by Ellen Sims
Gospel reading: Mark 16:1-8
Well you may want a refund on this Easter sermon. Because the Gospel of Mark’s ending may disappoint you. In an Easter story, you expect a pull-out-all-the-stops joyous “The End.” Not so much with Mark.
Look back at today’s reading from Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels. Imagine you know nothing else about the resurrection. All you learn from Mark’s conclusion is this: Three brave, grieving women visit Jesus’s tomb to anoint the body. A man robed in white tells them what they can see with their own eyes: the body is gone. He explains Jesus of Nazareth has gone back to Galilee. The very last thing the oldest version of this story discloses: The women flee from the tomb in fear and shock—saying NOTHING to anyone. If you know nothing else of the Easter story, do you find this ending satisfying?
Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, we also came expecting to see Jesus today. And we’ve been waiting. We waited from Good Friday through Holy Saturday until this very morning for the big “ta-dah!”—and still no appearance of Jesus? It’s Easter, for goodness sake. But the main man has skipped town and left us only his forwarding address: Galilee. Come to think of it, we waited not just through Holy Week. We waited throughout Advent, when we waited for his birth. And we waited after his birth throughout stories of his ministry, hoping to glimpse this Kingdom of Heaven he kept talking about. We waited. And we waited–patiently, I respectfully point out–for all of this to add up to something. We waited (from a safe distance, I shamefully admit) as he was tortured and killed. There has to be more.
Apparently other folks long ago thought so, too. They didn’t care for Mark’s ending. So twelve more verses were added years after verses 1-8 were written, say Bible scholars. If you read the twelve added verses that were inelegantly tacked onto our earliest biography of Jesus, you’ll learn that the resurrected Jesus did make several appearances to different groups of his followers before ascending into heaven. Your Bible probably brackets that last dozen verses, or it footnotes them to make sure you know this section was added years after the rest of Mark was written.
But before we too harshly critique Mark’s original ending, keep in mind that the end of the historical Jesus is not the end of the story, as Mark’s original audience knew well. Someone obviously did overcome their fear and began telling the story or we wouldn’t know about it. In fact, Mark is doing just that. And someone originally felt that the resurrection story did not need fanfare and pastel eggs to be powerful.
Here’s the important point: the story of Jesus of Nazareth continued to evolve into the story of the Christ of faith. And –cue the happy music—resurrection continues to happen to God’s people today. But before we get to OUR resurrections and transformations, let’s stay with Mark’s story. And let’s appreciate the shorter, older, more mysterious ending for what it is: an un-ending.
Some of you are old enough to remember ads back in the 70s and 80s when 7-Up was pitched as the Un-Cola. Mark’s original ending of Jesus’s biography is the Un-Ending. It’s a Jesus story that never resolves. And that’s just it. The Jesus story continues. The life of Jesus of Nazareth ended. But the ongoing life of Christ continues as people through the ages experience the Christ afresh. Jesus was a God-lit human being who lived and died in 1st century Palestine and the subject of Mark’s story; Jesus Christ is the ongoing Story of God’s revelation to us.
I’ve said it before and I emphasized it again in our Good Friday service: There have always been multiple ways of understanding Jesus’s saving work. I believe Jesus saves us by his story, not his blood.
I believe the historical Jesus of Nazareth became Christ of Faith through the transformative power of Story. Jesus taught through sacred stories called parables. The Bible is a collection of saving stories. And humans make sense of our world through story. The capacity to tell a story is the mark of our humanity. The ability to re-author the story of our lives and tell a new narrative is what transforms us. Therein lies salvation. At least, that’s one way of understanding the saving work of Jesus—and the empty tomb that invites us to finish the story the way an empty page beckons an inspired author.
