Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8
“Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o grave, is your sting?”
These are the words that the apostle Paul uses to exclaim the joy that continues to overflow from the events of that first Easter morning. When he wrote them, he was likely echoing the passage from Isaiah read earlier, putting his own spin on a Jewish theological idea.
“God will swallow up death forever!”
Isaiah proclaims this as he casts a vision of salvation that includes imagery of a rich, abundant feast and the laying aside of funeral clothes and the wiping away of every tear. This mountain-top picnic where all people will gather to throw off their sackcloths and ashes and rejoice in the long-awaited salvation is a vision that speaks to a humanity hounded by the spectre of death in all its myriad forms.
It is a little early in the day for “well-aged wine” like Isaiah suggests, but many of us have certainly shared an abundant feast this morning, perhaps with some well-strained orange juice. And it has become our tradition here at CMC to declare along with congregations all over the world, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!...Christ is risen, indeed!”
We exclaim, and we proclaim, and we declare, toast, sing, and shout these things on Easter morning because we are a people who continue to be hounded by the spectre of death, a people who need to be reminded over and over again of the possibilities that open up when we begin to believe in a God who overcomes death. There always seems to be an extra buzz in the air on Easter morning, but I don’t think it has anything to do with bunnies or eggs or lilies or brunches or fancy new hats. The buzz comes from people gathered to hear an answer to a question that sits in the deepest part of ourselves, “Is new life possible?”
Maybe you phrase it a little differently, but I think in all of our deepest selves, there lives something like this question. Maybe it bubbles up at different times for each of us, ebbing and flowing with life’s twists and turns. But whether we find ourselves this morning with it right before our eyes or sitting quietly in the corner of our minds, the question of resurrection, of new life, resides within us.
Part of me wanted to begin with the proclamations from Paul, Isaiah and churches all around the globe because the lectionary text for this year leaves the question of resurrection lingering in the air. For those following along in your Bibles, you probably see more at the end of Mark’s gospel beyond where we read today, but there is good evidence to suggest that anything after verse 8 is a later addition by editors who were less than comfortable with such an open-ended conclusion.
“So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
They see the empty tomb; they encounter the angelic-looking young man who tells them Jesus has been raised and that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee; and they flee in terror and amazement. End of gospel. At least in its earliest forms.
Maybe next year on Easter when the worship leader says “Christ is risen!” we should all respond by screaming and running away.
I make light of this ending, but I think that for many of us, it might get closer to how we feel about Easter morning once we strip away all of the hype and the egg casseroles and the fancy new clothes. For awhile the trumpets and echoes of “Christ is risen indeed!” might drown out our lingering questions about whether new life is truly possible, but at the end of the day, maybe you too are left, like the women at the tomb, with terror, amazement, and a bit of fear, asking yourself, “What does it mean?”
But before we can get to any sort of answer to the question of resurrection, I think we need to back up a bit. The last time most of us were together, Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to the sounds of cheering. The last time some of us were together, Jesus was sitting around a table with his friends. Holy week covers a lot of ground before we get to Easter morning, and if we gloss over the past few days, we might miss something.
Most of the gospel narratives pair Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with some version of him clearing the Temple. Regardless of the details, it represented Jesus making himself known in a very public way, heightening tensions between himself and the religious and political authorities. These tensions continue to heighten throughout the week.
On Thursday, some of us gathered here at the church to commemorate the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. This meal is where he instituted what we know as the Lord’s Supper, which we will partake of together later in the service. He also gave them one final mandate, to love one another as he has loved. And just in case they weren’t sure what he meant by this, he washed their feet to show them what that love looked like in practice.
From there, Jesus takes some of his disciples with him to the garden to pray. It is here on Thursday evening that he is betrayed and arrested. In a meditation called “Holy Week in an Unholy World,” Shane Claiborne describes the next few hours of the Holy Week narrative as Jesus is passed from one authority to the next. He writes, “Everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.”
In the end, it comes down to the crowd who calls for Jesus to be crucified. With the empowerment of the crowd, Pilate has Jesus stripped, mocked, beaten, spit on, and eventually nailed to the cross to die. A gruesome and public execution meant to send a clear message to those who followed after him. The tradition generally holds that by Friday afternoon, less than a week after entering the city to cheering crowds, Jesus was dead. His disciples watched from both near and far as the figure they had put so much hope in, so much trust, so much time, energy, and resources, this teacher and friend that they had loved breathed his last.
In a race toward sundown on Friday, the day of preparation, Joseph of Arimathea is granted permission to take Jesus’ body and put it in a tomb, presumably completing this before the sun set and the Sabbath began. This brings us to our gospel passage from this morning. Well, nearly.
When I began to prepare for the sermon for this morning and think about how to tie into the theme we’ve been carrying through the Lenten season, I couldn’t help but notice that the lectionary reading for today begins with the phrase, “When the Sabbath was past…” In each of the gospel accounts, the events of Holy Week are a blur that rushes on, sometimes detailed hour by hour, but they all reach sundown and Friday and come to a screeching halt. The Sabbath begins and we are not told much of anything.
