Even Newness is New — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines, Easter 2021

Read John 20:1-18

We had a new driveway installed at our house this week. The old driveway was original with the house, constructed forty years ago. The old driveway was crumbling and cracked. It was too narrow for our needs and a pain in the…lower back…to shovel.

Worst of all, the curb was designed and installed long before the low-profile, ground-hugging cars of today. Every time we exited or entered the driveway, we rubbed the lower spoiler on our car.

It’s our “Easter driveway.” — installed the second half of Holy Week 2021. The driveway is new and improved. The concrete is reinforced with steel mesh and bar that wasn’t required by code forty years ago. The entrance pad is seven inches thick, per local building codes. It is wider, smoother, and will accommodate that camper we hope to park there at some point.

In the most practical sense of the word, the driveway is “new” (and better).

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And yet, there will come a time when this driveway too will be replaced. It will weaken and wobble. It will crack and crumble. In another generation, another home-owner will watch as another “new” driveway is installed.

In a very real sense, the driveway is not “new.” It’s just different. The cycle of construction and removal, of birth and death continues. The replacement of the old driveway is proof that the cycle continues its relentless return.

Easter disrupts that cycle of removal and replacement. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! We don’t celebrate the newest version of the same old thing. We proclaim the beginning of a completely different cosmos. At Easter, “newness” itself is made new.

We witness this collision of old and new, of sameness and surprise, in John’s Easter stories. Mary Magdalene suspects grave robbers and tomb raiders. The men look at the folded linens and can’t make any sense of it. The old categories don’t work. The old assumptions no longer apply. The first witnesses weep in despair or walk away in confusion.

Dead is dead. Time to move on.

Then the disciples returned to their homes,” John reports (according to the NRSV). But that’s not quite right. “Therefore, the disciples went out again [from the tomb],’ John tells us, “toward the same.” That’s how I would translate verse ten.

There’s no mention of returning to their “homes.” That word isn’t in the text. They saw something they couldn’t process. So they went back to what they knew. And who could blame them?

You see, reading John’s gospel is like hunting for Easter eggs. The closer you look, the more you find.

My first father-in-law loved hiding Easter eggs for his kids (and later, his grandkids). He took it as a personal challenge to make some of the eggs exceedingly hard to find. He was so good at it that sometimes he forget where he hid some of the eggs. More than once, Grandma found eggs six months later on top of a basement rafter or behind a row of books!

John leaves us a Biblical “Easter egg” in verse ten. It takes some disciplined looking to find it. Peter and the other disciple return to the same old same old. They aren’t equipped for newness itself to be made new. They try to go back to the way things were “before.” They don’t know that there’s no “before” to go back to.

This biblical Easter egg makes John’s story a powerful prod for our time.

The end of “Covid-tide” is in sight (we hope). We desperately desire to go back to the way things were “before.” But there’s no “before” to go back to.

We can react to the trauma of the past year with dumbfounded denial. We can try to go back to where we used to be. But we are finding that such a place no longer exists. We can’t merely replace the “old driveways” of our lives with new and improved versions of the same old thing. A different reality is being born — even if we don’t yet understand what it is.

Easter disrupts the cycle of removal and replacement. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! At Easter, “newness” itself is made new!

This brand-new newness is no simple thing. It is not a painless birth. Mary Magdalene stands weeping at the mouth of the tomb. I often wonder about those two men. The poor woman is crying in grief, and they head for the exits. But that’s probably a topic for another time.

The loss of the same old same old is still a loss. The birth of brand-new newness requires the death of much we hold dear.

It’s more than mere resistance to change. We preachers sometimes joke with one another about how many Lutherans it takes to change a light bulb. It takes ten, by the way — one to change the bulb, and nine to commiserate about how much they liked the old bulb.

Mary is grieving more than a used-up light bulb. Jesus was her leader, her teacher, her guiding star — her friend. It wasn’t enough that the tyrants tortured and executed him as an example for every uppity Jew in Jerusalem. Now, someone had doubled the disgrace by stealing the body. Grief upon grief — of course, she was weeping!

That kind of trauma makes it almost impossible to accept new input. Tunnel vision, disjoined thinking, inability to focus — these are normal responses to such devastating disruption. We shouldn’t be surprised that Mary doesn’t recognize the risen Lord Jesus. Her heart is broken, and her brain is about to explode. The fact that she can even formulate a question is astonishing.

And yet, something else is happening here. John longs for us to know that Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! He is the same, and yet different. He is physical, but no longer mortal. He is human, but so much more. He is the Lord Jesus, but not the same old Lord Jesus.

Resurrection is nothing like replacing an old driveway. At Easter, “newness” itself is made new.

