“The Unfinished Gospel”
April 20, 2003
I can imagine what you are thinking to yourself, “why in the world would he read this passage on a day as wonderful and joyful as today? Isn’t today supposed to celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection? I don’t hear much good news in this story.” Oh, yes! Today is a wonderful and joyful day. Today is the day we celebrate the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection.
Brothers and sisters, on this Sunday morning we celebrate a shocking and bewildering event, an event that goes beyond anything we can even possibly fathom in our human mind, an event that goes against everything we believe and expect about the human process of life and death.
But I know how it is for us. We want to read from the other Gospels the stories of the resurrection that we have come to know and love, the stories that remind us of just how supernatural, wonderful, exciting and joyful this day is.
We want to read in Matthew about the angel who comes down from heaven to roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb, who them tells the women to look and see where Jesus had laid. We want read how the women run off to tell the disciples about what has happened, and then about their encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the way to Galilee where Jesus gives them the Great Commission.
We want to read in Luke about the two men who suddenly and supernaturally appear from nowhere to tell the women that Jesus is not in the tomb, and how the women go to tell the disciples. Then how the resurrected Jesus suddenly appears to the two men walking to Emmaus, and how all of them, even Jesus, eat bread together. Then how Jesus appeared again to his disciples showing them his hands proving that he wasn’t a ghost.
We want to read in John about how Mary goes to the tomb and finds Jesus missing, and how she then goes and tells Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved about the empty tomb, and they run off in a full sprint to see the tomb for themselves. And who can forget about Mary talking to the gardener who turns out to be Jesus, and how she then goes and tells all of the disciples that she had seen the Lord. Of course, no one can forget about Doubting Thomas, and how he wouldn’t believe until he put his finger in the holes in Jesus’ hands and side.
These are the stories we read and tell over and over again on Easter, but this resurrection story from Mark is not read very much on Easter, it’s not even part of the lectionary for Easter Sunday. But it is precisely because this story is so different from the other gospel stories that makes it so special.
Of all the Gospel stories of the resurrection, I love this one the most, because it tells us in the most honest and sincere way just how shocking and bewildering and amazing that first Easter morning was.
When Mary Magdelene and the other women went to the tomb, they expected only one thing, to see Jesus dead. They were not going there to celebrate, but to mourn. They were not going to see the empty tomb, but to anoint Jesus’ body. For them, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry had ended. Their beloved Jesus was gone for good. But, who could blame them. After all, they had witnessed Jesus death on the cross. They knew that he had died, really died.
But what they find at the tomb startles and shocks them. They find the stone moved away from the entrance of the tomb, Jesus is gone, and upon entering the tomb they suddenly see a person sitting where Jesus was supposed to be, and he starts talking to them. He announces to them the resurrection, and tells them not to be afraid and to go and tell the others.
But the women do just the opposite. They did exactly what I would have done…run, that is if I didn’t scream first. They had heard the impossible. They had heard the most ridiculous thing anyone could have heard. Jesus had been raised? Jesus had been raised from the dead? No wonder they were afraid and fled. No wonder they didn’t tell anyone…who would have believed them.
If this is how Mark’s story of the resurrection ends, then your right, there is not much good news here, but, my friends, the good news of this story is that it doesn’t end…
In the earliest and most ancient Greek manuscripts we have, the text ends at verse 8 the place where I stopped reading. And the last word in the Greek manuscripts is the Greek word that means “for.” That’s it…in our earliest and most ancient texts, the story ends with the word “for,” it ends in the middle of a sentence, "They were afraid for…"
It just leaves us hanging. It leaves us wondering and perplexed. It leaves us in a state of awe and fear. It leaves us with an unknown future, which is out of our control. It leaves us to contemplate what all of this means for us. It leaves us holding our breath, waiting and expecting for a neatly resolved ending to the story.
After all, isn’t a book supposed to have an ending? Isn’t that what we learned in our English literature class? Ever book has to have a beginning, middle, and end. Isn’t a book supposed to have closure, isn’t a story line supposed to have a conclusion. After all, we get conclusions at the end of the other Gospels so why not this one? Because this story makes a statement about the resurrection that the others do not.
This story falls like a hammer shattering all of our expectations of things. We expect the women to go tell the others, we expect to see a resurrected Jesus walking around among the disciples, we expect the story to have an end, we expect to have closure on the narrative, we expect to have a finished Gospel, a Gospel that we can quietly close after the last chapter with a sense of accomplishment that we read the whole thing and then return to our lives expecting everything to still be the same.
But, the message of Mark's gospel is that the one who breaks our expectations is the same one who has broken all expectations in raising Jesus from the dead. The world expected Jesus to stay dead. The world expected Jesus to be gone for good. The world expected Jesus to remain silent forever. But God has proven once and for all that God will not be limited or contained by human expectations.
No proposed ending can contain God, any more than the stone at the entrance of the tomb could contain the risen Lord. Our Lord, always goes before us, calling us to go tell others and to come and see him in Galilee, or in any new place and in a new way. We never know when and where we will see him, but we know that he is always there, walking with us when we least expect it. How fitting it is then to read this gospel on Easter Sunday, for the message of this gospel, and indeed the message of Easter, is always unfinished, always left to be continued.
My friends, the ending to Mark's gospel does not lie hidden in some remote location waiting to be discovered, nor has it suffered the fate of so many other writings in being lost forever, Mark's gospel is a story that has no end, a story that leaves us to write the last chapter of this unfinished gospel, a story that leaves us to write our own record and witness of what Jesus has said and done for us.
When you leave here today, will you continue to live in the way things were before, always wondering what happened to the end of the story, or will you begin to write? Will today be the day when you begin to compose the last chapter of Marks’ gospel? Will today be the day when your life becomes the final record and witness of the living Christ? Will today be the day when you, like the Apostle Paul, will be able to confess with all faith, certainty and conviction that “last of all…he appeared also to me.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, in the light of the resurrection, how will you finish the unfinished Gospel? Amen.