Sure, there are some speculations written much later about what was happening on that Sabbath day at a grand, cosmic level that imagine Jesus in hell ministering to the dead, but I find it much more interesting to try to imagine ourselves into that day at a very human level, to put ourselves in the shoes of those first disciples who had just lived through an emotional roller-coaster of a week only to watch the one to which they had given their lives get nailed to a cross.
What did the disciples do on that day? Was it “Sabbath-as-usual”? What did they talk about? What plans did they make? What questions were running through their minds? Were they mad at themselves thinking of all the things they could have done differently? Were they mad at each other, placing blame and pointing fingers in an effort to make sense of it all? Were they mad at Jesus, wishing he had just toned it down a little bit?
I was listening to an interview the other day where the person was talking about a time in his life where he was struggling through a significant loss. He never said specifically whether this loss was the death of a loved one or a job or a relationship or any other ways that loss can affect our lives. He just named it as something that was painful, something that he was continuing to wrestle with, to question, something that was affecting his ability to move beyond whatever it was that he had lost in his life.
Perhaps you can relate.
He talked about sharing this struggle with his spiritual director, who, at some point while listening to him describe the ways he was continuing to wrestle with the loss, stopped him. She told him it sounded like the question that was guiding him was “How do I get back to the way things were before this happened?” The man said he thought that was fair. Of course he wanted to get back. Of course he wanted to hold on to the goodness that existed before this loss happened.
And then she said something that completely changed him. She asked, “What if instead of focusing on ‘How do I get back to the way things were?’, what if you changed the question? What if, instead, you made your guiding question, ‘What does this make possible?’” He told this story because, for him, the reframing of the question was a powerful shift that allowed him to move toward new life rather than allowing this loss to consume him.
What does this make possible?
Facing such a painful loss, did the disciples spend their time trying to figure out how to get back to the way things were? Or could any of them even imagine what new possibilities might lay before them? When the sabbath was finally over, how do they emerge?
We don’t know what happened on that Sabbath day, but we find in the reading today that after the Sabbath was past, three of the female disciples emerge to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. Mark’s gospel has a recurring theme about the disciples not quite getting what Jesus is about, and I think it is fair to say that these women go to the tomb that morning expecting a dead body. But it is interesting that while they are on the way there, they ask one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Even if they don’t fully understand how they are going to do it, the women are the ones who show up while the men are likely still hiding in fear.
And they are greeted not by an immovable rock, not by a dead body ready for anointing, but by an empty tomb and a message telling them that Jesus is not here; he has gone ahead of them and they will see him soon, just as he told them. And so they flee in terror and amazement.
So why would Mark’s gospel end here? What was the writer thinking? I appreciate the perspective of a commentator named David Lose who, in answer to these questions, wrote, “Maybe because [the author of Mark] knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending. Maybe because he knew that readers of his Gospel, if they were paying attention, ought to be more than a little uncomfortable at the idea of this convicted criminal coming back to life. Maybe because he believed that this story isn’t over yet, and he writes an open ending to his gospel in order to invite us to jump in and take up our part in continuing it.”
As much as the story of Christ isn’t over at the cross, it also is not over at the empty tomb. The scandal of Easter, is not not just about the miracle of one big day or one person being raised from the dead but about the possibilities that emerge when we begin to believe and trust that death has been swallowed up forever.
That is why when Paul writes about that first Easter morning he dares to ask, “Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh grave, is your sting?” It is why Isaiah’s vision of salvation talks about the shroud of death being swallowed up forever. We have too easily turned the resurrection of Christ into a convenient propositional litmus-test where all that is required of us is intellectual assent to a statement of belief. In doing so we miss that when we exclaim “Christ is risen, indeed!” we are also meant to acknowledge that we too are risen indeed. We too are rising from death and turning toward life every single day.
So let’s blow the trumpets and shout our alleluias and proclaim the good news of Christ this Easter, but let us remember that the joy we find on this, our holiest of Sabbath day is not just for Easter but for everyday. Every Sunday throughout the year is a mini-Easter in which we are called to take time to remind ourselves that new life is possible, that God has said no to violence and death and yes to life. Every sabbath is an opportunity to remind ourselves that a new world is possible by living it, that eternal life begins not in some indeterminate future but in every moment we rise with Christ and throw off the spectre of death. Every sabbath is an opportunity to pivot from thinking only about how we get back to the way things used to be, and instead to imagine the possibilities of new life ahead of us.
And even if we are terrified and amazed like the women on Easter morning, let us remember that the story of the gospel is not finished because it is an invitation. Christ has already gone before us. Will we follow?
And so, my wish for us, my friends is:
- That however the question of resurrection gets manifested in your heart, may we all know that new life is possible not just for one person 2,000 years ago but for each and every one of us.
- That all of us would be the kind of Easter fools who continue to show up and believe that God has swallowed up death, even when we’re pretty sure a giant stone blocks our way.
- And finally, that whenever we sabbath together, we would know the joy of re-membering Christ as we practice resurrection and love a new world into being.