John’s narrative is so tender and intimate. Through the veil of tears, Mary hears her name. And the world appears with sudden, stunning clarity. “The gatekeeper opens the gate, ” Jesus once said, “and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Mary hears the voice of the Good Shepherd, and a whole new cosmos opens up to her. “Rabbouni!” she cries — my Great One, my Teacher, my Master and Lord!

There is no going back to the way things were. “Back” is no longer there. But there is going forward on the path where Jesus leads. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself,” Jesus said earlier, “so that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:3). The disciples couldn’t understand then what Jesus meant. Mary gets it now.

At Easter, “newness” itself is made new.

There’s still more to come. Jesus has been glorified on the cross. Now he must ascend to the Father. He returns from there to commission and empower us for the mission of life and healing. More on that mission next week.

Jesus sends Mary to share the good news with the sisters and brothers. Mary Magdalene is the first apostle, the first one sent to tell others. And the story she shares changes the cosmos: “I have seen the Lord!” Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

At Easter, “newness” itself is made new.

How soon can we go back to the way things were? I hope we never do, and that we stop trying. We’re still tempted to impose the standards of the same old same old on the “newness” made new. When we get pushed forward, we might respond with anger or even violence. These next months will require extraordinary tenderness and compassion on the part of every church member as we go forward into the next newness.

But think about the same old, same old — the perpetual poverty, the rampant racism, the savage sexism, the frantic fear, the vengeance and violence. And we want to go back to that? Not me!

We have seen the Lord! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Of course, we still need to replace old driveways. As we live this new life, we aren’t building God’s kingdom on earth. That’s way above our pay grade. But, as Tom Wright reminds us, we are building for God’s kingdom. With every act of faith, hope, and love, we are participating in the newness made new. In the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, nothing good is lost.

It’s astonishing to see what workers can do with sand, concrete, shovels, and skill. Imagine what Jesus can do with people made new!

Christ is risen!

Surprised by Hope — Throwback Thursday Books

One book that has had a life-changing impact on me is N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. This book changed my understanding of historic Christian belief in the resurrection from the dead and the impact of that belief on all of Christian theology. Wright’s work changed and deepened my own theology. He gave me a framework for funeral sermon preaching that completely changed my approach to that task. And most of all, his work prepared me to understand the death of a loved one in ways that made the experience survivable and even an experience of joy in the midst of the tragedy.

Wright wants to deal with two questions that he says often have been addressed separately and that he wants to put together. “First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” (page 5). He suggests that most Christians understand salvation primarily as an escape from this world and “going to heaven” as the final destination after we die. He will show that this understanding, while not wrong, is so limited as to contain very little of the Good News which is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Surprised by Hope is the condensed and popularized version of the extensive scholarly research and writing contained in Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Even though the popular book describes in some detail Wright’s arguments and supporting data, I would encourage readers to tackle and grapple with the larger book to get the fullest picture. If you do that, of course, you run the risk of diving into Wright’s extensive corpus on the New Testament. But, for me, that’s the good news. I hope it will be for you as well.

Wright points out that in the ancient pagan world, dead is dead. The notion of resurrection from the dead was regarded as a foolish superstition. In ancient Judaism, resurrection is a real thing. However, it is reserved for the “end of the age” and is a general resurrection from the dead rather than the resurrection of one specific person. There is, in the first century, disagreement about whether this is the resurrection just of the “just,” or of the just to reward and the unjust to punishment, or of all people to some sort of judgment. In addition, some first century Jews also discounted altogether the possibility of resurrection from the dead.

When the Christian assertions about the resurrection of Jesus — one person in the middle of history — are combined with the Christian assertion that he is the crucified Messiah, we can understand how Paul could describe the gospel as foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. We can also sympathize with the disciples in the gospel accounts who simply had no conceptual framework to accommodate Jesus’ talk of crucifixion and resurrection until after the fact.

For Jews of the time, resurrection from the dead was an interesting topic for speculation. “But in early Christianity,” Wright notes, “resurrection moved from the circumference to the center” (page 42). This Christian emphasis on and understanding of resurrection from the dead has seven novel hallmarks that frame the conversation.

First, there is a remarkable uniformity of early Christian belief about the nature of this resurrection. Second, there is the move of resurrection from the fringe to the center of the conversation. Third is the clear description of the resurrection body as a physical body which has been transformed into something beyond decay and death. Fourth, early Christians split the resurrection into that of Jesus in the middle of history and that of the rest of humanity at the end of time. Fifth, Jesus’ resurrection is not an alteration of the present. Instead, it is God’s future arriving in the present. Sixth, resurrection becomes, very early on, a metaphor for the kind of transformation that faith in Jesus produces in the Christian. Seventh, it is the Jewish Messiah who is raised from the dead. No one saw that coming.

