“Ahead of you” | Easter | 5 April 2015


Text: Mark 16:1-11

Christ is Risen.  Christ is Risen indeed.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, which may not be much of a secret.  Today, Easter Sunday, preachers and congregations around the world will proclaim the resurrection, that Christ is risen, that Christ is risen indeed, but we barely know what we’re talking about.

I say barely because we kind of know what we’re talking about.  We’re familiar with the witness of the early apostles, those who knew Jesus when he was alive and encountered him after his death.  We’ve heard Peter’s sermon from Acts 10, when he told a group of Gentiles how Jesus of Nazareth went around preaching peace and doing good and healing all who were oppressed by harmful spirits and that we was put to death on a cross but that God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear to Peter and others who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  We’ve read Paul’s writings, someone who never knew Jesus when he was alive, never met the guy, and who in his letters to these little communities he was founding hardly ever refers to anything Jesus said or did, but who had a personal encounter with the risen Christ that turned his world upside down and transformed the way he saw all of reality.  We may have some familiarity with the creeds that the church formulated in its early centuries, putting its central convictions into poetry.  The Nicene Creed, which many churches still recite weekly, says:

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

We know that resurrection is one of the enduring hopes of Christians, not just as something that happens after physical death but as a spiritual transformation that happens while one is still living and breathing.

We’ve heard this, we’ve read this, we’re familiar with this.  Christ is risen.  And yet, really, we still barely know what we’re talking about.  Resurrection is more than we can talk about.  It is a suggestion, both haunting and comforting, that what we think we know about how things work is only a small sliver of the pie.

Each gospel has their own telling of the women’s early morning visit to the tomb, and Mark’s version, leaves the most open and undefined space for the mystery of resurrection.

The scene opens with three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bringing ceremonial spices to anoint Jesus’ body.  The Saturday Sabbath has just ended and the sun has just risen on the first day of the week.  Mark has only recently introduced us to these women, noting a few verses earlier that they had seen where Jesus’ body had been laid when he was put in the tomb, and a few verses before that, that these women had stood at a distance and watched as Jesus breathed his last breaths on the cross.  The male disciples, whom we have seen as Jesus’ primary companions throughout his ministry, are now hiding out in an undisclosed location.

In an, ‘oh by the way,’ kind of manner, Mark mentions that these women had provided for Jesus while he was in Galilee and had been among his followers there and on his journey to Jerusalem.  Luke is even more specific at this point, saying that these women had provided for Jesus and the other disciples out of their own resources.  So even though most of the gospels feature the twelve disciples……oh by the way, there were plenty of women also; and by the way, they financed the operation; and, by the way, there were some who showed up at the grave when everyone else was out of the picture.

They come looking for Jesus’ body, but instead find a young man, not Jesus, dressed in white, inside the tomb, the entrance stone having already been rolled away.  They are alarmed, but the young man tells them not to be alarmed, that he knows they are looking for the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, but that “he is not here.”  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  Mark then ends his gospel with this: “So 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 symphony has been proceeding forward, the chord is unresolved……But that’s it.  That’s the end.  No one’s sure if they’re supposed to clap, or just keep waiting for something else to happen.

Now if you’re going to tell a good resurrection story, the kind that energizes the base and keeps a movement going, there’re some elements you’ve got to have in it, and Mark leaves out two key pieces.  First of all, where’s Jesus?  He never shows up.  He is, as the young man says, “Not here.”  He’s going out in front of you to Galilee, back home, back where everything got started, but he’s not here.  The gospel ends only with the possibility of meeting him and not an actual encounter.  That’s one missing piece.

The other missing piece is that the women don’t tell anybody about their experience of the empty tomb.  Instead, the curtain closes with them taking off in a sprint away from ground zero, full of trembling and astonishment, telling no one.  This is not the way to end a story, especially one that depends so heavily on spreading by word of mouth.

Mark is written a solid 35-40 years after all these events, after all of Paul’s letters have been written.  That’s something to think about.  Mark is the first gospel, but all of Paul’s letters are already out there in circulation.  In fact, Paul is very likely already dead by this point, and all the little communities he started are in their infancy but surely growing.  Clearly word got out, the stories have been told, witnesses have testified, four decades of Easter sermons have been proclaimed.  But Mark prefers to leave us hanging, in this stunned state of trembling and amazement and unknowing for what comes next, anticipating an encounter, but never experiencing it.

