The Rev. Walter Bouman was a pastor, a theologian, an author, and a seminary professor. I came to know him through his ecumenical work. He died in August of 2006 from advanced colon cancer. Walter Bouman was also the cousin of one of our previous bishops, Rev. Stephen Bouman, who is now Director of Evangelical Outreach for the national church. When he preached the homily at his cousin’s funeral, Bishop Bouman revealed that Walter Bouman 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 absolutely true when we read scripture. Whether we hear it in church on Sunday 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. It doesn’t matter if we read early Hebrew scripture from the Old Testament, the Gospel narratives or letters of the New Testament, 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 informing how we interpret its words.
There are resurrection accounts in all four Gospels, although on Easter Sunday we usually read the beautiful account found in the Gospel of John. This year we are reading through the Gospel of Mark, and so I chose to read the account of the resurrection as told by that author. As the Sundays have progressed, we have become used to Mark’s brevity. When we open to that passage 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 a one sentence account of the women apparently recovered enough from their terror to share the story with the other disciples, and another, slightly longer sentence, which alludes to a commissioning of the disciple to share the story. After that appears another title. “The Longer Ending of Mark” followed by ten verses which scholars believe were added by other writers to soften the impact of Mark’s abrupt ending, as well as to provide a correlation to the 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 read scripture knowing only that as 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 to them when left them with no doubt that he had been resurrected from the dead. Thus, the main emotions we would be left with are those experienced by the women as described by Mark – terror, amazement and lost hope – not the most promising or positive place for us to enter into the story. 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 apparently provided for him and the others financially, 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 question 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 whom they 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 force that initially inspired terror and amazement 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? For some there is the fear of aging, of illness, of losing our ability to be independent. For others, fear arises from low self-esteem, from failures we fear we think we cannot overcome, or from changes challenges or even opportunities that present themselves. Some of us are afraid to be vulnerable, to let down our guard, to get to know people as they truly are. Others are afraid to creak open the rusty shutters of their minds to allow for other opinions and ways of doing things. For some the greatest fear is to assert themselves and stand up for what they believe.
In addition to our personal fears there are the specters that haunt humankind – ongoing violence and war, poverty 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 the dead corpses of our fears to escape and be exposed to the light, where they can no longer exist.
We should not be too critical of the terror and awe that the women experienced 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. Others need help, although they want to roll the stone away, they are unable to do so by themselves.
The traditional 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 real life as we experience it. It is almost too easy. Perhaps this spare, tense, raw account of terror and amazement that Mark describes comes closer to what we 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 empower 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 story is authentic 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 can live secure within our knowledge of the paschal mystery because knowing the end of the story allows us to truly live the resurrected life. Amen.