April 23, 2000
DID THEY EVER GET IT?The college had invited the distinguished writer, Reynolds Price to read his translation of the Gospel of Mark. It was Wednesday of Holy Week. While sitting before a room full of faculty and students, Reynolds read the entire gospel. After the author concluded his reading his translation with the same passage as our Scripture reading the audience applauded. William Willimon, the Dean of Chapel at Duke University, commented that hearing the story read outside of the context of a worship setting was unforgettable. Both he and the students were deeply moved. On his way back to his office, a student approached him and asked, "Did they ever get the point?" "Who?" asked the chaplain. "Those disciples. Did they ever finally figure out who Jesus was and what he was up to?"1
I can appreciate the student's question. A casual reading of just the gospel of Mark, would leave a person with a very negative picture of the disciples. Mark would have made a great writer for a gossip tabloid. He seems to go out of his way to record the inconsistencies and failures of the disciples. After Jesus tells the story of the sower who casts his seed upon four types of soil, the disciples come to him and ask him to explain the meaning of the parable. They do not have any more understanding than the crowd but they are too embarrassed to ask their questions in public. After the feeding of the 5000, the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee and their boat becomes buffeted by a strong head wind. Jesus walks on the water to meet them. Mark records that they were amazed because they had not understood about the loaves. (Mark 6:52) And Mark makes sure that he includes the incident when the mother of James and John try to maneuver her sons into positions of greater responsibility. (Mark 10:35-45) And it is Mark that concludes his gospel with the women running in fear from the tomb and too stunned to say anything to anyone.
On Friday at the community Good Friday service I told the congregation
that Mark more than the other gospel writers tries to describe the horror
of the Cross stripped of Sunday's overtones. He wants the reader to feel
the despair, the shock, and the dismay. He does not want anyone reading
ahead. Then again even if you did you might be quite disappointed. Mark
leaves out most of the glorious resurrection appearances. The last
paragraph that is in your Bible was not written by the nephew of Peter. It
was added sometime in the second century, long after Mark had died. It may
have been added for the simple reason that the shorter version of Mark
ends on such a dower note. Where is the victory? Where is the triumphant
appearance? " You expect the gospel to end with the disciples feeling the
joy and happiness of the resurrection not fear and confusion.
THE WALK TO THE TOMBJewish law prohibited the women from anointing the body on the Sabbath so they appear to have waited until after the day of rest had ended with the evening meal to purchased spices. They woke up early the next day. It was the third day since he had died. He had been in the tomb over 36 hours. They were willing to put up with the stench out of their love for their friend but they had forgotten about the stone until they started walking to the cemetery. They women may not have known that the Jews had placed a guard at the tomb. All they knew was that they did not have enough strength to roll the stone.
They noticed that something was wrong as soon as they drew near to the tomb. The stone had been rolled aside. I wonder how long they stood debating what they should do. How long they took, they eventually went in. Upon entering the tomb, they saw a man sitting off to the right in a dazzling white robe. He knows why they have come. He tells them that Jesus has been raised and to go and tell the disciples and Peter that he is going before them into Galilee just as he told them. Gripped by terror and amazement they fled the tomb. According to Mark, they did not obey the man's instructions but rather, they did not say anything to anyone.
Mark's gospel really ends on a note of fear. The disciples are so afraid that they are no where to be found. The women are so startled by the events that they run and hide, too afraid to tell anyone. The additional passage that you have was added to the book of Mark probably sometime during the late 2nd Century. It is understandable why a community of believers decided to tack it on. The conclusion of Mark's gospel is quite dissonant. It is unsettling. Where is the joy? Where is the excitement? Where is the victory? Didn't they get the point?
The other three gospel writers all end their accounts with stories of resurrection appearances. Their recollections all include warm reunions that end in joy. Today we sung several hymns that express the triumphant and joy that we think those disciples first felt. You will not find any overtones of fear, hesitation, or timidity. This is quite different from the atmosphere that Mark appears to be conveying.
