Oh no! This is how the Gospel of Mark ends? “So they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” What? This does not sound like the good news of Easter to me! What are we supposed to make of this?
I want a happy ending. Don’t you? After all, many of us have been walking with Jesus through the 40 day wilderness of Lent and Holy Week. We’ve watched him carry the cross and we’ve tried to carry our own crosses. We’ve faced his death and our own losses and limitations. And what do we get? Three faithful women fleeing in terror, afraid to say anything to anyone…
The way this reading from the Gospel of Mark concludes feels a lot like this Easter to me. Incomplete. Uncertain. Still fraught with fear for many of us. COVID numbers are again up in Gloucester and in many parts of the country. The Director of the CDC warns of a fourth wave. The front page of the news is filled with more violence than the heart can bear. Some vaccinated people may be sharing the holiday with friends and family. Many of us will not.
The conclusion to today’s Gospel reading leaves us wondering what will happen next? We know from other accounts that the women did, ultimately, share their stories with others. We also have other Gospels with resurrection stories that include Jesus appearing to Magdalene, the “other” Mary, and the disciples.
But, Mark does not give us an appearance of the resurrected Christ today. He invites us to something different; something more; He invites us to continue writing the story by the way we live our lives going forward.
Nathan Nettleton writes, “The place you are going to find Jesus is not safely entombed in the past, but in the uncertain and unfolding present and the future. He is going ahead of you and there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Living in the uncertainty of these pandemic days, when the ground beneath our very feet has been shaken, the message of the mysterious young person in the white robe is indeed good news. Our God is not to be found by looking behind us to some idealized, nostalgic past. We can not find the living God by merely looking back at what was.
Nor can the spirit of God be contained by the past – not even by our most treasured memories, precious traditions, long held beliefs, trusted sacraments or reasonable expectations formed by past experiences. There is no law, no creed, no doctrine or dogma that can ever capture the fullness of God’s resurrecting dynamism. Our God is not some historical relic to be dusted off at our convenience.
After more than a year of living through a pandemic – even with the hope of more vaccines and herd immunity ahead – we still find ourselves with many unanswered questions about our future lives. What we know is that there will not be a return to “normal.” What there will be is creating a new normal. And this is also good news.
Writing in Friday’s New York Times, New Testament professor Esau McCauley recognizes, “As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.”
The story of Jesus, the story of faith, our own stories – are in constant process. Even when we die our stories do not end. Think about it – are there traditions you will engage in today that come from your parents and grandparents? Are there ways in which their lives continue to inform yours? Whether it’s as simple as making favorite family recipes – or as profound as striving to live as generously as prior generations lived, our life stories continue to have ripple effects long after we are physically gone. Later today, when I set our holiday table, I will intentionally take out my grandmother’s and great aunt’s Franciscanware and I will, again, be flooded by the good memories and warm feelings that these heirlooms represent.
Likewise and even more significantly, the story of Jesus did not end at his death or at the tomb. The young person at the scene in Mark’s Gospel – as the young always do – pointed the women forward, “But 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.”
We have the power to create our lives in meaningful and purposeful ways by going forward in faith – trusting that our God meets us in the future. The Gospel writer did not simply leave the story unfinished because he ran out of time. There is a purpose to this unfinished ending. Nathan Nettleton recognizes, “The story is never over. The next chapter of the story involves you (and me). What happens next depends on (our) willingness to follow wherever Jesus is leading and to meet him there… It is up to us to continue writing and living the ongoing story.”
None of us know what life is going to look like in another 6 months or a year or 5 years from now or more. The truth is that this has always been the case – we’ve just not been quite so aware of it; nor have we ever experienced such dramatic changes as part of a worldwide collective.
We have a decision to make – will we go forward into the future in fear or in faith? Will we trust in the One whose faithfulness to us has not wavered, even when our faithfulness has?
The young person at the tomb has a specific place in mind for the disciples to meet Jesus: Galilee. Philip Ruge Jones suggests that this “means going… to the margins where Jesus ministered and encountering him again feeding the hungry, driving out the demons that torment people, preaching words of hope to the brokenhearted, healing those in distress, and breaking down the barrier walls that separate people.”
The pandemic unveiled painful truths that had been there all along, but many of us had struggled to pay attention to: the climate crisis, racism, the vulnerability of nursing home residents, stresses on working parents – especially women – and more. Our path forward as Christians, as Americans, as citizens of the earth, requires that we go where Jesus would be, trusting that as we do, he is already waiting for us, ready to work with us and within us. Our path forward will also bring new life if we listen to what the young, like Greta Thunberg and our own children and grandchildren, are trying to tell us. We have to live differently.
We celebrate a God whose action in the world often happens beyond our sight. Saying that the “stone has been rolled back,” the Gospel writer is using a narrative tool called the “divine passive” to alert the reader that God is at work. Like the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and becomes so much more. Like the leaves and flowers whose magic surprises and delights us each Spring. Just because we can’t see or don’t see with our own two eyes all of God’s activity in the world, doesn’t mean we can’t discern the results. We can discern the Spirit’s activity. Wherever love is, there is God.
The truth of the resurrection of Jesus is not merely some theological principle whose veracity we can debate. To know this truth we must live it. Easter reminds us that even when we can’t see it, God is doing God’s part. The stone has been rolled back. What happens next in the unfinished story is up to you and me, as we consciously go forward, trusting and living from the truth of God’s promise of new life. Amen.