In his writing, Peter Marty tells the story of his mother and grandmother. When she was 40 years of age, Marty’s grandmother collapsed at the kitchen table over a bowl of soup. She died on the spot. Marty’s grandfather, a Lutheran Minister, was utterly overwhelmed by his young bride’s passing and his profound grief in turn overshadowed the childhood of Marty’s mother Elsa who was 8 years old at the time.
In the wake of her death, Marty’s grandfather developed a new routine. Every Sunday afternoon, after leading the church in worship, Marty’s grandfather took Elsa and went to his wife’s grave. This weekly ritual eventually overtook and permeated every other aspect of their lives and her childhood.
Peter Marty goes on to say that when his own mother died in her early 50s she took all of her other childhood memories with her. In all of the years, the only story from her childhood that Ms. Marty ever shared was about those weekly visits with her father to her mother’s grave.
We could spend the rest of Easter Sunday morning dissecting that story. There are so many parts of it that are sad beyond measure. Yet, the aspect of the story that really speaks to me and that I want to highlight is the profound notion of a man (Marty’s grandfather) preaching the gospel on Sunday morning and then going to the grave of his wife week after week, year after year. I don’t want to be too hard on him for most of us can only imagine his grief. Yet, Marty himself says that “resurrection may have been the last thing” on his grandfather’s mind. Perhaps even as a minister, he struggled to have the daily faith to believe that the death of his wife was not the end. In essence it all led him to struggle with the question of the ages. What is truth? The truth of resurrection that says that even in the darkness of this situation, there is hope. Or, is truth actually found in the hard realities of life that help us to see that despite our dreams that life is hard, at times painful and that we ultimately all meet our ends and limitations. (“It’s Easter. Step Into The Future”, Peter Marty, The Christian Century, March 30, 2021)
Mark’s version of Jesus’ resurrection strikes a similar chord. Mark’s version of the story makes it clear that believing that this moment at the garden tomb was not the end, was a supreme act of faith.
Of the four gospels, Mark’s version of the first Easter is the most unique. What makes Mark unique is that our oldest versions of this gospel end at verse 8. While later versions of Mark continue on to a 20th verse, virtually all New Testament scholars of all stripes and persuasions agree that verse 8 is the proper ending point. Thus, Mark concludes with the women being told that Jesus has risen from the grave and that they are to go and tell the others. Yet, Mark also stops before recording that the women or any of the disciples had actually seen the resurrected Jesus.
Again, the unique spin of Mark is that belief in resurrection is at least in part a matter of faith. In Mark, trusting in resurrection is believing without seeing.
As in Mark’s gospel, we as modern believers live without the benefit of having seen with our own eyes or touched with our own hands or heard with our own ears the resurrected Jesus. Instead, for us, as in Mark, our job is to believe without seeing, to trust despite the lack of concrete proof.
In Mark, both the women and disciples were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was the end. Without question, in their minds, Jesus was dead. Take for example two key elements of the text. First, as they make their way to the tomb, the women are concerned about getting inside the tomb due to the stone that has sealed the entrance. This is what they discuss on the way there. You see, there was no door on Jesus’ tomb and such a stone would have been very big and impossible for the women to move on their own. Of course, in a lot of ways, this was a practical consideration but it was also a way to be clear that as they arrived, the women have no hope. All of the talk about the stone over the entrance is a way of discussing what they expect to find which is a corpse behind a sealed tomb.
Second, none of the disciples are present with the women at the tomb because they too have no expectations of anything exciting or otherworldly happening either. In their minds, it is over. Jesus is dead. The end has come. There is nothing left to do but finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial and the disciples are not motivated to be there. Again, no expectations of anything exciting or extraordinary happening exist.
The empty tomb takes them all by surprise. The call to believe that this is not the end is totally unanticipated. The idea of resurrection is a grand opportunity for their lives to take on a completely new dimension and it all requires belief, trust, faith.
The text takes it even a step further. Not only is there good news of resurrection, there is also good news of resurrection for all of them. Notice what verse 7 says, “now go tell his disciples, including Peter…” Of course, knowing the Easter story as we do, we know that Peter is coming off an epic failure having denied Jesus three times. When we take into account all of the disciples and the women involved in this story, there are a lot of checkered pasts, rough edges, grand mistakes and human ordinariness. Yet this good news of resurrection, this unexpected word right when they least expected it, this world altering news that the end has not come in either their collected lives or in their individuals lives despite their flaws is such an amazing word. All that it required is their belief in such an idea without the benefit of proof
The calling of Mark to the first Easter audience, is the calling of Mark to you and I as the Easter audience in 2021. Even without concrete proof, our job is to believe that this is not the end. On the one hand, we are called to believe in resurrection despite all of the voices in our day that say that in this situation or that, the end has come. On the other hand, we are called to believe in resurrection despite all of the voices of our day that would say that in light of all of these mistakes, failure and closets filled with skeletons that the last person Christ would come for is us.
What a hope filled word – resurrection. Through Christ, now matter how bleak life becomes, it is not the end. In my life and despite myself, through Christ, this is not the end. We can’t prove it, we don’t have a way to authenticate it. We must simply believe it.
In the Battle of Waterloo between the French and the British in 1815, the British were led by the Duke of Wellington and of course the French were led by Napoleon. There is a story connected to the battle about the British ship that brought news of victory. As the ship neared the coast, the weather was very foggy. So on the first attempt to signal the mainland, the only words able to be sent were “Wellington defeated…”. Later, the fog lifted and the messenger onboard tried again this time completing the full sentence. “Wellington defeated the enemy”. Of course, with the full sentence the entire mood changed dramatically.
This is what it means to live the resurrected life. It means living in between “Wellington defeated” and “Wellington defeated the enemy” while having the faith to believe that in spite of the news we are heard in the moment, there is better news yet to come. This is the hard place of life. This is where faith kicks in. This is what it means to live a resurrection life. Amen. (Attributed to Harold T. Bryson, Illustrating the Gospel of Matthew, James E. Hightower, Jr. Compiler, Broadman Press, 1982, pg. 110)