March 31, 2024

An Open-Ended Gospel

Mark 16:1-18

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.6 But he said 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.

7 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.” 8 So they 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 the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God. 

Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!

Today we’re celebrating the joyful surprise that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

It’s a story that brings us hope each time we tell it, a day that brings joy no matter how dark the world or the trouble we’re facing.

In some ways, this Easter story is like a favorite, with a great ending, that just fills your heart. Like Jimmy Stewart, surrounded by his friends, at the end of a Wonderful Life. You just can’t help but feel good.

On the first Easter morning, the women who went to the tomb expected the tragedy they had witnessed on Friday to continue, to find the body of the man they believed was God’s Savior, who had been brutally crucified.

Just days before, Jesus was betrayed into the hands of enemies by one of his closest friends.  He was arrested on false charges, tried and convicted for political reasons, sentenced to death by imperial powers, abandoned by those who loved him, and buried in a borrowed tomb.

The men who followed Jesus were hiding.

These courageous women, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, arrived early in the morning  to anoint his body, as was their custom after death.

But they discovered the joyful surprise. He was not there.

They thought at first the body had been stolen, but a messenger from God, dressed in white, gave them the news.

He is not here… because he has been raised, just as he said he would be.

Now, if we were watching this at home, streaming on Netflix or Hulu, this would be the end of moving.

Maybe it would cut to a final scene, with Jesus walking off into the distance, Maybe we would see his friends walking with him.

If we were watching this story in a theater, we would start gathering the trash… The candy box, the cup, and popcorn, because it would be over. The credits are about to roll.

Because the resurrection of Jesus can feel like a good ending to the Christian story.

We know stories that go like this.

Two star-crossed friends finally take a chance on each other. They live happily ever after and the credits roll.

A band of good guys catch the bad guys, and then go home to dinner with their family.  Cut to black.

The boy gets the girl.  The bomb is diffused at the last minute. The team wins the race.

The Savior who was dead is alive again, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Now, we may think that’s how the story goes, but Mark has a surprise for us. I’d like to look closely at that with you this morning. This is not a happy conclusion. Mark is doing something…Different.

The truth is, the gospel is actually doing something different. God is, in fact, doing something different, and Mark wants us to see it.

The gospel of Mark, especially, with this strange story of the resurrection, wants us to see it.

Did you hear how Mark ended the gospel?

The women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

For they were afraid.

For centuries, Christians have wrestled over this strange ending to Mark’s account.

It is so unsatisfying.

Matthew ends his gospel with a speech from Jesus to the disciples.

Luke ends his gospel with Jesus ascending into heaven, out of sight.

John ends his gospel with a conversation by the fire over breakfast.

Those are good endings.

Mark pulls the curtain down here.

The women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Why? I believe because Mark wanted us to wrestle with what comes next.  To sit with, and wonder – what does this mean?

Mark ends in this strange way because he is unwilling to send us home satisfied. Mark wants to imagine what happens next.

Do you remember the movie Cast-Away, with Tom Hanks, and how it ended?

Hanks plays a FedEx delivery guy, stranded on a deserted island, with a soccer ball he named Wilson as his only companion.

After a deep psychological journey by himself on that island, at the end of the film, he is finally rescued by a cargo ship and taken back home.

His friends thought he was dead, his girlfriend had married someone else. He went back to driving his FedEx truck. But he wasn’t the same.

As the film closes, Hanks has finally delivered the package he was trying to deliver when he first got stranded on the island, and now he’s at a cross-roads.

If you remember it, the last scene is him, looking up and down the road, wondering what to do next.

Then we see him turn the truck around and follow a car… and that’s the end.

What happens next? He can’t just go back to his old life. The experience on the island has changed him.

He’s at a crossroads. What happens next?

We don’t know. It’s an open-ended narrative.

It’s the kind of story that doesn’t send us home satisfied, it sends us home wrestling and wondering.

The gospel is that kind of story.

Not just for these disciples in the story, but for us.

What happens next because Jesus has been raised? How does life look? How do we see the world?

Mark wants us wrestle and wonder, to think it all over in light of the resurrection: Our lives, our stories, and our world.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, you see, is not a conclusion at all.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is a beginning.

N.T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and author, wrote:

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. “

The resurrection is not where God finishes. The resurrection is where God begins.

God wants the resurrection to shape our lives, so that the life of heaven has an outpost in us, and among us.

Let’s look more closely at Mark’s resurrection account, for clues about how to imagine what comes next.

For instance, the messenger at the tomb said to the women,

“Go and tell the disciples and Peter.” And Peter.

Who is Peter?

All of the twelve core disciples betrayed and abandoned Jesus, but Peter did so more dramatically than anyone else.

Peter was the leader. He was the Rock.

