Sunday, April 12, 2009

For They were Afraid

Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

I read something recently about the movie Fatal Attraction that I have never known before. This is the 1987 movie starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. (No I wasn’t allowed to see it when it came out, but I did see it years later when I was old enough.) The movie is a thriller in which Michael Douglas, a married man, is stalked relentlessly by a colleague from his work, played by Glenn Close.

As is common with movies, when production was complete, the film was shown to test audiences before it was released to the public. Complaints from the test audiences about the ending sent the movie back into production. It was too ambiguous, they said, too disturbing. It didn’t tie up all the loose ends and leave the sympathetic characters, well, happy and in a good place. So, the writers got busy working again. The cast and crew were called back after what they thought had been a wrap. A new, tidier ending was written and shot and that was what was shown in theaters.

We like neat and tidy endings to our stories, which is why the gospel of Mark often gets left behind at Easter. The ending of Mark’s gospel as we heard it today - - well, that’s not really the ending is it? Certainly there has to be something more to it than THAT?! The women ran off, terrified and silent? That doesn’t say much for their faith at all! Where are the appearances of Jesus to his disciples? Where are his comforting words? His wounds of proof? His promised Spirit? His great commission? This ending of Mark’s with a guy in the tomb and the women fleeing in fear, this is not the sort of neat tidy ending we look for, nor was it what Christians in the first few centuries wanted either.

By that time they had other later gospel accounts. They were reading Mark alongside Matthew and Luke and John, but Mark was still the first. Mark was the earliest written account of the Easter morning resurrection and here it was scandalized by its lack of a faithful response. So, the early church sent it back into production. They didn’t do it with malice. They only wanted to provide the ending Mark certainly would have provided himself if he had known how disturbed they would be by the way he left it. In versions of varying detail, they added in some appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples. They put some words of commissioning to his mouth and let him be taken up into heaven to at the right hand of God. They made some good news out of the confusion Mark left.

They aren’t objectionable ending pieces, but most scholars agree that they are not how Mark’s original author, again the EARLIEST writer about Easter morning, chose to end his account. Instead they are the work of Christians in the first or second centuries, a hundred to two hundred years after Mark completed his gospel, trying to faithfully share the gospel as they knew it had to be. I mean, how were they supposed to convince anyone of the truth of the resurrection if the women at the tomb – the very first witnesses – couldn’t even believe, if THEY were too terrified to speak? Apparently the early church didn’t think its existence was proof enough that belief took over. This embarrassing loose end was eventually rewritten and wrapped up because for them fear equaled disbelief, and disbelief just couldn’t be the way it all ended.

But, I don’t know about the fear? Why shouldn’t it be a reasonable response? I mean, I can see the church’s concern and stress of leaving that as the last word in what is supposed to be this great story of faith, but if I get into the story myself and put myself in the place of those women, fear seems ENTIRELY appropriate. They never expected what they found. Their conversations on the way weren’t, “What do we do if he’s not there? How will we explain this to the others?” They fully expected to find a sealed tomb (they worried about how to get the stone out of the way) and a wrapped corpse. They fully expected to spend their morning anointing Jesus’ body and giving it the proper preparation and burial it deserved. They never ONCE expected what they found, the stone rolled away and the body gone.

Fear makes perfect sense. Fear that he had been stolen; fear that the Romans were playing a trick; fear that other believers had tried to secretly moved the body to a safer location; fear of this strange man inside the tomb, speaking in code, a speaking of the impossible; fear that grave robbers had stolen it to make a quick buck; fear, even, that they, the women, might be implicated in the crime. Fear makes perfect sense in response to what they find even if they don’t understand or believe that he, that Jesus, was alive.

Oh but how much MORE fearful would they have been if they believed it was true??? In my book, fear doesn’t have to equal disbelief. Fear doesn’t have to be an embarrassing sign that the first witnesses got it wrong. It could be exactly the opposite! The women could be afraid because they do believe; they do understand. Jesus who was dead is no longer. He was crucified, but now he has been raised. He was dead, but now he is alive. He was DEAD, but now he is ALIVE. The most basic truth of life, the truth we learn younger than our parents hope, but early enough that it’s a part of our most basic conscience, the truth that life ends, that death is final, suddenly isn’t true anymore.

