Sunday, April 5
We exult in your love, O God of the living, for you made the tomb of death the womb from which you brought forth your Son, the first-born of a new creation, and you anointed the universe with the fragrant Spirit of his resurrection. Make us joyful witness to this good news, that all humanity may one day gather at the feast of new life in the kingdom where you reign for ever and ever. Amen.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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 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.
All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8
1. What do you think the women were thinking and feeling on their way to the tomb?
2. What do you think happened one hour after the women fled?
3. Who are the “outsiders” in our time who are witnessing to us about God’s love?
4. What early commitments of yours were once filled with passion but now feel in need of new life?
5. Do you feel “met” and “claimed” by Jesus?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
The high point of the church year is upon us, no matter the state of the world around us, personally or communally. And yet our Marcan text is short and even mysterious, leaving us with no appearance of a risen Jesus to put a nice, happy ending to a story of suffering and death. Don’t we prefer an ending that’s satisfying in the way it ties up loose ends, answers our questions, and leaves just about everyone happy? (For example, in the world of television series, contrast the popular last episode of “Friends” with the controversial final episode of “The Sopranos,” where everything was left unresolved.) However, the way Mark tells the story, the ending is abrupt and perplexing, not just for the women at the tomb, but for us as we read about it, two thousand years later. Still, Douglas Hare observes, this is a story about God, a God who is powerful enough to raise Jesus up, and in that way, to have something more to say about his death after all that has happened.
Our text from the prophet Jeremiah two weeks ago claimed that desolation was not God’s last word, or “comment,” on the people of Israel. Instead, God spoke a new word, a word of hope and new life in a new covenant written on their hearts. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate this God’s “comment” on the death of Jesus, the assurance that God’s final word is not death and despair but resurrection and new life. If we accept this spare account, just eight verses, as the authentic ending to Mark’s Gospel (as many scholars do), we’re challenged to take a long, long look at that comment rather than simply turn to one of the other, longer, more richly detailed accounts of the resurrection.
Scholars have many comments of their own to offer on this text, and they often agree: they connect the women at the tomb with the woman who anointed Jesus at the beginning of last week’s passion narrative; they suggest a connection between the young man in white sitting in the tomb with the young man whose linen cloth was torn off in the garden as he ran away from the scene of Jesus’ arrest (was it Mark himself, they ask?); certainly, they observe that the lack of a nice, neat ending may be just the thing we need to get us moving out into the world, proclaiming the good news, doing a better job at being faithful than the first disciples did. Most of all, they remind us that, at the heart of the Gospel of Mark is the way of the cross.
In fact, Fred Craddock suggests that Mark’s “accent” on the cross is the very reason that he didn’t include resurrection appearances that might pull focus away from it as the meaning of discipleship: “For Mark, the resurrection served the cross; Easter did not eradicate but vindicated Good Friday.” In all of our Easter finery, in our celebration and our Alleluias, in flowers and white cloths, it jars our sensibilities to be reminded of Good Friday, to think that we worship an “executed God.” Where’s the glory, or even the decency, in that kind of religion? And yet, again, at the heart of the Gospel of Mark is the way of the cross.
The women, again, at the heart of the story
And, once again, a passage begins with the quiet appearance of women, coming from the sidelines of the story to tend to what needs to be done, caring for Jesus’ body even after death. Craddock finds this appropriate in a “Gospel in which insiders become outsiders and outsiders do the work of insiders.” We can only imagine how they planned to accomplish their task, what drew them back to a place of loss and pain in order to perform an act of tender care. The women at the tomb provide an excellent subject for our reflection: what must they have been feeling and thinking as they went about their traditional task (women’s work) of tending to the dead? They had just witnessed brutality that was unusual even in a day of great brutality, under the heel of a brutal empire. Their hearts were surely broken, their minds undoubtedly confused, their lives suddenly without the direction they might have sensed while Jesus was with them. (Even if they had no idea of the destination, they did have a deep desire to follow in the direction Jesus was heading.)
As it so often goes, these “outsiders” or, perhaps better, these people from the margins make their way to the center of what’s happening (although they think everything is over, done and buried) to do what has to be done, the work others often don’t want to do. And yet, Serene Jones reminds us that in this place of death, the women find life, “the hard work of loving, of being present, the grit that allows human life to keep going in the very moments that it encounters the reality of violence and relentless march of death.” She claims that God is there, even in the places of death where we are “broken by violence and by love and by the sheer exhaustion of the labor it takes to go on.” Her reflection calls to mind our own, personal broken places of grief and loss and anger, as well as the headlines of any given week, filled with wars and terrorism and brutality of every kind. The violence and the march of death (in all its forms) go on. We ask those anguished questions: “Where is God?” and “Why, God, why?” Sometimes we may even wonder if there is a God who cares at all. Where will new life be found?
Running away from impossible hope
We hear the old, old story in our own day, long after the astounding event of the resurrection, just as Mark’s community heard it so long ago. But Mary Magdelene, Mary and Salome were there, in that moment and in that place, and it’s clear that they immediately run away from it. Many have observed that this fear and this running away make them just like the other fearful disciples in Mark’s Gospel who have fled the scene when things got to be too much for them.
