Not the End of the Story

Transcribed from the sermon preached April 4, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 25: 6-8, Mark 16:1-8

A woman who looked out her window saw her German shepherd shaking the life out of a neighbor’s rabbit. Her family did not get along well with these neighbors, so she knew this was going to be a disaster. She grabbed a broom and pummeled the dog until it dropped the dead rabbit from its mouth. Seeing the dead rabbit, she panicked. She grabbed the rabbit, took it inside, gave it a bath, blow dried it to its original fluffiness, combed it until the rabbit looked like a rabbit again, snuck into the neighbor’s yard, and propped it back up in its cage. An hour later she heard screams coming from next door. She asked her neighbor what was going on. “Our rabbit! Our rabbit!”, her neighbor cried. “He died two weeks ago. We buried him, and now he’s back!”

At the end of the Gospel of Mark, three women come to Jesus’ grave, where they encounter a young man sitting in the empty tomb who tells them that the crucified Jesus has risen and left for Galilee. Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome run from the tomb. And though the young man instructs them to tell the disciples and Peter to meet Jesus in Galilee, the women say nothing to anyone.

Don’t be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 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.”

Now that is a heck of a way for Mark to end his Gospel: They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. This first Gospel written never mentions the appearance of Jesus to his disciples as described in Matthew, Luke and John. The earliest manuscripts end right here, while later manuscripts include the longer ending with the accounting of other witnesses.

They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid… What were they afraid of?

First there is the shock from the missing body. Jesus is someone they love dearly. They are heavy with grief and expect to anoint him, but he is not there. Second, it is clear that being associated with Jesus in those last days was a risky proposition. Most of the disciples folded under the pressure. They ran away and Peter denied even knowing Jesus. They were afraid of torture and death too

Rome gave the people plenty of reason to be afraid. It is clear that from the point of view of Rome, Israelite lives didn’t matter.   The soldiers policing Jerusalem were already prejudiced against the Jews and on edge during the celebration of Passover, the commemoration of God’s liberation of the Israelites from a powerful empire. Crucifixion was not only a torturous death, but a form of intimidation and terror for the public. Jesus was nailed up on the cross for all to see: don’t mess with the Roman Empire.

Jesus is tried and convicted of blasphemy and sedition, of plotting revolution, nailed to a cross until dead and then stuffed in a tomb. If Rome has its way, this is the end of the story. And the women are wise to think twice about what to do next after they see that Jesus is no longer stuffed in the tomb. So they leave, and say nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

So much of life is driven by fear and intimidation. And the ultimate intimidation is the threat of death, death, the end of the story. “Hell of a thing killing a man,” says the Clint Eastwood character in “Unforgiven”; “You take away everything he has ever had, and everything he is ever gonna have.” That is conventional wisdom, but the Gospel proclaims the life of love is eternal. The threat of death is a powerful force. It will cause us to do many things. Most evidently it leads to a cycle of violence: an eye for an eye. And we get to a point where we know the other has good reason to want revenge, even if we don’t admit it publicly, so we are edgy and on the lookout. We become prejudiced and profile people we think might be our enemy. There is one in the spotlight; he don’t look right to me. That one looks Muslim, that one’s a Jew; that one’s a gay; that black one in the hoody, he is here to intimidate you! We get caught up in the cycle and start thinking we should take out their eye before they take out ours. Do unto others before they can do unto us. “An eye for an eye,” said Gandhi, “leaves the whole world blind.” Isaiah calls it “a shroud that is cast over all peoples.” A shroud is the cloth placed over a deceased body. The implication of Isaiah’s metaphor is that in attempt to gain things, to fight against what would cause us pain and take our life, we lose our life. What does it profit a man, asks Jesus, if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. In our fight against the threat of death, we become the walking dead.

To achieve the end of staying alive, we employ the means of death. Our means becomes our end. But Jesus understands that the means is the end. If we want life and love, then we must be for life and love now in the present. It is said that Jesus sacrificed his life for the forgiveness of sins. But I think what makes him special, what makes him divine, what shows us the eternal power of God’s love and grace is that he was not willing to sacrifice the integrity of his love, even when it would result in his death, even death on a cross. Because Jesus was at one with God, and knew the value of love so completely, he knew that those who live lives broken away from love in fear of death are already the walking dead. Jesus paves the way from death to life.

Gandhi, who copied the philosophy and method of Jesus, radical and nonviolent love, talks of the importance of means: “An individual’s capacity to determine what he can do in any specific situation at any given time is much greater than his power of anticipation, prediction and control over the consequences of his actions.” What Gandhi is saying is that in our limited power and knowledge, the power and knowledge most important and most effective is that which we can employ now, as we act toward the next moment. Despite our hopes and efforts, distant ends may not arise; therefore what we have the most power to determine is the morality of ourselves in the present moment.

Yesterday I was in a hurry driving; like everyone else we have things to do and people to see. A blind woman began to cross the street and right when she got in front of us our light turned green. The other side went and the woman froze in fear. As we all held tight, a passenger got out and took her arm and helped the woman across. If love lives, it lives now. Love gives eyes to see. Gandhi speaks of the need for detachment or freedom from the tomb of anxiety about future consequences such as death. By God’s grace, as we focus our best efforts toward purity of means in the present moment, we are carried by faith, and the stone of fear and trembling roll away. The life and love of Christ cannot be contained in a tomb, the freedom of Christ to love and forgive cannot be held down by nailing him to a cross. Jesus Christ is risen!

The strategy of the forces of death backfires. In intimidation and terror they crucify and bury him. But Jesus gets up and walks away, alive and free, showing that even in the most weak and vulnerable circumstances, under great suffering, even in death, the love of God lives, the love of God rises, the love of God continues. Jesus Christ is risen!

“They said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid.” This is the end of Mark’s Gospel, but understand that Mark calls his Gospel in chapter 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We might think he is saying this is the beginning of what I am going to write,” but I think he means that his entire Gospel is just the beginning.

Clearly this is not the end of the story because we have heard it. The women went out of the tomb and took some time to think about what they were afraid of and what they held most dear. Would they allow their fear to cancel out and kill what was most dear? The disciples had misunderstood, ran away and abandoned Jesus in the end, but as it turned out, it was not the end. Jesus Christ is risen!

So too we now fear and anxiety, we have run away and abandoned the Way of Life, the Way of Christ. But Christ continues on and calls us to come and join him, living love, speaking truth and working for justice, love, equality and peace, in Galilee and Berkeley, in Ferguson, Indiana and Oakland, free from the fear of death.

His call to live love now continues on. Will we be held in the tomb of our own failures, or will we rise up to new life? Will we continue to live in the world of the walking dead, covered in a shroud? or will we rise up from this doubt, follow Jesus come alive within and come alive right here and right now today? Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ end with us? Do we say nothing because we are afraid?

Is this the end of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God or just the beginning?