Easter 2015

Mark 16:1-8

This is it! This is what we are all about – this is why we come together each week to worship, why we gather to study the Bible, why we have youth group and a food pantry, why we have this building, why we are committed to 200 more years for Providence Christian Church. We are people of the Resurrection. If Jesus’ story had ended with his crucifixion, he most likely would have been forgotten – another Jew crucified by the Roman Empire in a bloody century that witnessed thousands of such executions. The Apostle Paul even said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” 1 Cor 15.14

For all of Lent we have been studying the Last Week of Jesus as recorded by the Gospel of Mark. We started on Sunday and we end today on the following Sunday when the tomb was found empty. As we prepare to listen to the story of the Resurrection as told by Mark, I ask you to think about the preunderstanding of the resurrection you bring with you this morning. What you know and believe about Easter is the product of the Resurrection stories from all four gospels. You add to those stories the filter of preaching, teaching, hymns and liturgy, as well as, television shows and movies, books and your own life.

Mark gives us the first narrative of the resurrection – his was the first written down, the oldest and also the shortest, only 8 brief verses. Matthew gives us more in 20 verses, Luke 53 and John’s account is 56 verses. Let’s read Mark’s account together now…

When Mark wrote his gospel it ended here, at verse 8, very abruptly. Some people have speculated that he was killed and was not able to finish his gospel or that the original copy was mutilated, the ending lost, but it could also be that he meant to end it there wanting us to finish it the story.

The women had come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body because there was no time to do it Friday. The Sabbath started at sundown and work was forbidden so they came early Sunday morning to the place they had watched Joseph lay his body. As they walked to the tomb they talked about how they were going to get that heavy stone out of the way.  But the stone had already been moved so they enter the tomb and encountered a young man who told them the good news, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here….Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee, there you will see him….” But the women were so scared and amazed that they told no one. That is it – the story ends with the women who have been so faithful to Jesus, the ones who Mark reported cared for and supported Jesus, the ones who were present at the crucifixion and stayed until his body was safely placed in the tomb, the ones that over and over show great faith and model for everyone what a follower of Jesus should look like, failed him too. The story ends with the failure of the last ones for whom we have faith.

When Mark wrote his account of the resurrection, he did not report any appearance of the risen Jesus. The young man in a white robe told the women that Jesus would meet them in Galilee and so Mark leaves us with the hope that did happen, but he did not report it. Mark’s ending was too abrupt and unacceptable for the early followers and so in the second century a longer ending was added which made it more like the other three gospels which all tell their own, unique resurrection encounters. But when we compare Mark’s account to the other gospels we are left with many questions:

Was there one angel at the tomb or two (Luke)?

Was there an earthquake (Matthew)?

Were guards placed at the tomb by the Romans?

Did the women run and tell the other disciples or in their fear keep it to themselves?

Did the disciples meet the risen Christ in Jerusalem or Galilee?

Who did he appear to first – the women together or Mary Magdalene alone?

Did all the different reported resurrection appearances happen?

Some of us grew up learning that every detail of the Gospels is factually, literally and infallibly true. Others of us have come to have a softer understanding knowing that there are many differences in the Gospel accounts. Others of us struggle to believe any of it really happened and see all of it as fiction, especially the resurrection story.

What really happened – we will never know. There was not a video camera posted at the tomb and decades passed before written accounts began to be circulated. So whether you believe Mark’s account or John’s, or you struggle to believe any of it, or you fall somewhere in between – what matters is NOT the facts about what happened or how it happened but what it means, what it means.

On Friday I attended a community Good Friday service with some others from Providence. The preacher gave us explanations that he said people throughout history have given to explain why the tomb was empty: that Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples, that Jesus was not really dead and pushed his way out of the tomb and that it was actually aliens who abducted his body. The preacher then very logically laid out why those things could not have happened which he deduced proves the resurrection. His sermon was interesting, if unusual and it added to my resurrection thinking this week. But, I am not sure that hearing a logical defense like his would turn a skeptic into a believer of the resurrection.

Indeed, it is my belief that the facts, the details are not what is important – but the meaning.  Why did these gospel writers take the time to write their gospels and risk their lives to tell his story? Why did Paul travel to different countries to tell people about Jesus, enduring torture and eventually death? Why for 2,000 years have people continued to tell his story – to start churches, to study, worship and pray to Him?