In addition, resurrection changes not only the end of life but life in the middle of history as well. “Death is the last weapon of the tyrant,” Wright observes, “and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it” (page 50).

Wright goes on to describe the twofold phenomena which convince the early Christians that Jesus has been raised to a new and different kind of life. First, there is the empty tomb. But by itself that would only be evidence of grave-tampering. Second, there are the resurrection appearances of Jesus to witnesses. But by themselves, they could be written off as hallucinations or the appearances of ghosts. Together, however, these phenomena told the early Christians that something else was going on here. “Both the meetings and the empty tomb are therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief and the writing of the stories as we have them. Neither by itself was sufficient; put them together, though, and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the rise of the early Christian belief” (page 59).

Wright argues that the best explanation of the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is that they experienced him as raised from the dead. This is not “proof” of the resurrection, but it is often precisely the kind of evidence that historians use to draw firm conclusions about past events. Nonetheless, the real testimony of the New Testament is that the resurrection demands more than proof. It calls for a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.

If I have a worldview in which resurrection is impossible, then I simply cannot accommodate the New Testament reports as anything other than foolishness. But I have then made an a priori commitment regarding what is possible and knowable. In fact, that’s a sort of “faith statement.” If, on the other hand, I am grasped by a new way of seeing and understanding reality, then I might expect to see and understand not only new things but in a new way. Seeing and understanding (and living) in a new way is one possible description for what we Christians would call “faith.”

“What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science,” Wright proposes (page 71). This sort of faith makes possible what Wright describes as Christian hope. “Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism,” he writes. “It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen” (page 72).

What does this mean for life in the here and now? It means that Jesus’ resurrection brings God’s abundant life into the middle of history. Jesus is not merely about “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Salvation is not about an escape from the world but rather an engagement with the world. The works of love we call social justice, for example, are ways in which resurrection life is brought to bear in our relationships in the here and now.

This world is not a husk which is to be “left behind” in some cosmic conflagration. Rather, the Creation will be made new, and we are called to begin that “new-making” work in the here and now. Christians, of all people, should be most deeply involved in the care and sustaining of Creation, not in spite of our belief in the resurrection from the dead but because of it.

Our works of love in this life matter both now and forever. Wright notes that we are not called to build the rule of God. But we are called to build for the rule of God. “All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing” (page 143).

The Resurrection of Jesus means that nothing good will be lost. “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself,” Wright declares, “will last into God’s future.” This was one of the insights in the book that made the most sense to me and gave me a new insight into why a life of discipleship matters.

The first Easter was not the end of anything. Rather, it is the Beginning of Everything. Wright proclaims “the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us” (page 200). Abundant life is what God gives now and forever. Love is not merely our duty — it is our destiny. Hope is not wishful thinking but is rather fulfilled as we live the Resurrection in the here and now.

Once I read Wright’s work, I could no longer be satisfied with the “go to heaven and play your harp” model of individualistic salvation. Nor could I be satisfied with funeral sermons that stopped short of the glories of the New Creation. I was spurred to offer more gospel both in life and in death, and the results have been nothing short of transformative. My only disappointment is how many pastors and pew-sitters settle for the halfway version of the good news of eternal life.

This is the prod in Wright’s work. Most Easter proclamations take us as far as the way-station called “heaven.” And they leave us sitting there for eternity (which to many clear-eyed observers sounds a lot like hell). Wright reminds us that the gospel of resurrection to new life takes us beyond the waiting room and into the joyous eternity of the New Heaven and the New Earth — the reality God always intended, where life is abundant and growth never ends.

That’s an Easter message I can preach (and have over and over).

Text Study for John 20:11-18 (Easter B, 2021)

3. In the Garden of Lost and Found (John 20:11-18)

Meanwhile, Mary remains outside the tomb, weeping and disconsolate. She had not yet looked into the tomb. She bent towards the opening of the tomb and saw two angels “in brightness” who were seated, one at the head end of the burial platform and the other at the foot end. To identify the angels with a particular color is, I think, too limiting. John’s gospel returns over and over to the theme of Light coming into the world. With that in mind, I think a better translation of their appearance would focus on their shining brilliance.

All Christian scripture deserves close reading and careful study. I have always taken this to be one of the primary tasks for ordained ministers of the Word. That close reading and careful study is always rewarded, in my experience, with new insight and deeper encounter with the grace and mercy of God in Christ. Nowhere in the Christian scriptures is that truer than in the Gospel of John. With that in mind, we read these next verses closely and discover manifold layers of meaning.

