April 13, 2009

Easter Sunday

Unfinished Business

Isaiah 25:6-9
Mark: 16:1-8

What kind of Easter story is this that Mark tells? There are no alleluias, no appearances of the risen Jesus, no blessing of forgiveness for those who abandoned him at the cross. Well, there is a young man in the tomb – he might be an angel but Mark doesn’t even say that for sure. Compared to the other evangelists, to Matthew, Luke and John, this is an odd story. It doesn’t even have a proper ending. In fact, in the Greek, the last sentence is incomplete. A more literal translation would read: “and they said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, because…..” It just leaves you hanging, waiting for what comes next. The ending is abrupt, the gospel unfinished.

And if that is not strange enough, then look at the ending itself, if indeed it is an ending. It is the story of a bunch of women, terrified, running away from an empty tomb in the dawning daylight. It wasn’t the disciples who went; it wasn’t the religious officials who discovered what had happened. It was just some women -- the least important of all. Oh certainly, they had traveled around with Jesus, and some of them provided for him out of their own means, but the gospels do not name them among the twelve. In their time and place, they had little credibility, no power, and even less authority. Who would believe anything they said anyway? What business did they have bearing the message about the resurrection? No business at all …but they were the ones who went and they were the first to know that the tomb was empty.

These women were faithful from beginning to end. They walked with Jesus; they waited and watched at the cross; they came back when it was all over to offer a final act of service. It is clear that they loved him, so you can understand why they fell apart when they saw that his body was gone. We greet the news of resurrection with celebration, with lilies and music, with family gatherings and new clothes, ham and lamb and chocolate eggs. It is spring. There are buds popping out, the daylight lingers, and the world seems new again. It is a holy day, a holiday, and it feels wonderful to have an occasion of joy. But it wasn’t that way for the women who were there on the first Easter. Try for a moment to imagine what it was like, going to the grave of someone you have loved, someone who died a terrible, terrible death, going to pay your last respects and finding that the grave seemed to have been vandalized, robbed of the wounded body it contained. No wonder the women ran away in terror.

But you know, there is one thing Mark got wrong in this gospel. He records that they told no one, and obviously that is not true. Here we are, after all, and if we don’t know this story first-hand from the women, we do have it handed down from those they finally told. Their fears and their tears and their silence gave way at some point to courage and proclamation. Who knows why or how or when – it just did. Maybe it was a new reality setting in. Maybe it was recovering from the initial shock. Maybe it was remembering that everything was happening just the way he had said. Maybe it was realizing that everything was changed.

However it happened, these women who had no business carrying such earth-shattering, death-defying news, were the ones commissioned to bear the message. And the message was that Jesus was not in the tomb anymore, that they were all to return to Galilee, and that somehow he was going ahead of them and they would see him there. Now if I had heard that, I wouldn’t know what to say or do either.

The crucifixion seemed to be an ending – maybe the end -- and it was not. The women fleeing the tomb seemed to be an ending and it was not, either. And death had always seemed to be the ultimate ending and even that wasn’t true anymore. Somehow Jesus was alive and let loose in the world. They would not find him in the tomb as they expected. Instead he was going back where it all started, back to Galilee, back to the beginning. And they were to follow him there. Galilee was home; it was where they lived their everyday lives; and that was where they were supposed to go now. That was where they would see him again.

That was the message to the women on the first Easter – and it is the message to us on this Easter, too. He is going ahead and we are to follow. We will find him in our Galilee, in the place where we live our everyday lives – not at the cross, not at the tomb, not limited to Sunday morning at church. We will see him where he lives – in the world. We will see him where we live. And it will be as the poet said: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding) Know the place for the first time, know ourselves for the first time, and know Jesus for all time.

But if we are going to follow Jesus into our daily lives, if we are going to see Jesus everyday where we live, then how we live will be completely changed. And maybe it is a natural response to want to run away from this message, to be afraid, to keep silent because speaking about what has happened will mean that it is really true. We will have to live out God’s vision for the world as told by Isaiah. We will have to work with Christ to make a feast for all people; as Jesus fed the multitudes, so must we. We will have to stand with God in trust and faith and belief as God destroys death. We will have to work to remove the shroud of war that we have spread over the nations. We will need to bring healing and hope to the poor and the abandoned, comfort and care to the grieving. We will be called to wipe away the tears of our weeping world. We will have to live in a world that seems hell-bent on its own destruction, and to do that in the sure and certain knowledge that the One we have waited for to save us, to save everything, is with us.

Is this more than you want to do, more than you think you can do? Does it make you feel overwhelmed, terrified, like running away? Now you know, maybe, how the women felt. And what business do we have anyway, thinking that we can change the world? No business at all, except resurrection business. And that means that nothing is business as usual anymore. As one teacher says: “Business as usual is no longer safe because Jesus goes ahead of us to call us to discipleship again and again. The resurrection is not a onetime event in the past, but the promise of more surprising, disturbing encounters to come. The resurrection is not primarily about empty tombs, but about the living Christ who continues to encounter us in the world and call us to discipleship.” (The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, p 284)

Because of Easter, business as usual has given way to unfinished business. The gospel is not done. Jesus is not dead. God has not given up on the world. And our business is to tell this good news, to tell it with our own lives – to tell it with our words, our actions, our service, our love.

Find your voice, let go of your fear, follow the risen Christ back into your own life. That is where he is waiting for you. And remember the promise, given to the women and now given to us: “He is going ahead of you… you will see him, just as he told you.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen! And that is just the beginning.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith