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The Empty Tomb: A Call to Follow Anew: Easter Day 2018

Mark 16:1-8
1 Cor 15:1-11
Acts 10:34-43

From the Russian Orthodox tradition, we hear:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the grave, bestowing life.

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Alleluia? I wouldn’t blame you if you were expecting a more upbeat and conclusive an ending to the Easter Day Gospel. And, in fact, the lectionary allows for your choice of two Gospel readings for today: either the one we heard, from Mark; or one from the Fourth Gospel, where Mary Magdalene initially mistakes Jesus for the gardener. (But she does come to recognize him, and then goes and unequivocally announces to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”)

And if you go home and look in your Bible (something I generally recommend), in most versions you’ll find a dividing line or brackets separating the first half of Mark’s last chapter (which we heard), and the last half. That last part being a summary of post-Resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene and others; definitely more upbeat and conclusive than what we heard. Similar to the endings of the other Gospels, and similar to the rundown of appearances that Paul lists in the second reading we heard a few minutes ago. Unfortunately, not found in the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel, and consequently, thought by many to be a later addition, cribbed from the other Gospels. An understandable attempt to tweak a seemingly insufficient ending. Or a solution to the problem of an ending that was very quickly lost.

But today we’ve got what we’ve got. “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Happy Easter. Not the ending we expected today. Not the ending that was expected for the people of that day.

    In that eerily empty tomb we find not a smooth continuation of the triumphal entry, with shouted hosannas and waved palm branches. I suspect what the apostles expected as a fitting conclusion to their travelling ministry with Jesus. (Studies show that messiah figures who remain on that exciting trajectory are far less likely to be betrayed, deserted, and denied by their disciples.)

    And the empty tomb is not a restored political dynasty in the fashion of King David’s. What first century rebels were expecting. What first century ordinary people were hoping for; anything to signal a change from the existing system of the Roman Empire’s occupation.

    Nor is the empty tomb an embarrassing, decisive, and lasting defeat of Jesus and his troupe; what the political and religious elites of the day were expecting, and had been aiming for. Though from Friday to first thing Sunday, I’m sure it felt like bitter and brutal defeat to all of Jesus’s family, friends, and followers.

What we have instead is this ambiguous sign of the empty tomb. And we have the testimony of witnesses, starting with the person dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side. Perfectly logical for us to conclude that this is an angel. But Mark, again, seems to deal in ambiguities. “Do not be alarmed,” he tells the three women. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

But that’s not the end. The women, these first witnesses to the resurrection, and with them, ourselves — the readers, we don’t get to rest in that moment. Because it’s followed up with the instructions: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And they run from that tomb, terror and amazement having seized them. “And they said nothing to anyone.” Their terror is understandable; I get scared by much less. But even if that’s how the narrative proper ends, it’s an ironic ending. In the story on paper (or parchment) the women tell no one. But we know from the wider story, the living story of the Church, that by virtue of the Church’s continuing existence, they must have told someone. But there’s grace, there’s ‘good news’ in sitting with the fear and amazement of the women in the story. Because maybe we can relate. Their immediate reaction rings true.

But they’re entrusted with a message: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women are given this mission not just to pass along some new bit of religious truth — as good as that truth might be. They’re sent on that mission to his disciples (the people who deserted Jesus when he needed them most). And to Peter (who cursed and swore and said “I do not know this man.”). I always assumed that Peter got special mention, because he was the popular one, the Rock, the Pope. But I’m starting to think that he gets special mention here because he needs to experience forgiveness and reconciliation even more than the others.

It’s important for us to take note of how forgiveness flows naturally, necessarily from the resurrection. Because resurrection isn’t something limited to Jesus, but destined for all. The event “through which also you are being saved,” Paul writes. And not just being spared or saved from death, but the restoration of all things. Including the restoration of relationships.

This is why Jesus goes ahead of them to Galilee. Galilee is where Jesus and his group started out. It’s where they did most of their work. It’s where Jesus healed, forgave, touched those considered unclean, and called people into right relationship with God and with each other. Jesus, in restoring the disciples, and doing this in Galilee, is saying that the work they had begun didn’t fail; is important; and is to continue.

Sometimes it might feel like being a disciple, a follower of Jesus is one thing, and having faith in the resurrection is something else entirely; a quaint bit of optimism. But what I think Mark’s ambiguous ending is doing here is connect the two. The earthly ministry of Jesus foreshadowed the resurrection. In those acts of love and mercy Jesus and his followers were undoing the powers of death. And in raising Jesus from the dead God is confirming this. Saying that the punishment and death that Jesus went through didn’t signal the failure of that project. Instead, it opens us up to the depths of love and forgiveness that we would find hard to conceive of on our own.

But there’s more to the story than a group of early-rising followers that, we assume, eventually got over their fear. There’s even more to the story than one person — even if he’s our favourite person, even our Lord and our God — one person, a long time ago, being raised from the dead. Because Mark’s ambiguous non-ending of an ending is what draws us into the story. One thinker, Ched Myers, describes it this way. With Mark’s empty tomb we have “not tragedy, not victory, but an unending challenge to follow anew. [And] that means we must respond.”*

And this life of discipleship is what we’re called to, today. It didn’t end with the three women at the tomb, or with the disciples, and Peter. Whether it took place when we were young, or more recently, or is something we’re working toward now, it’s in our baptism that we die with Jesus on the Cross, and rise with him in his Resurrection. It’s our ‘no’ to the powers of death that run rampant in our world, and our ‘yes’ to Jesus’s invitation to follow him; our yes to the angel’s instruction to go back to Galilee. Our yes to committing to join the company of disciples, that great cloud of witnesses.

And there may be times when we will fear, and flee. But in those ambiguous moments, at the empty tomb, we find, like Ched Myers articulated it: not tragedy, not victory, but an unending challenge to follow anew. [And] that means we must respond.

But we do find victory. Though not ours, but God’s. In the Cross and in the empty tomb we see God’s victory over death. But rather than rest contented in that, God draws us in, and invites us to join in celebrating this victory in the world: By meeting Jesus in our Galilee. By expressing God’s love for the world, and by confronting the powers of death. By recognizing that we are characters, we’re players in a story that is not so much incomplete so much as ongoing. And recognize that death is swallowed up, not just in a story from long ago; and not just way off in the future, when the Kingdom comes. But resurrection is claimed and pointed to whenever we remember that, as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza puts it, “Jesus is going ahead — not going away.” We’re being called back to Galilee to continue in the mission that Jesus started, when he first invited us to follow him.

O day of resurrection! Let us beam with God’s own pride!
Let everyone embrace in joy!
Let us warmly greet those we meet and treat them all as family,
even those who hate us!
Let all the earth resound with this song:
Christ is risen from the dead,
conquering death by death,
and on those in the grave, bestowing life!

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man — Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988, 2008), 399.