Sermon December 8th: the Resurrection

Well here we are at the last Sunday of the Semester, and the last chapter of Mark! I must admit that we could have used a couple more Sundays, but I don’t think we’ve done actual violence to Mark’s gospel, and I hope those of you have been here regularly have found this survey helpful—I must say it’s opened my eyes to a few things I hadn’t paid enough attention to before!

All four gospels end with an account of the resurrection, but Mark’s has important differences from the other three. Some scholars consider that Mark’s text originally ended at v 8, and all that comes after was added by someone else. This is because some early manuscripts of Mark end at v 8, and because vv 9–20 are written in a very different style than the rest of the gospel. This is impossible to see in the English translation, of course, but some people who have great familiarity with Ancient Greek say it’s easy to see in the original. And it is the case that some manuscripts that don’t end at v 8 have different endings. Some add one part of vv 9–20, some another, and both parts make sense as independent endings for the gospel. Other mss add all the verses. So the idea that Mark’s contribution ends at v 8 has become very widely accepted. That does not, of course, mean that it is true. The list of falsehoods that have been widely accepted as true at one time or another is an extremely long one. It’s true that a few early copies of Mark’s gospel don’t have vv 9–20, but it’s also true that most early copies do, and whether the ones that don’t are more reliable than those that do is a matter of opinion. The earliest mss we have of Mark’s gospel are from around 200 AD, although we know it was written earlier than that because people are quoting it or referring to it a century earlier. And some of these people quote the disputed verses, so we know they were in mss older than any we now have. We can also say that who wrote them is less important than the fact that the earliest Christians recognised their content as consistent with the apostolic witness to the teaching of Jesus, and that’s how I treat them. If you want to know more about the debate about Mark’s ending, there’s plenty of material to read in the Pitt library.

Which means I have to say something about vv 17f, where Jesus says these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them. And you probably know that there are some churches where a couple of times a year, they will bring poisonous snakes into the service and people can demonstrate their faith by picking one up. Every once in a while you read about someone being bitten, but not often. But that may not be what Jesus is getting at here. Notice that Jesus’s command to preach the gospel is put differently by Mark—or by Peter, remember, whom Mark is actually quoting—than by the other gospel writers; in v 15 Jesus says, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Not just to all people, but to the whole creation. The Greek word used means the entire created universe, stars and planets, angels and men, animals and plants, rocks and water, earth, wind and fire—everything. When man first disobeyed God, it didn’t just affect Adam, it didn’t just affect all mankind, it affected the whole creation. That’s why the New Testament says that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God—once all people have been restored to their right relationship with God, the whole creation will be renewed, and snakes won’t be dangerous, and that’s what will be the sign that the gospel has been fully preached: not that you can handle a snake and get away with it, but that snakes will no longer think of humans as the enemy, and no longer be feared by us as a symbol of Satan— we’ll all be living together in peace, the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den, as we heard Isaiah say. So this verse is not really about what we can do today, but what life will be like when Jesus’s purpose is fulfilled.

But back to the resurrection. Mark’s account begins with three women arriving at the tomb in which Jesus’s body had been placed when it had been taken down from the cross. They are coming to the tomb because in those days it was part of a woman’s rôle in the family to prepare bodies for burial. They didn’t have undertakers; every family had to bury its own dead, and it was the women of the family who usually took care of that. Jesus was taken down from the cross late on Friday afternoon, and the Sabbath began at dusk on Friday, and they weren’t allowed to have anything to do with a dead body on the Sabbath; now it’s Sunday morning, beginning of a new week, and so they come at daybreak to pay their last respects in the time-honored way. They were expecting a problem; in v 3 they are wondering how they will be able to move the stone that blocks the entrance to the tomb. But when they get there, they find the stone already moved, and someone sitting inside, but the slab where the body should have been was empty. The person sitting there looked like a young man dressed in white. And in v 6 this person says to them, Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. Just as He told you. Everything will be just as He said it would be. Well, it’s all very well to say ‘don’t be alarmed,’ but they were alarmed, and they stayed alarmed, and actually ran away, trembling with astonishment.

