We follow again

Our Bible is full of surprises, and not just the kind of surprises we expect to find there. Our lectern Bible, after years of use, had begun to show signs of wear. The binding was a little lose in places, the edges looked frayed, in short, it needed a little work done. While it was at the bookbinder’s shop, we started to read from a younger model – same translation, but tight binding, flawless gold edging, and wrapped in gorgeous red, Moroccan goat leather.

One Sunday, Jeff opened that beauty to read from the first chapter of Genesis, and began to turn the pages. There’s always a dedication page, an introduction, an editor’s note, things like that, a table of contents, but eventually you’d expect to lay eyes on Genesis 1:1. Well, not with this red beauty. It opens with Genesis 3:18, something about thorns and thistles, on the next page you read something about every creeping thing, it’s Genesis 1:26, you turn the page and – taddah! – there’s Genesis 1:1. But turn that page, and you’re suddenly in chapter 5, and turn another, and there’s chapter 13. As far as we can tell (without turning all 1073 pages), all chapters and verses are there, just not necessarily where you’d expect to find them.

The best part, of course, is that Genesis 1 is all about how orderly things come about in God’s creation! What do you think happened? Was it the printer who messed things up or the binder? Or was there somebody with a great sense of humor, somewhere along the production line who decided that scripture is just way too predictable, and that the occasional surprise page would keep the readers engaged?

A few years ago, a seminary student had memorized the entire gospel of Mark in order to do a dramatic monologue before a live audience. He started with chapter 1, verse 1, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” but he wasn’t sure where to end his performance. According to the current scholarly consensus, based on careful study of the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, Mark ends with chapter 16, verse 8,

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.

You wonder what happened. Did the author suffer a sudden heart attack at that point and slump over his manuscript? Or had he written the most wonderful ending, but somehow that part of the scroll was lost or removed by a scribe with a strange sense of humor? Did somebody perhaps need a piece of parchment to write a letter or another story? Hard to tell what happened. The young performer decided to follow the most reliable manuscripts and end his presentation right there in the middle of verse 8. He ended his first performance declaring, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…” And then he stood there awkwardly in the middle of the stage, shifting from one foot to the other, the audience waiting for more, waiting for another sentence, waiting for a proper ending. And finally, after several anxious seconds, he said, “Amen!” and made his exit and, greatly relieved, the audience applauded loudly.

We like our stories and our songs to end well: a final chapter where all story lines come together and all tensions are resolved; a final measure when the melody comes home and we along with it. To that student, however, wrapping things up for the audience with a confident Amen just didn’t feel right. So at the next performance, when he reached that final verse he said,

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,

and then he turned and left the stage in silence.[1]

Now that’s hardly a shout of victory over death.  Give us a woman in the garden, give us two disciples on the road, or a breakfast on the beach – women fleeing from the cemetery in silence? That’s no way to end a gospel. Clearly something must be done about this ending, or at least that’s how many people felt. Early Christian scribes who copied Mark’s gospel tinkered with its ending. One added just a couple of sentences, indicating that the women did as they had been told.[2] Another scribe borrowed a few details from Matthew and Luke to compose a conclusion that would leave readers reassured about the order of things.[3] A few extra lines, the curtain falls and we are pleased. The world is a reliable place after all: dramas begin and conflicts arise, yet all is resolved in the final scene.

But what if this strange ending is exactly how Mark wanted to tell the 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 this puzzled expression in our faces? We have heard the whole story, from its beginning to this moment. We were there when at Jesus’ baptism the heavenly voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[4] We were there when Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, and he was transfigured before them.[5] We were there when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and the disciples couldn’t keep awake.[6] We were there when Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and all the disciples deserted him. We were there when Jesus was arrested, questioned and judged, mocked, abused and executed. We are attentive listeners, and even more attentive readers; we were there. We know that the women were the only ones who didn’t run away, that they watched from a distance, that they saw where the body was laid. Now three of the women come to the tomb and hear the message to go and tell—and now even they finally fail?

They fled and said nothing to anyone, 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 we must decide what happens next. We were there when Jesus told the men and women who followed him, “After I am raised up I will go before you to Galilee.” Will we trust his promise? Will we go to Galilee, or will we flee the scene and go back to the world as it was?

Silence is an option. We can deny the whole thing, act as though it never happened, and continue to live in the Friday world. Or we can begin to live in this new reality. We can go to Galilee where Jesus promised we will see him. We can go to the place where the story began and start the journey over.

Now Galilee is no longer just the name of the hill country north of Jerusalem. Galilee is the name given to the land of promise and faith: it is the land where we live and work, where we sing songs and tell stories, where we raise our children and think about the future. Galilee is the Friday world we know under the Sunday promise. The risen Christ invites us to live there, in the company of all the other men and women who chose to follow again.

The Friday world of the cross had reduced all of them to silence and fear. But from such weakness and failure, God brought forth faith. The risen Christ didn’t choose a new team, but God raised those imperfect men and women to live as bold witnesses to the resurrection.

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. So today on Easter we gather not, as is were, to close the show with the tune, ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ but rather to reopen the show with the hymn, ‘[Christ the Lord] Is Risen Today.’[7]

Risen today. Easter is not about memory, but about presence, disruptive and transformative presence. The gospel Mark wrote down is only the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the story is still unfolding with us no longer in the audience, but as participants.

The women were paralyzed. Something had gone wrong – or had gone so right they couldn’t take it in. There was the news that Jesus had been raised. But there was also the word about a new life for them: Move your feet. Leave the tomb. Tell the guys. Galilee. Follow me. You will see.

The life-giving power of God had radically transformed the body of Jesus, but it had only begun to transform them. And so they ran away from the cemetery and said nothing to nobody. If Jesus had been raised and vindicated by a mighty act of God, and if by raising Jesus God had indeed reversed the whole order of time and history, of life and death – then nothing would ever be the same again. Little wonder they were afraid.

If Jesus is defeated, crucified, dead, and buried – it may break our heart, but it also confirms everything we have suspected about the world all along. It’s a Friday world: Might makes right. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for more of everything, and the meek will inherit nothing at all. But if we can wrap our small, fearful hearts around the promise and reality of today, Sunday is flooding this Friday world with hope. If we can pin our hope on that promise for just a moment, we begin to realize that it’s not human evil that has the last word, but the God who spoke the very first word. The last word belongs to God who said, “Let there be light,” and the Friday darkness fled at the dawn of this new day.

“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. We know that stone. It lies heavy on our ability to continue to live kind and compassionate lives in this Friday world, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. The stone slows us down, it blocks our movements, locks us in, suffocates our courage. But today we hear that the stone, which is very large, has already been rolled back; and God calls us, again, to practice resurrection by following the one who is going ahead of us.

Today we can see that God’s faithfulness will not be undone by our infidelity. And today, chastened by our failures and empowered by Christ’s presence we follow again.


[1] Cf. Thomas Long, “Dangling gospel,” Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 19

[2] Mk 16:8b “The Shorter Ending”

[3] Mk 16:9-20 “The Longer Ending”

[4] Mk 1:11

[5] Mk 9:2

[6] Mk 14:32-42

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