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Even with the presence of the two shining angelic messengers, Mary is still convinced that she is witnessing the results of a grave robbery. “They have taken up my master,” she wails, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” The verb for “taken” has in it a sense of upward movement. The writer of John is always at play in the garden of irony, and that continues here. Jesus has been taken up, but not in the sense Mary means. She should know where “they” have put him, since Jesus told them he is the “true and living way” (chapter fourteen).

Mary doesn’t give the shining messengers time to answer. Instead, she “turns around.” Our ears should be finely tuned for the writer’s continued double meanings, and that is certainly the case here. Turning around is another way to describe repentance. And repentance is not so much feeling sorry for misdeeds as it is receiving a whole new way of seeing the cosmos. Mary turns from the tomb and toward an encounter with the risen Christ. Now we know that she is an image, an icon, of the believer who turns from death to life, from despair to hope, from self to Christ.

Mary has not considered or accepted the possibility that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Nor does she recognize the risen Jesus when she first sees him standing there. Jesus asks her the same question as the shining angels – “Woman, why are you crying?” In the same way that Jesus is identified with all of humanity when Pilate says, “Behold, the human being,” so Mary is made identified with all human beings when she is addressed as “Woman.”

Jesus asks a second question, “Whom are you seeking?” This question takes us back to John 1:35-42. John the Forerunner points to Jesus and says, “Look! The Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus. He turns (same verb as above) to them and asks, “Who (or what) do you seek?” They respond by calling Jesus “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher).” Here in the Garden of Lost and Found, Mary is a disciple. She is the first witness of the Risen Jesus in John’s Gospel. She has turned to see not only the Risen Jesus but a whole new cosmos.

The new vision doesn’t come to her immediately. She supposes or imagines him to be the gardener or caretaker of the garden. The verb used here has the sense of judging something by its appearance rather than its substance. Again, the writer invites us into the irony. Jesus is the Gardener of all the cosmos. The world came into being through him, we were told in the Prologue to John’s gospel, and without him nothing that exists came into being. Mary’s imagination needs to be expanded to cosmic scope and scale.

The writer plays as well with the title for Jesus – the Greek word kyrie. It can be translated to mean master, sir, and lord. It is the title for God in the Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures – Lord. She says to Jesus, “Kyrie, if you have disposed of him, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him up” (verse 15). The Lord has “disposed” of Jesus’ body mired in mortality and has raised him up to a physicality beyond decay and death. Mary cannot “take him up” because Jesus is already there.

The writer crafts the scene with heart-rending intimacy. Jesus calls her by name – “Mary.” We can hear all the echoes of naming that reverberate through the scriptures. In particular, we can hear the words of Isaiah 43:1 – “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (NRSV). And we can hear the words of our baptismal ritual as the candidate is named “child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” (ELW, page 231).

Mary hears her name and once again “turns” toward Jesus. She says to him (“in Hebrew”), “Rabbouni (which means ‘Teacher’).” Commentators vary in their assessment of this title. Literally it means “my Great One.” It echoes the response of the disciples in John 1 but expands on the title. Some scholars suggest that this title has clear messianic overtones and acknowledges Jesus as in some sense divine. Mary is portrayed as calling out the name in joyful recognition and embracing Jesus in love.

The text doesn’t say that Mary spontaneously hugged Jesus. But in the next verse, Jesus says to her, “Do not keep holding on to me.” The Greek verb is a continuous present and would not be necessary if Mary were not already clinging to her master and friend. The writer’s irony continues. Mary cannot hold Jesus in place. Instead, it is necessary for him to ascend to the Father so that the “other comforter” can come to strengthen and walk alongside the community of disciples.

“I have not yet ascended,” Jesus tells her. This puts to rest, as N. T. Wright notes, any thought that resurrection and ascension are somehow different words for the same event. While the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are intimately related in John’s gospel, they are not the same thing. Each event is a distinguishable element of the process of Jesus’ glorification. But even though the elements are not identical, they all belong together.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts the Easter event under the Johannine title of “Going to the Father.” He suggests, “The Father is the Creator who, acting at Easter in the Son, brings his work to completion; the Father, in exalting his Son, also brings the Son’s mission to its conclusion, and makes the Son visible to world, spreading abroad there the Spirit which is common to them both” (page 189).

Jesus gives Mary the first apostolic commission in John’s gospel. We cannot overestimate this reality. Being the first witness to the empty tomb did not qualify Peter and the other disciple as witnesses to the Risen Christ. Mary is the first one to encounter Jesus risen from the dead. She is the first to be called into new relationship with him and to respond to that relationship with faith formed in love. She is now the first to be sent as a messenger of the Good News.

