Back in December, I was showing a parishioner and his son around our church, newly decorated for the upcoming Christmas Eve service. The little boy had not been to St. Thomas since his baptism as an infant, and he was looking eagerly at our lovely manger scene in front of the Altar. Trying to take advantage of a teachable moment, I asked the six-year-old if he knew why Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and all of the other Christmas story figures were in place, yet the manger was still empty. He shrugged, so I continued to explain that, since the Baby Jesus was born on Christmas Eve, we would wait until that service to place the Jesus figure in the manger. “He’s not born yet—that’s why he’s missing,” I smugly proclaimed. The little boy looked at me and frowned in perplexity. Hesitatingly, he looked up at his father and then skeptically back at me and said, “But I thought that Jesus already died …?!”
Sometimes the circularity of our church calendar makes us feel as if we are hearing the same old story, again and again, especially at Christmas and Easter. Standing outside the stories, it can be hard to feign surprise at a birth that we know will happen and to mourn a death when we know that the resurrection is coming. That is why the Gospel of Mark, with its seemingly strange, abrupt ending, is so valuable to us. Scholars are fairly certain that Mark, the first Gospel to be written, originally ended with these verses that we hear [tonight] [today]. We are often shocked at this abrupt and gloomy ending. Where are the appearances of Jesus to his disciples? Where is the breakfast on the beach? Where is the scene in the garden, when Mary Magdalene recognizes her Lord? How can it be Easter with the women running off, afraid? This strange ending, however, is constructed to bring us back to the beginning of the Gospel, back to Galilee where it all started. It is constructed to bring the whole story full circle, this time with us, the reader, as one of the disciples in the story. One of my favorite works of fiction that I have read recently is Uwem Akpan’s book of short stories, Say You’re One of Them. Akpan tells gruesome and disturbing stories featuring children from various struggling African nations. The end of each story cuts off abruptly, with the fate of the children unresolved, refusing to tell us if the suffering children will face more horrors or if they will escape the conditions that seem to spell out their doom. “Say you’re one of them,” Akpan proposes with his endings and his title. “Even though you live in far-off, comfortable America, you share with them a common humanity. Say you’re one of them, and live their pain.”
Akpan, a Roman Catholic priest, must have studied Mark’s Gospel. For this approach is what Mark offers us this Easter: “Say you’re one of them,” he proposes. “Enter into the story. Go back to Galilee; listen to John the Baptist preach. Join on as a disciple. See the miracles. Listen to the teachings. Walk to Jerusalem with Jesus. Hear it all again, but this time, become part of the story. Now, what would you do? Say you’re one of the women at the tomb ….. Will you meet the Risen Lord … or not?”
If I had agreed to sneak away to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome early on that Sunday morning, I would have been the most nervous of all of them. Sure, I want my teacher and friend to receive the ritual anointing. It is unthinkable just to have him stuffed in a tomb, unwashed and uncared for, and besides, I want to see him one last time. But at the same time, I am terrified of being caught by Roman soldiers and harassed … or worse. And then there is the problem of the stone. How are we four women going to be able to roll it away from the entrance? “What is the point of taking the risk to go down there if we can’t even get into the tomb?” I argue with Mary Magdalene, the impractical one. What are we going to do, just stand there and wish it away? Sometimes there are insurmountable obstacles in this world, for goodness’ sake. We can’t just do what we want to do; we can’t always even do what we need to do. I’m willing to go take a look, but I don’t expect this to work.
And then, when I see that the huge stone has been moved, I am truly afraid. What if someone has stolen his body and is waiting in the bushes to get us? What if the Romans are playing some kind of trick on us? Stones like that don’t move by themselves. And when I see the strange young man in the tomb, then I really start to panic. Where is Jesus’ body? What have they done with him? I gather my robe close to run away back home, but Mary stops me. The blood is pounding so loudly in my ears that I can barely hear what the eerie man is saying. He wants us to tell the disciples that Jesus is where? In Galilee? And he is alive? Jesus wants to see us there? We’re just women—the others will laugh at us if we go back with a tale like this. They’ll never believe that we have been given such an important message to transmit. They’ll say that we were dreaming, and I will feel like a fool. I don’t like feeling like a fool. Besides, there’s no way that I am going to tell Peter anything. He denied Jesus not once but three times. He flat-out lied to the people in the courtyard. I heard all about it. After all of his bragging about how much he loved Jesus… I’m not telling him anything ever again.
And then the shame sets in. There’s no way that I am returning back home to Galilee right now. My family told me not to go off with Jesus in the first place, but I didn’t listen. I thought that he would save our nation or at least save me. Now that he has been crucified by the Romans, I realize that I should have known better. Roman power always wins. Why didn’t I listen? What am I supposed to say to my family, “Oh yes, Jesus died, but he’s waiting for us around here somewhere … somewhere? ….” I’ve already made so many mistakes. I just can’t let them see that I’ve made another one.
If I were one of those women, what would I do? I imagine that I would be sorely tempted to flee “in fear and consternation.” Fear is such a powerful force, and it often plays a dominant role in our actions and in our decisions. Several years ago, however, I read an innocent-sounding question that changed my life, a life often ruled by fear. Psychiatrist Rachel Remen, in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, suggests that we ask, before every decision that we make, “What would I do if I were not afraid?” What would you do if you were not afraid of getting hurt—would you reach out in love? What would you do if you were not afraid of looking foolish—would you speak up for the right thing? What would you do if you were not afraid of dying—would you do that risky, life-giving thing that you have always dreamed of doing?
What would you do if you were not afraid …? That is an Easter question. For if Christ is risen—if death and sin are defeated, if God’s Love is what truly rules the world—then why do we need to be afraid? Say you were one of them, one of the women at the tomb, one of Jesus’ disciples, could you lay aside your fear, leaving it to writhe on the floor of the empty tomb, while you walk out into the sunshine? Imagine your feet, no longer weighed down with fear, carrying you without hesitation on God’s mission to places near and far. Imagine your hands, no longer trembling with fear, reaching out in love to your neighbor in need. Imagine your mouth, no longer locked in fear, giving testimony to the blessings that you have received from God. Imagine your mind, no longer closed off in fear, open to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. Without your fear, you are free—free to return home to Galilee, where Jesus is waiting patiently for you to follow him. Jesus might be born each Christmas and die every Good Friday and rise again every Easter Day, but Jesus, the Risen Lord, also continues to abide, one step ahead of us, in Galilee. Will you follow him today, tomorrow, in each bold decision, in each loving step … or not?