We can understand that easily enough, I think. These were the women who had waited at the cross till Jesus finally breathed his last; look back at 15.40 and you’ll see the same three names. As far as we know only one of the male disciples who had sworn never to leave Jesus had come anywhere near the cross. These women had seen with their own eyes Jesus’s lifeless body taken down and put in that tomb, they knew better than anyone that Jesus was truly dead. They are the ideal witnesses to His resurrection because they also witnessed His death. This young man in white must either be a member of some gang of grave-robbers, which would have been scary enough, or he was telling the truth, which in many ways is even scarier. People just don’t come back to life once they’re dead, it just doesn’t happen, and even the thought that it might have happened to someone you know would be enough to put the wind up anyone. V 8 tells us that they fled, they ran for their lives. I think I’d have done the same.

V 8 also tells us they were are afraid to tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen and will see them in Galilee. They were afraid of being thought crazy, hysterical. Who could possibly believe them? Verses 10 and 11 tell us that after a while the women found the courage to tell the others, but their fears were confirmed, because the others didn’t believe them. Verses 12f tell us that two other disciples out walking in the country also saw Jesus alive, and they went back and told the rest about it, but they wouldn’t believe them either. And that doesn’t surprise us. It’s a story that we know is hard to believe, and that we can expect people to challenge. But that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to tell it. We are told to share it just as the women were. In v. 15, Jesus tells His followers, even the ones with hearts too hard to believe in the resurrection, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. The whole purpose of the church is to tell people that Jesus isn’t in the tomb, He is risen. We’re to tell this story to others, even if we’re sure they won’t believe it.

People can find lots of good-sounding reasons not to believe it. Sometimes people refuse to believe the Gospel accounts because they’re not all identical. That doesn’t make much sense. If the stories from different witnesses are all identical, you can bet the people telling the story got together to agree about what they would say! Eye-witness accounts always differ in detail, but usually agree in the main elements. The eye-witness accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are exactly like that; the differences over unimportant details are to me one of the most powerful arguments for the truth of the main elements. So we can tell the truth confidently, admitting that it’s hard to believe, but stressing that it really is true. That’s what the first Christians did. Twice in John’s account, he interrupts his story to say something along the lines of “I know it’s hard to believe, but I saw this with my own eyes, I’m telling you the truth”.  Peter often accompanied his telling of the story with variations of the same statement, and so did Paul. The New Testament was written by people who know it’s hard to believe, who didn’t expect their readers to be gullible, but who really wanted their readers to know that they were telling the truth. Paul says it is crucial: he wrote if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are wasting our time this morning if this is just a pretty story. If it isn’t literally true, then Christ is of no significance, and the world outside the church might as well go on ignoring Him and His teachings.

But if what these eye-witnesses are telling us so urgently is true, then what? What does the resurrection mean, if it is true? What it means, of course, is just what the young man in white says: everything will be just as Jesus said it would be—not just that He would rise again on the third day, but everything else He said, too. Of all the things that He could have been wrong about, rising from the dead was the most likely; if He was right about that, He’ll be right about the rest.

Jesus claimed to be the only Son of God, and He claimed that He was the one whom God had appointed to decide how every human being would spend for ever, whether they would live in eternal bliss or eternal emptiness. Those who trusted Him would live in eternal bliss, those who rejected Him would go the other way. Now if Jesus is dead, all these claims about Himself can be ignored. But if Jesus really did rise from the dead, if He really is still alive today, then He can’t be ignored. Everything will be just as He said. Jesus said that He came to earth that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). If He were dead now, His claim to give us life would be meaningless. If He can’t give Himself life, what can He do for us? But if He has proved that life is so much His to give, that it cannot be taken away from Him, then His offer of abundant life now, and eternal life to come, is not an empty offer. It means exactly what it says, and Jesus has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that He can give what He offers. Everything will be just as He said. He said that if we trust in Him our lives will be more than we ever dreamed possible, abundant life. In Mark’s account, those women are still telling the story; they’re telling us, today. This good news is for us. Everything will be just as He said. We can trust Him. Our lives are fulfilled when we put them in His hands. Let’s do it, and let’s never let anyone persuade us to take them back.

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