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Now, you Bible scholars know that these first eight verses of the sixteenth chapter of Mark are known as the "short ending." The earliest of reliable ancient manuscripts ended right here: the encounter of the women with the young man in the tomb where Jesus had been laid...their amazement and terror. There are no post-resurrection appearances here, just a story that stops dead: ... Is there more? Of course, there is more, and some pious scribe took it upon himself to finish it. He added the material we have in verses 9 through 20 to bring the story to a more "literarilly-satisfying" conclusion.
Some have defended that effort saying that there is no way any gospel account of the most important event in human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, could just leave us hanging. There HAD to have been more. Perhaps the end of the original manuscript just wore out and was lost from heavy use. Nah. The end of the manuscript did not fall off, or get worn out. The better explanation, in my view, is that the end of the manuscript is still being written!
And no wonder. It really is quite a story. It begins in a world we know all too well, the Good Friday world, a world of bullets and bombs, of mobs and mayhem, of violence and victims. Most of Jesus' friends abandoned him after his arrest and watched in horror as he was crucified. They had actually begun to believe him when he said that love is better than hate, that forgiveness is better than revenge. They had begun to trust him when he said that the greatest good is love for God and neighbor and that the way to gain your own best life is to give it away. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who was conscripted at age 17 into the German army and witnessed the firebombing of his hometown of Hamburg, in which 40,000 civilians were killed, wrote that "Good Friday is the center of the world."(1) We know.
So it was over. Their hopes and dreams had died there on that cross along with their teacher and friend. There had not been time to render the last services to the body of Jesus. The Sabbath had intervened and the women who wished to anoint the body had not been able to do so. As early as possible after the Sabbath had passed, they set out to perform this sad task.
They were worried about one thing. Tombs had no doors. When the word "door" is mentioned it really means "opening." In front of the opening was a groove, and in the groove ran a circular stone as big as a cart-wheel; and the women knew that it was quite beyond them to move a stone like that. But when they reached the tomb, the stone was rolled away. Hallelujah!
The relief they felt upon arrival at the tomb's entrance, however, is quickly shattered once they enter. They see a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right; his very presence, appearance or both alarms them. "Do not be alarmed," he says. Sure. Right. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him." And, of course, the women were greatly relieved at this news and immediately began praising God and trading high-fives all around. Uh-huh. They were as terrified as ever.
"Ladies, calm down...go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Although you and I might find solace in the young man's words with the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight, it was quickly evident that the women did not. They took seriously his first instruction...GO. They went. As fast as their ladylike legs could carry them. As to the rest of it, we will have to depend upon other sources, because the gospel of Mark leaves it right there with the rest of the story yet to be told.
In his commentary on the gospel of Mark, the late Donald H. Juel tells the story of one of his students who had memorized the whole of Mark in order to do a dramatic, Broadway-style reading before a live audience. After careful study, the student had decided to go with the scholarly consensus regarding the ending. At his first performance, however, after he spoke that ambiguous last verse, he stood there awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other, the audience waiting for more, waiting for closure, waiting for a proper ending. Finally, after several anxious seconds, he said, "Amen!" and made his exit. The relieved audience applauded loudly and appreciatively. Upon reflection, though, the student realized that by providing the audience a satisfying conclusion, his "Amen!" had actually betrayed the dramatic intention of the text. So at the next performance, when he reached the final verse he simply paused for a half beat and left the stage in silence. "The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious," said Juel, "and as people exited...the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the non-ending."
In Tom Long's commentary on our lesson in Christian Century, he says, "If Mark's ending creates discomfort and uncertainty, it is partly due to our knowledge of how the Easter story is told in the other gospels. Easter is supposed to have post-resurrection appearances, joyful seaside meals, scenes of reconciliation and forgiveness, garden embraces of the risen Lord, and the disciples' excited shout, 'He is risen!' But Mark offers us none of these, choosing instead to end his story with frightened women fleeing from a cemetery in silence. That's no way to run a resurrection.
"But Mark was trying to impart a different kind of Easter joy, trying to reveal another dimension of the Easter faith. As you come to the last verse and contemplate the unfinished ending, fretting that the Jesus story ends in mute fear and wondering where to go from here, suddenly an insight shatters the silence. 'Go tell his disciples,' the young man at the empty tomb said. 'He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' Who are his disciples? Peter, James, John and Andrew...yes, but also you. You are a disciple too. Where is Galilee? North of Jerusalem...yes, but also located in the opening chapter of Mark: 'Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.' In other words, reader, the story isn't over. Leave the empty tomb now and go back and read it again. Like the disciples, you did not understand this story the first time. Now that you have been to the cross and to the cemetery, read it again."(2)
The story is not over. Even today. If we needed any reminder of that we got one a week or so ago with the announcement of the "discovery" of the Gospel of Judas after 1700 years. With all the hype in the press and the National Geographic special on TV last Sunday night, the only thing to say, quite honestly, is that there is a good deal LESS here than meets the eye. Actually, this manuscript was 'discovered' over 35 years ago, but has been circulating among collectors of antiquities for decades, only recently coming into the hands of actual researchers for the eye-popping price of $3,000,000, despite the fact that the lady who had it said it was never about the money. Uh-huh.
