Unbelievable News -- A Sermon for Easter Sunday
If you were reading along with Cheryl, did you notice the brackets around the morning’s passage? They’re a signal that these verses are a later addition to the Gospel of Mark. Because most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel ends with verse 8 and not verse 20, not too many sermons get preached from this text. I wouldn’t have preached on it either, except I’ve been following an alternative set of readings during the Lenten season and this is the chosen text for Easter Sunday.
But even if this reading comes from a Second Century addition, could there still be a word from God present in these verses? After all, for many centuries this addition to the Gospel was considered sacred scripture – even the verses that talk about snakes and poison!
Mark 16 begins with a group of women going to the tomb to finish the burial process. As they walk to the tomb they begin to realize that they might have trouble moving the stone covering the entrance, so when they arrive, they’re rather surprised to find that the stone has already been moved. When they look inside, they discover that Jesus’ body is missing. But they do find a young man sitting off to the right side of the tomb. He tells them not to be afraid, but to go and tell Peter and the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead and will meet them in Galilee. Instead of going to Peter and telling him the news, they go home and keep this news to themselves. With that the Gospel of Mark ends.
If the Gospel of Mark does end in verse 8, as most scholars believe, you can understand why someone might want to add an epilogue to it. Having the women go home without sharing the news leaves you wanting more, doesn’t it? It’s like when I went to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I found myself unsettled and a bit bewildered by the brevity of the film’s resurrection scene. We went from the violence of the crucifixion to a passing glance at the empty tomb, and then the credits rolled. As I sat there, rather numb, I wanted to write a different ending! And that’s what happened here – someone decided to finish the story by drawing on scenes from the other three gospels.
There is something about this epilogue, however, that is somewhat unsettling. There are scenes here – like the handling of snakes and drinking of poison – that seem rather unbelievable. But then isn’t the resurrection itself a bit unbelievable? After all, people just don’t rise from the dead every day. For many people, the resurrection sounds like crazy talk.
Many people have tried to give “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead, but these efforts generally fall short. There were no cameras to record the event, and even the Gospels don’t say much – they just tell us that he was seen alive by his disciples. But as a result, their lives seem to have been transformed. As I shared with a reporter from the Free Press, ultimately we have to take this news about the resurrection by faith. Not even an empty tomb is sufficient proof.
As we read this epilogue, which was written sometime in the Second Century, to give closure to Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, just like in John 20. And she goes and tells the disciples, who were mourning and weeping, that Jesus had risen. But, no one believes her, and why would they?
Then Jesus appears to two disciples who are on a trip into the countryside. You may notice some similarities to Luke’s story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus. Jesus doesn’t break bread with them, but he does tell them to go and share the news with the other disciples. And once again – no one will believe what seems like unbelievable news.
Finally, Jesus appears to the whole community, and he gives them a good talking-to. He asks them why they’re being so stubborn in their unbelief. Why is this such unbelievable news?
I like the way our friend Bruce Epperly puts it:
The resurrection will always remain a mystery, hidden from rationalists, Enlightenment-thinkers, and literalists. It is always more than we can ask or imagine.
Too often, when we try to explain the resurrection, we end up domesticating it. And when we do this, we miss the deeper message. Bruce points us back to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The White Witch thought she had killed Aslan, but there was a deeper magic that she didn’t understand. And as a result Aslan is resurrected, and the Witch is defeated. We may not have all the answers, but something happened that first Easter morning that transformed the lives of Jesus’ followers. There is a power present in the universe deeper than we can truly imagine, and that power is present in the Risen Christ.
Despite the unbelief of his disciples, Jesus isn’t finished with them quite yet. They may struggle to make sense of the resurrection, like many of us do, but the message of the resurrection is still good news that needs to be proclaimed to the world.
Mirroring the message of Matthew 28, Jesus gives the disciples their commission: “Go into all the World and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” That is the key point in this passage. We have a message to share with the world. It might sound unbelievable to some, but it will be life changing for others. William Barclay offers four points of relevance in this passage for us today. First, “the church has a preaching task.” We have a duty, he says, “to tell the story of the good news of Jesus to those who have never heard it.” The second point is that “the church has a healing task.” Remember that Jesus tells the disciples that they will “lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” We see this happen on numerous occasions in the Book of Acts. It’s clear from Scripture that God isn’t just concerned about minds and souls. God is also concerned about bodies. Third, the “church has a source of power.” We can easily get put off by references to snakes and poison and speaking in tongues, but as Barclay puts it – “at the back of this picturesque language is the conviction that the Christian is filled with a power to cope with life that others do not possess.” Finally, “the church is never left alone to do its work.” There is a promise here that “the Lord of the church is still in the church and is still the Lord of power.” [Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (The New Daily Study Bible), pp. 370-371]. Therefore, there is no need to fear!
We began the service with an announcement of the Resurrection. In that announcement, he heard the promise that “Our story is an invitation to insurrection.” And you responded: “Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed!” And the announcement closed with the proclamation: Christ has risen! Let the resurrection insurrection begin! You responded: Christ has risen Indeed!
The news of the resurrection might seem unbelievable, but if we’re willing to take a risk and follow the risen Christ into the heart of God, then we will get to participate in an insurrection that can change the world!
Alleluia – Christ the Lord is Risen!