by Rev. Matt Laney
Occasionally when I ask someone, “How are you?” I get answers like, “Well I’m on the right side of the grass. That’s a good start!” Or sometimes I will hear, “It’s a good day when you open the paper and you don’t find your name in the obituaries.”
Many of us – and it might be especially true the older we get – have a habit of looking at the obituaries. Some of us might be looking for our own names, but more likely we’re looking for the names people we know … and hoping we don’t find any, lest we grieve their loss while coming face to face with our own mortality.
The women on that first Easter morning didn’t need to read the obituaries. They knew what happened. When they went to the graveyard that morning, they expected to come face-to-face with a corpse.
They believed Jesus was the Messiah, but they were ready for his death. Expecting it, really. After all, Jesus had repeatedly told them he would be arrested, mistreated, killed by those in authority – and everything played out like he said it would. Their hearts were breaking, but they had already prepared themselves for this.
Like those women, when we come to church on Easter we still have at least one foot in Good Friday, in an obituary-reading world. We’ve also learned to keep our expectations suitably low, all the while hoping that someone might appear to flood even the darkest tomb with light. Which is exactly what happened. The Gospel of Mark says:
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. The man said, “Don’t be afraid.”
We don’t know if this “young man” is an angel. But “Do not be afraid” is what every angel is trained to say when they appear to humans, so if the white suit didn’t tip us off, that should.
“Don’t be afraid. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”
Now as remarkable as Jesus was, this is going too far. Followers of Jesus could barely handle his habits of multiplying food, casting out demons, breaking social taboos, healing the sick, and political demonstrations. But this was just crazy talk.
Nobody back then expected the resurrection of Jesus. That wasn’t part of their world view. When other leaders or messiah figures were killed, nobody thought to “invent” a story of resurrection.
And just as a side note, if you were inventing the story of the resurrection back then, making women the first witnesses was a seriously bad idea. Their testimony was not only considered unreliable but inadmissible. The only reason you would say that women were the first and best witnesses is if that’s what actually happened.
So if any of you have trouble accepting the resurrection, join the club. There’s not a person in the Gospel of Mark who didn’t struggle with it.
Mark concludes his Easter story like this: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” That’s how Mark ends his Gospel. Your Bible probably has a bit more tacked on. But the earliest, most reliable manuscripts of Mark stop right there.
The original Greek ending is even more abrupt: The original doesn’t say “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” It actually says, “They said nothing to anyone; they were afraid for . . .” And that’s it! It’s as though Mark had a heart attack right there and slid from the Gospel page to the Obituary page!
And yet the fact that we have this Gospel at all, contradicts the end. If the women really had said nothing to anyone, we wouldn’t know the story. Clearly at some point somebody said something to someone.
The pressing questions for us today are: How will I break the silence? What will I say? And to whom? How will I do my part to change the world by testifying that the obituary page is only the prelude to the next chapter?
Here’s a thought: What if Mark wrote an incomplete ending on purpose? What if he deliberately ended with a cliff hanger? Maybe Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection can have a neat ending, tied up in ribbons and bows. What if it’s like the final episode of “The Sopranos,” or “Lost” where many things remain unresolved?
Maybe he wanted to make the point that this thing ain’t over! After all, the title he gave the whole book, “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1) suggests the ending is open, allowing the reader to pick it up and continue the story.
Maybe he wanted to leave us standing outside that tomb seized with amazement, grappling with how the resurrection overturns our obituary obsessed world. Sure, everything still looks the same after the resurrection. People still die. Tragedy still happens. Rome is still Rome. Washington is still Washington. And yet, the resurrection says that all the everyday truths we’ve held to be self-evident aren’t so self-evident after all.
Maybe death isn’t the end. Maybe there’s more than business as usual Maybe the status isn’t so quo. Maybe we are being encouraged to interrupt the world by following Jesus and “doing resurrection.”
When we proclaim the gospel through sacred music we’re doing resurrection. When we teach and nurture in Spirit Hill or through our parenting, or grand-parenting, or tutoring, we’re doing resurrection. When we stand in solidarity with the marginalized and victims of violence and advocating for the transformation of unjust systems and structures, we’re doing resurrection. When we engage in compassionate dialogue to change the rhetoric of demagoguery against our brothers and sisters of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, we are doing resurrection.
When we are able to engage in honest conversations about race, we are doing resurrection. When we care for the gift of creation we’re taking part in the ongoing resurrection. When we love God, love our neighbor, love our enemies and love life, we are doing resurrection.
The angel didn’t ask the women to believe the resurrection. He asked them to practice the resurrection by continuing to seek and follow the living Jesus in this world. The upshot being – if we practice it, we can’t help but believe it.
Jesus has overthrown the limited and limiting narratives of our world. Jesus has left the obituary page, the tomb and the building. He is no longer here. He’s out in the world, waiting, just as he promised. Let’s go meet him.