The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. At the later service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we concluded that study by looking at Mark 16:9-20, a passage missing from the earliest versions of this Gospel. The first reading came from Isaiah 65:17-25,
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I hope that not all of you have been in this situation before, but I’m sure that everyone can imagine it. Let’s say that you’re driving along, minding your own business, and another car suddenly swerves into your lane, cutting you off, and you wind up hitting the telephone pole. The ambulance comes, you’re taken to the hospital where they set your broken leg, and then your family comes in to see you just as the doctor arrives to tell you how things look.
You tell your family what’s happened up to this point, but you don’t need to tell them what the doctor says, because, well, they’re here. They see and know the doctor at this point. You’ve told them what they don’t know, and that’s good enough.
Now, two weeks later you’re at your uncle’s house for a holiday party. Someone asks you about the cast on your leg, and so you start to tell the story about the other driver and the telephone pole and the ambulance. And when you’re finished, your brother-in-law – who wasn’t even there, by the way – adds details to your story: “The other car was an SUV, driven by some kid who was texting, I think. And the city has now changed the traffic pattern on that stretch of the highway, which is a good thing. That’s always been a dangerous road…”
And when that happens, you might be tempted to look at your brother-in-law and say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, there you go again…” It’s irritating, sometimes, to have people add to or interpret your story. But as you reflect on what he’s said, you also think that maybe his comments could be helpful for those who are a little more removed from the story. They add some useful context to what happened.
So it is with Mark chapter 16. The Gospel writer pretty clearly ends his telling of the Jesus story in verse 8. In the face of the angelic announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead, the first community of Christ-followers were confused and afraid. That first Easter morning, they didn’t know whatto do, and they didn’t know whoto believe. The original ending of the Gospel shows us people running out of the cemetery, scared out of their minds.
And that ending, frankly, worked well enough for Mark’s original audience. Most of the community to whom Mark was written was living there in Rome and knew, or at least knew of, the Apostle Peter. They had access to other witnesses to those early days of the church – and they were familiar with the things that happenedafterthe crucifixion.
But before long, there began to be more and more people who didn’t know all of the same people, and who were not familiar with the events that took place on that first Easter and the days that followed.
At that point, someone else in the community plays the role of Mark’s chatty brother-in-law and picks up the pen to add a few details to the story.
What I’m saying is this: that Mark 16:9-20 is almost certainly not the work of the author of the rest of the Gospel. There are differences in style, vocabulary, and phrasing. Most of the content in these verses is, in fact, simply reflective of other material that we’ve come to know in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts. Most scholars see this part of the Gospel as an appendix that has been written by another hand, and therefore not so much a part of the second Gospel but rather a reflection on it, or an attestation of the truth to which the Gospel points. It’s as if a new generation of the church found a dog-eared copy of the Gospel and said, “Yes! This! There you go again! This is the truth!”
With that in mind, then, let me invite you to look with me at what this passage has to say. How does this next generation reflect on the Gospel that it’s received?
I’m struck by the church’s characterization of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared. There are no starry-eyed dreamers here, no wistful backward glances at the first followers of Jesus. When the author of these verses remembers those who gathered with the risen Lord, he or she does so with an acknowledgment that Jesus didn’t wait around for a perfect church to appear or be formed. Rather, this is a blunt description of the fact that the group that met with Jesus was comprised of people who struggled with their faith and who were above all else, stubborn. That is to say that while the three days in the tomb and the resurrection may have totally transformed Jesus, his followers were still the same people. This is what they had to say about themselves: we’re not sure what to think, but we can be really obnoxious.
Can you imagine a church with a motto like that today? Some years ago, my wife and I visited a little town in Texas with an unusual name. We were surprised, however, when the congregation in that place took on the town’s name and became known as “The Church of Uncertain.”