All of the Gospel accounts give primacy to the witness of the women. No gospel makes it clearer or more personal than does John. Perhaps we think back now to the Samaritan woman at the well who has a similar encounter with Jesus and becomes the apostle for her whole village. Doubts about the roles of women in proclamation and teaching simply cannot be anchored in the gospel accounts and must be ruled out of bounds as the unfortunate infections of patriarchy in some of the other Christian scriptures.

“Go to my brothers (and sisters),” Jesus tells her, “and say to them, ‘I am going up…” We return to the gospel’s emphasis on the descending and ascending Son of Man. This theme was announced in John 1:51, and we find it almost wherever we look in the Gospel of John. Here in the Garden of Lost and Found, we hear that this ascending is to be the path for all who follow Jesus. After all, he is going up “to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We come back to John’s prologue – “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (NRSV).

Mary Magdalene went “announcing.” The word is the same as the root for “angel” or “messenger” in Greek. She functioned as an angelic messenger to the disciples. “I have been seeing the Lord!” she declares. The Greek verb is in the perfect tense, with a sense of continuing action. And the word for “see” includes the sense of “to recognize” rather than merely to perceive. Her message is more than a bare announcement of the encounter. Instead, she shares his words (“these things”) about ascending to the Father.

The other gospel accounts give us some sense of a response from the disciples upon hearing such a report. That is not the case here in John’s gospel. Why is that? In John’s gospel, the recognition of faith comes through a personal encounter with Jesus. Mary prepares them for this encounter. But it is not until the evening of that day that Jesus comes to stand among them. Like Mary, they do not immediately recognize him. It is only when he has spoken to them and showed them his wounds that they know it is “the Lord.” But more on that next week.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Myers, Alicia. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-john-201-18-8.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Easter 2021 — John 20:1-10

2. The Race to the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-10)

“The whole New Testament is unanimous on this point: the Cross and burial of Christ reveal their significance only in the light of the event of Easter, without which there is no Christian faith” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, page 189).

As I have noted before, John’s Gospel takes up where the Synoptics leave off. This is certainly true of the Resurrection accounts. Mark has an unfinished ending. In John, “it is finished” (John 19:30). These are complementary accounts, not contradictory reports. That assertion, however, will take a few days to unpack.

John gives us the Resurrection in three acts plus an epilogue in chapter 20. Act 1 is the “Race to the Empty Tomb.” Act 2 is Mary Magdalene wandering in “The Garden of Lost and Found.” Act 3 (which we get on the second Sunday of Easter) is the “Spirited Sending.” The epilogue (which we also get on the second Sunday of Easter) is the “Triumph of Trust over Trauma.”

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“Christ is risen, and Mary is weeping,” writes Mary Hinkle Shore in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “John’s account of the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection has this tension at its heart.” There is no effort in this account to minimize the loss and grief produced by Jesus’ execution and hurried burial. That series of traumatic events is now compounded by the possibility that someone has stolen the body.

One situation that produces “complex grief” is when the body of the deceased is not found or cannot be recovered. There is something necessary about a confrontation with the corpse of one who was loved and living and is now grieved and gone. We live in a time when many people don’t want that encounter with the dead flesh. I cannot and will not judge that because we must each find our own way in our grieving. But I know from my own experience that this encounter was a necessary deterrent to my desperate need for denial.

Add to that the uncertainty when a body has somehow “disappeared,” and the pain must have been nearly beyond enduring. Of course, Mary is weeping – once she can find the capacity once again to breathe. My experience is that she was more likely wailing with the primal pain that arises from one’s guts in response to the horror of such a compounded loss. The writer of John’s gospel spends time on this scene in order to allow us all to descend with Mary into the depths of her despair. And there can be no doubt that Jesus was truly dead.

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb on the first day after the Sabbath, the first day of a new week. She comes while it is still dark (as opposed to Mark’s report that the women came when the sun had risen). The light which enlightens the world, we read earlier in John, was coming into the world. Mary is there as the Light of the world is appearing. She sees that the stone has been rolled away and concludes that the grave has been robbed. She does not conclude that there has been a resurrection.

“When she sees an open tomb, it does not bring about the memories of Lazarus’ resurrection, but rather a logical assumption: an opened tomb signals a tomb robbery!” writes Alicia Myers in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Unfortunately, such acts were well-known in antiquity,” she continues, “so much so that tomb robbery was listed as a heinous crime in rhetorical handbooks and was a trademark of pirates in ancient novels.”

