|Still Afraid — Even After Easter
April 23, 2000 / Mark 16:1-8
If the first Easter really happened, it isn’t about bunnies, candy, and egg hunts. If Easter happened, the excitement of the day isn’t a child’s basket and new dress or suit. If Easter happened, it is about history being stood on its ear by the power of God so that nothing can ever be the same again.
The one thing that seems patently absurd to me is a Christian affirming that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead and then going on with his or her life as if nothing of real significance had happened.
Where’d Anybody Get Such an Idea?
Some people have been fed — and have swallowed whole — the disingenuous notion that the early Christians invented the story of a bodily resurrection. On the view of some, it was a deliberate lie from the apostles to consolidate their power and perpetuate a movement. Others put the story down to devotion-become-psychological-phenomenon. That is, John or Peter or somebody in their group said, “Wasn’t it wonderful back there before they killed Jesus? Can’t you just hear those beautiful stories he loved to tell? Why, sometimes I get a spooky feeling like — well, er, ah — like he is still here with us. Come on, try it with me! Close your eyes, and say, ‘He’s here! He’s alive! He’s back from the dead and among us!’ And if we practice, I’ll bet we can really believe it — and even get others to buy into the idea.”
It couldn’t have happened like that. For one thing, if those Christians had invented a “resurrection myth” for themselves, they surely wouldn’t have hung so much of the account on the credibility of women. In the Jewish world of the first century, women were not permitted to give testimony in their courts. They were considered too mindless and flighty to be taken seriously in that sexist culture. It would have been the kiss of death to have women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the first ones to tell about seeing the angel, hearing that Jesus was alive, and seeing him. A fabricator would have had Peter or the larger group of male disciples there Sunday morning.
Do you seriously think a group of wicked conspirators or overly zealous fanatics or misguided mystics — let them be as sinister or as gullible as you choose — would have died for their story? Their flimsy, vacillating faith became rock-solid. They had fled from the crucifixion site in fear, were despondent over the fact that their leader was gone forever, and clearly were not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Why, they even made fun of the first reports that he was alive!
Yet the cowards became courageous. The flee-for-your-own-life bunch became a give-up-your-life-for-Jesus church. Their lives were transformed. They established the church in spite of their ineptitude — a sheer marvel of grace that continues across the centuries against all odds and in spite of its defective, bumbling leaders. Why, even I can be part of its life, and it still survives.
When Jesus died on Friday afternoon, neither the Roman or Jewish officials nor his own disciples appear to have made any provision for a burial. Because a high sabbath was about to begin, however, the people wanted the grisly sight of three corpses on crosses expunged. So they pressured Pilate, and he rushed the deaths of the two other men by having their legs broken. He probably intended to have all three bodies tossed into a trench-grave in a potter’s field. But Joseph of Arimathea — a member of the Sanhedrin — stepped out of the shadows and asked to dispose of Jesus’ body. He was given permission to do so, with the proviso that Roman soldiers would inspect the site and place a seal on the tomb. Pilate refused the Jews’ request that he post a guard and told them instead to station some of their own temple police.
The body was hastily taken down, transported, and laid to rest. The tomb was closed. The Roman inspectors placed a seal at the entrance. Jewish soldiers from the temple guard were stationed. And some female disciples watched at a discrete distance: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid” (Mark 15:47). From what follows, it is clear that they planned to try to add their personal touch of love and respect after the sabbath passed.
Sometime after sunrise on Sunday morning, they set out on their mournful task. They obviously hadn’t thought things through very well. Though they had assembled spices to anoint Jesus’ body, they were perplexed as to how they would get to him.
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?” (16:1-3).
Their perplexity about a huge stone — not to mention the official Roman seal and the armed guards — blocking their way to the body of Jesus quickly gave way to another sentiment as soon as the tomb site came into view.
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 (16:4-5).
