Who will roll away the stone for us?

Who will roll away the stone for us? I heard the news on Tuesday and groaned. A Tennessee Senate subcommittee had again stopped a bill that would improve access to health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans. Like many I had hoped that there would be a full Senate vote, but apparently not in this legislative session. I thought about Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain, again putting his shoulder to the boulder, flexing every muscle in his body to push the rock up the hill, without rest, without promise, without hope.

I heard the news of an air plane crash in the Alps and groaned. What level of despair must have gripped a man’s heart that he waits for the moment when the cockpit door closes behind his colleague and then he turns and flies an airplane full of people into a mountain?

Who will roll away the stone? It’s too large for us, too heavy. Thursday morning I heard the news about a gang of armed thugs who had forced their way into a school in Kenya. They started killing students, dozens of them, systematically and allegedly with divine sanction. Such madness, such violence; it’s too heavy, it’s too much.

Who will roll away the stone for us? That’s what the three women were saying to one another on the way to the cemetery. They wanted to anoint the body of Jesus who had to be buried with haste the day before the sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea had rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. The women wanted to honor Jesus with a proper burial, they wanted to touch his body gently one last time after all the violence and abuse he had suffered. But who would roll away the stone? Then they looked up and saw that the stone, huge as it was, had been rolled back already.

Inside they encounter an angelic messenger who delivers the good news of Jesus’ resurrection like an administrative assistant explaining why you can’t have a quick word with the boss: “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.” If it’s Jesus they want, they will need to head back to Galilee. And the messenger sends them off with simple instructions for the disciples, “There you will see him, just as he told you.”

Now you may want a moment to sit and ponder the angel’s words and whether you believe that curious sort of thing, you know, angels and resurrection and such. But there’s no time for that now because things become much curiouser in a heartbeat. For just when we assume that the women would dash out joyfully to proclaim the good news that Christ is risen they clam up entirely, overcome by fear. Mark ends his Gospel in midsentence,

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 …

That’s hardly a shout of victory over death. Some would say, that’s no way to end a gospel. John does such a nice job with the woman in the garden and the breakfast on the beach, and Luke has the wonderful scene on the road to Emmaus, what happened to Mark? Did somebody rip out the last page? Or did he mean to end the story in this way?

Early Christian scribes who copied Mark’s Gospel tinkered with the ending. One added just a couple of sentences, indicating that the women did as they had been told.[1] Another scribe borrowed a few details from Matthew and Luke to compose a conclusion that would leave readers reassured that things were wrapped up nicely at the end of the story.[2] But what if this strange ending is exactly how Mark wants to tell this story? What if this gospel has this unfinished feel on purpose, and not because parts went missing? What if this gospel wants to leave us hanging in midsentence with a puzzled look on our faces?

We have heard and read the whole story, from its beginning to this moment. We witnessed Jesus’ baptism where the heavenly voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We were there when Jesus began proclaiming the good news of God in Galilee. We heard him preach and teach about the kingdom, watched him inaugurate God’s reign by healing people and breaking bread with them, forgiving their sins and driving out demons. We heard him tell us three times about his death and resurrection. “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”[3] He did tell us, didn’t he? We were there when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and the disciples couldn’t keep awake. We were there when Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and all the disciples deserted him. When Jesus was arrested, questioned and judged, mocked, abused and executed, we were there, because Mark took us there. We know that the women were the only ones who didn’t run away. Not until now, that is. They fled from the tomb and said nothing to nobody, for they were afraid.

Now everyone has fled, but the story is not over. We have heard it; we have read it. We have lived through its every moment, and now it’s up to us what happens next. If we want to read on, we must let our own lives become the writing. Will we trust the promise and go to Galilee? Will we go back to the beginning and follow Jesus on the way?

Not going is an option, as is silence. We can deny the whole thing, act as though it never happened, and continue to live in the Friday world where Jesus is in the tomb. Or we can begin to live in the world where Jesus is on the loose. We can head back to Galilee and catch up with him in the places and among the people where he’s at work. We can continue to immerse ourselves in the whole story in order to know where to look for him and what he may be up to. We can continue to try to fully understand that he doesn’t play the world’s violent power games, but has an authority that makes the demons scream and run. We can continue to discover that the cross was not a stop on the way to greater things, but the character of Jesus’ greatness. For followers of Jesus, Galilee now is the name for the world through which the way of Christ leads to Jerusalem. Galilee is the land of promise and faith where he is going ahead of us. Nashville is in Galilee. Every place on earth where human beings hunger and thirst for righteousness is in Galilee.

Peter, James, and John were the disciples who first followed Jesus; Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James were the followers who stayed with him the longest, and all of them, Mark tells us, fled, overwhelmed by fear. But the risen Christ didn’t choose a new team. God raised those frightened men and women to live as witnesses of the living Christ. Mark doesn’t tell us that, but we wouldn’t be reading Mark if it hadn’t been so, and if it didn’t continue to be so. Bill Sloan Coffin noted years ago,

Not only Peter but all the apostles after Jesus’ death were ten times the people they were before; that’s irrefutable. (…) I believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as memory, but as presence.[4]

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on many a day it’s the only thing I believe in; the world gives me more than enough reasons to become a cynic, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead gives me hope and courage to carry on.

Easter is not about memory, it’s about presence, disruptive and transformative presence. The gospel Mark wrote down is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ—the story is still unfolding with us as participants.

The women ran away from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. If Jesus had been raised and vindicated by a mighty act of God, and if by raising Jesus from the dead God had indeed changed everything – who would they be? How would they live? Little wonder they were afraid. If Jesus is defeated, crucified, dead, and buried – it may break your heart, but it also confirms everything you have suspected about the world all along: Might makes right. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for more of everything and take what they want. But if we can open our small, fearful hearts to the promise and reality of today, new life begins to flow in.

Who will roll away the stone for us? In Mark’s story this is the last question on the lips of those who used to follow Jesus. Who will roll away the stone for us? We know that stone. It lies heavy on us. It slows us down; it blocks our movements; it suffocates our courage. It’s too big for us; nothing we can do can move this stone. This is when Mark says, “Look again and see. The stone has already been rolled back.” And the angel says, “He has been raised. He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” God calls us to trust the promise and let it be our path. God calls us to practice resurrection by following the Risen One.


[1] Mk 16:8b “The Shorter Ending”

[2] Mk 16:9-20 “The Longer Ending”

[3] Mk 14:28

[4] William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p. 28; my emphases