Something so incredible happened that Sunday that the world was forever changed. We do not need to get caught up in the details or the facts or the science – we need only to focus on the message – on the meaning.

Ya know Jesus was known for telling a lot of stories called parables. One of the best known is about the parable of the prodigal son. Maybe it was based on a true story or maybe it was completely made up, but either way the point was the meaning that God loves unconditionally and always welcomes us; even when we have run away and turned our backs, even when we have sinned and disgraced ourselves and our family – God loves us and welcomes us home.

The Resurrection is key to our faith – not the details of how it could have possibly happened – but the meaning. Jesus, who was crucified has been raised. Jesus who was killed by the hate of humans was raised by the love of God. Christ lives and “you will see him,” the angelic figure said. Jesus lives and continues to be experienced. He is no longer a figure of flesh, confined to time and space but a reality that can be encountered anywhere at any time.

The disciples and other followers encountered him. Paul experienced the risen Christ. He said, “I have seen the Lord.” Many saints through the centuries have also seen Christ. There are books full of stories about people’s encounters with Jesus and there are many more that have not been shared publicly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and so many others had personal experiences with Jesus.

Barbara Bradley Haggerty, a skeptic journalist wrote of an encounter that she had with Jesus while she was interviewing someone for a Times magazine article. In her interview she asked, “Kathy, how can you possibly be so cheerful when you’ve got this awful disease?”

“It’s Jesus,”Kathy said. “Jesus gives me peace.”

“A guy who lived two thousand years ago?  Haggerty asked. “How can that be?”

”Jesus is as real to me as you are,” she explained, “He’s right here, right now.”

Right Haggerty thought…. As Kathy talked the night darkened and the streetlamp next to their bench cast a circle around them. Haggerty recounted, “My body responded before my mind, alerting me to some unseen change, a danger perhaps. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and my heart start beating a little faster. Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened, and I wondered whether a clear, dense mist had rolled in from the ocean. The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy. Neither of us spoke. Gradually, and ever so gently, I was engulfed by a presence I could feel but not touch. I was paralyzed. I could manage only shallow breaths. After a minute, the presence melted away. I waited for the earth to steady itself. I was exhilarated, as the first time I skied down an expert slope, terrified and oddly happy that I could not turn back. Those few moments, reoriented my life. The episode left a mark on my psyche that I bear to this day.” Her encounter with Jesus turned out to be only one of several such encounters she would have. “You will see Him,” promised the angel.

A friend of mine was in a dark, suffering time in her life that included much pain. She was alone, laying on her back with her eyes closed, praying for relief when she felt someone touch her feet. She quickly opened her eyes and saw Jesus standing at her feet – He was just standing there touching her, blessing her, filling her with peace and love. “You will see Him.”

The facts and details of these stories cannot be confirmed, they were not filmed or even corroborated by other people. There is no proof that they happened. And some of us are very uncomfortable with claims of such experiences and visions. In our modern Western culture, we tend not to think very highly of visions or experiences like these, we think they are mental disturbances or hallucinations that nothing to do with reality or maybe there is some scientific explanation. But the people who have experienced such visions, such seeing tell us that there is nothing more real or meaningful that can happen.

“You will see Jesus,” was the promise given by the angelic figure at the tomb.

But many of us have not “seen Jesus” while we have prayed or felt his presence in a way that has made the hairs of our neck stand on end. Many of us have struggled with the historical facts surrounding Jesus, especially with the resurrection part.

A very wise woman at the end of her life said, “I used to question and debate the details of Jesus’ birth, the miracles he is said to have performed, and his resurrection — until I realized that none of those details matter.”

A very wise Bible Scholar, who dedicated her life to studying the New Testament, to studying Jesus, publishing many articles and books, once said – “I don’t define Christ – I worship Him.”

The gospels were not written to entertain us or to provide a history lesson. They were written to share the character of God with us and make a difference in our lives. As the gospel of John says, “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Resurrection is the foundation of our faith – not how it could have possibly physically happened but what it means. It means life, it means light, it means love and it happened so that through believing YOU may have life and light and love.

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