They didn’t go to Joseph’s tomb expecting it to be wide open! They hadn’t fixed their hair for the CNN interviews about Jesus’ resurrection. “Mary, what was the very first thing that came to mind when you saw the stone rolled back from the entrance? Can you describe the feeling?” The word translated “alarmed” (Gk, ekthambethesan) denotes astonishment, shock, fear. It points to the sort of thing that makes eyes get big as saucers, jaws drop, and the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
What do you think ran through their minds at that moment? “He is risen indeed, hallelujah?” I don’t think so! They might have gasped something about those tricky Romans or the priests who weren’t content just to kill Jesus but who had now desecrated his grave and body. They might have feared grave-robbing vandals. What they didn’t think was that Jesus had somehow gotten up and walked out. Dead people don’t get up and walk out of tombs!
As at least some of them summoned the courage to go close enough to look in, they saw somebody in there. It wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t somebody in a shroud. It was a “young man” — later, they surely decided, an angel.
With no thought that Jesus might be alive again — though he had predicted both his death and resurrection to his disciples (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-32; cf. 9:9-10) — the angel who had taken human form in order to appear to them spoke:
“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’” (16:6-7)
The idea of a resurrected Christ didn’t come out of the brain or Peter or Mary or Mark. It came out of the mouth of an angel. “He has risen!” he said. And thus what Christians have called Good News from that day until now began to be proclaimed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the man said. Rome had better be alarmed, for the might, pomp, and circumstance on which its hope was founded had just been mocked. Judaism had better be alarmed, for its notion of right-standing through law and performance had just been overthrown. But for these women and others who had put their hope in Christ, the reasons for fear, dread, and despair were gone. Gone forever! For Jesus was alive.
That Jesus was alive from the dead and would soon be appearing to his disciples again and again in order to establish that fact beyond a reasonable doubt establishes every cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. Jesus is who he says he is. He is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior. He is the only way to the Father. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus’ death has been accepted as full atonement for our sins. When Jesus said “It is finished” on his cross, it really was. Alive from the dead, he had been affirmed by the Father for his saving work. Heaven’s seal of approval was stamped on his finished work. Jesus can be trusted. He had said he would rise from the dead in three days, and — though nobody had believed him — he had done exactly what he said he would do. Now when he tells you that your faith gives you the right to become a child of God (John 1:12), that anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16), or that nothing will be able to snatch you out of his hand (John 10:28), you can believe and know that his word is true. His resurrection proves it beyond a shadow of doubt.
But, but, but . . .
So if Jesus is alive from the dead and if all these things follow from that fact, why are some of us still afraid. We still have unsolved problems. We still make horrible messes. We still have brain-damaged or physically handicapped children. We still have the blind and deaf among us. We still get abused or burned or crushed. We still grieve beside caskets of our parents, mates, and children. We get leukemia and emphysema. We suffer and die.
Many scholars — probably most nowadays — think the Gospel of Mark ends with this verse: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went away and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:8). Even after Easter, even after the angel’s “Don’t be alarmed,” even after Jesus has been raised from the dead — the people he loves can still be found “trembling and bewildered” because “they were [and are yet] afraid.”
Please listen. What I am about to say is profound to the issue of human life in light of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus gives us certain confidence about the final outcome of suffering and fatal accidents, death and mourning, but it does not give full and immediate answers to our present experience of these distressing things.
When Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, we got our first glimpse of the new world in which death doesn’t have the last word, where the suffering of innocent people is vindicated by a Holy God, and where injustices get put right. That peek into our own glorious future grounds our hope, but it does not take away our problems. It confirms our faith, but it does not take away all our trembling, bewilderment, and fear.
Aren’t you glad the biblical narrative is not filled with figures in stained-glass windows but real, flesh-and-blood people like us? Aren’t you glad it doesn’t yield to silly, naive, and glib caricatures of faith but stays with the realism of struggle with which we more naturally identify? And aren’t you glad you can know you are not deficient and faithless just because you are honest enough to admit how real your struggle is today?
In spite of our battles — some of which we lose — Easter guarantees that the war has been won.
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