“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Mark 16:8
When I was a little girl, at night I would often see a shadow in the upper corner of my bedroom. It was just some trick of how the moonlight came through the window and bounced off the furniture, but it looked exactly like a man lying down on the ceiling. My logical, rational self knew that it wasn’t a real person, but the logical, rational self doesn’t do its best work in the middle of the night. That shadow scared me. For a long time I was convinced it would come to life and grab me.
That’s the thing about fear. No matter how much we try to reason with ourselves, it can get the better of us. The rapid heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the racing mind at 2:00 in the morning. Sometimes we just can’t control it.
It’s one of the things I love about the Easter story from the Gospel of Mark. We have these three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome. They are coming to the tomb early in the morning with spices for Jesus’ body, so we know they have a certain fortitude. It takes courage to show up and anoint a corpse. I don’t see Peter or any of those other guys heading to the tomb at sunrise.
The women aren’t even talking about the horrific events of the last few days. They’re focused only on practical matters. How will they get that heavy stone rolled away?
So put yourself in their position as they get closer. The stone has already been moved? Who would have done such a thing?
And then they’re close enough to look inside, where they see not the dead body they were expecting, but a young man in a white robe. They were alarmed, it says. I bet. I’m sure “alarmed” is an understatement.
The young man has good news for them: “He has been raised; he is not here.”
It’s good news, except that it makes no sense. What the young man is saying makes…no…sense. The reaction of the women, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. They are afraid: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Almost every word in that sentence highlights their fear. They are seized with terror. They are afraid. Of course they ran. I would have too.
If you were to open your Bibles to the Gospel of Mark, you’ll find that there are a few more verses in Chapter 16, this final chapter – a couple of stories of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and to some other followers. But scholars agree that everything after what we heard this morning was added later. What we heard today was the original ending of Mark. It ends with fear.
When Hollywood looks to make a movie about resurrection, Mark is not the version they choose. Hollywood prefers resolution, a clear ending. Even when people in movies must say goodbye, they do so with memorable parting words. Think Casablanca’s “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” or E.T.’s “I’ll be right here.”
Hollywood would never go for three terrified women running down the road. For heaven’s sake, in this version Jesus doesn’t even show up for his own resurrection.
All those accounts of Jesus appearing after his resurrection? They come later – in other gospels, other versions of the story. They’re good stories, and we’ll hear several of them in the coming weeks. But today, on this Easter morning, all we get is an empty tomb and some terrified women.
And that’s what makes it so beautiful. That empty tomb meets us right in the middle of our lives.
Because we all understand fear. Fear is the uncertain shadow on a medical scan. It’s the sound of sirens as an ambulance goes rushing by. It’s the evening news, the sense that violence is around every corner, that nowhere is safe. It’s the struggle of someone you love whose disease you can’t fix. It’s our longing to gather all of our loved ones into one place and enfold them in bubble wrap.
Fear comes even when we’re preparing for a new chapter – starting a different job, retiring, beginning a relationship, moving to a new home, having a baby, starting college, watching a kid head off to school. Those changes are filled with possibility and hope. They’re also scary.
The empty tomb tells us this: Yes, be afraid. That’s normal. But whether we see Jesus with our own eyes or not, we know he has defeated death. The thing we’re most afraid of has been destroyed, and that means we are free to live and to love in powerful new ways.
How will we do that? How will we respond to this tremendous, terrifying news that the tomb could not contain the Savior? How will we, in our daily lives, in our little corners of the world, embody the love of Jesus? It’s a question each of us answers in our own way, but the answer matters. The world needs what we can offer, even when we are afraid of what might happen.
When we go all the way back to the start of Mark’s Gospel, we see that it begins with only a fragment of a sentence. It says simply: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And yet that opening reminds us that what follows across the next 16 chapters is only a beginning. The story continues. It reaches past that abrupt, incomplete ending. It reaches beyond the fear and silence of the women. It reaches across the centuries to this moment, this place, this time in which we, too, have a chance to add to the story of Jesus, who is alive and on the loose in the world and here with us now – in the bread and the wine, in the body of Christ gathered together in this place.
