Who Do You Say that I Am?
This year, as I’ve been thinking about Easter, I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent Children’s Sermons during Lent, and the kids’ reactions as I’ve mentioned to them that we’re preparing for Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Generally, the kids have reacted something like this: Ew, gross! What, does he get buried and dug up again? Their responses make me laugh, of course, and occasionally throw me for a loop and leave me a bit speechless, but I’ve been thinking about their responses and reactions. As adults, who’ve heard the resurrection story many, many times, maybe we’ve forgotten exactly the strangeness of what it is we’re celebrating today. Jesus rising from the dead? Maybe the kids’ reactions are actually the most appropriate – because at least they have some sense of confusion, or misunderstanding, or surprise about it all. Celebrating Easter year after year, as adults, we can become pretty blasé about the whole thing. Oh yeah – Easter – Jesus rose from the dead, that’s all. It’s maybe a little hard for us to capture the wonder and the excitement or even the confusion of Easter, isn’t it?
So maybe the kids are really on the right track, leading the way, as they so often do. How do we make sense of Easter today? If we’re talking about someone being resurrected – raised from the dead – how do we take it so lightly? Typically, at Easter, we read the resurrection story from the gospel of John – it’s the most well known, the most liked – the intimate scene of Mary Magdalene discovering Jesus himself at the tomb, finally recognizing him and calling him Teacher. In the three year cycle of scripture texts, you might also hear the resurrection story from Matthew and Luke. But it’s hard to ever focus on the resurrection story from the gospel of Mark. That’s because, like the rest of Mark’s gospel, his resurrection story is pretty short on details. It is only 8 verses long, and it was so upsetting to the early church that by the fourth century, manuscripts existed giving Mark longer endings. In most Bibles today, you’ll see Mark ending at chapter 16 verse 8, with footnotes or other section headings noting a verse 9 listed as the “shorter ending of Mark” and then verse 9-20, called the “longer ending of Mark.” Most scholars agree, however, that verses 9-20, in any version, were added on later to compensate for Mark’s strangely brief Easter story, with some scholars speculating that perhaps Mark died before he could finish the gospel, or perhaps the last page of Mark’s work was lost somehow.
Why all this speculation and rewriting? Well, if we take just verses 1-8 in Mark, we never hear about anyone actually seeing the risen Jesus. The young man at the tomb that the women see just tells the women that Jesus has risen and to tell the disciples about it. But the women respond differently than the messenger says. We read, “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.*” Leaving it where Mark leaves things, no one proclaims the Easter message that Jesus has risen, at least not right away.
I think the early church added to Mark’s ending because they knew that wasn’t all there was to the story. Obviously, if the women had never told anyone what happened, the news about Jesus wouldn’t have spread. No one would have thought he had risen. So eventually, they must have gotten over their fear and shared the news, and that’s the story folks in the early church wanted to make sure was in Mark’s gospel. But however it came about, I like Mark’s short story, just eight verses long, because in Mark’s original ending, the women had probably the most proper reaction of all to the Easter story – they ran away scared! They were baffled by the news, they had no idea what to do with finding the empty tomb and the man’s strange words, and they were afraid to say anything about their terrifying experience. To me, at least in terms of initial reactions to what was happening, Mark’s gospel makes the most sense of all. Sure, the story got shared eventually. But how else would you react if you had the kind of experience these women had?
So we’re back to our question – how do we make sense of Easter today? I think it can only have meaning for us if we try to reclaim a little bit of the wonder of those women, or try to see it from the perspective of children hearing this strange story for the first time – how can Jesus be raised? It is hard to make sense of, and I can’t tell you that I have all the answers to explain how something like eternal life and resurrection could possibly work. For all of our fascination with heaven and afterlife, the Bible is actually pretty vague on details for things like that. It’s up to us, really. How do you make sense of it all? How do I? What do we do with Easter?
As I’ve mentioned before, my favorite scripture passage is John 10:10 – “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Sometimes we think about being disciples and adhering to our religious beliefs as something that means that we have to give up things, follow “thou shall nots,” and generally miss out on enjoying things that others seem to have no problem with. Why I love John 10:10 is because it reminds me that Jesus wants the exact opposite for us – for us to have full life, abundant life, overflowing life. Are you living abundantly? Is your life full? Full of the deep joy that following Jesus can bring?
When I think about making sense of Easter, I think about this promise of abundant life. I ran across an article this week on death and dying and the work of Hospice volunteers. And one of the volunteers said, “You’re going to die the way you live.” (1) She was speaking about being able to have a meaningful experience even when you were dealing with a terminal illness. But that statement really struck me, in the midst of Holy Week, as I was preparing to write this sermon. Jesus died like he lived – and how he lived was with such love, such fullness, such giving, such openness to God, that death couldn’t change that. He lived too fully, too much, to die, to let death be the final word. In funeral liturgies, especially in the prayers read at graveside services, you often hear the phrase, “‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ 55‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” They are words that Paul shares in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he’s trying to explain to them the meaning of resurrection. Paul’s trying to say that death doesn’t win – death never wins – if you’ve really lived, if your abundant life is more full than death could ever hold. What does Easter mean? What is resurrection? What is eternal life? What is Jesus promising? I believe this – we die like we’ve lived. Jesus died like he lived – in such a way that death couldn’t contain him – death could not stop Jesus’ life.
So, it's Easter morning again. What will happen here today? How do you answer that question? That’s what we’ve building up to all through Lent, as we’ve looked at who Peter and Judas and Simon and Pilate and Mary say Jesus is – none of it matters until we answer the question for ourselves. Who is Jesus to you? What does Easter mean to you? The truth is, our actions, our behaviors, the way we act from Easter to Easter often indicates that we don't expect anything much to happen here today at all, because, the day after, we tend to live our lives in the exact same way we always have. We don’t have the same reaction as our children do to the idea of resurrection, and we don’t run scared from the tomb like the women on that first gut response to Easter. It seems, then, that we don't expect very much from Easter. Is it just one more Sunday? Is Easter simply a day to celebrate with friends and family, to share in a good meal, to finally indulge in whatever we have given up for Lent? Is Easter is a day when the sanctuary looks extra nice, and we dress up in new clothes, and new stoles? Is that all we expect? All we want? Why doesn’t Easter startle us as the shocking, almost unbelievable, unbearably wonderful event that it is? If you knew that death didn’t have the final word after all, how would that make you react?
The fact is, it would be awfully inconvenient for something more powerful to happen to us on the Day of Resurrection. If death can’t conquer abundant life, if Jesus is alive, we might have to take to heart all of those things that Jesus taught during his lifetime. We might have to admit that his way was better than our way, that his idea of kingdom is better than ours, that his idea of living and loving was right after all. We'd have to change our lives, right now, starting today.
But the empty tomb and the risen Christ are only part of Easter. Like that old quip, "if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound when it falls?" - if Christ is crucified and resurrected, and no one tells it, and no one changes because of it, and no one is transformed by it - does it matter? Life where death was expected - what else can God do to show us love? A beginning, where an end seemed certain - what else can God do to challenge us into action? Eternal joy where grief seemed to abound - what else can God do to show us grace?
I think that’s why I like the resurrection story in the gospel of Mark so much, and couldn’t let it go this year. It is like an unfinished story, a choose-your-own-adventure story, one that we are called to complete. We get just a starting point – just a glimpse of the empty tomb. What happens after that – what we make of it, what we believe about it, and what we do because of what we believe – well, that’s up to us. That’s the real Easter story of new life – our own new life, if we choose it, because of the gift of grace, love, and abundant life that Jesus offers. Who do you say that Jesus is? What does Easter mean to you? And what will that mean for you not just on this Sunday, but on Monday and Tuesday and all the days after?