As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) With respect to Christian faith, if Jesus is not raised from the dead “you’ve got nothing.” Questioning/doubts/incredulity regarding the Christian claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is not new. In our era that has placed much stock in scientific knowing there is this tendency to think scepticism of such claims a relatively modern phenomenon. We regard ourselves as “advanced.” Paul writes this letter to the Corinthian church in the spring of either 53 or 54 CE. Just a little over twenty years has passed since that early morning when the women went to the tomb. Scepticism regarding the resurrection is already emerging even in the church. It prompts Paul to insist, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)
1. Last week (in our small group study) we were focussed on the crucifixion. We acknowledged, as Nate Locke pointed out, that Christians are pretty weird to celebrate the brutal death of Jesus. Until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man. This week we turn to an equally mystifying claim—that on the third day following the dreadful crucifixion of Jesus he was raised from the dead. “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place (now obviously empty) they laid him,” said the young man dressed in white to the women who had come to anoint the body with spices.
Have you ever wondered why Mark’s gospel—or any of the others, for that matter—got told in the first place? Think about biographies that have been written of other people. What makes a story endure? I read with interest the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas but I wonder if years from now anyone will be interested to read the story. Think about all the biographies that have been written—have any of them had the world changing impact like the gospel story of Jesus Christ? In point of fact many biographies of others are written because of this one Jesus Christ. I read the story of Bonhoeffer because he was a preacher of the gospel.
By the way, your story will get told because of Jesus Christ. He is the one who preserves you; “he will keep your life,” wrote the Psalmist. Or as Jesus said to Martha, whoever believes in me will never die. Why? Because he is the resurrection and the life.
Why does Jesus’ story get told? Crucifixion was designed to blot out a person’s existence. The Romans crucified thousands of people whose names are never heard again. Yet this one crucified man defied even crucifixion’s power. Unless Jesus was raised from the dead the story would never have been told. In the terms of Mark’s gospel if there was no 16th chapter the first 15 would have remained unknown. But is the endurance of this story of Jesus simply because it is a well written biography with a compelling story line? In other words, upon hearing the facts of the story related by the Apostles are you compelled to believe? It is indeed an unusual story full of bold claims, to be sure, but do these unusual bold things cause you to believe?
In biblical cosmology heaven and earth are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. Heaven relates to earth tangentially so the one who is in heaven can be simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth. Jesus Christ risen from the dead now ascended to heaven is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. The only reason people in the first century came to believe that Jesus had been raised from dead is because Jesus made himself known to them. The same is true throughout history and today. To our question of why this gospel story endures; it is because he endures. The same Lord who showed himself alive to these first followers makes himself known to believers today.
2. Mark’s gospel ends in such an unusual way that the conviction of many is that the original ending is lost to us. Either Mark did not get to finish it or the final piece was lost before copying began. Mark’s gospel ends with the women fleeing the tomb in terror saying nothing to no one even though they were commissioned by the angel to tell the disciples. “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” (Mark 16:8) (p. 55 pew Bible)
Over the course of history various endings have been proposed. You can read these in your Bibles as verses 9 through 20 of Mark chapter 16. But they are clearly additions. Mark’s account ends at verse 8. The church has ever been convinced that Mark did not intend to stop there.
It is the conviction of current scholarship that Matthew and Luke have Mark’s gospel in their hand as they write their stories. Matthew, in particular, follows the pattern of Mark adding other stories of Jesus in accord with what he wants to tell us of our Lord’s life and ministry. Reading Matthew’s gospel will give us a very likely pattern of how Mark’s originally ended his gospel with Jesus meeting the fleeing women and the commissioning of the Apostles.
But for me the thing that tells me that Mark knows that the women did overcome their fear and tell the disciples is because Mark is in Rome writing this gospel to encourage Christians to hang on to their faith in Jesus despite the persecutions unleashed against them by Nero. If these women had not told their story would Mark be telling us of how Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb? In other words if they truly said nothing how would Mark come by this information that they were at the tomb.
More than that is the fact that Mark writes this gospel to encourage persecuted Christians to not abandon the faith. If Mark does not know Jesus to be risen from the dead do you think he would be in Rome encouraging people to keep on believing in a crucified man—a man Rome had crucified and whose followers the Roman government now persecuted.
