The sermon starts at minute 22:50 in the video
How appropriate that this year’s Gospel is Mark, which ends so ambiguously and inconclusively. While the other Gospels end on hopeful notes of Jesus meeting his female and male disciples, and going to Galilee, here there is no meeting, and no going to Galilee; and the final word is afraid. The women, who were the first to go to the tomb, lost their mojo when they saw the young man who said Jesus had been raised, and who told them to report to the men that all of them – men and women – would see Jesus when they returned to Galilee. Mark doesn’t tell us whether the women eventually told the men; and he doesn’t tell us if they went to Galilee. He simply says that they fled the tomb with terror and amazement, and that they didn’t tell anyone anything.
This last year has sort of been ambiguous and inconclusive for us, don’t you think? A year ago, all of us celebrated Easter virtually or not at all. This year some of us are virtual, and some of us are in person. How do we feel in this moment? Are we focusing on the spike in new cases, and the scary reports about variants? Or are we rejoicing that the death rate has gone down, and that the rate of vaccinations keeps accelerating? Today’s Gospel wants us to pay attention to all of it, and to allow ourselves to go through the full range of emotions. Perhaps Easter is meant to be a hinge moment for us.
The visit to the tomb was a hinge moment for the women, between the fear and sadness of the last few days, and the possibilities and commitments of the future. Unlike the men, the women showed up. And that matters. Of course, they weren’t going because they hoped that Jesus had been resurrected. That possibility hadn’t even occurred to them. They went to fulfill their cultural custom of anointing the body. Oh, they did it out of love; but also, out of habit. They weren’t expecting anything but a stone covering the tomb. As they walked, they wondered out loud how they would get the stone rolled away. When they found it already rolled away, Mark doesn’t say they were surprised; simply that they entered the tomb.
There, they saw a young man, wrapped in a white robe, sitting on the right side. Who is this young man? And why does Mark, the most concise of the Gospel writers, add the details that he was a young man, wrapped in a white robe, sitting on the right side? While we can’t know for sure, Mark may be giving us important literary clues. First, this young man was seated on the right side. Mark doesn’t say “the right side of what”. That is a clue that it is more a symbol than a relevant fact – maybe it evokes James’ and John’s request to be seated next to Jesus in God’s reign. Then, the Greek word for young man is the same word that was used to describe the person who fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. The guards caught hold of him, but he left the cloth and ran away naked.” If that naked young man is the same one who now sits next to a linen cloth folded up in the tomb, there may be some valuable insights into what is going on here.
Mark frequently uses clothing symbolically. John the Baptist wore camel hair and a leather belt, confirming his identity as a prophet. Jesus’ clothes at the Transfiguration were dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them – another unnecessary detail unless he is highlighting a symbol. It would be out of character for Mark if this young man, weren’t somehow connected to the young man in the tomb. The word for linen cloth is only used once outside of the cloth in the tomb of Jesus in Luke’s and John’s accounts. That one time is when Mark describes the garment of the young man who fled Jesus’ arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane, leaving the garment and running away naked.
In a Jewish context nakedness would be regarded as a shameful state. Mark may be implying that the young man, now eager to follow Jesus after he and others failed him, had fallen into shame. We said on Thursday night that Jesus was able to wash the feet of the disciples without feeling shame, because he knew who he was, where he came from and where he was going. How does the cross deal with our shame? One traditional view that many grew up with, says that Jesus died for our sins, paying a debt (to God or to the devil) on our behalf. In this view, Jesus deals with our shame and guilt by putting our sins to death on the cross. But I’ve had conversations with Christians who admit that they struggle more – not less – with guilt and shame, with that understanding of the cross. They’re grateful Jesus died for their sins; but that makes them feel more guilt and shame, because it is their sins that put Jesus on the cross; their sins forced the Heavenly Father to sacrifice his own beloved son – something no father should have to do. That message is often reinforced during Holy Week, emphasizing this guilt, allegedly to promote gratitude. But that grateful guilt, or guilty gratitude doesn’t seem very liberating.
James Alison offers another way the cross might deal with shame: by Jesus deliberately occupying the space of the victim, we needn’t be afraid of death, or shame, disgrace, or that we have treated others to shame and disgrace. “Yes, you did this to me, as you do it to each other, and here I am undergoing this without being embittered or resentful to get across to you that I am not only utterly alive, but that I am utterly loving. There is nothing you can do, no amount of evil that you can do to each other, that will be able to stop my loving you, nothing you can do to separate yourselves from me. This is how I prove my love to you: by taking you at your very lowest and worst point and saying “Yes, you do this to me, but I’m not concerned about that, let’s see whether we can’t learn a new way of being together.”
Through the encounter the women had with this young man at the tomb, they could see these two ways Jesus’ followers could behave. The young man who fled on Thursday night may now represent the newly born church. He had accepted the way of the cross and had entered with Jesus in the reward. Even the linens of the tomb had become the white garment of victory. He was sitting on the right side – the place of authority Jesus had indicated the disciples would have after the resurrection. And he represents the witness of the church. He was the last one with Jesus; then he too abandoned Jesus. He is also the first one to announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women thought of the men who had abandoned, denied, and betrayed Jesus. They been hiding since Thursday night. The women had to decide which side to take.
Then, the young man’s words made their decision even more difficult: go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. There is an unavoidable condition to be part of the new community of Jesus: we must return to where the Good News started. The disciples could only see Jesus if they went back to Galilee where it all started for them. This time they wouldn’t just walk with Jesus; they would serve with him.
The young man told the women the good news that the crucified one had risen. He also helped them see that they had to decide whether they were going to commit to the demanding journey. Aren’t they just like us? When we hear good news and bad news, which do we remember? They only remembered that they had to start the journey all over again. And just as the Maundy Thursday community had been destroyed in two stages – first, the disciples’ abandonment and then Peter’s denial – now the young man says they had to tell the disciples and Peter that they had to start the journey all over again, starting in the same place as the first time.
The Gospel ends without telling us what the women did. We know from the other Gospels and from history that eventually they overcame their fear. But we don’t know that at the end of Mark’s Gospel. Don’t you hate books and TV shows like that? I get so mad when the credits start rolling at the end of a movie in which nothing was resolved. But Mark’s Gospel offers the church in every generation the chance to decide what it will do to complete the story. How will we complete it?