The Rev. Walter Bouman was a pastor, a theologian, an author, and a seminary professor who was also active in ecumenical work. He was the cousin of one of our previous bishops, Rev. Stephen Bouman, who is now Director of Evangelical Outreach for the ELCA. Walter died in 2006 from advanced colon cancer. When he preached the homily at his cousin’s funeral, Bishop Bouman revealed that Walter loved to read mystery novels, and he had the curious habit of reading the last chapter first. Whenever people asked him why he wanted to know the solution before even entering into the mystery, he explained that we read stories differently when we know the ending.
That is true of the Easter story. Whether we hear it in church or read it on our own, whether we are very familiar with the entire Bible or only know scattered texts, Christians know the end of the passion story of Jesus. We already know that the ultimate miracle performed by God is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead. We cannot hear or read scripture without the reality of the resurrection influencing our interpretation of its words.
There are resurrection accounts in all four Gospels, although on Easter Sunday we often read the beautiful account found in the Gospel of John. We are in lectionary Year B when our gospel readings are from the Gospel of Mark, so I chose the account of the resurrection as told by that author. As the Sundays have progressed, we have become used to Mark’s brevity compared to the other gospel writers. When we look at the Easter story in the gospel, we see immediately after the last verse we heard today there is a heading “The Shorter Ending of Mark” followed by this verse:
“And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
That’s all there is – Mark’s brief Easter story followed by one sentence assuring us that the women apparently recovered enough from their terror to share the story with the other disciples, and another, slightly longer sentence, which alludes to the commissioning of the disciples to share the story across the Roman Empire. After that appears another title. “The Longer Ending of Mark” followed by ten verses which scholars believe were added by others to soften the impact of Mark’s abrupt ending, as well as to provide a correlation to the post resurrection stories told in the other Gospels.
But let’s imagine for a moment that the Gospel According to Mark, as originally written, with its very abrupt ending, was the only gospel in the Bible. What if we only knew what Mark tells us about the end of the story of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Unlike the other gospel narratives, there is no sense of his followers slowly coming to grasp the significance of his resurrection, there is no description of his post-resurrection appearances which left them with no doubt that he had been resurrected from the dead. We would be left with the same emotions Mark tells us the women experienced – terror, amazement and no proof other than the empty tomb and the promise of the angel. How could this account of the resurrection, standing by itself, enable and empower us to live the resurrected life?
The only disciples present are the women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. A few verses earlier, Mark describes these women as being faithful followers of Jesus, women who provided for him and the others financially, and who were present at the foot of the cross – the only ones, along with his mother Mary, who remained with Jesus through his agony until he died. In their grief, there is only one thing they can do for him, and that is to follow Jewish burial customs and anoint the body with spices and perfumes. Their concern that morning was “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”
The tomb represented their worst fear come true, because within it lay the dead body of the one in whom they had placed all their hope. Their grief was intense, their fear real, their hope lost. Yet when they arrived, they found that the stone had already been rolled away. Some power beyond their understanding, some unknown force, had rolled the stone away and freed the trapped body inside, leaving the dark tomb empty.
What are our worst fears? What does that sealed tomb represent for us today? It may be the fear of aging, of illness, of losing our ability to be independent. Fear may arise from low self-esteem, from failures we think we cannot overcome, or from changes, challenges or even new opportunities that present themselves. Some are afraid to be vulnerable, to let down our guard, to let people know us as we truly are. Others are afraid to creak open the rusty shutters of our minds to allow for other opinions and ways of doing things. For some the greatest fear is to assert ourselves and stand up for what we believe.
In addition to personal fears there are the specters that haunt humankind – ongoing violence and war, poverty, hunger and homelessness, racism, sexism, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. All of these fears, personal and global, are locked in that dark tomb, just waiting for someone to roll away the stone and allow those fears to escape and be exposed to the light, where they can no longer exist.
It seems natural that the women were afraid when they discovered that empty tomb. Sometimes new-found emptiness evokes a response of terror and amazement before we can adjust to the banishment of our fears and the new, shared opportunity to live the resurrected life. Sometimes it feels safer to leave things as they are, to keep that stone tightly in place and resign ourselves to forever grieve over lost opportunities. At times, although we want to roll the stone away, we are unable to do so without help.
The Easter Gospel from John reveals the poignant moment when Mary Magdalene recognizes the voice of Jesus. Her grief and sadness are washed away and she is empowered to share the good news of his resurrection with the others. It is a beautiful story, yet it may not always reflect life as we so often experience it. Perhaps this spare, tense, raw account of terror and amazement that Mark describes comes closer to what we may experience when we confront our fears.
Who will roll the stone away? That is the challenge that Mark offers. He assures us in his blunt style that the proclamation of salvation made possible by Jesus’ resurrection is “sacred and imperishable.” That salvation is there for all who believe that the tomb was empty because Jesus died for our sin and rose from the dead so that we might all share in the gift of eternal life. That gift empowers us with the courage to roll the stone away and let of all our worse fears that are trapped inside escape out into the light of resurrection, where they will be transformed from insecurity into confidence, from stubbornness to cooperation, from selfishness to generosity, from evil to good, from intolerance to understanding, from acts of violence to acts of kindness.
Mark’s gospel is unique because he tells the unvarnished truth – it isn’t easy to be a disciple of Christ, we will at times be paralyzed by terror and amazement. Bishop Bouman described his cousin Walter as one who lived with the sure and certain hope in that sacred and imperishable gift that Mark promises will be ours if we believe. For Walter, knowing the end of the story allowed him to live his life with the courage to roll the stone away from the tomb that imprisoned not only his own personal fears but also many of the specters that haunt human society. His life made a difference in this world. Like his habit of reading the end of mysteries first, our knowledge of the cross and the empty tomb gives meaning to our everyday lives. We are blessed to know not just Mark’s version of the resurrection, but also the accounts in the three other gospels which describe the reassuring post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. We can live with hope and joy, confident in the future, because knowing the end of the story allows us to truly live the resurrected life. Amen.