The women eventually broke their silence. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The women told someone, probably with their voices trembling and their knees shaking, but they told someone, who told someone else, who told someone else. The story could not be contained. Jesus can never be contained.
So let’s add our voices to that story, however scary it might be. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1
Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists follows the lives of the four Gold siblings, who grow up in the late 60’s on New York’s Lower East Side. The kids hear rumors about a neighborhood fortune-teller who lives on Hester Street, and their curiosity leads them to pay her a visit. When they find her apartment, in spite of their fear each child meets with the woman separately. She ends up telling every one of them – Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon – the exact date on which she says they will die. The kids don’t reveal these predictions to each other, but all four children carry the woman’s words from Hester Street into the rest of their lives.
I won’t give too much away, but as you can imagine, the book explores how their lives unfold – and the extent to which the woman’s predictions shape their choices. Simon, the youngest, has the earliest predicted date of death. He heads off to San Francisco, a place that gives him the freedom to live openly as a gay man. He tries hard to avoid thinking about that prediction from his childhood, but at one point he acknowledges: “What if the woman on Hester Street is right? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.”
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”
When we worship on this night each year, I sometimes forget that Jesus knew that he was going to die. He knew what was about to happen. I wonder if everything that night felt to him urgent, glittering, precious.
I don’t think that I would want to know the exact time of my death, but if I did, I wonder how I would spend those final hours. How might you? I’d want time with my family and dearest friends. I’d want to eat some really good food. But I would be pretty selfish with those last moments. I would probably do a lot of indulgent things, whatever would make me feel safe and comfortable.
As he faces his own death, Jesus gathers twelve of his friends around a table. They do share a last meal. They eat together. I imagine there’s a fair amount of laughter and teasing around the table until things get serious. Do this in remembrance of me, Jesus tells them. What is he talking about, they must have wondered. All but Judas, who knows and keeps quiet.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.”
Jesus knows that his death is only hours away, and in those final precious moments he does some surprising things, like washing feet. It was surprising for several reasons. Foot-washing was a servant’s job, for one thing. And it wouldn’t typically have happened in the middle of a meal. It would have happened before they started eating. But there Jesus goes – stripping down and kneeling to hold their feet in his hands.
No wonder Peter is perplexed. No wonder Peter goes from one extreme to another, from “You will never wash my feet!” to “Wash my hands and my head too!”
Jesus knows that he’s about to die, but he washes their feet. The feet of a confused, impulsive Peter. The feet of Judas, feet that will soon run off into the darkness to bring death closer.
Afterwards Jesus asks: “Do you know what I have done to you?” Not “what I have taught you” or “what I have shown you.” What I have done to you. They have experienced something intimate and profound. A moment that will mean even more when he is gone.
But Jesus can’t resist one last lesson: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
On this night when he will be hauled away and set up for execution, Jesus talks a lot about love.
We think of love as primarily a feeling, whether it’s the squishy, hearts-and-flowers feeling of romance or the tender love we feel for our children or the steady, reliable love shared by close friends.
But that’s not the love that Jesus is talking about.
Love can sometimes be about what we think. The ways we appreciate another person’s sense of humor or admire their intellect or engage with their beliefs. What do we have in common? How does he make me laugh? How has she helped me to learn something new?
But that’s not the love that Jesus is talking about either.
There’s nothing wrong with love that opens our hearts and expands our minds. But Jesus is talking about a different kind of love.
A love that feeds people.
A love that touches people, even when they betray us.
A love that gets down on the floor and washes feet.
A love that is willing to face death so that others may have a new kind of life.
Jesus spends his last precious, glittering moments commanding us to live out that kind of love. He knows we won’t do it perfectly.
But he also knows that this down-on-the-floor, foot-washing love will tell a story. A story that will outlive death, whenever it comes.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.