And friends, if that were me at that tomb, if that were me speaking to the young man in white in the tomb at dawn on that Sunday morning, I would be more terrified in faith than I ever would be in disbelief.

Believing the good news that Jesus has risen turns everything they knew, everything WE know completely upside down. Jesus who was dead is alive. Jesus who hung broken on the cross is whole and living and loving again. Jesus who promised that where he went, so we also will be taken, didn’t end the story beaten and murdered and suffering. He was raised from the depths of despair; he was brought back from the pits of hell. He was victorious over death, the final answer. He is victorious over death!

And if this is true - - if the tomb is empty and the one who was dead has come back to life - - than the rest of it must be true, too, which can be frightening in its significance itself. The healings and the miracles? If Jesus is alive, certainly he made the blind see and the crippled walk. If Jesus is alive, certainly the bleeding stopped and the sea was calmed. The teachings? If Jesus is alive, than turning the other cheek has a whole new meaning. If Jesus is alive, than the Sabbath is for God’s purposes. If Jesus is alive, than the last really will be first, the poor not the rich, the ignored not the popular. And what about the forgiveness? If Jesus is alive, than the forgiveness - - oh the forgiveness, it must really be true. If Jesus is alive, than we can really be whole, we can really be holy before God. If Jesus is alive, than we really are set free from the things we do and the things we have left undone. If Jesus is alive, than there is new life someday and every day. Thanks be to God!

Our Easter worship is rightfully festive and joyous and probably the most praise-filled worship we will experience all year. Yet, if in the midst of the praise and worship and joy and celebration we aren’t at least a little bit fearful of what this means, then we might be missing the enormity of the occasion which we celebrate, the truth which we proclaim through song and prayers and spoken and written word. If, in the middle of all our Easter celebrations, we aren’t wondering what this resurrection does to the world, we might just be missing the importance of its truth.

The resurrection changes everything. Everything we thought we knew from the beginning of time is different, is changed, is destroyed, because Jesus is alive. Death no longer has the final answer. Sin and pain and emptiness and darkness do not win. Love is not about making people feel good; love is about giving yourself to others, giving yourself FOR others. The powerful and violent do not have the last say, instead the peaceful and the humble speak for God.

Jesus’ resurrection, his conquering of death, shows us that all that he did and all that he said truly comes from God, because only God could raise him from the dead. The resurrection means that the things he asked us to do, the calling he gave us, the standard he set, the love he poured on us and commanded us to share - - those must also be true. And really, that is as terrifying as it is wonderful.

The empty tomb means we’re not in all this alone. The empty tomb means that God didn’t just come to walk on the earth for a little while, and then BAM suddenly it was all over. The empty tomb means that Christ is alive! He has risen indeed, and everything he said, everything he taught, every name he called and every command he spoke, came from the mouth of God. To ignore our call, to ignore the call to serve one another, our community and our world, with the love and grace of God, is to ignore the Word of God. To hold back our love, to live in judgment of others instead of with hospitality toward all is to try to squelch the love of God because Jesus is alive, and what he said is true.

The morning looked the same after the women went to the tomb, but everything was different. The world looks the same for us, but it’s completely different. Words can hardly express this. What words were the women supposed to choose to convey what they understood in fear? What sounds should be the first to overcome the silence of their belief?

Mark doesn’t record them. Their silence says so much more, but we know they eventually spoke out about what they knew, what they believed. We know they did by our very presence here today! If they hadn’t turned their fear and silence into praise and proclamation we wouldn’t be here proclaiming what they discovered - - the tomb was empty! Jesus is alive! If they hadn’t let the story out, we wouldn’t be here in fear and in joy telling and living the story of God’s love that destroys all our ideas of how the world works.

But here we are, part of the story. Here we are, receiving God’s grace. Here we are, in spite of their hesitant voice, in spite of OUR hesitant voices, in spite of our fear, in spite of ourselves – Here we are in fear and in joy celebrating the joy of the resurrection.

Don’t let our fear silence us. Don’t let our concern about what the others will think keep us silent. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” May we proclaim this good and life-restoring news to the world with our words and our lives - - Jesus is alive!

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