Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Easter 5 Sunday 19 May 2019
5 EASTER, 2019 EVENSONG
Readings: Daniel 6.6-23; Mark 15.46-16.8
“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.” Mark 16.8
For much of the Church’s history, Mark’s Gospel was the poor relation among the four. It was thought to be an abbreviated version of Matthew which was preferred when it came to liturgical readings. It was rescued from this by the work of biblical scholars who are now generally agreed that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke expand on his work. They have also helped us to see Mark’s distinctive take on Jesus and the characters around him.
So, when Mark speaks of the women from Galilee who are present at the crucifixion of Jesus, he uses three terms associated with disciples to describe their relationship with him:
- they followed him;
- they ministered to him;
- they accompanied him to Jerusalem.
They are present throughout the whole gruesome business of the crucifixion. They see the body taken down from the cross. They go with Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb in which he lays the body of Jesus wrapped in the linen cloth he has bought. They see the stone rolled across the entrance. They come back to the tomb first thing on the morning after the Sabbath. Their concern for Jesus to be properly mourned; for his body to be treated with the burial rites which the hours between his death and the hasty burial before the beginning of the Sabbath had not allowed
All this points to the loyalty and tenacity, the generosity and practical-mindedness, of these women-disciples.
It is in keeping with other positive portrayals of women in the Gospel:
- the tenacity of the Syro-Phoenician woman who refuses to give up until Jesus heals her daughter;
- the determination of the woman with an issue of blood who touches Jesus’ garment of Jesus;
- the loyalty of the woman who anoints his feet at Bethany;
- the generosity of the widow in the Temple offering all she has to love on.
The presence of the women disciples at the cross is in stark contrast with the murderous intent and injustice of the leaders of the religious establishment who bring about the condemnation of Jesus. Their tender concern with the cruel efficiency of the soldiers who carry out the sentence. Their presence points up the absence of those who should have been but were not: the male disciples who had fled in fear; and especially Peter whose bravado had evaporated under questioning in the high priest’s courtyard.
It was Jewish custom to bury the dead on the day they died, and certainly no later than the next day. Because the next day was the Sabbath, when burials could not take place, the burial of Jesus had to take place in a hurry. The Romans usually left bodies on the cross as a grisly warning to any who might think of challenging their power. But they were known to respond to requests from Jews that bodies not be left overnight, in conformity with the Law in Deuteronomy (21.23).
After John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod, his disciples take his body to bury it. In the absence of Jesus’ disciples, someone not previously encountered in the Gospel, Joseph of Arimathea, comes to perform the service. He demonstrates qualities which the disciples might have been expected so show but did not.
Mark’s description of him as “seeking the kingdom of God,” suggests an openness on his part to the message of Jesus and what he stood for. Matthew and John describe him as a “secret disciple.” Luke tells us that he had nothing to do with the plot against Jesus.
This influential member of the Jewish Council, the body which had condemned Jesus, takes the considerable risk of associating himself with a dead man who was considered a blasphemer by the religious leadership of his own nation, and at least a potential rebel by the imperial authorities. Not many would have had the courage to approach the Roman governor with such a request. He is moved to carry out what was seen as one of the good works – what in later Christian tradition would be called one of the “corporal works of mercy” – that is bury the dead; to provide decent burial for those who had no one to do it for them.
As the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene and the other women bought spices to anoint the body of Jesus. The burial had been so rushed that there had been no time for the customary washing and anointing. It is clear that they believe Jesus to be dead. They come in sorrow not in hope,
They know that they are going to have a problem with the great stone with which the tomb had been closed: “Who will roll away the stone for us?” But when they reach the tomb, they find that it has already been moved.
And, when they enter the tomb, they do receive a revelation. A young man in a white robe speaks to reassure them. In most biblical passages when people encounter God or God’s messengers, they are afraid and need to have their fears assuaged.
Mark stresses that before anyone claimed to have seen the risen Lord, there was already the spoken proclamation that he had triumphed over the grave. He emphasises the continuity between the earthly and the risen Jesus. It was the Jesus, who was born in Nazareth and crucified in Jerusalem, whom they seek, who has now risen from the dead.
Confirmation of this announcement comes from the evidence before their eyes that the tomb is empty. By itself, this could not demonstrate that Jesus had risen, but together with the proclamation and the appearances which follow, it could confirm the reality and truth of the resurrection. These women are not just eyewitnesses of an empty tomb – by itself this could be explained in other ways – but also “ear-witnesses” of the Easter message.
The women are then given a task: to go and tell this Easter message to the disciples and Peter. It is news about Jesus going to Galilee, as he had previously told the disciples he would. Even death could not prevent Jesus from fulfilling his promises. Galilee signals a new beginning for those who had deserted or denied Jesus. Their restoration requires of them a journey to go and meet Jesus and see him in Galilee.
The final verse of our passage tells us that the women fled in fear and told no one what they had seen and heard. If you read the conclusion of Mark in a modern translation, you will usually find a note that this verse is the original ending of the Gospel. What follows had been added by later scribes – drawing on Matthew and Luke – to provide what they thought was a more satisfactory ending of the story than the abrupt one in which the women do not carry out the task given to them.
Huge quantities of ink and countless hours of scholarly study and argument have been spent on this. Was this really the ending Mark intended? Has the real conclusion been lost with the outer page of a codex or the end of a scroll? We cannot know the answers to such questions. All we can think is that at some time the women must have overcome their initial fear and told the other disciples. How, otherwise would the resurrection have become known? The existence of the Gospel itself, however it ended, implies a positive outcomes of the women’s quest and the angel’s command beyond initial failure.
One of the features of Mark is his unsparing depiction of the disciples. Though Mark goes out of his way to stress the faithfulness of the women disciples as the cross and at the burial, he does not spare them when he recounts their shocked and fearful reaction to the angelic presence in the tomb. Mark never allows us to see figures in the Gospel story as supermen or women of faith, our first century forebears in the faith were not naturally superior (or inferior) to us. Faith and discipleship did not come any easier for them. Yet, despite all, they went on believing and laid the foundation for us. Apart from Jesus, even our Gospel role models are fallible, sinful human beings. We can appreciate their witness and their moments of strong faith, but we are not called to imitate their mistakes and sins. Sometimes their lives cry out “Go and do likewise,” but sometimes, “Go and do otherwise.”
We should not judge the women too harshly: How would we have reacted in similar circumstances?
The present ending of Mark’s Gospel places us in much the same position as the women. We can go and experience the empty tomb where perhaps Jesus was – at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – and we can hear the proclamation that he is risen and gone before us, – as we do in our worship – but how do we respond to such evidence? Is the visual evidence enough, is the spoken testimony enough to convince and convert us? Or do we as well need to have an encounter with the risen Lord? Is Mark telling us that the empty tomb and the oral witness are necessary, but by themselves insufficient to create faith, a real encounter with the divine is required?
The author of one of the commentaries which I read speaks of leading a group of senior American clergy on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “We saw the sites, heard the witness, but it was interesting where we actually had the encounter – in a little chapel where we had communion, at Dominus Flevit, when we sang the great hymns of faith, one the last day of the trip when we prayed and thanked God for what had happened and shared what the trip had meant to us. God meets us in unexpected places and an unexpected times. God often comes un-beckoned, and sometimes in spite of what we expect.” Mark’s Gospel and especially its ending, tells us to expect the unexpected from God. In the place of death the women found the herald of life. And they were surely never the same thereafter. We can hope that this may be said of all of us. The great thing about the good news is – that it never ends.