Neatly Wrapped Up… Or Not

How many of you are familiar with the books or the movies of the Lord of the Rings? I grew up with a father who adored the books, so as soon as the first movie came out, our whole family went out to the movie theater together. Now, because we knew the books well, we knew that this movie was just the first of three—a trilogy of movies to match the trilogy of books. We knew this was just the beginning of the story. But, not everyone in the theater knew that.

When the movie ended, there were tons of loose ends left dangling. The mission was incomplete. All the main characters were divided from one another in an attack, some were captured, some were tracking the captured ones, and some drifted down river in a boat. None of them knew whether the others were still alive. When the credits began to roll, a loud voice spoke up from the middle of the theater, using language that I probably should not repeat from the pulpit, but the gist was, “What is this?!! That’s not an ending!!”

Our passage from Mark 16 might get a similar response. The women go to the tomb where Jesus was buried, but instead of Jesus, they find an empty tomb and angels with the message that Jesus is risen. But instead of an encounter with Jesus, like we get in all the other gospels, and instead of the women rushing off to share the good news, like we get in all the other gospels, Mark leaves us with the women fleeing in terror and telling no one what they saw. What is this??! That’s not an ending!!

Now, if you look up the 16th chapter of Mark in your pew Bible, or a Bible at home, you will see about a dozen more verses, describing Jesus’s appearances to the disciples and his ascension. But, you might also see a note in your Bible explaining that these 12 extra verses are not found in the oldest copies of Mark’s gospel that we’ve been able to find and study. It appears that the original gospel stopped here—with the women running away in terror, but that a number of generations later, someone finished reading the gospel, exclaimed, “What is this??! That’s not an ending!!” and tacked on their own ending that summarizes some of the post-resurrection events from the other gospels.

It’s nice to have things wrapped up neatly, after all.

But let’s be honest. Can any story as incredible as the resurrection really wrap up neatly? This is a story in which a dead body disappears and a few frightened women are told that someone who died three days ago is not dead any more. That pretty much punches holes in any of the neat little boxes we carry around to make sense of how the world works. This is not a neat story with a clear ending and simply explanations. This story messes with our sense of reality and upsets the order of creation.

Maybe it’s appropriate to be left wondering “What is this??! This isn’t an ending!” because—no it isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning! The apostle Paul, who was writing before any of the gospels were set onto paper—when they were still being passed by word-of-mouth from community to community, Paul wrote that Jesus is the first fruits of a new creation—the resurrection is not the end of Jesus’ story—it is the beginning of a story of new creation—of God redeeming and transforming the whole world.

We know that this is not the end of the story—we know that the story did not end with these women running away in terror, because we are the evidence that eventually they told someone—eventually they shared the good news those angels told them—eventually they got the word out, because 2000 years later, we know the story, and we are here on Easter morning, telling the story again.

And that’s where I think we discover the power of Mark’s original ending—this ending that is not an ending, but a pause, and ellipsis: “they said nothing because they were afraid, dot…dot…dot…”

This is an ending that invites us to continue the story. Mark doesn’t wrap things up neatly because the story isn’t over—we are part of the story. We can find ourselves in the description of these frightened women, because even if we aren’t standing outside the empty tomb ourselves, we still have only messengers to rely on as we make sense of the resurrection. We hear the words of the angels with these women, and we might find ourselves confused and skeptical with them. When we hear the command to go and tell others that Jesus is risen, our hearts might begin to race, because we are frightened. We don’t want to make fools of ourselves. We don’t want to share news that sounds so unbelievable we aren’t sure we believe it ourselves.
And like those frightened women, we might find that we can’t bring ourselves to tell anyone about Jesus—about an empty tomb—about an ending that turns out to be the beginning of everything.

But, the story does not end with our fear and trembling, either. We know that somehow, at some point those women found a way to share their message. Maybe, like we read in John, Mary Magdalene came back alone and encountered Jesus in person—maybe it was her personal experience of Jesus that gave her the courage to share her story. Or maybe, as we read in more than one gospel, the women dragged the other disciples to the tomb to see for themselves, to join them in their confusion until they all began to make sense of this new situation. Maybe the disciples asked—why are you so jittery, lately—and the women just couldn’t keep it bottled up any more.

Maybe it will be the same for us. Maybe we will find ourselves sharing our own personal experience of God with others—those stories of sensing God’s presence in a time of crisis, or discovering an answer to prayer in a miraculous moment. Maybe some of us will simply drag our friend to church to join us in our confusion and awe as we sort things out together and try to make sense of all the ways we see God at work in the world. Maybe some of us will come out of church in such a different state of mind that people will ask—what happened to you?

However it happens, know that it will—each of us is just as much a part of this story as those frightened women running from an empty tomb. Each of us is wrapped up in this story of resurrection—of new creation. Each of us is a witness to it—here in church, out in the world, in the darkness of our own despair, in the light of love and grace we experience from others, and in the depths of our own hearts. And we will share the story with others, whether it be through words, an invitation to join us at church, or simply a kind gesture—a cup of cold water given to a thirsty soul.

But who would we possibly share the Easter message with? How would we find anyone who hasn’t heard it, yet? Well, yesterday we had 60 kids in this church building for our second annual Easter Egg Hunt. 60 kids!! And half of them were under 5 years old!! There’s a few dozen people we can share the Easter message with right off the bat—through our hospitality and kindness—through the generosity of a free event with lots of fun and love. And there were at least as many adults here with them—parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. There’s another 60 people who may have caught a glimpse of God’s love in the way our church cared for their kids yesterday.

And those are just the people who saw signs or heard word-of-mouth and showed up on our doorstep one day out of the year—can you imagine how many people we might find if we actually go looking? If, when we went to the library, or stopped at the Quick and Easy, or picked up mail at the post office, we stopped and introduced ourselves to strangers, or to acquaintances whose names we’re not sure of. How many of them might be looking for a community where they can know love and acceptance—a welcome like so many of us have known in this congregation? How many of them have written church off because they think Christians are judgmental, or exclusive, or frightening, when we have experienced something so different, here? So let’s go out! Let’s share the good news! Jesus is risen! A new life has begun!
And if you leave here this morning with those words ringing in your ears, but fear thumping in your heart, well then, welcome to the club. You’re in good company. You’re part of the story, just like Mary and the other frightened women. But, this is not the end. It is only the beginning.

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