Scholars of ancient church history have long known that a document purporting to be the "Gospel of Judas" was in existence, because passages were quoted in the writings of the early church, most often so that the passages could be refuted. It is one more example of what is known as "gnostic literature." It is available today in any major bookstore or on-line at Amazon.com. The Gospel of Thomas is one that I read years ago; there are a number of others, including this "new" one. The word "gnostic" comes from a Greek word for knowledge, and is used to describe people who believed themselves to be saved by some special knowledge imparted to them by God rather than by faith or works or some other way. The gnostics' beliefs were often viewed by the early church as, at best, unorthodox, and at worst, heresy.
One of the passages in the new gospel portrays Judas as allowing Jesus to shed his human form through death and pass to a higher realm: "For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me," Jesus tells Judas. That was a Greek idea - the soul is a prisoner inside the body and is set free at death - an idea that would not have been in the mind of a Jewish rabbi like Jesus. In fact, many of the gnostic ideas reflect that perspective.
The church encountered serious differences of opinion in its early years that its leaders believed needed to be addressed. Gnosticism was part of the discussion and eventually came to be understood as just flat WRONG.
In E. J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post Friday, he writes, "If Judas can make a comeback after all these years, just about anyone can hope for salvation at the altar of public opinion. The snake in the Garden of Eden must be looking for the Web site and e-mail address of Judas's spin doctors." Then he dealt with the controversy:
Purely as a matter of style, those who made the choices for the canonical gospels deserve our thanks and praise. Matthew, Mark, Luke and, in a different way, John offer a powerful narrative and present a Jesus who speaks to the world about ethics and justice even as he makes much larger claims. Garry Wills is correct in his new book, What Jesus Meant, to insist that Jesus cannot be reduced to being a gentle teacher of principles or of politics. But the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas seems entirely disconnected from human struggles and laughs at human ignorance.Truth be told, the arguments continue to this day. In fact, as the gospel of Mark appears to insist, the story is not over.
The world and the church lost a giant this past week, William Sloane Coffin. It is hard to think of a contemporary churchman other than Martin Luther King, Jr. who was more centrally and visibly involved in the tumultuous years of the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement. Coffin not only lived those events but made some of them happen, and he inspired hundreds of young people to become involved and thus to live fully as well. As chaplain at Yale University and senior minister at Riverside Church in New York, Coffin was known for his powerful sermons and prominent public ministry. He was often controversial, but his influence on American Protestantism has been significant.
Sometime after his retirement, he was interviewed on National Public Television's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.(4) He had some wonderful things to say. For example,
God is not too hard to believe in. God is too good to believe in, we being such strangers to such goodness. The love of God is to me absolutely overwhelming. It's clear to me, two things: that almost every square inch of the earth's surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent, and it's not God's doing. It's our doing. That's human malpractice. Don't chalk it up to God. Every time people say, when they see the innocent suffering, every time they lift their eyes to heaven and say, "God, how could you let this happen?" it's well to remember that exactly at that moment God is asking exactly the same question of us: "How could you let this happen?" So you have to take responsibility.On growing old:
I'd just as soon live a little bit longer. But when you are 80, you can't complain. Joy in this world comes from self-fulfillment. Joy is a more profound experience than mere happiness. When you feel a sense of undeserved integrity because you think you're in the right fight -- against segregation, against the war in Vietnam, against the stupid and cruel discrimination against gays and lesbians -- these are the right fights, I feel very deeply. And the sense of self-fulfillment which comes from being in the right fight is a wonderful thing. I remain hopeful. The opposite of hope is despair -- not pessimism, despair. And as a very convinced Christian, I say to myself, "Come on, Coffin. If Christ never allowed his soul to be cornered with despair, and his was the greatest miscarriage of justice maybe in the world, who the hell am I to say I'm going to despair a bit?" When you get older, friendship obviously runs deeper and deeper. And, I would add, nature gets more interesting the nearer you get to joining it, and also more beautiful. I can sit on the front porch here and watch the sun coming in through the maple leaves. You know, God is good.In regard to our celebration today, he says, "I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory, but as a presence. So today on Easter we gather not, as it were, to close the show with the tune 'Thanks for the Memory,' but rather to reopen the show with the hymn 'Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.'(5)
So let the show and story continue. As we said at the beginning, it starts out in a Good Friday world and ends... Well. So what do you DO with the story? The message of the ending of Mark's gospel is THAT'S YOUR PROBLEM. Handle it! After all, YOU are the one who came here looking for Jesus. But he is not here. You just missed him. By this time of the morning, he is already in Galilee.(6) Check there.
A little boy was offered the opportunity to select a dog for his birthday present. At the pet store, he was shown a number of puppies. From them he picked one whose tail was wagging furiously. When he was asked why he selected that particular dog, the little boy said, "I wanted the one with the happy ending."(7)
The Easter ... What will the ending be? I am not worried. I will leave that in the hands of my precious Lord who lived and died and rose again that I might live. By the grace of my risen Savior, I will rely on the promise of his word: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into [any] heart...the things which God has prepared for them that love him."(8) But today we get just a glimpse. That is why we say "Happy Easter."
1. Quoted by John Buchanan, "Sunrise," The Christian Century, 4/4/06
2. Thomas G. Long, "Dangling Gospel," The Christian Century, 4/4/06, p. 19
3. E. J. Dionne Jr., "A New Twist On Judas: Beyond the Buzz Over Gospel's Publication," The Washington Post, 4/14/06, A-17
5. William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p. 28
6. William H. Willimon, "Easter Fear," The Intrusive Word, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994), p. 142
7. Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
8. I Corinthians 2:9