Delivered at Ames UCC
on March 27, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Fear seems a pretty appropriate response to a grave that has been opened and is now occupied by a stranger. A stranger who lets you know that your most dearest one has walked off.
These women have been through so much already. They were the only ones who waited with Jesus. They were the only ones who tended his body and laid it to rest. When all of the other followers and the named disciples ran away, they continued to ally themselves with this loving, ornery, and seemingly god-forsaken man.
Then they returned to their community. They returned to the traditional Passover festival. If nothing else helps in the midst of grief, familiarity and habit can be soothing balms. But they could not stay away. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of the disciple James the younger, and Salome the mother of the other James and his brother John know that Jesus’ body yet needs care.
Sit with that for a moment: A woman whom Jesus healed and the mothers of men Jesus called, they were the ones who demonstrated the greatest faithfulness. Not the men who had been given formal duties, were told secrets, and even apparently been gifted with healing powers. No, they hid.
Maybe the male disciples saw themselves as easy targets for further purging of Jesus’ movement. When the leader who publicly named you as one of his chosen is killed, I can see thinking twice about sitting vigil at his grave. These three women, in that their female bodies made them nobodies, have nothing to lose. But they also, on hearing Jesus is somehow alive, do not have any joy.
In this version of Jesus’ resurrection, in Mark, the women do not leave their encounter with the stranger elated. They,
ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
It was not the first time Jesus left people frightened.
When Jesus calmed a raging sea, he said “Why are you afraid?” to the disciples (Mark 4.40).
- After Jesus healed the man called Legion, “they were afraid” (Mark 5.15).
- As Jesus walked on water toward the disciples in a boat, “they all saw him and were terrified” (Mark 6.50).
- And when Jesus said that trouble would soon be his, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9.32).
Jesus brought good news, such tangibly good news: you matter, you who are poor. You have power, even you who are under occupation. Do not doubt what is possible in faith: healing, redemption, life.
But as good as that message clearly felt, Jesus shared it and embodied it in ways that often unsettled not just those who ultimately had him killed, but his closest followers, too. For all the highs, the lows were there, too. The disciples—and in that I include Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—had been on an emotional rollercoaster well before the week that we now call holy.
At this point you might be thinking, “Oh, they are scared now, but Jesus will show up soon and set their hearts at ease. Everything will be okay.”
I’d like to invite you to open up your Bible or one in the pew. Go to the gospel of Mark. Many of our Bibles have section headers to tell us what story is coming like “Parable of the Vineyard.” You’ll see two different subtitles at the end of Mark: “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of Mark.”
As you know, the Bible as we have it today is a compilation of the different written accounts of Jesus’ life that were shared among Christian communities in the first few centuries after he died. They were not identical. So when the collection was formally set, both endings were included.
In the shorter ending, there is no description of Jesus’ return. There is only the promise from a stranger in the tomb. It is only in the longer version, which was not universally shared, that Jesus meets various disciples on the road and at a meal and then they see him ascend. This means that, for decades if not generations, communities of Christians gathered together with only the promise of the return, none of the longer ending’s proof.
What a difference between the two! In the second, fulfillment of the promise. In the first, just the promise itself. Which one do you need? Is it promise or proof that brought you here in celebration on this resurrection day?
You may not be surprised to hear this, but I was a very difficult confirmand. In the tradition that I came out of, we had class on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights for two years. I think it was in 7th and 8th grade. There was a lot of memorization of church doctrine. The culminating test before Confirmation Sunday was an interview with the senior pastor. We had to prove our understanding and acceptance of what was called the “catechism.”
But I saw it as an opportunity to get some proof from the pastor for myself. I wanted some real proof of God and the resurrection, not just these stories that I had to “take on faith.” The interview should have lasted twenty minutes. After an hour of my questions, the pastor kicked me out the door and said I passed.
It has taken me some 30 years to let go the need for the kind of proof my younger self wanted so badly. In fact, in those 30 years, the proof of the resurrection offered in Mark’s longer ending has become less and less important than the open-ended promise of return given to those scared women.
Because even though the Marys and Salome did not walk away with hope, they walked away with an understanding that nothing could stop the love Jesus lived for unto the cross. Love is an unstoppable force. Love, when nurtured daily and practiced with integrity, is an unstoppable force that can and will release us from the tombs of our own hatreds and grief. Love, when nurtured daily and practiced with integrity, can and will heal the sick, feed the hungry, and liberate the oppressed.
We did not see the baptism, we did not eat the loaves and fishes, we did not cling to Jesus’ cloak to beg healing, and we did not gather in Jerusalem’s temple square and hear his voice of scorn and redemption. Without having encountered the historical Jesus, we have chosen as much of a rollercoaster as the original disciples did themselves.
Despite knowing better. Despite being warned by scripture itself that the Way of Jesus will come with challenge and surprise, at times even scaring or confusing us.
So I give thanks this Easter morning. I give thanks to God for a love unbound. I give thanks to the witness of that love seen in Jesus. And I give thanks to God for all of you.
Whichever has meant the most to you in your faith journey—either the promise at the tomb or the proof along the road—thank you for your faithfulness to the love we now know as the ever-rising Christ. Because we come together in such faithfulness, that love can never die.