I love that sign, and I love this affirmation at the end of Mark’s Gospel: it goes to show me that Jesus is willing to work with what he had – with who I am. The Risen Lord is not hanging around beating the doubt out of his followers, waiting for them to become perfect; there’s no call for you or me to somehow get our acts together beforewe start living like Jesus asks us to. We are called to move forward with who we are and what we have, trusting that Jesus will continue to work on, in, and through us.
The early church remembers that, as recalcitrant and doubtful as they were, they were given two primary charges by the Risen Lord.
First, they are called to preach. That is, to point to God’s intentions for the world and those who live in it. Preach the Gospel to all creation! Celebrate the purposes of God as you live in the world and with others. That community, like you, would be familiar with the descriptions of God’s intentions as described in places like Isaiah 65.
And secondly, in addition to preaching, or proclaiming, the reign and rule of God, this group of stubborn doubters is called to participate in those intentions by becoming agents of healing in the creation. It’s as if the Savior is saying, “Look, the longer we hang out together, the more you’re going to find that reality can, in fact, change. Be a part of that! Engage your world on God’s terms, and invite your world to be more intentionally and fully aligned with God’s design for that world.
This “appendix” to the Gospel of Mark then ends with a surprising affirmation: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” That’s another way of saying, “Hey! Everybody! It worked! Seriously – we did this – and we found that when we lived like Jesus told us to that some amazing things didhappen!”
Back toward the end of 2017, this congregation embarked on a study of the Gospel of Mark. When we did so, we remarked that this second Gospel begins with a different quote from the book of Isaiah. We watched a ragged prophet called John the Baptizer announce the coming of and presence of a new way of life and living, a new understanding of God’s purposes. John pointed us to Jesus of Nazareth, who called this new way of living “The Kingdom of God”, and who went on to say that this Kingdom is at hand – it is present, it is palpable today.
For the past eighteen months or so we have affirmed that Mark’s Gospel is not centered on a system of belief. Nowhere in this document is a series of intellectual suppositions that we must affirm in order to gain entry into some heavenly club. There is no list of right answers on which followers of Jesus must insist before extending grace, forgiveness, and kindness. No, this little pamphlet is a call to a life of boldness centered on an acknowledgement that this reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God is present and accessible right now to people like us. It is an encouragement for the people of God to live in a way that points to the reign and rule of God, that demonstrates God’s intentions, and fleshes out God’s hopes for creation.
To be sure, the Gospel is full of stories, including the events of Holy week, that demonstrate that this manner of life is not always easy and that there may be a cost. The original hearers of Mark’s Gospel surely knew and appreciated that.
And yet, when the dust had settled, someone picked up Mark’s pen long after he himself had died. That community recalled with joy that Christ had come, and suffered, and risen to rule the world. Those folk celebrated that this Kingdom of God, this reign and rule of the Holy that echoes the landscape painted by Isaiah and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is in fact ours to live.
There was a certain roller coaster ride at the Kennywood Amusement Park that began with the announcement, “Hold onto your hats, please. No repeat riders.” I’m pretty sure that the mechanized voice that issued that warning hundreds of times a day didn’t think that it was making a theological affirmation, but I’m convinced that is the essence of the Gospel as received and transmitted by Mark’s community. Brace yourselves for adventure – this is a good, good life that we’ve been given. Yes, we will encounter great pain and even death along the way – but pain and death are not the end of the story. The presence of the Risen Lord infuses our lives and all creation.
The Good News of the Gospel is that you don’t have to have it all figured out. We participate in this Gospel as we engage in grateful and hopeful lives and share that gratitude and hope with those we meet. Along the way, we are given the opportunity – or the responsibility – of looking for, asking for, or waiting for the presence of the One who preached the Kingdom’s truth and then rose from the dead to affirm it’s nearness to the heart of God. So beloved, the call of the Gospel today is this: seek that presence today, and be a sign of it in the world. He has Risen. He has risen indeed. So show someone what that looks like! Thanks be to God! Amen.