April 4, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JESUS 101: THE END?
The seventh in a series of seven.
The end of Mark’s gospel is controversial. If you brought a Bible today, take a look. The controversy is whether the last verse should be 16:8 or 16:20. This isn’t a liberal / conservative controversy, as most controversies seem to be these days. Virtually all Bible scholars, liberal, conservative, and even the squishy, middle of the road moderates agree that the oldest and most reliable manuscripts we have end with 16:8. They agree that the twelve additional verses were added later by someone other than Mark. But why? And how? And what does it mean for us? That is the controversy.
Look at your Bible. It might end with 16:8. Or it might include the disputed twelve verses, ending with 16:20, but with an asterisk and a footnote telling you what I just told you. These verses are not part of the original. They were added later.
I’m actually glad these verses are not considered an authentic part of the Bible, because there is some strange stuff going on in these verses. Like handling snakes. Like drinking poison. These are supposedly signs of your faith. I understand they actually do this in some churches. I guess no one told them that Mark really ends with 16:8.
It’s a strange ending. In the Greek it literally ends mid-sentence.
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because the women were afraid for . . . (16:8)
That’s the way it ends. It’s tidied up a bit in our English translations, so you might think this is the way Mark wanted it to end. But when you read the Greek, it’s pretty clear. Something happened. The ending is missing. The ending that we have was tacked on later. Like maybe a nervous editor who didn’t think this book would sell unless it had a better ending.
So on Easter morning, Mark’s account is not what usually is read. Because Mark does not have your favorite Easter stories. Like Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb and then Jesus says her name and at that moment she recognizes him. I love that story.
Or Jesus walking with two strangers on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him until they invite him into their home. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it, and suddenly their eyes are opened and they know it is Jesus. Another great story.
Mark does not have the story of the disciples meeting behind closed doors and suddenly Jesus is with them. And Doubting Thomas showing up later and having a hard time believing. Or Jesus cooking breakfast for the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Or the Great Commission on the Mount of Olives. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel . . . “
These are your favorite stories and mine. You probably came to hear them this morning, but they aren’t there if you are reading Mark. And since our Jesus 101 series which ends today has been following Mark, we’re going in a different direction today.
One thing that is in Mark, one verse before the last verse, is grace. So I’m going to talk about grace. The women have gone to the tomb early Easter morning. All four gospels agree on that. They see a young man in a white robe. We can presume he is an angel. They are afraid. He tells them not to be afraid. And then this verse, the next to the last verse in Mark. The angel says:
But go and tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (16:7).
“Tell the disciples and Peter.” Especially Peter. Peter is singled out. Why?
Remember, Peter is the one who told Mark his memories of Jesus. And Peter is the one disciple who tried the hardest and failed the worst. He was the star at Caesarea Philippi? Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered quickly and confidently, “You are the Christ.” He gets it. He understands. Then a few short verses later he demonstrates that he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand. And Jesus has to say to him, “Get behind me Satan.” Pretty harsh words.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. At the Last Supper Peter gives Jesus his word of honor. He says, “Even if I have to die with you I will never disown you” (Mark 14:31). Then he can’t even stay awake as Jesus prays in the Garden. When Jesus is arrested, he runs away. When he is asked if he is a disciple, he denies it. Three times he denies it. Just as Jesus said he would. And we are told when Peter realizes that he has done the very thing he promised he would never do, he weeps inconsolably (Mark 14:72).
Now the women are told to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen. But especially tell Peter.
This is a thing in the Gospels. It’s not just in Mark. It’s called, “The Rehabilitation of Peter.” In the Gospel of John, it’s told in much greater detail. It’s part of that story of breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples have gone back to fishing. That’s what they did before they followed Jesus, and now that Jesus is no more, that’s what they go back to. Except Jesus isn’t no more. He is risen.
He approaches the disciples. They don’t recognize him. They haven’t caught any fish. Jesus tells them to try the other side of their boat. Reluctantly, they take his advice. But what does this guy know about fishing? And their net practically breaks, it is suddenly so full of fish. That’s when they recognize him.
They cook a few of these fish and have breakfast together. After they have eaten, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”
Peter says, “You know that I do.”
“Then feed my sheep.”
Three times. “Do you love me? You know that I do. Feed my sheep.” Three times – once for each of the three times Peter denied his Lord. This is the rehabilitation of Peter. This is grace.
Mark tells us the same thing, but more simply. The angel says to the women, “Go and tell his disciples and Peter . . .” Especially Peter.
You know what I think this verse is saying to us? Peter let Jesus down, but still he loves him. Just like us. We have let Jesus down, but still Jesus loves us. Still Jesus needs us to be his disciples today. So when I read this, I think maybe I’m supposed to put my name in this verse. “Go and tell his disciples, and especially John.” And I think maybe you are supposed to put your name in this verse. “Go and tell his disciples, and especially (fill in your name).”
Yes, we let Jesus down. Yes, we were there when they crucified him. Yes, we have denied him and betrayed him. And yes, Jesus still loves us. Jesus still wants us on his team. That is grace.
