4/7/2012 Easter Vigil sermon: Who will tell about Jesus’ Resurrection, if we don’t?

Location: St. Andrew’s Burke, VA
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Easter Vigil 2012

Who will tell about Jesus’ Resurrection, if we don’t?

Some New Testament interpreters believe that the entire gospel of Mark was intended to be read at the very first “Easter Vigil.” In the early days of the church, preparation for baptism took a whole year. The people who were preparing for baptism wore special white clothes and spent the entire night before Easter praying for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and their own baptism the next day.

In those days, baptism—becoming a follower of Christ—was a very dangerous act. One could be ostracized or even killed for becoming a Christian, for being baptized. Then, as now, people who were being baptized thought seriously about their faith, making promises to change their way of life and become part of the Christian community. During the night before being baptized—as this theory about Mark’s gospel goes—the Christian community heard the entire story of Jesus as found in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t know if any of you have heard Mark’s gospel narrated by a master storyteller. Enacting Mark’s gospel aloud takes about two hours. By comparison, the words in the verses of Mark that we read tonight is only a very small portion, only about one percent of Mark’s gospel. But these are very important words. These words make us ask, “Who will tell about Jesus’ Resurrection, if WE don’t?

In the first place, there is very good reason to believe that the gospel, as Mark wrote it, ended with tonight’s scripture lesson. This is a theory that has loooooong troubled Christians. Wouldn’t it trouble you—perplex you, even—that the first three witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were so afraid that they told nothing to nobody? This story makes those who hear it think, “But wait, someone HAD to have shared this news, or how could WE know, some two-thousand years later?” Someone HAD to have TOLD OTHERS this wonderful news; Jesus is alive, risen from the dead!

Yes, Christians have long been troubled about this ending, so much so that they have written an not one, but two alternate endings for Mark’s gospel. If you were to open your bible to Mark chapter sixteen, you would see that there are twelve more verses after tonight’s reading, twelve more verses and a footnote that tells all about the variant endings of Mark’s gospel. I’ll let you explore those endings on your own. Tonight I want to focus on the first eight verses of chapter sixteen and share what Mark could have had in mind to end his gospel the way we heard in tonight’s gospel lesson.

The first thing that we notice—when the story ends abruptly at the empty tomb with the women telling nothing to nobody—is that Mark has hooked his audience. Mark has hooked you and me into contemplating what our world would be like if THEY REALLY HAD told nothing to nobody concerning Jesus’ resurrection. This ending raises at least two questions:

  • How will anyone know about Jesus’ resurrection if no one tells them?
    The obvious answer is that “No one else could possibly learn of the most important event in human history—the most important event that ever was, and that ever will be—if no one will tell them. Which raises the second question:
  • What’s stopping these people in the empty tomb from sharing the Good News about Jesus? Our gospel lesson tonight tells us the answer to this question: “terror and amazement had seized them” and “they were afraid.”

In Mark’s time fear was the opposite of faith—the flip side of faith. If a person was afraid, it meant that he or she DID NOT HAVE faith in God, faith that God would act in human history, faith that all the details and cares of our lives are in God’s hands. This wasn’t just Christian culture, or Jewish culture. If a person was afraid, this was a sign that they didn’t have faith in whatever God they worshiped. So the followers of Jesus who left his empty tomb in fear and amazement were showing that they did not have faith in God, did not have faith in Jesus.

In those days, as in ours, courage was the antidote to fear. But back then people knew better than we do today that that courage is divinely given. Fear is something that we just cannot overcome by ourselves, without the courage that God gives us. We need God to help us overcome our fear and to follow Jesus, come what may.

Throughout Mark’s gospel those who followed Jesus showed that they were afraid. On several occasions Jesus even scolded his disciples for their lack of faith, a lack that he blamed on their “hardness of heart.” Hardness of heart is a condition to which we humans fall prey all too often. Hardness of heart comes, for example, when we refuse to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Hardness of heart comes when we insist that we can take courage and have faith all by ourselves, that we don’t need any of that God-given courage Thank-You-Very-Much! Hardness of heart comes when we value what other people think of us so much that we are afraid what would happen if we told something to somebody about Jesus’ resurrection.

How do we get rid of our fear and our hardness of heart? After walking on the water, Jesus told his disciples to “take courage,” which is to say, have faith in him. And just outside Jerusalem, on their final trip there with Jesus, his disciples encountered a blind man who begged for mercy—for courage—from Jesus, a blind man named Bartimaeus. Those who followed Jesus told the blind man to “shut up,” but he cried out even more loudly. And when Jesus stopped and told his followers to call the blind man to him, they said, “Take courage, get up, he is calling you.” This was another way of saying, “Have faith, get up, het is calling you.” Bartimaeus asked Jesus to heal him, and he ended up followed Jesus on the way of discipleship.

At the ending of his gospel narrative, Mark has told the story of the empty tomb in such a way that he is reminding his followers—the very followers who had been terrified at his walking on the water and the very followers who had encountered Bartimaeus—that they needed to “take courage—have faith—get up, he is calling you.”

At the ending of his gospel, Mark has told the story of the empty tomb in such a way that he is reminding his followers—his disciples who are in THIS room tonight—that we need to “take courage—have faith—get up, he is calling you.” At St. Andrew’s, Jesus is calling us to join him in new ventures in ministry. We don’t know, as yet, what those new ventures will be, but we can pray that we will continue to accept courage, the courage that comes from God, and that we will overcome whatever fear we might have, allow our hearts to be softened, and tell others about Jesus’ resurrection.

Tonight we will baptize four new members into the “household of God.” William and Sean are brothers, who are five and three years old. Caitlyn and Jonathan, who are not related (at least not yet), are both three months old. The baptism of children and infants reminds us that there is nothing that we can do, by ourselves, to earn God’s favor. God’s love is freely given, just as divine courage is absolutely free for the asking. Tonight we will promise to tell these four children the story of Jesus’ death for us on the cross, and of his resurrection. Who else will you tell? And who will tell them, if you don’t?

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