You can say whatever you’d like, but reading a gospel text for Easter that doesn’t even have an actual appearance of the risen Jesus is just downright odd. After the events of Good Friday when the body of Jesus had been placed in that new tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ disciples rested on that Sabbath overcome with grief even though it was the Passover feast. They were called to remembered the deliverance of their ancestors from the Egyptians by the hand of God, and also the gift of the Sabbath given at creation. But that rest and remembrance faded to the background as they replayed the events of the last week in their minds and tried to figure out what had really happened. Jesus had spoken about the dream of God—of a beloved community—where the last would be first and the first would be last. He told them stories of an overflowing banquet where those from the streets would be invited in. He healed the sick, and opened the eyes of the blind. He raised a little girl from the dead, and also called his friend Lazarus from the tomb. But now he was dead. And with him that dream of God that he had proclaimed.
Whatever else they thought, the women knew they needed to finish their work of the burial. Because there had been a rush to get Jesus’ body in the tomb before the beginning of the Sabbath, they hadn’t been able to anoint it with spices. So as soon as they snuffed out the last candle from their Sabbath meal, they made their way to a local market and bought the burial spices. By then it was too dark to make their way to the tomb—they had no way to see properly—so they returned home and waited out the night trying to get as much sleep as they could.
Very early the next morning, Mark tells us, they made their way to the tomb. They went to do this one last thing for Jesus before putting him and his message to the far corners of their minds. Dr. Cameron Murchison suggests the women went that morning to find closure. He writes, “In this case the closure was closure not just upon an important personal relationship, but also closure on a world-embracing dream. They were making peace not only with the death of a person, but with the death of God, with the death of Jesus’ claim to embody the reign of God for the well-being of the world. Thus they had uncommon reason to grieve deeply and profoundly, and somehow to make their peace with the death of this dream.” With Jesus’ crucifixion, their hopes for a new life had died.
As they got closer they began to remember that a large stone covered the entrance. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” they asked. But then as they reached the place, they saw that the large stone had already been moved aside. They entered the tomb to do their work only to find a young man in white sitting where the body had been placed, and they became alarmed. “Don’t be afraid,” the man said, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He he has been raised; he is not here. But go and tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you.”
At this the women fled out of the tomb having been overcome by terror and amazement. “And,”Mark writes, “they didn’t say anything to anyone for they were afraid.” That’s it. The end of his gospel. No risen Jesus to greet and reassure Mary and Salome and the other Mary. They just flee from the tomb. And in fact in its original Greek its even stranger, the words going “They didn’t say anything to anyone. They were afraid for…” That’s it. Mark seems to end with ellipses. They were afraid for what? What did they think? And why didn’t they say anything to anyone?
One of my favorite books from C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia is The Horse and His Boy. The story focuses on a boy named Shasta who lives with a poor fisherman. Shasta had always thought the fisherman was his father, but learns in the first chapter that he had been rescued late one night from the sea, and that Shasta had come from one of the countries in the north. This relieves Shasta as he had always been treated more like a servant than a son, and he never really loved the man. As fate would have it, Shasta encounters a talking horse named Bree who himself had been taken from Narnia in the north when he was a foal. Together they head north to find a new life, and soon meet up with a girl named Aravis and her talking horse Hwin who are doing the same.
After many adventures too plentiful to recount here—you really should read the book—we come to learn that Shasta looks a great deal like another boy who is a prince from the northern country of Archenland. The boys accidentally trade places for a bit, and then head off on their own again, only to meet up much later. As you might surmise, Shasta learns that he and the prince are actually twin brothers. And because of his actions, Shasta—the former poor boy treated like a slave—saves Archenland from an invasion. After he does, he learns that not only is he a prince, but the eldest son in line for the throne.
When Shasta later explains all of this to his friend Aravis—they had gotten separated for a time on their adventures—she exclaims that he must be proud of what he has done, and who he has become. “I think I feel a bit scared,” he tells her. And as he speaks with Bree and Hwin, he details the frightening obligations he would now have, the education and the reading and writing and learning music and history and whatnot. Add to that ruling over an entire country. His life would never be the same, and he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that.