When Mark took up the pen to write his gospel the city of Rome had one million inhabitants. Like any huge city, it had large slum areas. In July, 64, fire broke out and destroyed 70% of the city. Nero, the emperor, set about rebuilding the city on a grandiose scale, hoping to make the new construction a monument to himself. Rumour had it that he had started the fire. Looking for someone defenseless to blame to deflect attention from himself Nero blamed the Christians launching unspeakable cruelties against them; Peter and Paul lost their lives in this wave of persecution.
In the greetings that appear in the concluding section of the Apostle Peter’s first letter he writes: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” “Babylon” is code for Rome so we know that Mark is with Peter in Rome before he is martyred by Nero. Tradition records that Mark’s father died when he was a boy. Mark’s mother and the Apostle Peter’s wife were cousins and Peter became a father figure for Mark. And so Peter would refer to Mark as my son. It is also said that Mark’s mother was a follower of Jesus during his ministry. Because of Mark’s relationship with the Apostle Peter his gospel has long been considered a record of Peter’s preaching.
With that in mind imagine Mark carrying the sorrow of having lost Peter—his mentor in preaching the gospel and father in the faith and in other personal ways. Picture him with pen in hand with all the notes he has taken as he heard Peter preach now assembling the pieces he will include in his book—a book written to help beleaguered Christian, including himself, stay the course. If Mark does not know this crucified Jesus to now be risen from the dead no gospel is written. In fact it is unthinkable that Peter would be in Rome building the church let alone Mark with him.
Tradition suggests that Mark’s home was adjacent, or at least nearby, the garden of Gethsemane. In Mark’s gospel—and only in his gospel—we have this interesting addition to what occurred when Jesus was arrested. “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” (Mark 14:51-52) We believe that this “certain young man” was Mark himself. Can you imagine this “certain young man” who fled in fear for his life as Jesus was being arrested now in Rome encouraging Christians to hold on to their faith in the arrested man Jesus if he does not know Jesus to be risen from the dead?
Marks’ personal witness speaks volumes.
3. It is hard to find an analogy that accurately depicts the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to Christian faith. Without it the rest collapses. The resurrection is presented to us as vindication that our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross did in fact achieve its intended purpose—the rescue from sin and the rectification of the entire cosmos from its decay brought on by sin and death. In his letter to the Philippians Paul cited what we believe to be an early church hymn or confession of faith. Listen for the word “therefore” and the logic implied: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The resurrection is vindication of his work.
As important as Jesus’ resurrection is it isn’t the whole thing of Christian faith. The resurrection is a part of the life of Jesus Christ. His life, ministry, death, and resurrection are part of the constellation of things that is the one life Jesus Christ. Just as you can’t jettison the resurrection and still have Jesus neither can you reduce Jesus to the resurrection as if Jesus were some mystical witness to some life force. Jesus really did live and really did die.
Permit me an analogy that I admit is imperfect. But all such analogies are imperfect because his resurrection is one of a kind—or more accurately the first of its kind. The resurrection permeates all of our Christian theology and understanding of our world. It is always there casting its light on the canvas of the painting of God’s love for us. Perhaps like the sun is to our world. Even at night we know its light is bright on another part of the world waiting to burst again on to ours. And on cloudy days the sun is not prevented from its work. For those who have flown in an aircraft that takes off under cloud cover and you travel through the fog of the cloud then suddenly burst into the sunlight. Such is the hope the resurrection of Jesus promises to his people.
The Apostle Paul wrote in his Romans letter “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5) The death Paul was speaking about was dying to our sinful nature in which we turn away from God. To Corinthians he wrote at length about the anticipation of resurrection like his; “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:42, 49) I love the way the Apostle John describes the resurrection we look forward to: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
The truth of Jesus resurrection from the dead permeates the believer’s understanding of life with great hope. In the Autumn edition of the U of T Magazine an article was published about the work of Professor Esme Fuller-Thompson whose research work found that those who experienced childhood trauma of abuse are markedly less healthy as adults that those who did not. But some thrive in spite of such trauma and Professor Fuller-Thompson sought to understand what made the difference.
Towards the end of the article was this observation. “Who gets to be healthy and who doesn’t?” she asks, summarizing what has become her life’s work. … Unconditional love, religion or spiritualty and mentorship—“any little bubble of cushioning in a tough world” can help, she says.”
It seems to me that Christian faith has long understood the power of resurrection hope to help us navigate the blows of life. We know that mental illness is not right and work to alleviate its effect in our lives is to live out the promise of that day when all will be set right. Depression indeed robs of life but the resurrection of our Lord who surely battled depression in the garden of Gethsemane points to an overcoming that this too will pass away. Friends, the resurrection of Jesus is great news for a hurting world.
‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.