A Different Kind of Ending
Easter Sunday – April 1, 2018
by Rev. Lorene E. Wunder
So…Did you notice anything missing from the reading from Mark’s gospel this morning?
Or maybe I should ask…did you notice anyONE missing?
Jesus. His body is missing, just like it’s supposed to be. But there is not even a glimpse of the risen Jesus.
Mary Magdalene is there, but we are used to the Gospel of John’s version with a weeping Mary mistaking Jesus for a gardener.
I imagine when most of us imagine that first Easter morning, what we imagine is John’s version. John has all the drama, as Mary Magdalene moves from grief and confusion to amazement and hope and joy.
Mark’s ending is…different, very different.
From the beginning, some have found it…unsatisfying. You could argue that Mark’s gospel stops just short of a happy, or even a hopeful, ending:
“Overcome with terror and dread, [the women] fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
Close the curtain. THE END
It almost seems like an April Fools’ joke, doesn’t it?
What do you think? Do you like this ending?
If you don’t like it, you are in good company:
Look up Mark chapter 16 in a Bible and you will find more after verse 8. Depending on when your Bible was published, it might bracket everything that comes after the women fleeing because they were afraid and indicate that two endings—the shorter and the longer—were added later. [Shorter and Longer Endings Here]
Remember that back before the printing press, manuscripts were copied by hand, and those early scribes occasionally took liberty with what they copied. Clearly, a few of them weren’t satisfied with Mark ending his gospel, “the good news”, with fear and silence.
So they cleaned it up a bit, probably in the early second century.
In the shorter version, just two sentences, we are assured that the women did what they were supposed to do—they told and others believed.
In the longer version, eleven verses, Jesus appears to Mary in what sounds like an abbreviated version of John’s ending, followed by Jesus appearing to two people who are out walking (which is remarkably similar to Luke’s version of the road to Emmaus), and then Jesus appears to all the disciples as they are sitting together in a room.
There are a couple of things that I find interesting about the longer ending of Mark.
First, it emphasizes belief, almost as if it is trying to make up for Mark’s original version of not believing. This longer ending includes some signs that will accompany those who believe: casting out demons, speaking in tongues, healing the sick with the laying on of hands, and—my personal favorite—picking up poisonous snakes and drinking deadly things and not being harmed.
Ever heard about snake handling churches, deep in the Appalachian mountains? The longer ending of Mark is where they come from. Wow.
I don’t know about you, but I am glad–and relieved!–scholars determined that this ending was added on later!
Another thing I find interesting is that when the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, he “upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mark 16:14) This could be an abbreviated version of the disciple Thomas who doubted, as told by John.
I have to say, it just doesn’t feel like Jesus to me, that he upbraided or (as different translations say) rebuked or scolded or criticized the disciples for not believing.
I don’t think that sounds like Jesus. I think that sounds like followers a few generations later who wanted Jesus to be tough on the doubters, and chew out the disciples for running away at the end. That sounds to me like a human ending, not the unexpected ending God delivers.
And here’s the thing…I actually like the ending—the original ending—of Mark’s gospel.
I think it is an entirely appropriate response for the three women to be scared beyond the power of speech by an angel at the empty tomb, telling them Jesus is not here.
We know the ending so well, it’s virtually impossible to put ourselves in their shoes, to truly imagine how scared and despondent and hopeless they felt after Jesus’ death. Crucifixions were a part of life under the Romans but Jesus’ followers assumed he would end that humiliating death sentence altogether. They thought Jesus would change everything, end the Roman Empire, not die at the hands of it.
That was not the ending the women and those first disciples were looking for.
Ending the gospel with Jesus’ followers all frozen with fear even as the angel tells them the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive—what I experience is a sense of humanity, of compassion, of making space for doubt and disbelief, and yes, fear and grief.
And there was plenty of that to go around that first Easter morning:
Notice that the angel instructed the women to “tell his disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7, NRSV) that Jesus has been raised and is going ahead of them to Galilee. And Peter. Peter, who had made a big show about how he would stay with Jesus no matter what.
Instead, just as Jesus had predicted and Peter had sworn would never happen, Peter had denied knowing Jesus, denied that he was one of his followers.
Peter did a belly flop, got exposed as a fraud. The shame, the humiliation, the grief, the regret. Can you imagine?
When the women finally told Peter that Jesus was back, did that sound to Peter like the best possible news, or the only thing worse than Jesus’ death?
If you were Peter, what would it sound like to you?
But here’s the thing:
With the resurrection, God brings life and hope and new and unexpected possibilities to dead ends and no way outs.
In the resurrection, God brings new life where none is expected, where everybody has stopped looking for it.
So when the women met that angel and were too overwhelmed and frightened to say anything, it was okay. Jesus was raised for them, waiting patiently until they were ready to try to share what they had experienced.
When Peter was huddled away somewhere, ashamed of what he had done and terrified that he would be next, it was okay. Jesus was raised for him, too, to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus was raised to change the ending.
Where do you find yourself today?
Are you afraid? Ashamed? Full of doubt? Full of grief? Wondering where the good news is for you, a loved one, our country, our world?
It’s okay. It’s okay to feel that way.
But take heart. The way things are right now is not the ending, it is not the way things will remain.
The resurrection promises there is hope, that God somehow, mysteriously finds a way to make a way whenever and wherever there seems to be none.
The resurrection shows us that compassion and mercy and grace and forgiveness are far more powerful than shame or humiliation or failure.
The resurrection shows us that God can redeem even the world’s worst violence and hatred and abuse of power because God is on the side of life and love.
The resurrection say, this is not the end. And thanks be to God for that.
L: When we are all despairing;
when the world is full of grief;
when we see no way ahead,
and hope has gone away:
All: Roll back the stone.
L: Although we fear change;
although we are not ready;
although we’d rather weep and run away:
All: Roll back the stone.
L: Because we’re coming with the women;
because we hope where hope is vain;
because you call us from the grave and show the way:
All: Roll back the stone.
~Janet Morley, in Bread of Tomorrow (found in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year B)