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Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.

Where to from Here?

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
Mark 16:1–8

What do you think the women were afraid of? This man whom they loved, Jesus, whom they had seen tortured to death, was missing. Had the imperial soldiers come for him even here? Was there some next cruel step they were taking in removing the body? Were the disciples themselves still in danger?

“Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb.” They had seen Jesus dead. If he was going to meet them in Galilee, was he a ghost? Would they be haunted by him?

Or had thieves come and taken his body? And was this young man dressed in white one of them? Don’t be afraid, he said. Don’t be alarmed, he told them when they first saw him.

Can you imagine the disorientation and the grief the women were experiencing? The disciples have been scattered in fear already, trying to stay alive themselves. But this small group of women stuck together. They had come to the tomb to process their grief, to be with the body of Jesus, to treat the body with respect, to prepare it for decay, to put spices on and near the body.

Like the woman who had poured an expensive alabaster jar of perfumed nard on Jesus just a few days earlier, to anoint him, these women were dealing with the situation by taking care of the physical needs, by going through the traditional practices, by doing what they knew to do when someone dies.

To a body hated and riddled with wounds, they came to show respect. They followed through. They used the power they had to do what they could do. Caught in the teeth of the Roman Empire, they sought to have dignity and to give dignity to the broken body. They sought to embody love.

But even that was suddenly taken away from them. In that moment what they thought was real and true was taken away from them. There was no body, even though they saw with their own eyes that it had been placed there on Friday. Everything they expected to do they were no longer able to do, because reality had shifted.

Disorientation is the word that comes to my mind. Bafflement. Fear—that makes sense. Fear, because nothing makes sense!

“Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

And that is the end of the Gospel according to Mark. At least in the earliest manuscripts, the earliest copies of the Bible, this is where the story ends.

Talk about a cliffhanger. Talk about setting up an audience for a sequel. Wait, what?

What happened to Jesus? What happened to the women? What happened to the other disciples? What about Peter? And why did the man in white mention Peter by name out of all the disciples?

Remember, the early Bibles were all copied over by hand and written on scrolls. Can you imagine being a scribe, copying this story over by hand, and getting to this ending and saying, “Wait, what?! That’s not the end! There’s more to the story.”

So indeed, in some early copies of the bible we start to see one extra verse added. After “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid,” we get this, verse 9:

They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter. Afterward, through the work of his disciples, Jesus sent out, from the east to the west, the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation. Amen. (Common English Bible)

Well, that makes more sense. Amen! The story does not end with fear but with salvation—not just now but forever. Instead of terror, dread, silence, and fleeing, there is hope. Instead of suffering, grief, scattering, and people being targeted violently, people are being saved. In this ending, there is a community of disciples holding together and working together to bring a new vision of salvation, an undying message of good news.

But for some scribes, and some communities that were caring for these early biblical scrolls, that was still not enough. So in other early manuscripts we get a different verse 9, and then we get verses 10–20.

Here is the beginning and the end of what we call the longer ending of Mark, after verse 8, which is “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”:

After Jesus rose up early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to the ones who had been with him, who were mourning and weeping. But even after they heard the news, they didn’t believe that Jesus was alive and that Mary had seen him. (Mark 16:9–11 CEB)

Then there are six more verses with stories of Jesus appearing to people but them not believing it was him and descriptions of signs to prove that Christ had power and authority from heaven and so will his followers. Then the ending at verses 19 to 20:

After the Lord Jesus spoke to them, he was lifted up into heaven and sat down on the right side of God. But they went out and proclaimed the message everywhere. The Lord worked with them, confirming the word by the signs associated with them. (Mark 16:19–20 CEB)

OK, whew! This is an ending that ends with God and God’s power. This is an ending that assures us and says that God is in control. that the teachings will be confirmed by miraculous signs, and that Jesus’ followers will be empowered to do miraculous things.

I can see why these verses would be added to the story. They are a legitimate part of the story, and we hear them reiterated in the other Gospel accounts.

But when we, as followers of God in the Way of Jesus, when we find ourselves standing at an open tomb like Mary, Mary, and Salome, and everything we have known is falling away from us . . .

When we, followers of God in the Way of Jesus, stand in terror and dread at the things that are happening in our world . . .

When we want to flee with all our hearts because someone has been crucified by the Powers of Domination . . .

When we know that there is a broken body and we can’t give it the dignity that it deserves, and all we can see is our broken hearts scattered on the ground . . .

. . . Then it is very hard to believe in the longer ending of Mark. It’s hard to believe that God is in control, that new life comes out of death, that despair can turn into hope.

If we rush too quickly into the sequel, we might lose the power of this short ending of Mark: “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

This place at the edge of an open tomb is where we stand with the women who came first, looking for Jesus. And we wonder with them, Where is Jesus? What is going on? This is not right! This is not how things should be.

Where is our dignity and what is our purpose when we stand at the edge of an open tomb? No matter what tomb it is in our lives, no matter what injustice or tragedy or travesty in our world, what should we do? What can we do?

These women at the tomb of Jesus clung to each other. They were afraid together. They fled together. You can be sure they talked and cried together and tried to decide what to do next.

What would happen in their sequel? To whom should they turn? How could they be safe? What would be the right thing to do?

These were the same questions they were living when Jesus was alive before, when he walked with them and sat with them and taught them.

He told them parables that made them ask questions. He didn’t give them trite and easy answers to all their questions; he taught them how to make moral decisions and how to be good people in a difficult world. He taught them that one answer does not fit all situations.

Now, after his death, they were facing the same thing. And so are we. We have some of the sequel storyline in the other Gospels and in the Book of Acts and in the biblical letters, the Epistles, as we call them.

But this story is still not finished. The end is not yet written. It’s up to us to write it. Standing with the women at the tomb, we find that our hearts too shrink back with terror and dread, and silence grabs our tongues and won’t let go.

Will our terror make us too afraid to be compassionate? Will our fear make us too angry to be rational? (Reginald Brown) Will we be divided and scattered by the imperial soldiers and by angry voices crying “Crucify” and “Aren’t you one of them”?

The story of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome did not end at verse 8 in Mark’s account of events. But the abrupt end of the telling of the story makes us stop and think. It’s an opportunity to pause and be here now and ask,

Where to from here?

The story of these three women did go on and ours does too. We know more now than the women did then. We have a long tradition, a heritage of wisdom that we can search, a great cloud of witnesses who have also asked these big questions.

And we know that the resurrected Christ is with us now. We know that the Advocate that Jesus promised us is here in the form of the Holy Spirit. We know that God the Creator has redeemed so much and calls to our hearts every day to walk with God, to keep walking with God.

But still, we are living the questions. Where to from the edge of the tomb? Whom will we take with us? Where are our communities? What is the message that we will bring as we go out into the world?

This is our story with God. And our story, and God’s story, is still being written. Where to from here?

On this journey, in this story, we are invited to take God’s hand, and take the hand of Christ, to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, and go ahead and write the next ten verses of God’s story. It’s your story, too. Let’s make it a good one.