Monday, 28 March 2016
Sermon Great Vigil 2016
When is an ending not an end? When a dead man rises from the tomb, and when a Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence." Lamar Williamson writes about the end of Mark’s Gospel. "The women went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for..." That’s how it reads in Greek. The most important story of the Christian faith just stops and the end just hangs out there. And we are left waiting, unresolved.
The English translation solves that problem by moving the preposition: "They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." That solves the problem with the sentence, but not with the Gospel. Several ancient versions of the Gospel attempted to solve this problem by adding another ending. You will see those printed in your Bibles. But the style of writing is so different that you can tell, even in English, that these were added by another hand, by someone who wanted to make Mark’s Gospel sound like the others, by someone who wanted an end. Even back then, there was some editor who was saying: "We can’t have this. We need a conclusion! We need to wrap this up so that, to mix the media metaphor, we can bring up the background music, roll the credits and let people leave with a good feeling about this. We can’t have: "they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid!"
Any yet, at least in the short run, Mark is probably quite right. Of course, these friends of Jesus were afraid. Death is awful; especially this terrible execution, but at least we know what death is. Death leaves us in deep pain, but at least we know what to do next. Death is tragic, but at least we can understand that someone we loved has gone.
But this...this is something else entirely. Three grieving women come to the grave to complete the cleaning of the body for its burial; they come to do what you do next when someone has died. At the tomb, they meet a young man in a robe of white who tells them that their friend has risen from the dead and is going ahead of them to Galilee, back where they all came from. Now, either they are hallucinating or this young man is part of a conspiracy and has stolen the body or this really is a divine messenger and something as amazing as creation itself has just happened. Any way you look at it, they were bound to be terrified.
"They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for..." But obviously, they did. They told someone, who told someone, who told someone else, who told a lot of people, because 40 years later Mark is writing this Gospel. And nearly 2,000 years later here we are believing and sharing it.
Mark’s Gospel opens with these words: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Mark goes on to tell a great story about a preacher who talks about God in a way that made people want to believe; about a man with a loving touch who healed sick people and freed possessed people; about a man so filled with God’s vision that he included women in his inner circle and ate with traitors and tax collectors, and touched people who were unclean.
The death of this good man—the best man—and more, man and God—was a terrible thing, and Mark spends most of his story telling about that. He tells about how Jesus tried to prepare his friends, to explain that the only way to the life that death could not take away was for God’s Messiah to die. Mark tells about conflicts that Jesus had with religious leaders who thought they already knew everything there was to know about God and life and death.
He tells about a meal where bread and wine take on a whole new meaning—they become his body and blood; about fear and betrayal. Finally, he tells about pain and a cry of utter abandonment.
Then the women come, and just when we think the story is going to pick up and turn around and continue they run away in fear! No wonder some editor tacked on "the rest of the story!" This Gospel has a beginning; the author has told us so. What it needs is an end; A definite conclusion; A so-what; A where to next. But maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe this story has no end, at least not yet. Perhaps this awkward sentence with its preposition at the end is Mark’s way of saying: "This story isn’t over because now it’s your story and mine." This is something like one of those plays where the audience gets to vote on how the play ends after a break in the action. Only in this case, it’s the audience that gets to live the end.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ will all be made alive." Mark’s audience believed that. They believed that, because of Jesus, their lives had been completely transformed.
Mark’s story of Jesus has a beginning, but it doesn’t have an end. It just keeps going on and on, from one life to another, touching and transforming us one by one. The risen Christ was not at the tomb; he is not there; he has gone ahead of his friends—ahead of us. Where charity and love prevail over injustice and violence; where compassion and hope replace cynicism and despair; where peace and love take root in lives that are empty and lost; where human beings know joy and justice, dignity and delight: there is the risen Christ, beckoning to us. When is an ending not an end? When the end is the beginning—the story about eternal and abundant life… Amen.