She flees back to the disciples to share what she has seen and surmised. Peter and the “other disciple” race to the tomb after they hear Mary’s panicked report. Peter sees the empty tomb but “it is the beloved disciple who sees and believes (v. 8) that God did something with Jesus,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “even though neither knows how to clarify the meaning of the empty tomb with the help of Scripture (v. 9)” [page 280].

The other disciple gets there first and looks in. He sees the burial cloths that would have wrapped Jesus’ body. He knows the body is missing, but he doesn’t enter – perhaps in fear that the thieves were still there. Peter catches up and plunges into the tomb. He too sees the burial cloths. In addition, he sees the napkin that would have covered Jesus’ face. It is neatly folded up rather than being piled up with the other cloths. That is not the act of grave robbers in a hurry to take what they want.

The coast is clear, and the other disciple enters the tomb. He “saw and believed.” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this “believing” was acceptance of the possibility that God “had interrupted the dying-burial process with a resurrection.” Peter did not consider or accept this possibility. Myers is more limited in describing the other disciples’ credence. “In fact, given the sequence of events in 20:8–10,” she writes, “it seems probable that the Beloved Disciple ‘believed’ Mary’s report of Jesus’ body being stolen rather than believing in the resurrection.”

I’m not sure about this issue, but I find myself halfway between these positions. The other disciples does more than believe Mary’s report but less than accept Jesus’ resurrection. I base this in part on the way in which John’s Gospel uses “believe” throughout the gospel. If the disciple Jesus loved was in fact Lazarus, as Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, then, “This is not surprising…since Jesus intervened to have God interrupt the dying-burial process in [Lazarus’] case” (page 280). I find it credible to think that Lazarus may have been the original source of the Gospel of John and the mysterious “beloved disciple.” I think it is also credible that he believed more was going on than grave robbery, although he couldn’t know what the “more” was yet.

Why is “believing” in John’s sense necessary for accepting the possibility of Resurrection? “This event is,” writes Von Balthasar, “without analogy. It pierces our whole world of living and dying in a unique way,” he continues, “so that, through this breakthrough, it may open a path for us into the everlasting life of God” (page 194). Regardless of the nature of the other disciple’s “belief” at this point, it was not any sort of “faith” in Jesus’ resurrection. That was still to come, and the first such response is reserved for Mary Magdelene.

It’s not true that Jews knew nothing about resurrection. We can see from the Gospel accounts that Jesus’ followers expected some sort of general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. What they didn’t expect – what they couldn’t expect – was that this resurrection would come to meet them in the middle of history. What they couldn’t expect was that Jesus, the Crucified Messiah, was bringing the power of that new life into the middle of the old life in order to break apart the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Von Balthasar quotes New Testament scholar Rolf Rengstorff in this regard, and it’s worth rehearsing here. “Jesus’ Resurrection took his disciples completely by surprise,” Rengstorff wrote. “They also lead us to understand that Jesus’ Resurrection lay entirely outside what could justly have been expected of the disciples. There was no place for a Resurrection of Jesus,” Rengstorff noted, “in the representations which they had at their disposal” (quoted on page 200).

Jesus’ resurrection is not “like” anything else. It is not another example of anything else. It cannot be compared to anything else. In order to trust in the Resurrection as God’s new life among us, we must accept and embrace an entirely new view of Reality. The Beloved Disciple is able to accept and embrace what he sees but cannot process it. For Peter it will all take a bit more time and effort, but he gets it in the end.

The fact that the tomb is empty is not, by itself, sufficient proof of the Resurrection. By itself, in the texts the empty tomb is a source of terror and trauma, of confusion and consternation. We see that in the way John’s gospel tells the story. Mary sees it and is not comforted but rather further traumatized. Peter sees it and is left unchanged. The Beloved Disciples sees it and accepts that something has happened to change the expected course of events, but the full revelation must await Jesus’ appearing (and explaining).

Once again, the writer of John’s Gospel reminds us that an encounter with the Risen Christ must precede an understanding of the Resurrection. It is only through reflection upon and after that encounter that the witness of scripture can be understood as pointing to Easter. The other disciple saw and believed that something other than grave robbery had happened, but he didn’t yet know what that “something other” was. “For they had not yet understood the Scripture,” we read in verse 9, “that it was necessary for him to be raised from the dead.”

Repeatedly in John we are reminded that the disciples think about what they experienced. They reflect and meditate on what they have seen. They remember the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They search the Scriptures to understand what it all means. When they have the whole picture, things become clear. In John 20:9, they don’t yet have the whole picture. So, the disciples have not yet been changed.

