Basic Faith, Extraordinary Savior

Scripture:  Mark 16:1-8

            Have you ever sat and watched the credits for a movie?  Some movies, have started hiding extra scenes at the very end so I have.  Those credits go on for a while.  It does not matter if a movie is bad or good it takes hundreds of people to make it happen.  Given how many people are involved, how many moving parts there are, and how much money it takes to make a movie it is surprising how fluid the process apparently is.   Several major, well known movies had significant changes occur after production started.  For instance, the script for Return of the Jedi had Han Solo dying.  However, George Lucas was afraid the character’s death would negatively impact toy sales so he forced the issue to get it changed.  Pretty Woman, one of the standards for romantic comedies, did not start off as a rom-com at all.  It was supposed to be a gritty, dark movie about two deeply flawed and horrible people, but after it was cast the movie started to take on a different shape.    Perhaps the most dramatic change is in The Shining.   The original ending of the movie was in a hospital and showed that the mother and child characters had survived and were going to be OK.  However, Stanley Kubrick decided this scene was unnecessary, and he decided at literally the last second because he had movie theater projectionists actually cut the scene out by hand and mail it back to the studio.   Tinkering with the ending is nothing new.  In 1686 Nahum Tate created a re-working of William Shakespeare’s King Lear to give it a happy ending, and for 150 years, Tate’s version was the only version performed on the stages of London.  We even find that kind of tinkering here, in the gospel of Mark. 

 If you followed along with the scripture reading in the pew bibles then you might have noticed that we actually did not go to the end of the chapter.  You might also have noticed that before verse nine there was a statement that “the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.”   This is because the oldest copies that have been uncovered of the gospel of Mark stop at verse eight.   Somewhere in the first couple of hundred years after Mark was written the ending got expanded.   It needs to be stated that does not mean that verses 9-20 were made up.  Likely these were part of the oral tradition of Jesus that was being passed down in the church.  To keep these stories of Jesus from being lost to the sands of time, and to “improve” the ending some unknown early church leader included verses 9-20.   By 325 and the council of Nicea, there were not any objections to Mark and these verses, so by and large the church has always considered these additions to be inspired scripture.

This means though that as Mark wrote it, his gospel ends at verse 8.   It ends with “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”   I find this ending fascinating, because Mark could have gone on.  He did not have to end there.  He easily could have included stories of Peter running to the tomb, of Jesus appearing to the disciples, and generally ended on a much more positive note.   But as originally written, Mark did not.  Mark made an intentional choice to end on a down note, and I think that we can learn from that choice. 

            From the gospels about Jesus we get the impression that the first Easter must have been an extremely chaotic day.  A lot happened in a short time period, and there was not an assigned historian to record everything in meticulous detail for the record.   Because of that the four accounts of that early Easter morning are all slightly different from one another in the details they record.  The different gospel writers remember different details, but in broad strokes the story is the same.  For instance they all have Mary Magdalene going to the tomb early in the morning.   Mary was accompanied by several other women, but it seems not a single writer manages to name the whole group.  Salome for instance is only recorded in this morning’s scripture.  In all of the gospels the women find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty and speak with angels.  In the other three gospels, Mary Magdalene rushes to tell the eleven what she had seen.   But Mark implies that not all of the women did this.  Some of them at least, fled, and said nothing because they were afraid.   I think there are two things we can learn from the reaction of these women. 

            The first thing we can learn from this is related to why Mark chose to end the gospel in this fashion.   We have to remember that the gospels were not written in a vacuum, they were written to a specific audience and they are works of literature that use literary devices.   The ending of Mark is a fantastic display of this because it is asking the reader of the gospel a question.   Reading the gospel of Mark lays out the story of Jesus, his ministry, his teachings, and his claims about who he is.  After encountering the gospel, and being shown the truth of Jesus the end of this gospel challenges the readers to ask themselves, what about you?   Now that you know about the mighty acts of Christ, will you too be silent?    That is the question that should still challenge us today. 

            It should challenge us because the numbers bear out that as a whole we still seem to be afraid to testify the miracle of the resurrection.  LifeWay Research published the results of a five year study on church growth in 2017.   They found that the vast majority of church growth was not true growth.  The majority of it was transfer growth, where people just move from one to church to another.   The lowest type of church growth is conversion growth.  Conversion growth comes from some experiencing and accepting the life changing love, forgiveness, and salvation made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection.   TheLifeWay study found that only 6-7.5% of church growth is through conversion growth.   The only way that someone is introduced to the gospel is if someone shares it with them.  The numbers do not lie, like most of the women who visited the empty tomb, the majority of American Christians are silent and too afraid to say anything. 