Who can blame them for running away? Today we might say that they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (Jones calls them not only “determined” but also “traumatized”). Their world was dramatically, suddenly thrown from a course they grieved but at least was one that fit into their understanding of how things work. “How things work” includes both the finality of death and the immovability of large stones, so they had approached the tomb not only filled with grief but also with certain assumptions. Mark tells us that they were sure they were going to encounter an obstacle to the completion of their task when they faced that stone, more massive than anything they could move on their own.
Perhaps they brought even more, something we might be surprised to consider: relief. Intriguingly, D. Cameron Murchison reminds us that even in grief there can be a little bit of relief, for many reasons that may include a sense of closure. Here, the women may have experienced at least a measure of relief not that they had lost Jesus but that they no longer had to bear the burden, Murchison wonders, of “costly discipleship.” However, the empty tomb presented them with “the challenge still before them”! If the dream is in fact not dead, if the reign of God is at hand, then there is so much work to be done and so many risks to be taken, countless dangers to be faced. No wonder they ran!
Engaging that stone as metaphor
That stone is worth some of our time in reflection, too. As a metaphor for everything that keeps us from faithfulness, it seems immovable and makes faith (especially as trust) seem impossible. For the women, the other disciples, Mark’s community, and for us today, the call is to Galilee and a new beginning, setting out on the way again, following Jesus faithfully, this time with the terrible knowledge of his suffering and death but also with the world-changing awareness of his resurrection. However, Megan McKenna draws on the work of Eugene LaVerdiere to describe the difficulty of that path of following Jesus once again, for “the stone is a symbol for everything that blocks the way. It may be different for each, but for everyone it is a very large stone.” McKenna says that we may not want to see or face certain things, but all of us need to remember the path that has brought us this far, and the failures we experienced along the way, just like the disciples so long ago, whether they were cowards, or clueless, or worse. We may think we know this story because it is so familiar, so central to the life of the church and the life of faith, but somehow we’ve lost the passion of our youthful enthusiasm for God, no matter what age we became Christians. Mark, McKenna writes, “summons us to return to the intensity of our first commitments.”
If we’ve grown old and tired and perhaps cynical in our faith, steeped in doubt and burdened by technical questions, Mark comes through for us, then, too. Morna D. Hooker calls Mark’s ending “theologically profound” because of the paradoxical promise to believe first, and then to see: “Mark insists that we must finish the story for ourselves, by setting out on the way of discipleship.” One more voice calling us back to the way of discipleship, to following Jesus, and to a faith that is trust.
What is authentic awe?
As mentioned before, many scholars compare the silence, disobedience, and fear of the women at the tomb to the fear and flight of the other disciples when Jesus was arrested. Are they like those disciples when they can’t seem to comprehend what the young man is saying? Gail R. O’Day urges us as people of faith to spend some time this Easter on something we may lack in our 21st-century lives: awe. And I think she doesn’t mean in the sense of the over-worked word, “awesome.” Mark’s words about fleeing and terror and amazement are where we begin, O’Day suggests, with “awe at what God has done in the life and death of Jesus.” In O’Day’s reflection, the women know who has the power to do such a thing as raise Jesus from the dead: God. They know how to respond to such an amazing experience, and rather than “a failed or inadequate response,” their “silence creates a space for the voice and presence of God to resound.” It’s one thing just to be afraid or even to have your world turned upside down, but it’s an entirely different thing to have an encounter, an experience, with God’s power and presence. Terror and amazement are an appropriate response, but so is awe at what God has done in raising up Jesus. Maybe we just haven’t experienced enough authentic awe (or appropriate silence) in our lives lately, or understood the right reason for such awe. This is a story about God at work, about the power of God, not about us or our doubts and questions. It is a story about God.
Terror, amazement, awe. God at work in our lives and in the life of the world. Our questions in this case can lead to amazement once again, and also to Easter hope. After all, as Charles Campbell asks, “If stones are rolled away without human effort, if Jesus really is raised from the dead, what other human assumptions about wisdom and folly, power and weakness, will likewise be proved false?” Who can say or limit what God can do, at work in the world? No wonder we tell this story, then, that is central to who we are as a community of faith, a band of believers, two thousand years later. We tell the story of life, even in the face of suffering and death. Setting out on the path of discipleship, perhaps more conscious of the cost of that discipleship after our Lenten observance, we do not travel alone. We have one another, we have and are the Body of Christ, the church in the world, and we have a call. Things may never be the same, our assumptions may never be safe, but we are not alone. Campbell has said it beautifully: “Jesus is loose in the world. He is not in our present as a lifeless corpse or in our past as a distant memory. Rather, he goes ahead of us into the future to meet us there and claim us, not on our terms, but on his.”
“A world where everyone dies”
Richard Swanson observes, that our “task on Easter (which is every Sunday for an Easter-based faith) is to tell stories about resurrection in a world where everyone dies.” In this world “where everyone dies,” where is your hope? Where has your church experienced amazing new life? Were there some who refused to believe, and others who could not find their voice or their courage to share that good news? If the women in the story have brought aromatic oils to honor the body of Jesus, they are greatly frustrated in that task by the surprising things God is doing. Have you ever been so focused on your task that you missed a great wonder unfolding before your eyes?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A preaching version of this commentary can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Arundhati Roy, 21st century
“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Emily Dickinson. 19th century
“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
George Eliot, 19th century
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.”
Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century
“Power consists in deciding which story shall be told.”
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 20th century
“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.”
John Paul II, 20th century
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair….We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
Frederick Buechner, 20th century
“It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection.”
Mary Gordon, 21st century
“For me the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps. Perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”
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