This is the meaning of verse 10. The NRSV tells us that the disciples “returned to their homes.” That seems odd, since they are from Galilee. It could be that they returned to the places where they were guests in Bethany during the Passover. But the Greek of the verse doesn’t specify their “homes.”

Instead, it says in literal translation, “Exited then again toward themselves the disciples.” They left the empty tomb largely in the condition in which they had entered. They were still “toward themselves.” It would take an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus to move them to a new place, a new day, and a new mission.

So it is with us.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Myers, Alicia. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-john-201-18-8.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1970.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Easter B 2021 — Mark 16:1-8

Read Mark 16:1-8

The Easter lectionary in Year B offers two choices for the Easter Sunday Gospel reading – Mark 16:1-8, and John 20:1-18. I will focus most of my attention on the selection from John this week. However, let’s spend some time on Mark and the “odd” ending we find to that gospel.

The women who had gathered at the foot of the cross on Good Friday return to the tomb when the Sabbath had passed. Unlike in John, where Mary goes while it is still dark, the women went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, when the sun had dawned. John moves us from darkness to light in his narrative, and we should not be surprised by that use of symbolism. Mark wants us to meet a new week and a new world fully dawned. Keep that in mind as we go along.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

The women have the discussion about who is going to move that big rock and discover that the work has already been done. They meet a young man dressed in bright raiment (preferable, I think, to “white robe”), and they are shocked and surprised (both emotions contained in one word). The young man says to them, “Don’t be shocked and surprised.” He explains what has happened and gives the women their call to report their experience to Jesus’ disciples and to Peter. When they return to Galilee, they can expect Jesus to be there, waiting to meet them.

So far so good. The trouble is in verse 8. “And exiting, they fled from the tomb, for they themselves were having trembling and amazement; and they said nothing to anyone, being afraid for…” (my pretty literal translation). As most of us may know, the verse appears to end mid-sentence with the Greek word “gar” which means “for,” or “because.” It is a post-positive inferential particle. It should not begin or end a sentence. And it should lead to some language that concludes a preceding thought.

But there it is, hanging out in the middle of grammatical nowhere — despite the fact that most translations turn the fragment into a finished sentence. What’s the deal?

It’s clear that this odd ending created problems early in the Christian tradition. In many English translations, such as the NRSV, you will find a “shorter ending of Mark” that gives the quick version of some Resurrection sightings and a sort of “Great Commission.” You will also find a “longer ending of Mark” that includes notes from all three of the other gospels. We have a tearful meeting with Mary Magdalene (John). We have an appearance to a pair on the road (Luke). We have a Great Commission (Matthew). And we have an Ascension as well (Luke and Acts).

The manuscript evidence is fairly conclusive that neither the shorter nor the longer endings is original to Mark’s account. Even Daniel Wallace, a cautious and conservative scholar, notes that the general scholarly consensus is against the alternate endings and that Wallace agrees with the verdict that the original text “was intentionally concluded at verse 8” (page 405, note 25). The alternate endings also demonstrate that early on the Christian tradition was uncomfortable with the “unfinished” nature of Mark’s story and sought to bring the account to a more settled conclusion.

So, the preacher can embrace a later ending to the gospel as preachers have done for centuries. The preacher can read the text quickly and focus on the Resurrection report to the exclusion of the witness reactions — happy that the NRSV at least makes it a sentence. Or the preacher can go to John’s account.

And yet, that odd ending is still there. What can it mean? Some scholars think that we see the results of damage to an early copy of Mark’s gospel. There was more, but it was lost to the ravages of time. N. T. Wright is firmly in this camp. He asserts,

“there are many who think that Mark did after all intend to close the book with the women in fear and silence, but I disagree. I have become quite sure that there was more. I think a very, very early copy of Mark was mutilated. As with many other scrolls and books in the ancient world (and sometimes even in the modern), the last page, or the last column of the scroll, was torn off, presumably by accident.” (Location 3880)

That being said, we don’t have whatever the actual ending was. Therefore, Wright chooses to deal with what we have. “There is a blank at the end of the story, and we are invited to fill it ourselves,” Wright suggests. “Do we take Easter for granted, or have we found ourselves awestruck at the strange new work of God? What do we know of the risen Lord? Where is he now going ahead of us? What tasks has he for us to undertake today, to take ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ to the ends of the earth?” (Location 3915). Bishop Wright ends up with much the same conclusion in practical terms as those who argue that this is what Mark intended all along.

The question remains. If Mark intended to leave his account with this odd ending, what do we do with it?

