Sermon by Rev Chris Elliot
Resurrection – Some thoughts and challenges to consider
It’s is a rather inconvenient fact that none of the Gospels agree on what happened on Easter morning. Depending on which version is read, we get a different order of events and a different cast of characters—is it one angel or two? Two, three, or more women, or just Mary Magdalene? Jesus drifting around the Garden, or already back in Galilee fixing breakfast?
Similar to the two birth narratives, each gospel tells a different version of the Easter events –
from who saw what first, to the number of angels at the tomb, to Jesus’ appearance; all vary.
Counting Paul, there are actually five distinct accounts of Easter, none of which were finally written down by a contemporary of Jesus, let alone an eyewitness. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 are the earliest, written about twenty years after the event, while Mark is a further twenty years on. Matthew and Luke are dated in the 80s, while the Gospel of John most likely comes from the late 90s, or even the beginning of the second century.
Mark and Matthew both say that Jesus will appear to his followers back in Galilee. Luke insists that the disciples remain in Jerusalem and meet Jesus there. Mark has three visitors to the tomb; Matthew has two; John only one, the grieving Mary Magdalene. In Mark, Luke and John, a large stone has already been rolled away; in Matthew, an earthquake rolls it away in
the women’s presence.
Different elements, with each version endeavouring to make a different point, make it pretty much impossible to claim that we can know the actual historical events that first Easter.
Yet, along with unquestioning belief in the virgin birth, claiming a belief in the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus became the cornerstone of what it meant to be Christian.
So, how do we deal with this. Taking a look at Mark’s Gospel, the earliest and closest gospel to the real action, is a good starting place. Mark doesn’t get much attention at Easter—at least not enough to invite us to wrestle with its original, abrupt, even unsatisfying ending.
Of all the Easter stories, Mark does without a resurrected body or compelling words of Jesus. And when one considers the verses added later, Mark has obviously been subjected to a good deal of editorial licence.
When we don’t know Mark’s intentions, reading the original ending of the Gospel can be a total letdown, while the other gospel accounts tell of shouts of joy, disciples running to and fro, angels giving directions, as everyone breathlessly shares the good news, He is risen!
We can almost imagine the music swelling, the singers and dancers. Now that’s a real Easter celebration!
In comparison, Mark’s original story is a meagre eight verses. Even the most conservative scholars acknowledge that Mark originally ended at verse eight. However, the later additions are not too surprising. In stopping after eight verses the reader could be excused for thinking, wait a minute, the end of this story is missing! Let’s help it along.
So, three women are said to go out to the tomb; women who followed Jesus from the beginning follow him to the end. Now it was time to prepare his body for burial. As they approach the tomb they see that the stone has already been moved. Somebody has been there before them. They’re frightened. They enter cautiously. There, a young man in white says to them, Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go, tell his disciples…. and they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.
The end. That’s it. No resurrection appearances, no shouting, He is risen! No choirs. No flowers. Simply mute, frightened people.
But what kind of ending is that? Surely one could expect Jesus to appear. After all you need witnesses to this kind of thing. And something amazing doesn’t go amiss – like walking through a closed door. You’d then gather people together for a glorious farewell. Now, that’s an ending! That’s what you would expect, and that’s what you get from the other gospel writers.
But not in Mark. Mark ends tentatively, unfinished.
Some preachers suggests that Mark is onto something here.
We all know about good endings. Endings give a story closure. Conflict is resolved and good triumphs over evil. All is right with the world. Mark doesn’t have that. Mark knows all is NOT right with the world, so his ending is a cliffhanger, not a finale – a cliffhanger to engage the imagination, to stir up discussion about possibilities.
A story is told about Mozart’s father, who roused his precocious son out of bed by going to the keyboard and playing a series of familiar chord changes. However, he would intentionally leave off the last chord. The unresolved ending drove the young musician to jump up, run to the keyboard, and play the final chord. Mark, also, left off the last chord. He left his story unresolved. Surely that would compel any follower worth their salt to jump up and resolve it— with their life. The man dressed in white said, He’s going ahead of you. Meet him back in Galilee— Galilee where it all started. Meet him in your homes, in your work, in your everyday
life, in the breaking of bread.
The image of the risen Jesus going before, leading people into the life they were created for, has been an encouragement for generations of disciples. Whatever holds us back, whether of our own doing, or through life’s circumstances, Jesus goes before us, breaking the power of situations that have otherwise left us as good as dead. The power of this conviction is
seen not in simply being convinced that something sensational happened 2000 years ago, and all we have to do is “believe.” The real power comes, when in very real and tangible ways, the followers of this Jesus become the body of Christ in the world, working to bring new life to the world, to eradicate injustice, poverty, and violence. For the practice of resurrection
is about people, personally and collectively, being inwardly transformed and empowered to transform society.
To see the resurrection as a one-off event, that happened long ago, guts it of its true power to inspire and work change in the world. We, too, are asked to take the resurrection out of the realm of ancient story and bring it to life. The reality of being human leaves many entombed by their attitudes, circumstances, or life choices. Metaphorical stones are everywhere:
the stone of disappointment, of insecurity, of poverty, of guilt. People are often sealed in by the stones of arrogance, confusion, addiction, or indifference. Almost anything that stands between a person and the transforming presence of the Divine can be seen as a stone in need of being rolled away.
One major stone that needs to be rolled away is the jumbling of what we understand by resurrection with the idea of a heavenly afterlife. Many people take comfort in the idea that they will somehow be not only with Jesus, but also with their loved ones in another life, despite the lack of Biblical evidence. As a result it may become a major obstacle in understanding any deeper meaning of resurrection—and to the real living of one’s life in the present.
Limiting resurrection to a miraculous event that happened to Jesus long ago, or to something that true believers aspire to in some distant future, has ceased to have meaning or relevance for many rational and faithful believers today. But as a metaphor for new life—a symbol of the call to renewal—resurrection can still have an appeal and a purpose for followers
of the Way of Jesus: a summons to practice resurrection here and now.
As long as Easter is simply about what Jesus did 2,000 years ago, we can insulate ourselves from the possibility that we might have to experience pain, risk, the giving of our lives, in order to accomplish something that can only be achieved by letting go our comfort zones, in order that Easter might be about us, here, now, today.
As mystic Thomas Merton wrote, A true encounter with Christ liberates something in us, a power we did not know we had, a hope, a capacity for life, a resilience, an ability to bounce back when we thought we were completely defeated, a capacity to grow and change, a power of creative transformation.
That’s what resurrection is about. It’s a challenge to make a decision. Will the followers of Jesus let the powers of death, fear, and the status quo warp the world with violence, injustice, and greed? Or will the symbol of resurrection inspire a new generation to stand up, to embrace the promise of a new life that looks completely different from what anyone might
Resurrection and Easter are not about way back then or way off in the future, but about today. They are about that Mystery of Life—that Mystery through which each of us was created—being the same Spirit that was in Jesus. The same Spirit that can redeem life, can infuse hope, and can move people and circumstances from what would otherwise be life-less, towards new life.
May it be so.