The Cliffhanger

Sermon for Sunday, April 4, 2021 || Easter Sunday B || Mark 16:1-8

That’s it then. That’s the end of the Gospel: “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.” 

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a cliffhanger to me, like the end of part one of a two-part television episode. My favorite TV show of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation ended four of its seven seasons on cliffhangers to entice the viewer back in the fall. (That’s how television used to work, by the way.) The most memorable was the end of Season Three when Captain Picard was captured by the Borg, and the season ends when the Enterprise crew has developed a new weapon to take out the Borg cube and Commander Riker says, “Fire,” and then the picture goes dark and the words “To be continued…” flash across the screen. I had to wait all summer to see what happened when the Enterprise fired the weapon from the modified deflector dish! And I was seven-years-old. Waiting was not my strong suit.

Sorry. Sorry. What’s all this have to do with the Gospel and Easter? Not much. I just get really excitable when I talk about Star Trek. Really, my goal was to get you in the mindset of cliffhangers because that’s precisely what Mark does at the end of his account of the Gospel. I just read the entire final chapter of the Gospel According to Mark, and, no, you did not fall asleep in the middle of it. Mark Chapter 16 is all of eight verses long, and it ends with Mary and Mary and Salome fleeing from the tomb and not telling anyone what the young man said about Jesus’ resurrection.”

(A quick aside – if you look in your Bible, you will see a longer version of Mark Chapter 16, and there will probably be brackets around it. These so-called “shorter” and “longer” endings of Mark were most likely added later, presumably by people who didn’t like the idea of a cliffhanger. I would just ignore those additional verses, if I were you. For my money, Mark ends exactly where our Gospel lesson finished this morning, with the women fleeing the tomb.)

Okay, so the Gospel according to Mark ends with this cliffhanger. This makes Mark the odd Gospel out because the other three end with multiple in-depth appearances of the Risen Christ. Matthew ends with Jesus telling his disciples to go out and make more disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with Jesus imploring them to remember that he is with them always. Luke ends with the story of Jesus meeting the two fellows on the road to Emmaus, eating fish with his disciples, and ascending into heaven. John ends with Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden, appearing to his disciples in the upper room, and showing Thomas his wounds. Then John ends again with Jesus meeting his disciples on the beach after they go fishing and bringing Peter back into the fold following Peter’s denial the night of Jesus’ arrest. (Yes, John’s Gospel ends twice. It’s a little strange.)

But Mark…

Mark – the shortest account of the Gospel, the one that moves briskly from one event to the next without pause or reflection – Mark ends with the empty tomb and the women running off, afraid to say anything to anyone. The question is: why?

I think the answer to the question of the final verse of Mark’s Gospel lies way back in the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then Mark is off into the story of Jesus’ baptism and calling his disciples and healing people.  No genealogy (Matthew). No birth narrative (Luke). No epic poem of creation (John). Mark just starts the story. And starts it with those words: “The beginning of the good news.”

So here’s the thing. The beginning Mark is talking about is not Chapter One of the Gospel. There were no chapters and verses in Mark’s day. Someone would memorize the entire Gospel and go perform it for local groups of early Christians meeting in homes across Greece and Asia Minor. That’s the key. The entire Gospel of Mark – all 16 chapters – is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. The beginning of the good news closes with the women fleeing the tomb. But it doesn’t end. Now do you see why I call it a cliffhanger?

The Gospel is just part one of the story. Mark intentionally, I think, closes the Gospel in this unfinished manner precisely because the Gospel is unfinished. Mark was not telling a story that ended. Mark was telling a story that began. A story that continues even now with you and me as the characters – all of us who are descendants of Mary and Mary and Salome’s encounter with the reality of the Risen Christ, if not with the physical body that rose.

The three women must have told someone eventually, or else how did Mark get a hold of their story? By imagining our way into that unwritten part of the larger narrative, we start to imagine how we ourselves fit into that story too. We wonder how we proclaim the good news of the Risen Christ present in our lives. In other words, what does it look like to start the next episode of the Gospel after the cliffhanger? How do we take the torch that Mary and Mary and Salome pass along to us and follow Jesus on this side of the Resurrection?

The Resurrection is not about something old returning. The Resurrection is about something new beginning. The Risen Christ is not the reanimated remains of Jesus’ crucified body. The Risen Christ is a new and glorious incarnation, the physical embodiment of the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (see Romans 8:38-39).

We are about to step into the new post-COVID world that we have glimpsed but which hasn’t yet fully arrived. As we follow Jesus there, we are walking into something new, even as we remain dwelling in the promise of the love of God. The new thing we are walking into is a world that we followers of Jesus can help shape. We can model being a people who take seriously God’s call for us to be stewards of creation rather than exploiters of it. We can model being a people who listen to Jesus’ call of liberating love and work to dismantle the unjust systems of our society that continue to oppress people of color, queer people, and women. We can model life-giving relationships, forgiveness, nonviolence, mercy, trust, peace, and joy. We can serve others just as Jesus served his friends when he washed their feet. We can love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength, and we can love our neighbors as ourselves.

As we follow the Risen Christ into this new episode of God’s great story of creation, I invite you to take time this week to find some silence and pray. Dwell in the eternal love of God that created you, sustains you, and will never abandon you. Feel the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing you towards new possibilities. And Listen for how the Risen Christ is speaking new life into your heart and calling you to reshape this world so it more closely resembles the Kingdom of Heaven.

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