March 31 | Easter Encounter: Resurrection Mystery

Easter Encounter | Resurrection Mystery By Joel Miller

Mark 16:1-8, ( ), (9-20) – three readings

In the oldest complete manuscripts we have, Mark’s Gospel ends at chapter 16, verse 8, with the women fleeing the tomb.

The vast majority of later manuscripts contain a longer ending of Mark, which appears in our Bibles, often with footnotes giving this information I’m saying now.

As some point, a shorter supplemental ending was also written.  Some ancient manuscripts contain the original ending, plus the shorter ending, plus the longer ending, which is how they appear in our Bibles.  We will hear these read now.     

Read: Mark 16:1-8, ( ), (9-20)

When I say Christ is risen! you say Christ is risen Indeed! 

Christ is risen. 

Christ is risen. 

There’s a joke I heard a while back about the difference between a lawyer and a preacher.  The difference between a lawyer and a preacher is that a lawyer spends all day looking at a stack of papers trying to condense it down to a few paragraphs, while a preacher spends all day looking at a few paragraphs trying to expand it into a stack of papers. 

It’s probably one of the very few jokes where the lawyer comes out looking pretty good. 

With all respect to attorneys and other skilled synthesizers of information, Easter invites, even requires all of us to live into the reality of the resurrection with the mind of the preacher.

Because all we have to go on in the New Testament about Easter morning is just a few paragraphs.  Or, as we’re wrapping up Mark’s gospel, it could be one paragraph.  This can feel both frustratingly inadequate to our inquiring minds, and perhaps, an enticing doorway into the mystery of the resurrection.

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.

There are two great mysteries at the end of Mark.  And not just two mysteries, but two kinds of mysteries.

The first we’ve already mentioned.  What is the end of Mark?  The original ending, where the oldest full manuscripts we have come to a close, the final chapter about the resurrection, is short, a mere eight verses.  And not only is it short, but it’s strangely, uncomfortably, delightfully open ended.  Chapter 16, verse 8: “So they – the three 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.”

Not only is it short, and not only is it open ended, but it includes none of the characters we’ve been following throughout Mark’s gospel.  All of those disciples Jesus called – Peter, James, and John, the rest of the twelve, blind Bartimaeus who gained his sight and followed Jesus on the way, the sick and lepers Jesus healed, named and unnamed– none of them are present on Easter morning.  Instead, it’s three women Mark has introduced just a bit before – Mary Magdelene, another Mary (so many Marys) and Salome.  We first meet them in Jesus’ final tortuous hours on the cross.  They’re looking on, from a distance.  In what feels like an Oh yeah, almost forgot, kind of moment, Mark tells us they had been by Jesus’s side this whole time, starting all the way back in Galilee, from the beginning.  When Pilate grants Joseph of Arimathea the body of Jesus to wrap in linen cloth and lay in a tomb, the women follow and see where the body is laid.  Keeping watch.  Staying awake, as Jesus had said.

It’s these three women who come to the tomb very early on the first day of the week.

Gathered here in one strong body

Not only is Mark’s ending short, and open ended, with characters we are barely know a thing about, but there is no appearance of the resurrected Jesus.  The stone is rolled away, the tomb is empty, and in place of Jesus’ body is, as Mark says, “a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side.”  His words are few, but dense, the kinds of phrases preachers and Jesus-followers have been unpacking for the last two thousand years.

“Do not be alarmed.”

“He is not here.” 

“He has been raised”

“Go tell his disciples”

“He is going ahead of you, to Galilee” There are at least five good Easter sermons embedded in those five short phrases. 

But no amount of sermonizing can change what Mark does and doesn’t say.  What he doesn’t say is that Jesus appeared to them and resolved all their questions.  What he does say is that 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.”  And, unless the original-original manuscript got cut off and lost to history, that’s where he leaves it. 

Gathered here in the struggle and the power.

