Sermon for April 4, 2021

Resurrection of Our Lord, April 4, 2021
Mark 16:1-8

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But 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. 7But 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.” 8So 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.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

On this Easter Sunday, Resurrection of Our Lord, I have something of a confession to make as your pastor: during my adolescence, I was an agnostic. It may have been the tumult of my teenage years, my need for self-differentiation from my family which was very serious about both faith and life in the church, the influence of my skeptic friends whose parents were on faculty at the local college, or my mother’s struggles with her health – or likely some combination of all of the above. But I was a doubter during my teenage years, from early high school into college.

I recall looking for signs and evidence of the claims made by the Christian faith. Chief among those claims is what we celebrate today: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

My brother, who also had his own versions of doubts but was older than I and came back around sooner than I did, put in my hands a book entitled, Who Moved the Stone? A Skeptic Looks at the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The book was written originally in 1930 by Albert Henry Ross, who was a British advertising agent and freelance writer.

Like many classic British empiricists, Ross examined the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Gospels, assuming them to be fully accurate accountings free from any authorial license, looking for evidence, if not to say, proof that Jesus indeed rose from the dead.

What Ross centered on was the stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. In his reading of the accounts, he found no plausible or natural explanation for how it was that the large stone was moved from the entrance to the tomb.

On the basis of the stone being rolled away, Ross argued, if I recall his discourse accurately, that this was proof that something supernatural had happened and that, therefore, Jesus in fact rose from the dead.

While I found the book interesting, it did not convince me then as an adolescent, and it does not particularly interest me today. I’ve come to discover that faith does not need proof.

It’s a long story, which I’m happy to tell at some point, but many other things and people were responsible for my re-awakened faith – including biblical accounts such as the one from Mark’s Gospel appointed for today, namely, Mark’s account of the resurrection.

A more compelling – at least to me – account of the truthfulness of what happened on that first Resurrection dawn is the reported response of the women to the white robed young man sitting in the tomb. When he announced that Jesus, who was crucified, had been raised, and was elsewhere, ready to meet Peter and the other disciples in Galilee, Mark says that the women who came to anoint Jesus’ body “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

If this is a faithful reporting, the women’s reaction is what begins to stir faith in me, trusting belief that something significant happened, for we might naturally expect such amazed and terrified reactions in response to an encounter that goes completely against the grain of our usual experience.

The report of the women’s reaction is basically how Mark’s Gospel ends. While there is a longer, elaborating ending, which many scholars believe is a later addition, the shorter ending of Mark is simply this: “And all that had been commanded [the women] they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

That’s it. In Mark’s version, there is no road to Emmaus story, no Jesus appearing to so-called doubting Thomas, no other lengthy discourses from the resurrected Jesus. Rather, in Mark, the resurrection account ends with being seized with alarm, terror, fear-induced silence, and fleeing the scene.

Again, this set of reactions is what I find compelling. These reactions stir up the possibility of faith, of belief that something new, something unprecedented, was going on that first Easter Day.

Here’s the thing: Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, fully expected that they would encounter at the tomb a huge impediment, the stone standing in the way of what else they fully expected, and that was to do the ritual work of anointing Jesus’ dead body with spices.

The stone is perhaps as much a metaphor for the women – and for us – as an actual reality.

In short, the women expected the seeming immovability of human business as usual. Indeed, we also are still more typically weighed down with the many and various ways in which death, our mortality, and human sinfulness bind us, impede us, constrain us. The pandemic and its interconnected crises reveal this bondage with apocalyptic clarity.

In Jesus’ day, the women expected the tomb to be full of death, closed in, confined, perhaps with the beginnings of the stench of decomposition, of decay.

In our day, think of the pandemic’s refrigerated trucks serving as make-shift morgues to handle all of overflowing Covid dead in cities throughout the world.

Yet, for the women who followed Jesus, the tomb was empty of the usual signs of death. Perhaps it was light and airy. The exact opposite of the women’s expectations. The weight had been lifted from them in ways completely unexpected, even as the stone’s impediments cleared their path to new, resurrected realities.

Hence their understandable alarm, terror, and amazement and silence. How else would they have reacted? How else would we react?

Saying it yet again to reinforce what is going on in the story as its message echoes through the centuries to us: the energy of the alarm, terror and amazement, and even the silence, are the seeds that play a role in the awakening of faith, trusting belief.

Those dissonant energies awoke the women from the stupor of the constraints of their expectations, breaking open the possibility of new meaning, of a new reality, namely that Jesus was victorious over death in his resurrected life.

The Holy Spirit, active in the scriptural word of these stories, repeated and re-enacted again in our liturgies for Holy Week, and The Three Days, may also generate our own amazement leading to faith.

So, too, our sacred conversations with each other may stir up the energies of faith, as Christ’s word of promise and life meet and transcend our own alarm and terror in the face of sin and death.

Then there are the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion – realities which seem remote to us during this pandemic time of social isolation. But recall your own participation in the sacramental life of the church, occasions of holy awe that meet your fears with the assurance of Christ’s presence, occasions when your silence gives way to your songs of praise and thanksgiving.

According to the shorter ending of Mark, the women did end up briefly reporting to the disciples and Peter what the young man in the tomb had said about Jesus. This brief reporting was apparently enough to have this result, again: “And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

Jesus himself sent out through the disciples the proclamation of the gospel. And so it has been for two millennia: Jesus continues to send himself out through us, we who are latter day disciples, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

Some suggest that Mark’s Gospel doesn’t need an elaborated and long ending, because the gathered community proclaiming and hearing the story is itself the ending – or perhaps the continuation of the story.

And we who, virtually and in person, gather to proclaim Christ’s victory over sin and death, and who lovingly, generously, and gracefully minister to our neighbor’s needs, also continue the story, for the sake of the world and those crying out for new life.

When it’s all said and done, such worshiping and proclaiming assemblies of God’s people are what brought me in my youthful agnosticism back to awakened faith.

Perhaps you, too, have such stories to tell of your holy encounters with faithful others and in the life of the church which have led you to proclaim again in faith, Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • Recall and share occasions and encounters in your life when perhaps your fear has turned into faith, when your silence has led you to affirm and to proclaim, Christ is risen!