Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Sunday
“Unfinished Business” by Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Isaiah 25:6-9, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 16:1-8, NRSVUE)

It’s one of the oldest jokes in all of sports:

What are the last two words of the Star Spangled Banner?

“Play Ball!”

They’re not, of course — hence the joke — but I can see where someone might think that.

If you haven’t figured it out by this point, I’ll just tell you now: today is Easter, but it’s also the first weekend of baseball season; and while the former is a far bigger deal than the latter, they’ve both been on my mind over the past few days.

The National Anthem was played sporadically at baseball games as early as the 1860s, and became a staple before the start of every game during the second World War. Since that time, at the end of the song, the performer has often engaged in a kind of ritual call and response with the home plate umpire (often accompanied by a chorus from the stands), the result of which goes like this:

“And the home of the brave… Play ball!”

And so, if a baseball game just so happened to be only place you’d ever heard the Star Spangled Banner, it would be logical to conclude that this is how the ending actually goes. But it’s not.

The same is true for today’s Gospel reading, which is Mark’s account of what happened on that very first Easter morning. This is not generally the gospel text that’s read in church on this most glorious of days — that honor typcially goes to John, which makes sense, because John tells a really great story — but I thought it might be interesting to try something different.

In the more common Easter reading from John, which you’ve probably heard many times before, Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’s tomb and notices that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance. Thinking this is odd, she runs to fetch Peter and other disciple whom Jesus loved in order to show them what’s happened.

When the three return, they enter the tomb and find it to be empty — well, except for some linen wrappings lying there where Jesus is supposed to be. As the male disciples run back home (we don’t really know why), Mary Magdalene stands outside the empty tomb weeping. Two angels appear and ask her why she’s crying. Then Jesus himself shows up and asks her the same question, but Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize him for who he is. But when Jesus speaks her name, she suddenly realizes it’s him. Jesus tells her to go tell the other disciples what she’s seen. When she arrives, she joyfully declares to them, “I have seen the Lord!” The End.

Like I said, it’s a great story. In fairness, though, Mark’s is too — but it’s a very different story.

Mark’s Easter narrative is only about half as long, so it’s understandably a bit thinner on details. In this one, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Jesus, and another woman named Salome bring spices to the tomb on the morning after the sabbath in order to annoit Jesus’s body (Salome is first mentioned in the preceding chapter, but we don’t ever learn anything about who she is). The three women notice that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance and, instead of running, decide to go in.

When they do, they discover a young man, dressed in white, sitting inside, and unsuprisingly, they’re alarmed. This young man tells them not to be alarmed (though I don’t think that helped them to not be alarmed), and informs them that Jesus isn’t there because he has been raised from the dead (which also probably didn’t help them not be alarmed).

Then he instructs them to go and tell the other disciples that the newly-risen Jesus will meet them in Galilee, just like he said he would. At this point, they’re no less alarmed that they were before, and I say this because Mark says this; just listen again to the last line of the story: “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.” That’s it. The End. A real bibilical cliffhanger. Except, not so much.

Look, while I might think that Mark’s version of the Easter story is great in its own way — and while you might think so too — somebody else didn’t seem to think so.

If you take a look at the text (in your bulletin, on the screens, or in your pew Bible) you’ll notice something interesting: There’s some extra verses tacked on to the story. They describe the three terrified women going and telling Peter and the other disciples about what happened back at the tomb, they speak of Jesus himself sending out the discples to proclaim eternal salvation throughout the world, from east to west. Now, The End? Once again, not so much.

You see, there’s an even longer set of verses that appears after that (which you can see in your pew Bible because it’s way too long to read aloud, let alone to print in the bulletin or display on the screen). They talk about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb (you know, the one we hear about in John’s Gospel); they describe subsequent appearances that the resurrected Jesus makes to his disciples; they tell of Jesus’s call to those disciples to, “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation;” and they inform us about Jesus’s eventual ascension into heaven.”

And so if you just kept on reading after Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Salome had fled from the tomb without paying really close attention, you might think that this was the way Mark’s Gospel actually ended. But it isn’t.

As you can see, these additional verses appear in brackets, and they appear in brackets to indicate that they’re later additions to the text. In other words, whoever wrote all the rest of Mark’s Gospel, didn’t actually write them. Bible scholars believe that the shorter ending appended to this book until the at least the fourth century, and the longer one until late in the second century — literally hundreds of years after Jesus walked the earth.

What I’m saying is that someone (or, in this case, multiple someones) really didn’t like the way that Mark chose to end his Gospel — so much so, in fact, that they figured they’d just take a crack at it themselves, which is a pretty bold thing to do. But why would they do this?

Maybe they felt that a story about Easter in which the newly-resurrected Jesus doesn’t actually make an appearance was a tad… unsatisfying.

Perhaps they believed a story about Easter in which Jesus doesn’t come back to tell his disciples what they’re supposed to do next was… incomplete.

It could be that they thought a story that ended with “terror and amazement” rather than hope and joy wouldn’t be sufficiently… inspirational for future generations of disciples. It’s really tough to say.

But Mark’s seems inclined to tell a very different kind of story — one that’s incredibly relevant for disciples like us today.

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome run in fear from the empty tomb after they learn that Jesus has been raised from the dead, it’s kind of hard to blame them. After all, stuff like that doesn’t happen every day. But what next? Well, the writers who added all of those verses to Mark felt that they needed to spell it out for us, but was this really necessary?

Mark himself tells us only that the three women fled and said nothing to anyone, but they clearly must have told someone about what happened at some point. I mean, if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning talking about it more than two thousand years later, would we?

And maybe Mark doesn’t feel the need to depict Jesus telling the disciples to “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation,” because he’s already spent fifteen and a half chapters showing Jesus doing exactly that. “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” For crying out loud, how many times do we need to hear it before we actually decide to do it?

And maybe it’s no accident that Mark doesn’t have Jesus appear here. The information that the three women receive about his resurrection is all second hand.

And yet, depsite their uncertaintly and fear, despite the fact that they don’t actually hear it from the Risen Christ himself, they run off and eventually do what Jesus has been calling them to do all along: they go share the gospel with the world because that news is way too good to keep secret.

And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s what faith is all about: believing in Jesus and following Jesus without necessarily encountering him in person.

Sure, Mark’s Easter story, as it was originally written, is arguably incomplete; but, then again, maybe that’s the whole point.

And so, instead of relying upon someone else to provide the next part of the story for us, perhaps we should be ready to write it ourselves.

Christ is risen! Alleluia! Amen.