            The question is why are we so silent?   Perhaps part of it is that many of us were raised to believe that good mannered, polite people never talked about religion or politics.   That’s garbage though.    There is wisdom in not arguing for the sake of arguing, but why is the truth of amazing grace relegated to the same category of debating the merits of taxes?   On the surface our silence does not make much sense.   If you consider yourself a Christian then that means you have experienced the forgiveness made available on the cross, you have rested in the assurance the empty tomb gives, and you known the depths of God’s love.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, those things are exciting!  They are life changing!  They are almost too good to comprehend.   Why then are we so silent about it?    If we watch a good movie, we tell everyone we know.  If we go to a great restaurant, we put pictures of what we are going to eat all over facebook.   If something is exciting, we usually are super quick to share that excitement with others.  We can test this fairly easily.  Baseball’s opening day was this past week, so find a Cubs or Reds fan and ask them how the team looks this year.  They will be full of hope, excitement and anticipation as they talk about their beloved team and the sport they enjoy.  We find it easy to get excited about a sport but that same level of excitement does not seem to apply to our faith.   That just does not compute, after all encountering Jesus and experiencing forgiveness of sins should be one of the most profound experiences of our lives.  There has to be a reason why we are so hesitant to share that experience with others.   The most likely explanation is that we are afraid. 

            What are we afraid of?   Perhaps we are afraid of other people judging us.  Perhaps we are afraid of messing it up or being asked a question that we do not know the answer of.  Perhaps we are afraid that someone will be confrontational.   The reason is almost irrelevant, if the result is the same.  That result is that we did not learn the lesson from the end of Mark we are like the women who are afraid and say nothing.   The first thing we can learn from this morning’s scripture is not to be afraid.   The message that Jesus is alive and that sins are forgiven is too important, too incredible, and too world-changing for us to keep it to ourselves.  

We cannot let fear quench that message.   We should be willing and able to proclaim that He Lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.   If someone wants proof, if they ask us how we know he lives, then we tell them he lives within my heart.  We do not need to have all the answers, we just need to share our experience with the resurrected savior.  On the first Easter the failure of the women who were afraid was to share the good news.  They did not have to explain the “why and how” of an empty tomb, they just needed to share what they experienced.   In the same way, may we be willing to share our testimony, or experience with the love of God made known through Jesus Christ, and may stop keeping our story quiet out of fear.   

Second I find the original ending of Mark fascinating because it captures human imperfection so well.   We do not know the story of these women, but they were part of Jesus’ disciples.  We do not know their stories, but we know just like the apostles they had to give up a lot to follow Jesus.  These women were not just groupies either, they were disciples.  We know that Jesus broke with Rabbinic tradition and he was willing to allow women to sit with and learn with his male disciples.   These women would have had a basic faith, but when push came to shove they gave in to fear.   Again, I think we can all relate to this.   We probably all have times in our lives when the going got tough, and we ran and hid under a blanket.   I imagine that even years later, the memory of this day, of being afraid, is one that the women would rather forget.   Again, we probably can all relate.  We have regrets that we probably still look back with shame and guilt wishing we did things differently.   We all have times where we were caught slightly embarrassed, because our imperfection was showing.

            The reaction of bewilderment, fear, and silence from the women reminds us of our own imperfections.   Which means, it should remind us of the greater truth in this morning’s scripture:  The tomb was empty!   This means that Jesus is who he claimed to be throughout the gospels:  the messiah, the son of God.   It means that Jesus defeated sin and death forever, that he offers eternal forgiveness, and that he has opened a way of reconciliation to God the Father.   The second thing that we can learn from this morning’s scripture is a constant reminder.  We may have a basic faith, but we have an extraordinary savior.   We may be imperfect, but our risen Lord is perfect.   On that first Easter, some of the women were bewildered, afraid, and silent.   The reminder though is that their failure, even then, is forgiven.  That because Jesus rose from the grave our sins are forgiven, our shame is erased, and our guilt can be released.   This morning’s scripture is a profound reminder that even when we are at our worst, God is still at God’s best.  And that my friends is good news!  

            It is the good news that we celebrate today!   The good news of an empty tomb, a risen savior, and an all-surpassing love is at the heart of our faith.   May we take the lessons of this morning’s scripture to heart.   May we remember that the stories of Jesus-its true, all of it.   May the assurance of that good news fill us with joy, excitement, passion, enthusiasm, and a deep-burning desire to share the good news with others.    May we stop being afraid to share the good news, but may we proclaim the truth that has for all eternity changed us:  Up from the grave he arose!   He arose a victor from the dark domain and he lives forever with his saint to reign.  He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!”