Editor’s Note: [Secular Sermon #3] What follows is this former Lutheran pastor’s “best reconstruction” of an Easter sermon he gave about seven or eight years ago. I’ve heard some clergy say that Easter is the hardest time of the year for them, as they try convincingly to bring Jesus out of the tomb – again. I know The Clergy Project has gotten a rush of new members after Easter. I think this former pastor handles the resurrection pretty well. Maybe current pastors will get some good ideas from him. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Kenn Nilsen
What a crazy way to end a good story, huh?
“They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Now I know there a more verses following this one in the final chapter of Mark, but scholars are almost unanimous in stating that they are later additions by scribes who were embarrassed by the short, curt ending on a down note. That is why you will see those verses in italics if you read your Bible for yourself.
What’s up with that?
On Easter day we are used to ecstatic exclamations:
“He is Risen!”
Text from Matthew, Luke and John describe sightings as definitive proof. In the Gospel of John Jesus even says,
“Let’s do lunch.”
But Mark closes up shop by having the women being told to go tell it on the mountain, but they keep silent, against orders, because they are afraid.
One possibility is that they were afraid it really wasn’t true. Don’t get your hopes up; it’s an idle tale. More likely is that they were afraid it was true: Jesus had come back from the dead, and he was looking for all those supposed friends of his with blood in his eye. After all, they had abandoned and betrayed him when he needed them most.
What would you do if you were abandoned and betrayed?
Now, I’m going to have to give you a little historical context, so don’t go to sleep on me.
I don’t do resurrections. The Gospel of Mark was written during or shortly after the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E. In short, the Jewish people rebelled against Roman rule, had some moderate success at first, but were ultimately crushed. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and those who managed to survive were put into slavery.
The last gasp of this rebellion was Masada, where the last holdouts committed mass suicide rather than submit to Rome. It was the end of the Jewish nation, until 1948 when the State of Israel was carved out of Palestine.
It was a time of fear. During the siege of Jerusalem, there were at least four factions among the Jewish rebels, and they were at each other’s throats for dominance. It was much like modern day street gangs fighting for “turf.” Famine raged, and there are stories of mothers roasting and eating their babies. The Romans almost always caught anyone who tried to escape, and the usual punishment, crucifixion, was prescribed. The city had not just three, but hundreds of crosses outside its walls, for all to see what happened when you defied the kingdom.
This is the context of Mark’s gospel, and fear runs through it. Almost from the get-go, he (or she) relates that people are afraid.
They are afraid of odd people, like the Gerasene demon running naked in a cemetery, or afraid of the violent weather when they are sailing on the lake without Jesus in the boat. There are many instances, and the one constant is that Jesus tells them throughout the Gospel to “have no fear, it is I.” They should not be terrified when Jesus is with them.This is what makes the ending so ironic. After telling them not to be afraid, at the critical moment when they are assured that he will rise again, they are STILL afraid.
That is the question we Christians today have to ask ourselves. What are we afraid of?
Now I know you probably don’t feel much afraid of anything this morning. There is a ham baking in the oven at home ready for after service dinner. Life is good. Maybe you are worried the ham will overcook. But I’m talking about other things, taking my cue from the stories Mark tells us. For example, why are so many Christians afraid of people who happen to be gay? Aha, I just saw a few faces freeze. Maybe you feel a twinge of anger when I mention the subject. You would not be alone, but you also need to know that anger is a secondary emotion, usually to fear. When you are angry about something, you should ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” In this case, you might say,
“It’s against God’s Law.”
Well, so is the ham baking at home. As if God would punish us for trying to understand homosexuality.
The same might be said of Muslims, people of color, in our area, Mexicans. Do you know any of these people personally? Have you tried to get to know them? Remember all those children from Mexico poised to come over the border, and our government was trying to figure out what to do? Do you know why those children were there? You should know that some of them came from a village where they woke up to see pieces of their friends chopped up and left in the plaza, as a warning to those who refused to become drug runners for the cartels.
Why are so many Christians afraid of the Theory of Evolution? Surely if God can take a rib from Adam’s side and make a woman, God can make a man out of a monkey.
The point is that Mark presents us with a Jesus who is fearlessly wandering the wastelands of human experience, trying to infuse new life. We find ourselves in a boat (and boatis always a metaphor for the Churchin Scripture) with big storms attacking us. Maybe you can envision Jesus coming through the mists saying,
“Have no fear.”
Maybe you can understand that when the spirit of Jesus gets in your boat, or Church as it were, you need not fear getting involved with the supposed garbage dumps and polluted waters, bringing love and understanding to quiet the crisis.
That reminds me – the Chinese character for “crisis” combines the characters of dangerand opportunity. I think Mark’s angel at the tomb was trying to tell the disciples of his day and of our day:
“Stop running so scared.”
Bio: Kenn Nilsen is a retired ELCA Lutheran minister, who came to unfaith by reading the unholy trinity of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins and witnessing the hypocrisy of the institutional church. He lives in a notch of the Bible belt, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with his freethinking wife of 38 years, Dee. He currently creates furniture out of lumber he reclaims from decrepit barns and buildings around the Valley. As his picture suggests, he is happiest when canoeing the storied Shenandoah River.
>>>>>Photo Credits: By Noël Coypel – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Noel-Coypel/The-Resurrection-Of-Christ,-1700.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8811059; By Tomchen1989 – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32046344 ; By Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25671212