Mark 16:1-8 New International Version (NIV)
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
If you’ve been with me at our services over the past few days you’ll know that we’ve been exploring Mark’s version of the Easter events. Mark’s was the earliest Gospel to be written and the way he outlines events is very short and to the point. It’s also a very fast moving Gospel. Everything happens with almost breathless speed: the text is littered with the repeated phrase, “and immediately”. There is a real sense of urgency in this Gospel and the Easter section is no different.
It may seem an obvious statement but the Easter accounts are the most important texts in the Bible for the Christian: without Easter, we wouldn't know about Jesus because if his story had ended at the crucifixion he’d probably have been forgotten other that for passing references in contemporary sources and there would have been no community memory to pass on.
Those of us who grew up as Christians or in an overt Christian environment probably have a strong awareness of the Easter message, possibly as a total mixture of the four gospels, and our understanding of the events is also shaped by the theology of the Epistles, particularly those of St. Paul.
What kind of stories are the Easter stories then? What language do they use? Are they intended as historical reports to be understood as history remembered or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or is it a combination?
There are those Christians who see the Easter events as literally and factually true. So central is the historical accuracy of the stories for many people that if they didn't happen in this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear for them. And then there are those who have difficulty in believing that the stories are factual and if believing that these stories are factually accurate is essential to being a Christian, then they don’t believe they can be Christians.
Many other Christians take a less literal view: aware of differences in the accounts, they don’t insist on the factual accuracy of every detail and recognise that witnesses to any event can have quite different recollections. They might see the stories as part parable and use the model of parable Jesus himself used - the truth of the story is not dependent on whether it is historically accurate: there was no Good Samaritan for instance. Does that render the story meaningless? Parables can be true - truth filled and truthful - regardless of their factual accuracy and to worry about factual accuracy misses the point. The point lies in its meaning and in you and I getting that meaning.
Are we concerned about whether there was one angel at the tomb as Mark and Matthew record or two as Luke has it? Do we even agree amongst ourselves about the meaning of the word “angel” and therefore the nature of angels? Do we worry about where the disciples hid out after the crucifixion: Jerusalem according to Luke or Galilee according to Matthew? What we do agree on is the basics: the tomb was really empty and this was because God transformed the body of Jesus and Jesus did appear to his disciples after his death in a form that could be seen, heard and touched.
Sadly, though, we often don’t get beyond the "Did it happen?" reply to the "What does it mean?" question, and that’s the wrong answer to the question. What we should be saying, perhaps, is: “believe, if you want, that the events strictly happened in that way. Now let’s talk about what they mean. Equally, if you're quite sure they didn't happen quite like that, fine. Now let's talk about what they mean.”
Mark's Easter story is very brief but he provides us with the first narrative of Easter. He doesn’t report any appearance of the risen Jesus and the story ends very abruptly. His story starts with the women who saw Jesus' death and burial going to the tomb to anoint his body, concerned as to who will roll away the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. As they arrive, their question becomes irrelevant. They saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back. They enter the tomb, somewhat tentatively we might guess, to discover a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. We generally interpret that young man as an angel, but even that word is loaded with countless unhelpful images of wings and harps and halos thanks to medieval artists. Let's be clear: an angel is God's messenger so let's strip away the fanciful appearance. He says to them "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."
Mark then tells us that the women were given a commission: "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 although Mark doesn’t himself recount any stories of the risen Jesus the stage is nevertheless set for such events. 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. This is a good moment, though, to consider the fact that, in all four Gospels, Jesus entrusted such marvellous news and responsibility to women, of all people. This charge is both remarkable and ironic, given the lamentable status of women in communities of faith then and ever since and tells us something that the church to its ongoing shame has largely failed to acknowledge. At this crucial moment in the Gospel story, in salvation history, women represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones whom God lifts up. How wonderful and how typical, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to some of the "least," some of the "small ones"...and yet, how very biblical!
So, let's look at the meaning. It’s powerfully evocative.
* Jesus was sealed in a tomb, but the tomb could not hold him and the stone has been rolled away. Jesus is not to be found in the land of the dead. "He is not here. Look this is the place where they laid him." This is why in Protestantism we’re more likely to see the symbol of the empty cross rather than the symbol of crucifixion. It emphasises the belief that death could not hold him.
* Jesus has been raised. God's messenger tells the women this. Jesus who was crucified by the authorities has been raised by God. Our joyful proclamation, along with that of the women, that "Jesus lives" is also a claim about Jesus today, in our own life and time.
* His followers are promised “You will see him.” We may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, walking and talking with him as we do daily in prayer, but following Jesus after that encounter means caring about Jesus' great passion, the kingdom of God.
* Like the earliest Christians, we follow "The Way," a way that leads to our transformation. The women’s garden encounter with the risen Christ is familiar to us in different forms today, when we experience resurrection and new life, when we encounter the risen Christ in our own lives.
* The command "Go back to Galilee" means go back to where the story began, to the start of the Gospel and what do we hear at the start of the gospel? We hear about the way of the kingdom, when all of God's children will live in peace, with enough for all, where healing, peace, justice, and mercy will reign.
Without the emphasis on Easter as God's decisive reversal of the authorities’ verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony and horror. It leads to a skewed view of the current world where we conclude that the powers are in control and Christianity is about the next world, not this one. God has said Yes to Jesus and No to the powers who killed him. God has vindicated Jesus because the resurrection is God's way of defeating and denying the powers that be that were responsible for his death, including empires both ancient and contemporary. We are reminded that Jesus is really in charge, not the petty powers that seem to rule the world in every age.
Easter as the reversal of Good Friday, on the other hand, means God's vindication of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God. Easter is about God as much as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God's great mission has begun, but it won’t happen without us in terms of personal transformation and political transformation: dying to the old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being: in short, being born again. This beautiful hope calls us to be grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice, which is the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter. That sounds as if there’s more for us to do than merely take good news back to the others: it's a call for our whole lives, individually and in community. The world should be able to see in our lives our own passion for the truth that Jesus is risen and that God has indeed begun a work that requires our participation. If we go back to our lives tomorrow as if nothing has changed, what then have we really experienced?