This first mystery, Mark’s abrupt ending, has to do with what we can know and what we can’t know.  And because Mark leaves a lot unknown, it’s no wonder a shorter ending which ties up loose ends about the women telling the males disciples and Jesus appearing to them all, and a longer ending which summarizes the post-resurrection stories of the other 3 gospels, plus a bizarre reference to picking up venomous snakes without getting hurt, which would cause just about every biblical literalist to be a firm believer in the occasional metaphor – it’s no wonder these supplemental endings emerged in the following centuries.   

Unknowing triggers something in the deep recesses of our Homo Sapien brains.  We are curious creatures, and we like to know things.  And this can be a beautiful thing.  The quest to know is what propels scholars to pour over ancient manuscripts to better understand how a tradition develops.  Our quest to know the unknown is sending us brilliant satellite images from deep space capturing star-births and previously unknown galaxies.  The drive to know is how scientists created the vaccines that helped end a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus. 

Thank goodness for our quest to know and understand and discover more accurate models of how the world works.  And thank goodness for the spiritual maturity of coming to peace with the unknown.  Not needing to have a faith that requires certainty, but rather a faith that embraces the mystery of unknowing.  Even when it comes to resurrection.  What actually happened on Easter morning?  If only those security-obsessed Romans would have invented security cameras to have around the tomb, so we could see what actually happened.  Was Jesus’ body resuscitated?  Is that what resurrection is?  Something else? Can we be at peace with not knowing? 

When mystery has to do with the known and unknown, Progressive Christian faith is committed to affirming the good of both – valuing the quest for knowledge and understanding.  And honoring the unknown – a humility, even contentment with what we will never know in this lifetime. 

But that’s only one kind of mystery – the kind that deals with the known and the unknown.  The kind that has to do with how far we can and can’t expand our breadth of knowledge.

There’s a second kind of mystery.   And this is the kind of mystery I think Mark is especially wanting to lure us into by the way he ends his gospel.

The first kind of mystery has to do with the unknown.

This second kind of mystery has to do with the endlessly knowable.  Mystery as entering into and participating within that which is endlessly knowable.  Rather than breadth, this has to do with the depth dimension.

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.

What if the resurrection of Jesus isn’t this one time exception to all the rules, when God reaches in from the outside and does something supernatural amidst an otherwise unremarkable creation?  What if the resurrection of Jesus, the bursting forth of Easter morning, is a revelation of something God, the Divine, the One Creative Energy which infuses all of reality, is always doing?  God is raising up life out of death.  Holy Spirit is raising up the lowly, overcoming injustice through forgiveness of debts, entrusting the truths of the universe to marginalized women.  Resurrection points us toward the endlessly knowable mysteries of life and steadfast love and deep kinship.

It is inherently unresolved and unresolvable.  There is no neat bow that can tie this thing up.  It can only point us in a direction – back to Galilee, or wherever that place is we’re overly familiar with, the one we thought we knew inside and out and frankly had stopped finding all the interesting.  Jesus goes ahead of you to Galilee, where it all started.  There you will see him. 

Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, and Salome seem to know these words and the empty tomb are not just about Jesus. They’re also about them.  And not just them, but, soon enough, when it is time to speak, about all who will join in the resurrection community. 

The first kind of mystery is one where we can still keep the subject at arm’s length – however much we think we know or don’t know.  This second kind reaches out its arm and pulls us in to itself.

To believe in resurrection is to live the resurrection.  As the Apostle Paul taught, by the grace of God, we are the body of Christ – the animated, Spirit-infused, living body of Jesus. 

Gathered here in one strong body

The endlessly knowable mystery is not restricted to some ancient manuscript and it is not some abstract proposition.  It is real flesh and blood bodies.  Bodies that have been raised up from death-dealing habits, into a new life.  We are part of the risen and rising body of Christ.  You could say it all in a short paragraph, and you could fill up scrolls and books and still not reach the bottom.           

Now that’s enough to inflict a heavy dose of terror and amazement into anyone.  At a loss for words.  Fleeing the tomb toward God knows where.    

The endlessly knowable Christ goes ahead of us.  The resurrection is something to be lived out.  How terrifying.  And how amazing.   

Spirit draw near.