Martin Luther once spent three days in a deeply gloomy mood because of something that had gone wrong. On the third day his wife, Katie, came downstairs dressed in mourning clothes. “Who died?” asked Martin. “God,” replied Katie. Luther rebuked her, saying, “What do you mean, God is dead? God cannot die.” “Well,” she replied, “the way you’ve been acting I was sure he had!”
The thing is, God did die once, and Martin Luther would be the first to tell you that. God, in Jesus the Christ, was crucified, died and was buried. And on the third day rose again. That’s what we’re celebrating this morning: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The four gospels each tell the story of the resurrection a little differently. Those differences really shouldn’t bother us too much. Each writer was writing to a different audience and relying on different sources. On the main points, though, they are remarkably consistent. Jesus was crucified. He was thoroughly and decidedly dead. His body was not properly prepared for burial when he was laid in the tomb because the Sabbath did not allow enough time for that. The tomb was sealed with a large stone. On the third day the women of his company came to prepare his body and found the stone removed and the tomb empty. They were addressed by an ethereal messenger (or two?) who informed them that Jesus had risen as he told them he would. On these things all the gospels agree.
The Gospel of Matthew’s resurrection account is the most theatrical. There’s an earthquake and an angel comes down to roll the stone away from the tomb which is already empty. The angel then sits on the stone. Matthew says that the soldiers guarding the tomb “shook and became like dead men.” The astonished women who had come to prepare the body of Jesus witness all this and later encounter the risen Jesus as they rush to tell the disciples what they have seen.
Luke’s description of the resurrection is more subdued, but the story continues beyond the empty tomb to describe encounters with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room where the disciples have been laying low.
John’s account is probably the best known and best loved with its touching description of the encounter between Mary and Jesus when she mistakes him for the gardener then realizes who he is when he speaks her name.
It’s not surprising that in years when the Gospel of Mark comes up in the lectionary cycle, most preachers opt to go with the Gospel of John instead. The resurrection account in Mark is so haunting. So uncomfortable. The angel—or young man dressed in a white robe—is there in the empty tomb. He makes the announcement we expect to hear: “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.” And then he adds, “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 far so good. But it’s the ending that leaves us off balance.
“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.” That’s the original ending of the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark, in fact, it’s the original end of the whole gospel.
That ending is so disconcerting that by the late 3rd or early 4th century someone decided to add on a section. These unknown editors wanted the ending of Mark, the oldest and earliest of the gospels, to be more consistent with the other three gospels and, frankly, happier.
But Mark had his reasons for ending the resurrection account and the gospel the way he did.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God is beginning, that it is time for it to become a reality and not just a dream of the prophets. In his teaching, in his sermons, in his healings and his exorcisms, he teaches his followers to confront the social structures, political structures, the religious structure that oppress and exclude people. More than that he invites his disciples to begin to build an alternative way of life built on inclusiveness, generosity and equality.
When Jesus is crucified, it looks like all this has come to an end. But now an empty tomb leaves questions hanging in the air.
It’s as if Mark is saying, “Christ is risen! What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do with that news?”
He has gone ahead of you to Galilee. Back to where all this began. Are you willing to go meet him where he is? Are you willing to go back to the beginning? Are you willing to start over? Are you committed to building the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?
N.T. Wright 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. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”
One of the important themes in the Gospel of Mark is “let those who have eyes, see.” Jesus, in Mark, is forever trying to get his disciples to understand what they are seeing him do and hearing him say. Now he wants them and us to understand what it means that he has been resurrected.
If death cannot hold Christ, then it cannot hold you, either. Not forever. God is, by nature, eternal. We were created in the image of God, so we share in that divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God is love (1 John 4:16), and the Holy Spirit has planted the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5:5, 8:9). Christ is in, with, and under every fiber of our lives. Life is eternal, love is immortal. Because Christ rose, we, too shall rise. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).” That is what his resurrection means for us.
We have all been through a year like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. Because of the pandemic, we’ve faced trials and challenges no one anticipated. Our way of life was radically changed. We have laid dear friends and family into the hope that springs eternal, trusting in this promise of resurrection.
Now, with the vaccines and the virus numbers going in the right direction, people are talking about getting “back to normal.” But wouldn’t it be better for us to be talking about resurrection? Wouldn’t it be better for us to talk—not about resuming our old life—but about new life, and what that will look like and be like, and how we will do it, and how it will be different?
Jesus rose to new life. We are being invited to rise to new life, too. He is going ahead of us, back to the starting point and inviting us to follow, and to join him in the continuing work of building the kingdom of God.
Christ is risen! We have a chance to start over! What are you going to do about it?
In Jesus’ name.