(Mark 16: 1-8)
Back in 2004, actor Mel Gibson released his movie “The Passion of the Christ” to mixed reviews. The controversy came mostly from the film’s brutal, some would even say even grotesque take on the crucifixion, which occupied a large chunk of its two-plus hours. A less contentious matter, but one that still raised eyebrows, took place at the end at Easter morning’s dawn. And what was so contentious about it? It was that, literally, the dawn of Easter morning was all there was. The sunrise illuminating a stone rolled away from a tomb that was noticeably empty. A single closing sequence that lasted all of twenty seconds. And that was it. Cue the credits.
Moviegoers who had just been subjected to a brutal crucifixion scene were perhaps hoping for a little more redemption on the other side. And those with a more biblically critical lens scratched their heads over what had been inexplicably left out. Where, they wondered, were the early morning visitors, the angels shining dazzling white, the disciples sharing good news? And most of all, where was the risen Jesus? How could a depiction of the resurrection take place without as much as an appearance of the one resurrected? It felt like something had been left out. Like something was missing. Like the Easter story was incomplete.
Easter bears the distinction of being one of only a handful of biblical stories mentioned in all four gospels. And much like we do with the manger scene at Christmas time, we tend to take bits and pieces of each Easter account and reassemble in our collective consciousness a single narrative combining all elements. But when we read each one individually, independent of the other three, we find that while they are telling the same story, they are often telling it in different ways and for different reasons.
And so while I will never be confused with being a fan of “ The Passion of The Christ” movie, even I must admit that its abbreviated Easter morning scene does bear a striking resemblance to our scripture today. And if I’m honest, there’s a reason in my twenty-plus years of pastoring that I’ve never preached on Mark’s Easter – and it has nothing to do with what it says and everything to do with what it does not.
Rebecca just read it to us so let’s picture it together. The sun rises on a new morning as three women make their way to the tomb where their friend Jesus, murdered by the powers and principalities of the world two days prior, now lays. They’re going there to anoint Jesus’ body as was their custom on the third day of death; a custom designed to help the living come to grips with the cold, harsh reality of a loved one lost, something to hold onto when grief was throwing their world upside down.
And at some point on the journey it occurs to them that they have no way of moving the stone covering the tomb. This small but not insignificant detail had slipped their minds, as the weight of grief rarely leaves any of us functioning at our highest level. They are already well on their way there. They will have to figure it out when they arrive.
Of course, as it turns out, they would not have to figure it out. And perhaps the only thing that could’ve snapped them out of their grief-induced fog was finding that huge stone already moved. And instead of the body of Jesus being in the tomb, where dead bodies are supposed to be, what they find instead is a man in white telling them not to be afraid, telling them that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is not there any more, and telling them to go tell the others. Upon hearing this, they run from that tomb “with terror and amazement.”
And that is it. That is the entire Easter story according to Mark.
Now it is true, if you read on in Mark, that there are still some thirteen verses left in the gospel, verses that mention specifically the multiple times the disciples and others encounter the resurrected Jesus; and the community of faith that rose up over time as more and more people believed in the good news of Jesus raised from the dead.
But there is near unanimous agreement from biblical scholars down through the centuries that these thirteen verses are add-on verses and were not part of Mark’s original gospel; added years later by those who simply could not let the story of the resurrection end with three people running scared from an empty tomb. Because that would feel like something had been left out. Like something was missing. Like the Easter story was incomplete.
And we don’t like stories that are incomplete, especially when those stories are stories meant to lift us up, to give us hope, to lay testimony to the glorious truth that death has been defeated and Jesus is alive.
And yet, our Easter story this morning is incomplete. There is no Jesus-sighting. There is no direct “evidence” of the resurrection. Like that movie, our Easter morning sunrise reveals a rolled-away stone and an empty tomb. And that’s it – cue the credits.
So perhaps we can understand the compulsion of someone to want to add more to it, can we not? We can sympathize because the truth of the resurrection is that Easter is not an ending but a beginning. There is so much more to share about what happened in the days and weeks and months and years after Sunday morning. Where people encountered Jesus – in-person or otherwise – and how they grew from that. And that is why someone just could not let Mark’s gospel end without writing the rest of the story.
Which, my friends, is precisely what the writer of Mark is asking you and me to do.
Toni Morrison was a highly acclaimed American novelist whose writing focused on the experience of women of color within black communities and in the larger world. For this, she won the Pulitzer Prize as well as becoming the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison’s masterful storytelling came from her innate ability to recognize the story in each of us that longs to be told and our responsibility in telling it. “If there is a book you want to read,” she is quoted as saying, “but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
If there is a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Friends, we sometimes have a hard time discerning the difference between stories written to entertain and stories written for us to keep writing – incomplete stories that compel us to write the rest of it. Easter is one of those stories. In fact, it very well may be the incomplete story of all incomplete stories, the way Mark tells it. Easter is not an ending. It’s a beginning.
And it falls to us as followers of Jesus – the risen Jesus that we, like those in Mark, have yet to see – it is our calling to keep writing the story he started. If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it! I am convinced that our world today – in this strange season we’re in where so much is uncertain and incomplete, this weird “pandemic pause” – I am convinced people are hungry to hear not a “finished” story of the resurrection, with all the ends tied up nice and neat, with every question answered. No, I think people want the incomplete story of the resurrection, the sometimes messy story of the resurrection, the one that speaks directly to our uncertainty and unsettledness and doubt, the one that invites us to keep writing it.
This past week you may have seen news articles reporting, according to a recent Gallup poll, that the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped below 50 percent for the first time in our nation’s history. Now this is just the latest data point highlighting a trend toward increased secularization in our country, a trend that’s been going on for over half a century now. For Christians in America, it speaks to a geographical shift of the spiritual center of global Christianity to places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It’s important to know that these shifts are nothing new and have been part of the Christian story since the resurrection. Nothing we have done or not done has caused this – it is all about the Holy Spirit and the way she chooses to move. Look at it this way: for the past 2000 years, God has been on world tour.
The unfortunate thing in this is that, rather than lean into the changing American church and discern what God is calling us to do and be in it, we have tended to let panic and fear guide our response. Or, put another way, we’ve done a lousy job at writing the rest of the story. For we do neither the resurrected Jesus nor ourselves any favors when we allow the narrative of our faith to be co-opted by political ideologies, consumer mentality, and white supremacy culture. It was not lost on anyone that the largest banner displayed during the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, the largest by far, was one that said, “JESUS 2020.” And I couldn’t help but notice the irony in the article that immediately followed the Gallup poll article in my feed last week – an article about a large worship gathering in Greensboro with hundreds of Christians whose sole purpose in gathering was to flaunt Covid restrictions “in the name of Jesus.”
Beloved, American Christianity is not dying, it is changing. It’s not that there’s no longer a story to tell – it’s that we are stuck telling the wrong story. We’ve got Good Friday writer’s block – and the risen Jesus is calling us to press through that Good Friday writers block and live into the Easter narrative of unconditional love, of radical hospitality, of justice-seeking, of hope-filled healing, of everlasting life. Especially coming out of this pandemic, the question that ought to guide what we do as the church is not “How do we get people to want to come to church – or come back to church?” No, the question we need to be asking is, “How do we help people find in us what they need from church? How do we most effectively write the rest of the Easter story?
Mark’s Easter is incomplete – which is exactly the way he wants it. He has teed things up for us. The sun has risen. The tomb is empty. Jesus is not here. What comes next?
People of God, there is a story that needs to be told. Let’s get to writing it.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.