You may have noticed that I did not read the last two sentences of the Gospel reading, as printed in the lectionary insert. It was not an accident due to Holy Week exhaustion; I omitted them because they are not, in fact, part of the canonical Bible. The original version of Mark’s Gospel ended with the words, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end! Now, the early Church didn’t like this abrupt cliffhanger of an ending, and two different appendices were proposed in order to give the Gospel a more satisfying ending: the so-called “shorter ending,” consisting of the two sentences in the insert that I didn’t read; and the “longer ending,” consisting of verses 9 through 20, as found in modern printed Bibles. Very early on, you see, the Church had decided to go with the longer ending, and those two sentences tacked on to the end of verse 8 were scrapped. Unfortunately, an editor at Church Publishing Incorporated seems not to have gotten the memo!
With that out of the way, let’s look a little closer at the eight verses that I did read. We are told that three women got up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to ready Jesus’ body for burial. He had been so hastily entombed that his body had not been washed and anointed with perfume, as was the custom. According to Jewish belief, the soul of the departed lingered for three days after death. So, they would have believed that Jesus’ spirit would have been aware of the fact that they were lovingly fulfilling their duty as members of his unofficial extended family.
The women clearly put some thought into what they would need. The story mentions how they went out and bought aromatic spices in order to perfume the body. But they forgot one rather important fact: the tomb was sealed with a very large and very heavy stone. It is only as they are walking to the tomb that they remember this little detail. They don’t have a team of strong men with them. They don’t even have a crow bar. And the chances of success are pretty minimal. Now, reasonable people would have turned back at this point and rounded up a work crew. But the three women do not, in fact, turn back. They just keep going. Were they being foolish? Or did they just have faith?
Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he was buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the first Easter Day, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for his Son—and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.
But faith is such a tricky matter! If we watch the news coming out of Syria or Egypt or Russia or Sweden, it is ever so easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would torture and kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace lay dead and buried. But it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word.
We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today for one reason and one reason only: that doubters of every generation might know the truth about what God did on that first Easter Day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life. Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and the most convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, believable portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted both to his death and to the mystery of the empty tomb.
The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the empty tomb. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand, while Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle.
Easter Service: Sun. March 27, 10 a.m. Incarnation Episcopal Church, 1750 29th Avenue, San Francisco
Easter Day is the greatest feast of the Christian Year. This is a time of great celebration as we rejoice in our redemption. Join us in the joyous celebration. The service includes special music followed by a festive reception.
The account of the Resurrection found in John’s Gospel holds a certain distinction. It is the only Gospel account that can be read at Easter in every year of our liturgical calendar. This Resurrection account is distinct in another way as well. It is by far the most vivid account of the events of that day, with details that distinguish it from the other three Gospels. Those details merit some attention. So, for the first part of this sermon, I would like to give a running commentary of the story that you just heard proclaimed, with a special focus on Mary Magdalene. Think of it as being like the director’s commentary you find on some DVDs.
Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb before the sun has even risen and finds the stone rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. She jumps to the conclusion that grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ corpse. She panics. Without even looking in the tomb, she runs to Peter to report.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple (who was with him at the time) race to the tomb. Like two children, they race. The Beloved Disciple gets there first, but then balks, cautiously peeking into the tomb but not entering. Peter, never one to give much thought before acting, barges right in. They find the tomb empty, except for the linen cloths that had been wrapped around the body of Jesus. We are told that at that moment the Beloved Disciple believes but does not understand. Evidently, Peter doesn’t know what to think. They both go home, one believing and one just perplexed.
At some point, Mary returns to the tomb. Perhaps she followed behind the two disciples during their footrace, unable to keep up with the boys. We find her standing desolate, weeping. She waits till Peter and the Beloved Disciple leave the scene before she dares to peek into the tomb herself. Instead of seeing the grave linens, she sees two angels sitting on the shelf where Jesus’ body had been laid. Everywhere else in the Bible, the appearance of angels causes fear and trembling. But Mary is so numb that the divine messengers don’t seem to make any impression on her at all. Speaking in unison, they ask why she weeps. (Although surely, they knew the answer.) She shares her fear that the body of her beloved teacher has been stolen.