The first hearers of Mark’s gospel were very likely Christians living in Rome during a time of great persecution. They had certainly heard the stories about the disciples of Jesus who had gone and done such wonderful things. These had become giants in their minds as they gathered under the cover of night fearing for their own lives. And so when they received the first copy of this good news about the life of Jesus from Mark, I’m certain they wanted to hear how those first followers did it; how they became so strong in the faith. Except in Mark’s gospel, they aren’t giants at all. At every step along the way, the disciples act more like the Keystone Kops than super saints. They’re never sure about Jesus being the Son of God, they can’t seem to understand any of his teachings, and finally Jesus has to ask them outright, “Do you even understand?” I bet those Roman Christians were looking around the room at each other wondering if they were hearing this right.
And then when they encounter the end of the gospel about the women going to the tomb, seeing that angel, and then fleeing in terror, well it likely shocked them. When those final words were read, “They didn’t say anything to anyone. They were afraid for…” I’m sure they didn’t know what to think at all. Here were these super saints, these disciples who had walked and talked and ate with Jesus, and they not only don’t know who he is, the women of this group—when met with the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead—fled in terror and amazement. Say what?
Dr. Murchison writes, “Disciples know and half believe that the life embodied in Jesus portends something that is intensely demanding. Experiencing the unalloyed love of God involves readiness to risk [that same pure] love for neighbor.” He suggests that perhaps the women—and the other disciples not at the tomb—while deeply grieved by the crucifixion of Jesus, may in fact have been a tiny bit relieved that the way of life Jesus called them to engage in had gone to the tomb with him. That the dream Jesus embodied had died too. That they did not need to risk loving the one deemed a neighbor—be they Samaritan or leper or Roman—at such great cost to themselves. They could just get on with their lives again after they gave Jesus a proper burial.
And then when they arrive at that tomb, they learn he is not there and that he is in fact risen just as he said. Perhaps, suggests Dr. Murchison, “those first to arrive at the tomb thought they were off the hook of discipleship only to discover—to their terror and amazement—the challenge still [lay] before them.” That the new life of Jesus meant a change for their lives too.
It might then be the case as well that those Roman Christians had a similar thought. While those ones at the tomb fled at first, it was only because of the reality of Jesus resurrection that they took up that costly life of discipleship once more. They certainly did or those fearful ones sitting in Rome would have never heard the gospel of Jesus in the first place. They also knew that this way of life in following Jesus would be extremely difficult for them as well. That it would be a life that evokes both terror and amazement, not unlike a poor young boy learning he is really a prince, and all that his new life would mean for him.
And what about us? How often are we as disciples “more ready to make peace with the death of the gospel than to enter into its promise,” as Dr. Murchison puts it? How much easier is it to hop online for an Easter service with hymns of joy before sitting down for a nice meal than to deeply consider what the resurrection of Jesus might actually mean in terms of how we live our lives? I don’t know about you, but the costly life of discipleship embodied by Jesus both terrifies and amazes me.
For it is a call to show that pure, unadulterated love of God to our neighbors. It means standing up against injustice done to any other human being no matter the cost to ourselves. It means living a life of integrity, and not cutting corners. We’re called to make decisions with our finances to support the needy, and to find ways to put others first. With the resurrection of Jesus, that dream of God for that beloved community continues on even now. And that means a new and challenging life for us.
But what a life that is, friends. A life that while costly will bring us more meaning than we could ever discover off on our own. Jesus came so that we might have abundant life if we choose to follow him. Can we embark on the much more difficult way as we follow the risen Christ? Can we truly live as his followers, as those who have experienced the joy of his resurrection? He is risen just as he said, and that has changed everything. And now we must decide how we will respond to that empty tomb. Will we live out the good news in terror and amazement and help to change the world. And will we live utterly into that glorious life as Easter people knowing full well that our lives will never be the same?