Like the women at the tomb (March 31, 2024)

Shea Watts talks Easter Sunday and the first ending in Mark's Gospel.

Outlook Standard Lesson for March 31, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: ​​​Mark 16:1-8

My seminary New Testament professor Ted Jennings wrote extensively about the Gospel of Mark. In his book The Insurrection of the Crucified, he argues that Mark was a theological manifesto written to tell the Jesus story and address the question of the earliest Gospel’s audience: What now?

Over and over in Mark, the male disciples appear dumb to Christ’s revelation, while the women, sometimes nameless, understand. Since it was penned anonymously, and because of the bravery of the women who too often go unnamed in the story, Jennings refers to the author of Mark as she. It is a tribute to women — women who are last at the cross and first at the tomb. However, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (and Jesus), and Salome arrive to anoint Jesus’ body and stumble upon a terrifying truth: the tomb is empty.

The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end with a bit of a cliffhanger: “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” (16:8). While tradition has conditioned readers of Scripture to consult Matthew, Luke and John for post-resurrection narratives, the hearers of Mark, the first Gospel, would not have had this option. For them, this was the end of the story.

The messenger at the empty tomb instructs the women to go to Galilee, where Jesus has gone ahead. In returning to Galilee, the women will return to the beginning — to begin again. Galilee is where the movement started. They are sent with the message that Jesus is not dead; he is risen. In Greek, the phrase for risen is ἐγείρω (egeiró), meaning “to be wakened.” It is the same word used in Mark 4:35-38 when Jesus is woken up to calm the storm. Jesus is once again awake.

How do the women respond to this announcement and invitation? By fleeing and saying nothing to anyone. What now?

Sometime later, a longer ending is added to Mark’s text. Likely an addition from other Gospel sources, it offers a postlude to the original abrupt ending. However, I prefer the first ending. It is more in line with the continual failures of disciples throughout Mark’s Gospel. These failures offer a lesson: we will not always get it right. When things go awry and we respond in fear, we are invited to try again, even when we run away. Especially when we run away.

Jesus makes no reappearance in Mark. Rather, it is assumed he is still among the people. As theologian Marcus Borg writes, Easter is God’s affirmation of what is seen and revealed in Jesus. Death and empire do not have the final say. Love does. Or, as the hymn “Now The Green Blade Riseth” sings: “Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”

“The narrative ends in terror. No other ending is possible … That is the end of the story. But it is not necessarily the end of faith.” — Ted Jennings

Like the messenger at the tomb, Jennings offers an invitation in The Insurrection of the Crucified: “The narrative ends in terror. No other ending is possible … That is the end of the story. But it is not necessarily the end of faith. That depends above all on the reader. Knowing what we know, will we still dare meet him in the Galilee of the mission of the reign of God?”

What now? There is indeed life after death, though it may be terrifying. There is faith beyond fear, though it may be disorienting. Resurrection is an unfathomable, holy mystery; but through it, the God of the empty tomb invites us to begin again. We, like the women at the tomb, have a choice: to respond in faith or fear.

Questions for reflection 

  1. What does it look like to respond out of faith rather than fear?
  2. How can you trust God’s presence and guidance amid the unknown?

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