“Not the End of the Story”

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  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.”  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that the last couple weeks when I wake up in the morning, it takes me a few seconds to remember what’s going on in the world.  I wake up to the same alarm clock, to the same bedroom, in the same house, and then I remember “oh yeah, all my kids are home from college,” and “oh, that’s right, I can’t leave the house,” and “oh yeah, there’s a pandemic out there and it’s turned our world upside down.”  It’s almost like waking up from a nightmare, except the nightmare continues – like we’re all caught in a bad story that doesn’t seem to be ending.

Today’s Gospel reading from Mark has been called a story without an ending.  In Mark’s version of the Resurrection, the risen Christ is never seen. The women at the tomb are told “he’s not here.”  No one ever sees him again. It’s frustrating, even alarming, that we’re left hanging at the end of the story. Personally, I don’t really like cliffhangers.

“ ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  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.’ ”  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  

“He is not here.”  Is that any way to end this story?  “They said nothing…they were afraid.”  Is that any way to conclude this narrative?

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we follow the ministry of Jesus.  We read about disciples being called, parables told, miracles performed.  Eventually we see opposition arise, and threats turn to violence. We witness crucifixion and burial.  On Sunday morning, three women go to the tomb. They discover that the stone has been rolled away and the body is gone.  A young man speaks to them – strange words about Jesus being raised and going ahead to Galilee. Finally those faithful, caring women flee the tomb, amazed, trembling, and say nothing to anyone.  

The End.

The end?  It can’t end there!  We want to hear more.  We want to hear about how Mary recognized Jesus in the garden when he called her by name.  We want to hear how Jesus walked to Emmaus with two of his followers and broke bread with them at their journey’s end.  We want to hear about how Thomas finally believed. Finish the story! Wrap it up, give us the conclusion! Don’t leave us with just an empty tomb and these frightened followers.

We’re not the first to be bothered by the fact that Mark seems to end the story too soon.  There are numerous later manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel that have alternative and longer endings, probably written by people who were also unsettled by the way the story ended.  Yet all the earliest manuscripts conclude this way: “He is not here…He has risen…he is going before you to Galilee…” That’s the last we hear of Jesus. Because that’s where the author wanted to stop.

Why?  Why did the writer end there?  Why not wrap things up in a more satisfying way?  

Because maybe the author knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending.  Because maybe the writer knew there could never truly be an end to the story.  

To go back to the beginning of this story, the very first sentence of Mark’s Gospel actually gives us a clue as to what was coming.  The first sentence of the Gospel of Mark says simply, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The author says straight off that all of Mark’s writing is only the beginning of the good news of what God has done, and is still doing for the world.  It’s only the beginning. This story isn’t over.

I have a friend who is as consistent about arriving somewhere early as I’m known for being a few minutes late.  If we’re supposed to meet somewhere at noon, she’s there at 11:50. She goes ahead of me, and is waiting for me, when I get to our meeting place.

There’s something about resurrection faith that says that Jesus is out there, not removed from us, but ahead of us, beckoning, calling, leading us on, waiting for us to arrive.  The Easter story has no ending, no conclusion. Easter always calls us into the future. Our future. God’s future. Where will we find the risen Christ? He’s going before us…

And where is he going?  We read, “…he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him…”

Where will Jesus’ story end?  Where can we expect to find him? 

In Galilee.  Why Galilee? Remember that Galilee was home territory, the place where the disciples had grown up.  Familiar turf, where they had lived and fished and collected taxes and played with their kids.

Where will this story end?  

Easter ends up in the ordinary places of life, where we eat and sleep and work and play.  Jesus’ story comes to its conclusion in our everyday lives, when we pay bills, and talk to our family, and listen to a friend at work.  Nowadays our everyday lives mean trying to figure out how to fill out unemployment applications, trying to get along with our family when we’re stuck inside with them, and having get-togethers with our friends on Zoom.  Whether we discover the holy in the midst of our old routines that we’re trying to maintain, or today in the midst of what’s become a bizarre “new normal,” THAT’s where the risen One comes to us.

The author of Mark knows that our post-Easter reality is much like the Gospel’s ending.  The place where the women at the tomb dwell at that moment – a moment of both terror and amazement – is the place we live in now.

Where will this story end?

Easter gets finished wherever the Resurrection story is told, wherever the faith is lived so that others see it and hear it and are claimed by it.  Jesus’ story comes to its conclusion whenever and wherever those who know him and love him take up his cause and become his followers.  

Where the hungry and naked are clothed, life triumphs over death, and the risen Christ is there.

Where the fearful are comforted and the lonely befriended, life triumphs over death, and the risen One is there.

Where the shamed are forgiven and the guilt-laden find grace, life triumphs over death, and the risen One is there.

Where people love and live in peace, it is Easter, and the story goes on.

The Easter story never ends.  It never has, and it never will.  It’s unfinished – God’s continuing gift of life in the midst of the kingdom of death.  We’re but the latest to receive the story, the latest to share it. And in the world of COVID-19, the Easter story needs to be shared more than ever.

Life simply isn’t neat and tidy.  Every age and generation faces challenges that are simultaneously similar and unique to that generation, and today the world is certainly in the midst of the greatest challenge in our lifetimes.  Horror and hope, unbelief and faith, and pain and joy are separated by thin lines in our hearts, souls, and minds these days. 

Out of all the Gospels, I think Mark’s account of the resurrection, with its “cliffhanger” ending, is the story that’s most appropriate for us today.  The Resurrection story isn’t simply some tale told once a year; it’s the very heart of our faith. We are a Resurrection people, God-bearers who spread hope and love, infused with divine grace.  The story of God’s love and redemption for all creation isn’t over yet, and we are part of that great narrative. This is a real story for uncertain times, and for all time.

“He is going before you, to Galilee, there you will see him.”  Easter isn’t about endings. It’s about possibility and promise, about expectations unfulfilled and a future beyond our control, a future in the hand of God.

“He is going before you, to Galilee…”  Mark couldn’t tell us the end of the story.  What he wanted to give us was a faith to see us through to the end.  Amen.