Isaiah 65:17-25; Mark 16:1-8
This Easter has been a long time coming. We’ve been cooped up in a yearlong Covid-imposed Lenten-like season. A 12-month winter that would not let go, with death always hovering close, nearby.
But now birds sing and buds are on the trees. Crocuses are up and daffodils not far behind. Even lilacs are beginning to green. Something in the air has turned.
Yes, the pandemic is still with us, racism has not been dismantled, gun violence continues, but signs of Easter abound: vaccines are working, we’re finally listening to truth-telling about race in America, and public support to end gun violence may be at a tipping point.
The way Mark tells it, though, Easter is hardly cause for celebration:
So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
That’s it. The end. Imagine if Mark were the only gospel, and that’s all we had. For a time, it was! Mark precedes the other gospels by 10, 20, 30 years or more.
And even Mark wasn’t put into written form until perhaps three decades after Jesus. The gospels aren’t Eyewitness News; they’re composites of various narratives and memories that eventually coalesce into coherent accounts. The stories that form Mark had been told and re-told for years around campfires and family meals, in prayers and liturgies, in markets and on street corners, in hushed tones in places of power.
Did you hear about Jesus of Nazareth? The Galilean arrested and killed by the Romans? I heard several women went to anoint the body, but it was gone. They say he was taken out of the tomb, or even that he rose from the dead. The women were terrified and ran away – and didn’t want to say anything to anyone. I can’t blame them.
If Mark were the only gospel we had, with its abrupt ending that offers no sighting of a risen Jesus, what would be the hope in that?
Maybe we’d want to try to “fix” it as the early church did. Around the third or fourth century an alternate ending was added in order to unify and control the narrative of Christian faith. Other options for a “better” ending followed, each trying to make Mark’s Easter conform to the other gospels. They wanted a compliant Jesus rising visibly from the dead, lending credence to the resurrection claim.
The church was uncomfortable with an open-ended Easter. Too many questions. Hard to control. Puts Easter in the hands of the people. We want Easter to play by our rules.
But life doesn’t work like that, and neither does faith. We can’t force it to do what it never did or become what it never was. Mark’s gospel makes room for an Easter that does not depend on a sighting of the risen Jesus. Mark’s Easter empowers us to complete it, to create a vision for Easter that fulfills God’s hope for humankind and all creation.
That makes for an Easter a little bit wilder, a little more unfettered, a little more unleashed than the Easter that fits the church’s norm. It makes for an Easter centered in the human experience, an Easter that takes the cross seriously and refuses to gloss over Good Friday, an Easter that sees God’s willingness to enter fully into the suffering of the world in order to redeem it.
This past week’s Good Friday worship service at Westminster powerfully evoked Mark’s approach to Easter. I encourage you to watch it in the livestream archive on our website. The Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway preached on three of the Seven Last Words, using the lens of the seminal book by James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
When she preached on the words Jesus’ said as he neared death, “It is finished,” she drew on Cone:
“When Jesus states, ‘It is finished,’ it’s not just about his death. It is not just about his existential reality, but it gets broadened to all things that are unjust, unfair, unequal, oppressive, messed up, tore up from the floor up. His declaration of it is finished becomes a soothing balm to our hearts, and it generates radical hope and strengthens our identity as God’s beloved.”
An Easter like that depends not on resurrection appearances long ago, but on the power of God’s love to transform human suffering in every age. A God hung on a cross and left there to die, is a God swinging from the lynching tree, a God broken by addiction and disease, a God assaulted by hatred and fear, a God killed by violent racism and demeaned by misogyny and locked up when innocent. That Easter God gets caught up fully by the world’s sin – and then breaks its grip.
“What is redemptive,” Cone says, “Is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.” (James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree)
The empty tomb means all that dehumanizes us and devalues the image of God in each of us and destroys creation is finished. That is an Easter vision that releases unchecked hope into a world dying for it.
“But, one may ask,” Pastor Alika said in Friday’s service,
“If Jesus says ‘It is finished,’ why isn’t it so? That’s a good question. And I’ll tell you what my grandmother would say…’Baby, everything that is finished is not done.’”
After an allusion to a microwave in which the food never seems to be done even when the oven is finished, she went on:
“You see,” she said, “Done is a process. And some things that are finished are not quite done. So it is with oppression. We are not done with liberation.”
And so it is with Easter. We are not done with resurrection. Mark’s Easter goes nowhere unless we get up and take it with us, and join with others and the Holy Spirit to make it happen.
What is your Easter vision? Is it anything like Isaiah’s?
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth. It’s a chance to start over, and who among us doesn’t need that?
No more shall there be…an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime. It’s healthcare and nutrition and loving support for young and old alike, and who among us doesn’t need that?
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. It’s a place to live and a livelihood that gives meaning and sustenance, and who among us doesn’t need that?
They shall not…bear children for calamity. It’s a society that cares for those most vulnerable.
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. It’s a world without violence and war. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
What’s your Easter dream? What’s our Easter vision? For Mark it starts in Galilee, a lowly backwater, far from centers of power and privilege. A place where people fish and tend sheep, harvest olives and crush grapes, and somehow manage to scrape by. A place that cannot make things happen. That’s where the mysterious young man at the empty tomb says Jesus has gone, to be with those who are poor and forgotten.
What Easter vision do we have for the human family, or for the whole creation? Is it political freedom, as in the struggle in Myanmar today? Is it safety for your family and a future for your children, as in Central America? Is it to stop the threat to the earth from fossil fuels? On the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, is it finally an end to violence against black bodies in America, as is being sought right now in our city?
Jesus shares his Easter dream with us – when he preaches that those who are meek shall inherit the earth…when he comforts those who mourn…when he says that the greatest two commandments are to love God and love neighbor…when he says to love your enemy…when he declares that he himself will be the one whom we cloth and feed and visit in prison, as we serve those in need.
Easter is rooted in earthly reality, in the here and now, not in some heavenly time to come. That’s the gift of Mark’s open-ended gospel.
He’s telling us to work Easter into our daily lives, to bring it into the streets, into our schools and workplaces, our politics and neighborhoods, so the world will know the power of a love that will not be stopped by anything, not even death.
The women running from the empty tomb are not running from Easter, and neither should we. They’re afraid, but they’re also amazed. When the fear subsides, the amazement is still there, the wonder is still there and that’s when the Easter story begins, when we can dream our way into a future that had once seemed impossible.
“When day comes,” poet Amanda Gorman writes,
“We step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
This Easter has been a long time coming. Now that it’s finally here, it needs us to take it up and run with it, as the women did that morning long ago.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.