April 4 sermon of the Rev. Dr. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield.

The angel said to the women at the tomb, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.

The good news is that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The bad news is that he is not here. We have some evidence, but not enough. There certainly is no body in the place where the women saw him laid a day and half earlier. And this strange man in the white robe seems to be here just to tell us that Jesus was raised from the dead. On the other hand, where is he?

One of the great puzzles about the Gospel of Mark is this ending. It seems so abrupt. There is no account of any appearance by the risen Jesus to any of the disciples. It just says that the women, after hearing what the mysterious young man in the white robe had to say, “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” There are two different additions, but neither sound like the rest of Mark at all. It may be that the author wrote more, and it got lost. But there is no evidence of it. The earliest scraps of papyrus don’t have anything beyond this. Why would Mark end his gospel so abruptly? Some scholars suggest that we recall the situation of the disciples who are Mark’s audience. They had been through a time of persecution when some had been fed to the lions and persecuted in other ways. Many of those who had survived had done so by denying their faith. The best and the boldest were all dead.

Throughout Mark’s gospel the disciples are portrayed as not understanding Jesus and being fickle and somewhat low-minded. And yet Jesus chose them and loved them and expected them to proclaim the good news of the coming kingdom. This picture would be a comfort to these survivors. Despite their shortcoming, Jesus still loves them, and they can still be his disciples. Of course, they all know that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples. Perhaps Marks ends his Gospel so abruptly as to leave the hearers with a question and a challenge. Jesus is not in the tomb. Death cannot be the end. What comes next? What are you going to do about it? “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, the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. The biblical scholar Mark Allan Powell writes, “Mark want his readers to realize the story is not over—it can’t be over, yet. The readers need to ask, ‘So, what does it mean? What happens next? What now?’”[1]

Today, we are in much the same situation as Mark’s audience. For two thousand years, heroes and heroines of the faith have struggled, strived, served, suffered, and died trying to follow Jesus and help build the kingdom of God on earth. We do not feel we come anywhere near their example. Here we are on Easter morning once again confronted with an empty tomb. What do we make of it? We would love it if Jesus would just show up. We would be vindicated. “Hey, we were right all along!” we could say to our skeptical friends and families. But what we have is an empty tomb and the promise that his has gone on ahead of us. If we follow, he will meet us, but we cannot stay at the tomb. Either we go on without any Jesus, or we go after Jesus trying to catch up.

Why does Jesus tell them that they will see him in Galilee? That is home; that is where they all came from. Meeting the risen Lord does not happen is a special holy place. It happens back where our ordinary lives are. We participate in this new resurrection life amid the circumstances of our lives. We will meet the risen Jesus back at home. A few of us may be called to go to other places or start new lives. Most of us find our lives changed but not transplanted. Life with the risen Jesus will be our new normal.

We know from other sources and evidence that Jesus did rise from the dead. He appeared to Peter and the rest of the apostles to hundreds more. Then after he ascended to heaven he continued to appear to some people, most notably Paul. Every document in the New Testament affirms that Jesus is alive. And on July 13, 1971, the risen Lord appeared to me. I, too, can bear witness that Jesus is alive. And notice that in our Easter acclamation we do not say, “Christ arose” as if it were something that happened two thousand years ago. We say, “Christ is risen.” This is the present perfect tense, and it makes for a perfect present. The message of Easter is that the worst thing is never the last thing.  Life is stronger than death. Love does, indeed, conquer all.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

[1] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), pp. 158f.