I believe it was God’s gracious gift of hope that allowed Jesus’ followers to see their resurrected Lord through the eyes of faith and begin narrating the horror of his death into a saving story of life. The cross, never God’s plan but a consequence of God’s selfless love that Jesus chose to embody, generated the story. The cross continues to act upon us today as a reminder of the cost of discipleship so that we continually re-enter the story ourselves rather than simply hear the story. The God-with-us story saves as hearers choose to enter the grace-filled construct of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Had the crucifixion been a human tragedy, the story might have lingered on while Jesus’ followers continued to follow his precepts. But the Jesus Story lives on because, as Christians believe, we do not simply follow Jesus’ teachings but in fact enter into his very way of being, his God-lit story of resurrection. His disciples act within his story instead of simply retelling or understanding a story. We walk alongside Jesus in a present and mutual relationship, participate in his story, enlarge upon and modernize the story, and partner with Christ to create a livable story called the Kingdom of God. Whereas Jesus inspired a particular story rooted in one time and place, the Christ encompasses all stories of hope and connection.
The Jesus Story did not end with his crucifixion. It is inherently an unending story that now incorporates other lives transformed by the Christ. When we encounter the Jesus of the story, we receive the saving grace of the storyteller: to imagine what is not yet, to create a vision of God’s hope and love, to live purposefully into that ever-developing God-authored/Jesus-enacted/Spirit-inspired story. We are saved as we co-create our future-oriented life narratives in response to a God who created not only the world but the possibility of fresh stories. Living into this unfinished story while believing in its ultimate meaning is a prayer of hope. Partnering with Christ as co-creators of the salvation story requires Christians not simply to wait passively in this unfinished world for Christ to bring in a reign of peace but rather to work toward that end. We are not just characters in a story; we are co-authors of our stories.
To tell a story is a spiritual act. Our goal, in union with God’s intention, is to continue creatively constructing and living into a story as it unfolds with hope. Hope, after all, is the storyteller’s gracious capacity to imagine what is not yet. Our other primary purpose is to connect, and that is also the storyteller’s goal: to extend herself to others, to create a bridge from one being to another, to construct a mental framework that shapes life’s pieces into connected meaning, to imagine someone else’s situation and empathize, to understand one’s self in community, to relate . . . to love.
I believe there are many stories that can save us . . . from despair, selfishness, hatred, fear. But we might think of the un-ending Christ event as the master story from which all stories of transformation spring.
Whether you are conscious of it or not, you are authoring the stories of your life. And just as there are saving stories, there are killing stories. We might be narrating stories about ourselves in which we are the eternal victim. Equally harmful are stories in which we run the universe. We unconsciously tell ourselves stories in which we cast ourselves as fools or unlovable loners or the only one around us with a lick of sense. We trap ourselves into self-composed narratives, forgetting that the power we used to create these false or only partially true or unhelpful stories is the same power we can use to re-author our stories.
Your story, which lives within the Jesus Story, is still being written. Your very humanity certifies you as a story teller of your own life. Because you are created in the image of God—the divine creator—you have the storyteller’s gift of creativity. And lest you think you lack the raw material for a story about you that can heal you and move you forward from the places where you are stuck—think about the elements of Jesus’s story. If the followers of Jesus, through the Spirit of the Christ, could take the cross and narrate that tragedy into hope and goodness, you and I can use the ordinary materials of our lives to write a way for us to live with integrity, commitment, courage, love. I’m not talking about daydreaming our way into delusions of grandeur. I’m talking about recognizing that we are unconsciously telling ourselves stories about our abilities, our histories, our needs, our desires—and sometimes these stories we tell ourselves are unhealthy. Maybe we’ve inherited stories from family that limit who we can be. Maybe we’ve patched together an incoherent story about who we are because we’ve been unreflective. Maybe we tell a story about ourselves that is inflated and justifies selfishness, or a story that many of us recite: well, that’s just how I am, or that’s the situation I’ve been dealt; there’s nothing I can do about it.
What story are you telling yourself about you? Is it an authentic story that offers you growth and hope? Is it a story that supports our overarching Christ story? Your story hasn’t ended. Like the caterpillar that might have thought its life was ending, you have another chapter to write. Make it beautiful. This gift of the storyteller’s imagination is the secret of all holy transformation. Thanks be to Christ Jesus.
O God, I pray in the words of poet Gerard Manly Hopkins: “Easter in us.”