Grace is a second chance, a third chance, and 10,333rd chance. God does not give up on us. But what happens when we run out of chances? Eventually we will. One day will be our final day on this earth. Is that the end of grace? No. The message of Easter is that the end of life is not the end of grace. We don’t deserve heaven. We could never earn heaven. But God gives it to us anyway.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
This is the day death is defeated. Not that we won’t die. We will. But death has lost its power over us. Death is no longer the enemy. Death is a doorway into something new and beautiful and wonderful beyond description.
John Chrysostom wrote a really good Easter sermon. So good that people still remember it 1,600 years later. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, his Easter sermon is part of their Easter liturgy. They don’t celebrate Easter the same day as we do. Their Easter is May 2nd this year. But on that day these words, written on or around A.D. 400 will be recited in A.D. 2021. I’m not going to give you his whole sermon, but here is part of it:
Let no one fear death,
For the death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when he descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of his flesh.
Hell took a body, his body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
That’s a great sermon. I was taught years ago by a wise mentor that no sermon is a Christian sermon that leaves out grace. John Chrysostom did not leave out grace. “Life is liberated.” That’s grace in this life. “Death is annihilated.” That’s grace in the life to come.
But still we die. And so do our loved ones. And death is hard. In spite of what the Bible tells us, death does sting.
Elaine Pagels is an authority on early Christianity. She has written many books. Her son, Mark, was born with a hole in his heart. After many surgeries and just as she thought he was getting better, he died at age 6. The next year, she and her husband, Heinz attended a physics symposium at Aspen, Colorado. He was a renowned physicist. He was up early one morning to climb a 14,000 foot mountain. He told his wife to expect him back around noon, maybe a little later. He never came back. His body was eventually recovered. He was 49.
First her son and now her husband. Two deaths in little more than a year. “Christ is Risen, and you, O death are annihilated.” Those words would not have been a comfort to her. They would have rung pretty hollow. Death for her was very real, and very painful.
She wrote about this in a beautiful book called Why Religion? She’s an authority on the New Testament, so she wrote about the strange way Mark’s Gospel ends. Here is what she said:
Troubling as others have found Mark’s original version, I preferred it. What he wrote about sounded more like the world in which we live. For when he began to write, he faced
a challenge that I, like so many of us, could understand – how to have hope when confronting what looks like disaster (page 171).
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because the women were afraid for . . .”
Why does it end this way? There are theories. One is that the ending Mark originally wrote somehow got separated from the rest and was lost. Another is that Mark was martyred before he could finish it. Another is that Mark meant for it to end this way. Why he ended in mid-sentence though is hard to explain.
Whatever the real reason for Mark’s strange ending, here is what it says to me. Even though the words aren’t there, it’s almost like they are. They say, TO BE CONTINUED. We get to the end, but it’s not the end. We are left hanging. We are left wanting to hear more. We are left wanting to know what happens next.
One of my early childhood traumas has to do with Superman. I loved watching Superman, with George Reeves in the starring role. One of the episodes had two parts. I remember it had to do with an oil well that was deep enough that strange looking mole men started crawling up to the surface. I watched episode one. It was so exciting. I couldn’t wait for episode two. Except I had to miss episode two. I pleaded with my parents that wherever they thought we had to go could wait until after I watched Superman, but they didn’t listen to me. It was almost more than I could bear. How would I ever know what happened next with Superman and the mole men?
I think it’s kind of like that with the ending to Mark. Mark leaves us hanging. He leaves us wanting more. We know there is more to the story but how will we ever find out what it is? You know what I think? We ask Mark, “How are you going to finish the story?” I think Mark is asking us, “How are you going to finish the story?”
The story as we have it ends with the women trembling, bewildered, and afraid. But that’s not the real ending for them. And that’s not the real ending for you or for me.
Trembling. Bewildered. Afraid. Sometimes we feel that way. But we don’t have to stay that way.
We know the end of the story. We know about the parts Mark left out. We know about the resurrection appearances of Jesus. We know how it seemed too good to be true at first, but quickly they realized it really was true. Jesus really rose from the grave. It happened. It happens. He rose. He still is risen. He is alive and with us right now.
So how are you going to finish the story? What are you going to do with it? Who are you going to tell? How are you going to live differently? How is the grace at the heart of this story going to become real in you?
You don’t have to stay the way you are. By the grace of God, you can be more than you are. By the grace of God, you can be the one to help that person God has placed in your life to become more than she is. Or more than he is.
Because the glorious good news of Easter is especially for her. It is especially for him. It is especially for you.
Dear God, it is Easter. It is the day of the resurrection. It is at the heart of our faith as Christians. That Jesus died on the cross. He was buried in the tomb. On the third day the tomb was found empty. And one by one, first women, then men, then multitudes saw for themselves the reason why. He is risen! God, many of us have lost loved ones this past year. Many have died of causes related to the coronavirus. Many who have celebrated Easters with us here on earth, this Easter are looking down on us from heaven. They know what we still wonder about. They want us to know. It is true. It is real. And the resurrection life does not have to wait until we join them. By the grace of God, it is ours right now. In Jesus, the risen Christ, Amen.