Sunday, April 5, 2009

What just happened?

Mark 16:1-8

If I were going to write the story of the resurrection, I just don’t think this is how I’d do it. I mean, the story—and most scholars think this is the earliest Easter story we have—ends with a bunch of women, having been told to go tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised, running off terrified and not saying anything to anyone. No one goes and tells anyone anything, and there’s no appearance of the risen Jesus in the story. (It’s almost like someone tore the last page out of the book of Mark—as a matter of fact, in the Greek the text ends in mid-sentence. Did Mark mean it that way, or have we lost the real ending?)

No, I think if I were going to write the story I’d do it more like what’s in the Gospel of Peter, which is one of the many Gospels that were floating around the early church, all but four of which didn’t make the cut when they finally put the Bible together as we have it today:

“…in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from the sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens” (Gospel of Peter, translated by Raymond Brown).

Yeah, I think that’s how I’d write it, only I think maybe I’d want that giant Jesus to go up to the Romans and the Jewish elders who were there and say, “Hah!”

But this Gospel didn’t make it in. Instead we have Mark’s version, which goes by so suddenly we don’t even have time to ask, “What just happened?” I wasn’t there, and so I don’t know the discussions that might have gone on, but somehow the people who finalized the canon determined that Mark’s Gospel is in and the Gospel of Peter is out. And the whole issue of how they decided what books got in is very interesting, but not really germane on Easter morning, except to say that the fact that Mark’s Resurrection story is in the Bible and the one from the Gospel of Peter isn’t says something important to us.

Now, of course, as we have it today there’s quite a little bit of stuff at the end of Mark after verse 8, where our reading for today ends. There are resurrection appearances in Mark, and a sending out of the disciples. And there’s that troublesome verse that says certain signs will follow those who believe, including the ability to pick up snakes without being harmed. But this longer ending seems to most scholars to have been pieced together from stories in the other three Gospels, and the style of writing isn’t a thing like the rest of the book of Mark. It may have been added much later by Christians who knew the other Gospel stories, and knew that there were eyewitnesses who said they’d seen Jesus after the resurrection (see Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 15, for instance). I think this ending was added by folks who may not have trusted that those who read the Gospel of Mark would get the point he was trying to make by having the story end in mid-sentence, and before anyone had actually seen the risen Christ.

Remember that each one of the Gospels is written for a different place and time and purpose; each of the four Evangelists had a slightly different point to make. Mark’s Gospel, many think, is a training manual of a sort. It conveys the basic outlines of the Gospel story, with a tremendous sense of urgency. Everything in Mark happens “suddenly” or “immediately.” When the story begins, Mark doesn’t devote any time or ink to telling stories of Jesus’ birth—there are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, no Mary and Joseph, no manger, no star.

First John the Baptist appears in the wilderness (that’s the exact word Mark uses: appeared), and then Jesus comes and gets baptized, and by the fourteenth verse of the first chapter of the Gospel, Jesus is preaching. He calls his first disciples in verses 16-20, and then they’re off and running.

The point of this Gospel might be to get new believers to understand the basic story in a hurry, so they could et to work and be able to make disciples and teach and heal in whatever short time they had before the end-times, or they got arrested, whichever came first. Mark’s resurrection story is equally brief: Jesus died, he was buried, and then on Sunday morning some women came and found the tomb empty.

But the women told no one, and at least in the earliest form of the story, Jesus never appears. So how does it happen that we’re here today, if the story ends with three scared women saying nothing?

Well, it seems that Jesus did appear, because the rest of the Gospels talk about appearances and people who see Jesus—and Paul, as I mentioned, talks about eyewitnesses, and he wrote 1 Corinthians before any of the Gospels, even Mark, were written. But I think even if there hadn’t been resurrection appearances—and I am certain that there were—the story would have spread.
Easter just isn’t something you can keep to yourself—at least, it shouldn’t be. Look: if Christ is really raised from the dead, and churches would be empty on Easter Sunday if those who are there didn’t believe that on some level, then the back of death and sin and evil is broken. And if that’s the case, then what on earth do we have to be afraid of?

Do we have to fear being kept alive by machines or tubes—or do we have to fear those machines and tubes being turned off or disconnected? Do we have to fear the loss of our jobs, our prestige in the community, or even our money? Do we have to fear that if we don’t do something ourselves, our churches or our regions will not be here in 50 years?

No!

If Christ is really raised from the dead, then death is swallowed up in victory, in whatever form that death might take—death of our churches, death of our social status, death of our bodies or our ability to control what happens to our bodies. So let us live as people who have nothing to fear!

This brings us back to the reason Mark’s Gospel, with its abrupt mid-sentence ending, makes it into the Bible where the Gospel of Peter with its mile-high Jesus and walking, talking cross doesn’t: By leaving the story unfinished, Mark is telling us something very important.
Mark begins his Gospel with an introduction: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” I suppose he could be saying, “I’m going to start telling you about Jesus now,” but I don’t think that’s what he’s doing. I think he’s introducing the whole book as “the beginning of the good news.” And by ending so abruptly, he’s saying to all who read his Gospel: “Now it’s up to you to be the rest of the story.”

The story began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You’ve been introduced, and you know Jesus came out of the tomb, even though the women initially were afraid to say so. Now keep your eyes open, because the risen Christ will appear to you; you will know his presence in your church and in your life. And when you do, then you get to add your witness to the story that continues from where I left off.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! He is alive among us here, and as we go out into the world, as people of the Resurrection, we are part of the rest of the story.

2 comments:

Brian said...

Very interesting commentary! I agree that Mark is much more meaningful without the tagged on ending and it does seem to be telling us to pick up where the story leaves on. Thanks for your insights.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

Greetings.

Before you draw any conclusions about Mark 16:9-20, I welcome you to consider my summarized defense of the passage at
www.curtisvillechristian.org/MarkOne.html . A lot of misinformation is floating around in commentaries and on blogs about these 12 verses, and I am confident that you do not want to be a transmitter of false or misleading statements.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.