Just about all Bibles actually don’t end Mark here.  Most contain footnotes at this point saying one manuscript of Mark from the fourth century contains an additional, brief ending, other manuscripts contain an additional, longer ending, and some manuscripts contain both extra endings; but that some of the oldest manuscripts end with verse 8.  Terror and amazement, running from the tomb, telling no one, for they were afraid.

The shorter additional ending says this: “After all that had been commanded them 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.”  It nicely solves both problems with the original: they do tell people, and Jesus appears to them.  The longer additional ending also includes those two pieces.

But for today let’s keep it ancient and original.  Let’s ponder why Mark might have ended his gospel in the way that he did and let’s even consider that it might not need fixing.

Because here’s the deal:  It’s quite possible that many of us, you, will go through your entire life and never have a transcendent experience when you encounter, in an absolutely transformative way, God or Christ or whatever name you call it.  I’m not saying experiences like this can’t happen or don’t happen.  I’m pretty convinced that they happen all the time and that the veil between the material and the spiritual is thinner than we Western materialist minded folks care to imagine.  But not everyone is going to have this kind of experience in this life they can point to and say that’s when Christ came to them covered in light.  Ever.

Mark’s open ending can give us a way to live with this, another way to experience resurrection that can permeate our every day experience in a different kind of way.  So forget everything else you’ve heard, and enter with me into the oldest and probably original ending of Mark.

I’m going to assume the role of that young man, the one the women encountered in the tomb.  You came to church today, Easter morning, to encounter Christ, right?, just to get a glimpse.  But instead you just get me, a young man.  And for that I am thoroughly sorry.  I would gladly step down for the real thing to take over.  And before I say anything else, since I’m now this young man, I should say that a couple weeks ago, for the first time in my life, someone called me “middle aged.”  And it was not a stranger who did this, it was my dear pastoral colleague Mark Rupp, making an offhand comment in the office.  I did let him know that he will forever hold the honor of being the first to say this to me and that it physically pained me to hear the words spoken, which is perhaps a sign that he was on to something.

But for now, just pretend I’m the young man, and you have come searching for Jesus, and I’m telling you, he’s not here.  Don’t be alarmed, but take a look for yourself.  Jesus of Nazareth isn’t here.  Look under every pew, look in every room.  Not here.

But go, tell your friends and family, or not…tell yourself, know in your innermost being, that Christ is going ahead of you, to Galilee, and there you might see him, you might not.  Christ is going ahead of you, back home where you came from and where you’re going.  Christ is going ahead of you, out ahead of your Easter Sunday bliss, into the drabness of your Monday morning.  Christ is not here, but is going ahead of you into whatever place and space you will enter next.  And you may see Christ, or you may not, because Christ is always ahead of you.

This might seem to go against that vital spiritual teaching that the place and time where we discover Christ and meaning and goodness and depth is now, the present moment.  Eckhart Tolle and others have wonderfully helped us discover “The power of now.”  So to say that Christ isn’t here but is always ahead of us is maybe to empty the present moment of its power, to put love and peace and fulfillment in some elusive future, always close but always out of reach.  Run towards it and it runs ahead just as many steps.  It’s enough to make you go crazy because it’s never here.

Maybe, or maybe not.  If we stay in Mark’s world, and if the risen Christ is not seen here but is going ahead of us, then every space that we enter has already been visited by Christ.  This sanctuary is a holy space because Christ has been here ahead of us.  Every place that we enter, every relationship, every project that we engage – Christ has been there ahead of us and has opened up a space for us to love and create and live within the expansiveness of resurrection.  Christ is no longer restricted to there and then or here and now and so there’s no place you can go where Christ has not gone ahead of you.  Every corner of reality has already been pre-visited in the life of the resurrection.

And that changes everything about now.  To live in the resurrection doesn’t have to mean that you have seen the light, but can mean that the light is going ahead of you, even when you can’t see it.  And that is cause for trembling and astonishment in the present moment.

I’m telling you, Christ is going ahead of you.

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them.”