In the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens had the audacity to die without leaving notes about his intended ending. No one knows whodunit. There is no flipping to the last page to read the ending, because there is no last page. And there are certainly many suspects, many motives, many things that look particularly suspicious. So it was quite inconsiderate of Mr. Dickens to take leave of this life without wrapping up this last story. Very frustrating for his devoted followers.
That’s a bit how the original ending of the gospel of Mark feels, as well. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome buy spices to anoint Jesus’ body. They walk out to the tomb just after sunrise, expecting the large stone to be covering the entrance to the tomb, but find to their surprise that it has been rolled away. And then there’s the matter of this young man in white inside. As with almost every encounter between human and divine figures, the first words out of his mouth are “Do not be alarmed.” Because of course they are. The man in white tells them that Jesus is raised from the dead and will meet them in Galilee, and they are to go tell all the disciples, including Peter. The women flee in terror and amazement and say nothing to anyone.
So unsatisfying! The story is left raw and unfinished. We want to flip to the last page—a last page that isn’t there—and say, “No, this is how it really ended.”
So now what?
Clearly the women must have told somebody something, because word did get out about the resurrection. Clearly there is more to the story, and the story is supposed to be good news. The gospel of Mark begins like this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) But how is this ending good news? It is far from “and they all lived happily ever after.”
This is about the most unfinished ending possible. We don’t see the risen Christ, the disciples still don’t know he’s risen, Peter must still be feeling in the doghouse because he denied Jesus three times, and the women flee, terrified, and stay silent about what they have seen. Nothing is resolved.
Early Christians found this ending unsatisfactory as well, and we know this because they tacked on several different endings to the manuscript to make the story’s loose ends tie up better. If you look up the last chapter of Mark in your pew Bibles (page 55 in the New Testament), you’ll see that one sentence after this reading is called “The shorter ending of Mark,” and another four paragraphs are called “The longer ending of Mark.” These are both later additions. They are examples of Christians in the first few centuries saying, “No, no, no, we can’t let the story end there.”
But we have to assume that the writer of Mark’s gospel ended it there on purpose. Maybe it’s up to us to finish the story, to make it the “good news” promised in Mark 1:1. We get to write our own ending: like The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If you have ever seen the musical made out of Dickens’s unfinished mystery, you may recall that the audience gets to vote who the guilty party is, so there are seven possible endings to the show. And audience participation is what makes the difference.
In the same way, we Christians do not just read these ancient texts and consider what happened 2,000 years ago. We also are invited to ask how this story continues to play out in our lives and in our world today, in 21st-century Seattle. Mark’s gospel invites audience participation, because the story isn’t over.
Jesus’ ministry was about preaching the good news of God’s love for everyone. His ministry was about healing the sick. It was about feeding the hungry. It was about forgiveness and love and inclusion of those on the margins. It was about speaking truth to power in a time of oppression. Did he accomplish everything? Was he able to check any of these issues off his to-do list? Hunger: solved. Sickness: yep, took care of that. No. These things are with us always. Which means this story is always waiting for us to write an ending.
Maybe this open ending is part of the reason the women were so afraid. They came out to the tomb for some closure to Jesus’ life, death, and ministry. He had shown them a world that was possible if they were willing to do the work and take the risks and love beyond all boundaries. They followed willingly because he was such a dynamic leader. But he paid the price for upsetting the powers that be, and those powers executed him. Jesus’ death was also the death of a dream for a new kind of world, where all would be treated well, no one was oppressed, no one was too rich or too poor, the sick were healed, and the marginalized were brought into the center—all were seen and heard and loved. The women were traumatized by Jesus’ death and deeply sad, but they thought it was all over. As D. Cameron Murchison writes, “So those first to the tomb thought they were off the costly hook of discipleship only to discover—to their terror and amazement—the challenge still before them.” [Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), B2, 356.]
The women discover that the dream lives on. The need for justice and love continues. The work is still there to be done. And it is still dangerous, still costly. Only this time they think their teacher and friend Jesus will not be there to lead the way. How confusing to get the message that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. It’s as if the gospel ends with … [dot dot dot] “Stay tuned for further adventures.”
This story of resurrection is 2,000 years old. What does resurrection mean for us now, in the 21st century? How does this story get up and walk around this sanctuary and breathe life into us here today?
Like the women at the tomb and the other disciples, we get to write our own ending. The story of Jesus and his world-changing ministry does not stop at the cross. Because God’s love cannot be stopped by evil and hate. God’s children continue to suffer from oppression, disease, poverty, injustice, racism, sexism, environmental disaster, and all the other forces that push people the margins. Margaret A. Farley writes,
Christianity … is a religion of resistance and a religion of hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death, that can withstand whatever the forces of evil do against it, and that can hold suffering even as it struggles to alleviate it. The God of Christians is not an arbitrary ruler who demands the price of suffering and death, but a God who makes possible all of our loves, as well as our resistance to evil. The meaning of the cross can be understood finally only within the whole of the good news of the promise of God to overcome terror, enfold us in Life, and dwell with us forever.” (Feasting on the Word, B2, 182, 184.)
On Easter Sunday we celebrate a loving God whom death cannot contain, who calls us to be disciples, to spread the good news, to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, feed the hungry, and work for systemic change to bring about a better world for everyone.
When I was about 13, I wanted a faith where I could flip to the last page and understand what it was I was supposed to believe in order to be saved and go to heaven. It took me a while to realize that my faith journey is not that simple. There is no last page with all the answers. There is me saying yes to God, and then we write the book together, wrestling with lots of good questions all along the way.
At this moment we are being told that the solution to school shootings is to arm our teachers so they can take down intruders. At the same time we see how fear and adrenaline and firearms and conscious or unconscious racism combine in police shootings of people of color. More firearms are not the answer. There is work to do here for those who would spread Jesus’ good news of God’s love for all.
Our planet is groaning under the burden of pollution and environmental degradation and elevated carbon emissions. Yet our culture tells us we need more and more stuff, need to travel more, need bigger houses, newer, shinier, better everything. Our culture says we are incomplete or inadequate unless we are drowning in stuff. Jesus’ good news is that God loves us just as we are, and all that stuff actually comes between us and God. That is a countercultural voice in the world today. There is work to do here for the resurrected Christ.
The number of refugees in the world is somewhere around 60 or 70 million people. They need housing, food, water, jobs, new lives, acceptance in new places, respect. When that does not happen, there is an increased danger of young people becoming radicalized and turning to violence. There is work to do here for the resurrected Christ.
This week we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which will be the focus of our worship service next Sunday. Yet we continue to see racism, voter suppression of people of color, lack of educational opportunities for people of color, shorter life spans, and so on. There is work to do here for the resurrected Christ.
My friends, that resurrected Christ depends on you and me to pick up the work. Jesus continues to lead the way. We can run away in terror, like the women at the tomb, and say nothing to anyone. Or we can say yes to Jesus, risks and all, and show up, proclaiming the good news. Mark’s gospel doesn’t have a tidy ending. It’s up to us to write it for ourselves.
Happy Easter! Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.