gone back to Galilee—our Galilee—so that it can be redeemed. He has gone ahead of us. Will we follow?
[i] From the internet, where else?
[ii] This insight comes from Dr. Ray Pickett’s masterful essay, “Following Jesus in Galilee: Resurrection as Empowerment in the Gospel of Mark,” which appeared in the December 2005 (32:6) issue of Currents in Theology and Mission. Ray was one of my New Testament professors in seminary.