Peter is the one who said he would never betray Jesus. But Peter is the one who denied knowing Jesus three times when Jesus was facing crucifixion.

But that was not the last chapter for Peter, or any of the others disciples.

“Go tell the others, and Peter.”

You see, the risen Jesus made an appointment with Peter. Not to chastise him, but to forgive him, not to reject him, but to restore him. That’s what happened next for Peter.

What about us? All of us have failures in our lives, regrets, things we wish we could take back, or change.

What if Christ could rewrite the story of your worst failure?

Instead of living with shame, or trapped in a regret from the past, what if there’s a new chapter?

At the risk of being trite, can you imagine the Lord making an appointment with you, not to shame you, but to forgive you; not to blast you, but to restore you?

Go tell the others, and Peter – and you.

The resurrection is the beginning of a new chapter for Peter.  It can also be the beginning of a new chapter for Peter, and the disciples and for us.

Jesus’ risen presence can rewrite our stories.

His self-giving love can pull us out of ourselves, and into deeper friendships, in a culture where isolating and staying in your own head is so easy. His way of humble service can move us into serving others, in a culture where so much is about me.

Jesus’ unconditional love can give us the confidence to be more vulnerable, to truly share ourselves, in a culture where we curate image we think others want to see.

Jesus’ mercy can heal the wounds that nothing else can heal. Jesus’ promises can comfort the grief that time cannot erase. Jesus’ victory can give us courage to face are deepest losses, even death.

Jesus’ Spirit can speak peace to our fears.

Do you know what Jesus said he first when encountered the disciples later on Easter Day?

The other gospels tell us, he said, “Peace be with you.”

The risen Jesus can banish our fears, no matter what or who is making us afraid.

If you don’t like the chapter you’re in, he can write new lines on hopeless pages.

Our stories, you see, are all open-ended, and God is still writing. The resurrection is only a beginning.

One more clue from Mark’s account.

The messenger at the tomb told the women to tell the others to go to Galilee because Jesus would meet them there.

Galilee is a symbol of the nations, and of Christ’s presence and mission to the world. Away from Jerusalem, at a crossroads of culture and daily life, Jesus promises to meet them in the world.

What if we could tell the story of the world with the risen Christ at the center?

There are many ways to tell the world’s story.

Some tell the story of the world as one darn thing after another, a version of fatalism.  What happens next is whatever happens next. It just is.

Some say there is always a cycle of things, some good some bad. Everything comes and goes; that’s secularism. There’s nothing new under the sun. It can also feel like cynicism.

Some say the world is heading over a cliff, they see a catastrophe coming, political or environmental, from which we never return. So if you’re not frozen with fear, make the most of your time. That’s apocalypticism. It’s also, ultimately, despair.

But what if, as the baptized people of God, we go from this place and tell the story in light of the risen and conquering and loving Lord?

The Declaration of Faith of the PC (USA) contains this beautiful paragraph, this moving profession, with language that I love:

We declare that Jesus is Lord.  

    His resurrection is a decisive victory  

      over the powers that deform and destroy human life.  

His lordship is hidden.  

    The world appears to be dominated  

      by people and systems  

         that do not acknowledge his rule.  

But his lordship is real.  

    It demands our loyalty  

      and sets us free from the fear of all lesser lords  

        who threaten us.  

We maintain that ultimate sovereignty  

    now belongs to Jesus Christ in every sphere of life. 

Jesus is Lord!  

    He has been Lord from the beginning.  

      He will be Lord at the end.  

Even now he is Lord. 

That is the good news of Easter.

What would come next, in us, if we place the living Lord Jesus – in our thinking – where he already is in reality: at the beginning, at the center, and at the end of the world’s story?

I believe we would find new courage, to speak the truth, to stand up to lesser lords  that manipulate our loyalties, to hold fast to what is good, to honor God’s image in all people, even to suffer for what is right.

I believe we would find fresh creativity to work for redemption and repair, to try to improve the world, and make it look like heaven, wherever and whenever we can.

Because we will have faith that our efforts are not in vain. It is never a drop in the ocean.

Good work is holy work, however small. It is part of God’s saving purpose for God’s good creation.

I believe we could find a new joy. We need a joy that is deep enough to run underneath of sorrow.  We need a joy that is wide enough to crowd out worry.

We need a joy that springs from the Spirit, that is a gift in every season.

We need joy that is sturdy enough – as our hymn later says –

   to break the bread of new creation, 

      while where the world is still in pain.  

We need the kind of joy that arrives when a candle is lit in the darkness, when dawn breaks on a weary world, when the promise of new creation fills our hearts with so much hope we can’t help but be joyful.

Jesus is Lord, his resurrection is the beginning, not the end, his resurrection changes what happens next.

Go in faith, in wonder and amazement, and you will see him, just as he told you.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina


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