Messengers of the Resurrection

A first year student in a Catholic seminary was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before, he was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said, “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said, “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” He said, “Then there is no reason to tell you. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

Now the dean was angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will be asked to leave the seminary.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced, “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said, “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed.”

 

(Of course, I’m not going to end here.)

And the gospel writers tell the story a little differently, but it is still the same story. They wrote for those who don’t know. But for those of us who think we know, we hear the gospels new every time. The gospel writers are very clear what day of the week it was when the women found Jesus’ tomb empty. It was the first day of the week, Sunday. That is why Christians worship on Sunday. Every Sunday, we celebrate the resurrection, even in Lent. The resurrection of Christ Jesus is the focal point of our faith. It is the game changer for Jesus’ followers and for the world.

 

But even Jesus’ friends found it hard to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Next Sunday we will hear the famous story of Thomas not believing his friends after they told him that they saw Jesus with their own eyes. The whole idea is just too fantastic to believe. What makes this even more interesting is that Thomas saw some pretty amazing things while he was traveling with Jesus. But someone being alive after he was dead was just too much – even though Thomas saw Lazarus walk out of his tomb.

 

Yet here we are. Easter Day becomes a magnet of worship. This day we worship with more joy and pomp than on most Sundays. (We saved the smells and bells for last night.) This day is really special.

 

Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even though the gospel writers agree on the day of week, they disagree about who it was that traveled to Jesus’ tomb that morning. But in all the accounts, one name figures promptly and consistently, Mary Magdalene. For centuries, Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle to the apostles. It was Mary who carried the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It was Mary who persisted in this glorious event in the face of skepticism and disbelief. Mary not only was Jesus’ messenger, she was more faithful than the apostles.

 

Of course it all started innocently enough. The women who saw Jesus crucified and buried bought spices Saturday evening for Jesus’ anointing. The next morning, Mary Magdalene and her companions went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. To give Jesus a proper burial that was so rushed on the Friday before. Their concern was not oiling Jesus’ lifeless corpse, certainly not a very appealing job, but how they were going to move the rock at the tomb’s entrance. Perhaps some passerby would be kind enough to do so, even if the body was that of a condemned man.

 

But lo and behold, the stone was already removed. What good fortune! But instead of seeing Jesus’ body inside the tomb, there was a youngster sitting on the slab. It is interesting that Mark is very specific about where this young man was sitting – on the right side. Is Mark implying that Jesus’ throne was transferred from the cross to the slab? If so, then the position of honor is at the monarch’s right side. This young fellow is Jesus’ right hand man.

 

The right hand man has a message for the women. First, don’t be alarmed. Don’t be frightened. Second, the obvious: Jesus ain’t there. Third, go tell Peter and the disciples to go to Galilee. It is there that Jesus will meet up with them. Since the young man was a messenger he might be a being who specializes in giving divine messages, an angel.

 

This was all too much for the women. Ignoring the messenger’s first message, they are alarmed. They are frightened. They didn’t just leave the tomb. They ran for their lives. They were so scared that they kept the event to themselves.

 

This is where the oldest versions of Mark’s gospel end. Later versions add resurrection appearances, likely because later scribes were uncomfortable with Mark’s abrupt ending. They add excerpts from the other gospels to Mark’s gospel. They want to tidy it up.

 

Of course the women didn’t keep the story to themselves for long. They had to tell or else the Jesus’ followers would never know what happened. And Mark would not have known what to write when he describes the encounter.

 

Maybe the true miracle of Jesus’ resurrection is not what happened with Jesus. The true miracle is that Jesus’ followers believed the story. It wasn’t immediate, but it did take. We too are Jesus’ followers. Centuries of Christians have heard the story and believe. And at this time of the year, every year, we hear the story again.

New Testament scholar and former bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright says, “Almost everywhere else in the New Testament, where you find people talking about Jesus’ resurrection, you find them also talking about our own future resurrection, the final hope that one day we will be raised as Jesus has been raised.

“But the Gospels never say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death’ (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die’ (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.’

“No: insofar as the event is interpreted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it has a very ‘this-worldly’ meaning, relating to what is happening here and now. ‘Jesus is raised,’ they say, ‘therefore he is the Messiah; he is the true Lord of the whole world; therefore we, his followers, have a job to do: we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world.’

“It is not, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore look up into the sky and keep looking because one day you will be going there with him.’ Many hymns, prayers, and Christian sermons have tried to pull the Easter story in that direction, but the line of thought within the Gospels themselves is, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.’”[1]

Maybe Mark’s intention with such a blunt ending is to say to those of us who hear his version of the story is that we who hear this story are to do what the women did not do. We are to tell the story. They fled and kept it to themselves. We are the half of the room who nodded, “yes.” So maybe we should go and tell the story.

 

And that story begins with an acclamation: Alleluia. Christ is risen!


[1] N. T. Wright goes further into the bodily Resurrection in “Heaven Is Not Our Home.”

 

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