If you are confused consider, if you had just met a dead man what emotion do you think you would feel? On one level, this first Easter morning has all the ingredients for a horror movie. Consider also this, if the man you had just abandoned in his most desperate hour of need, had in fact returned from the dead, how excited would you be to see him? What do you think would be his attitude toward those "friends" who had deserted him?
A later editor of the gospel of Mark took the liberty of speculating when he added his own rendition. In this pseudo-ending, it is written "Afterward, when the Eleven reclined at meal, Jesus appeared to them and upbraided [them for] their unbelief and hardness of heart..."2 However, I believe that their fear lay even deeper than this.
The women knew that it would have been much safer, even easier if Jesus had just died on that Cross and his body decayed in the tomb. They would still have been sad but life goes on. The disciples would have had to humble themselves and returned to their homes and jobs. They would have had to face the ridicule of their friends and the "I told you so" teasing. A part of them would have died. They may have even become cynics and skeptics but life would not have changed. After all, everyone knows that evil is more powerful than good. Everyone knows that death will eventually snuff those brief flickers of goodness. " When all is said and done, all dreams end at the cemetery in dust, forgetfulness, finitude and extinction.
If Jesus of Nazareth, was now raised from the dead to life, the women knew enough to know that everything would be different. And that is what frightened them. If that teacher who was crucified by colluding government and religious leaders, if that itinerate rabbi who had been crushed by the forces of evil, if that man from Galilee was now raised, now vindicated by a might act of God and raised to life, if God had intervened in history in a dramatic act those women knew that their lives and the lives of their friends would never be the same. That is a scary thought. We work very hard at establishing balance and predictability in our life. Radical, uncertain, change is threatening.
But if Jesus is raised, if the stone is rolled away, if life outlasts
death and God has the last word then there is reason to fear. Nothing is
secure. Nothing is fixed. No one is safe. The power of God is unleashed
and about to transform life. And the women were sacred by what this might
mean. Former Judge William Bontrager discovered just how frighten
resurrection can be.3
Judge Bontrager concluded that the mandatory sentence would destroy rather than rehabilitate Palmer. The young man had recently become a Christian and a model prisoner. The Judge order Palmer to serve one year and then upon his release to reimburse those he had robbed and provide community service. Palmer fulfilled every requirement of his sentence. After his release he reunited with his wife and began paying back his victims. The case appeared to be a model for restorative justice but the Indiana Supreme Court disagreed.
The Supreme Court overturned Judge Bontrager's decision and ordered the lower court judge to re-sentence Palmer. Bontrager decided that the case required him to choose between the law of man and the law of God. He had been reading the OT prophets and believed that the Supreme Court's order did not meet God's standard of justice and righteousness. He refused to punish a man just meet the technicality of the law so he steeped aside and turned the case over to another judge. However, his political enemies seized their opportunity. The Court fined Bontrager $500 for contempt. Proceedings were begun to remove him from the bench. Rather than allow his case to endanger Palmer's appeal he resigned and returned to his practice of law but his ordeal was still not over.
His radical talk about obeying God rather than man raised some eyebrows in his community. People were not certain if they wanted to trust him with their legal affairs. Clients were scarcer than bill collectors were the Easter morning that Bill Bontrager paid a visit to the Westville Correction Center to conduct worship services. He said nothing was he waited for he guards to unlock the doors to the auditorium. When the doors swung open he made his way into the crowd to look for Harry Palmer. When he found the ex-burglar the two men embraced and tears rolled down their checks. Chuck Colson described the reunion: "As I watched their reunion, the witness was clear: a man giving up a respected, comfortable life to fight for what is right, against inexorable process of an often hostile world, is evidence that Christ lives...."4
CONCLUSIONBill Bontrager could easily forgive the women for running from the empty tomb in fear. It the words are true,
He has been raised; he is not here...But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you."If those words are true then you will not walk out of here in the same way that you came in.
Do you get the point?
1 William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, "Afraid of Easter," Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 21.
2 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Revised edition, NICNT, eds. Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce and Gordon D. Fee, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 606.
3 Willimon, "Afraid of Easter," 21-22.
4 Chuck Colson, Who Speaks for God?, (Weschester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), 54-57.
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