Sermon - 8th April 2012
Easter Day - The end of the beginning
Scripture - Mark 16:1-8
We have just heard the final words of Mark’s Gospel. It can feel as if it is a strange ending; things are left up in the air; if we take literally the words, “...they fled from the tomb [and] said nothing to anybody”, then the story of the resurrection would never have been told; and in hindsight, knowing events described in other gospels, there seem to be episodes left out.
There have been a few extras added onto the end of Mark’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts: these add-ons try to bring the story to a more convincing close by mentioning encounters with the resurrected Jesus. But these extra sections are not present in the best and most authentic manuscripts that we know of. Scholarly opinion is now generally certain that Mark’s Gospel ends with the words “...they fled from and tomb [and] said nothing to anybody”.
But in another place in his Gospel, Mark is clear that what he is giving us is not an ending, but the end of a beginning. The last page of Mark takes us back to the first page of Mark, as in the very first words of his Gospel, Mark declares what he is recording to be “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.
And so one way to look at those final words about the stone removed from the entrance to the tomb, the encounter with the young man dressed in white, his assurance that Jesus was returning to Galilee, and they way the women fled in a state of crippling fear, is to recognise that what we know at this point is only the end of the beginning.
Throughout Holy Week, we have been following the timeline of Jesus's last days quite closely and have tried not to anticipate events still to take place. There are stories in other gospels which take and expand the Easter message for many days beyond that first Easter morning; in fact, the church allows seven weeks of readings and reflections for us to absorb and take to heart the full meaning of Easter. There is another timeline still to follow.
Some of the events we have yet to hear about feed our understanding of what we mean by phrases such as, " Jesus lives!" or " He is with us now", or " Death is conquered". But those were not the words on the lips of the first disciples when the story that we heard from Mark's gospel took place. It took time, prayer, preaching, teaching, sharing, community, and an overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit for those early followers of Jesus to shape their understanding of what it means to say, “Jesus lives”. And it requires the same of us.
There is a temptation when Easter Sunday comes round for us to package the whole of the Easter message into one day. The celebrations of the day are so powerful and the sense of victory and accomplishment is so strong that perhaps we lose sight of the confusion and uncertainty which was present among the followers of Jesus on that first day of resurrection, not to mention the huge survival effort that would be needed simply to keep going as a community.
But in the next seven weeks we will hear of events which shed light on what the Easter message really means. We will hear of a walk with a stranger where bread is broken; we’ll be told of the proof needed to convince the most skeptical of the disciples that something miraculous had happened; there will be a meal shared by a lakeside; we’ll observe a mountain-top experience and a final farewell; and there will be a spiritual outpouring which will empower Christians to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
Hearing about these events, and challenging ourselves to find meaning in what the Gospels tell us about Easter and its aftermath, are the ways in which we steadily and increasingly grasp the meaning of the resurrection. Just as it took time for the disciples to work through their own doubts, fears and disbelief, so it takes time for us to move beyond the scene of an empty tomb into a space where we too can say “Jesus lives”.
Today, we return to that journey towards understanding as we engage with the drama of those early hours as dawn breaks at the tomb. Mark has brought us to the end of his beginning. But there is more to be heard from others who recorded the traditions that developed in their communities in the decades after Jesus’s death. These are the markers on the timeline still to come and which will be our focus in the next few weeks.
Many of us will go back to work, or our usual daily routines, at some point this week. But Easter doesn’t end when we go home today: in fact, Christians have been described as an Easter People because, in many profound ways, the story which begins this morning is the introduction to a lifelong influence on who we are and on the Good News we share.