Hurtado suggests the “preacher punt” as the path out of this fine mess. “Whatever Mark may have intended with reference to the women who, at least initially, flee from the tomb too frightened to comply with the command,” he writes, “the reader certainly has been given the news of Jesus’ resurrection and is called to follow the risen Jesus, proclaiming the victory and forgiveness of the gospel” (page 285). Obviously, somebody talked to someone. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this little conversation, Hurtado reminds us.

It is not the case, Hurtado notes, that we can glean nothing from Mark’s account of the Resurrection. Jesus is proclaimed as risen from the dead. “The risen Jesus summons the same disciples who abandoned and denied him,” Hurtado notes, “to renew their discipleship and become again his followers” (pages 284-285). Mark declares that forgiveness, new life, and renewed vocation are part of this good news, for the first disciples and for all subsequent Jesus followers.

Richard Swanson urges us to stay with the tension of the “incomplete ending.” He asks, “what if Mark’s ritualizing of the incompleteness is wiser than the church’s institutionalizing smoothness? The task on Easter,” he continues, “is to tell stories about the resurrection in a world where everyone dies” (page 159). He cautions us against making Easter into some sort of happy ending which minimizes the suffering and death we have all experienced since last Easter. He suggests that such bad faith happy talk “will fail the test of truth that will be applied by the people who have found good reasons to avoid worship since last Easter” (page 159).

Swanson names the distress every pastor feels in applying Resurrection good news to the losses and tragedies still present in this life. “Any ritual enactment that does not treat resurrection as a problem,” he notes, “will offend everyone who has learned that death is an inexorable reality” (page 159). Swanson is convinced that the odd ending is the intended ending. “I think Mark’s story was shaped,” he writes, “to end in precisely this offense, exactly this provocation” (page 160).

Swanson suggests that Mark intends by this telling to train us as “God-wrestlers” (a theme throughout his commentary). “Mark tells a story that trains its audience to demand more than it will ever get,” he writes. “This marks it as a Jewish story, a story suited for the training of wrestlers” (page 162).

“How do you take a bow after performing Marks’s story?” Swanson asks. He gives no conclusive stage directions but leaves it to the performers. “However you play it,” he writes, “the end of Mark’s story must solve problems and puzzle the audience, it must complete the story and leave it hanging. Mark’s story is completely incomplete,” he concludes, “and the ending is the place to embody this” (page 163).

Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace, addresses the odd ending of Mark as well – taking us from Swanson’s question to further reflection. “Mark leaves the story of the crucifixion hanging in a kind of suspended animation,” she writes, “we readers are left wondering what happens next, and we receive no clear answers” (pages 85-86). Just when it’s all going so well, Jones reminds us – when the stone is moved, the messenger speaks, and the Resurrection is announced – Mark stops mid-sentence. Jones writes,

“At the very moment when we, as readers of the Gospel, are in need of the greatest relief; at the moment in which we are supposed to witness the event of proclamation that launches Christianity into its future and hear about how the first people of faith really experienced the resurrection—Mark does not give it to us. Instead, he depicts a group of weak, irrational women who fall silent and run away. In doing so he allows the Gospel story to run away from us. Instead of pulling it together, he leaves us peering into the gaping space of an ending that never comes” page 89.

Jones puts the narrative of Mark 16 into the framework of trauma experience and response. She, like Swanson, also wonders how this text is to be performed. “The intended ending of Mark’s Gospel may not be the Greek preposition gar (for),” she writes, “Mark may very well have intended that the ending be a gesture. The ending of Mark’s Gospel takes us to the very limits of language, where we cross the threshold into silence” (page 94).

With Swanson, Jones wants to read Mark’s account in a world where trauma is terrifying, and death is real. She is not content with the “wrapped up with a bow” endings that fill in the silence of Mark’s ending. Instead, she sees Mark as indicating and calling forth something much deeper. She points to the “trauma” that Resurrection creates for a world where death is the only secure and certain reality. She quotes a sermon by Tom Troeger in this regard.

“’What if death is not a reliable absolute?’ asks Tom Troeger in a sermon on this passage. ‘Then the comfort of knowing that life is a fixed and closed system is called into question. If death is overcome, if the one indestructible certitude that marks existence is shattered, then reality is wide open!’” (page 96).

What if Mark’s intention is to shake the foundations of the world with the news that God is on the loose and death is temporary? After all, the women respond with “trembling and amazement.” What does that do to us, to our settled certainties, to the status quo of a world that relies on death to manage, manipulate, and master people? Can we live in between the trembling and amazement too?

This is where I will leave Mark’s “odd ending.” Mark announces, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In chapter 16, Mark wants us to meet a new week and a new world fully dawned. Perhaps he intends for us to see that this Good News will never end, and as a result nothing can ever be the same.

I like that.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2017. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.