So I was reading the strange, super short ending of Marks’ gospel recently: Mark 16:1-8.
Have you read this before?
Serriously, have a read and imagine it’s all you’ve got for a second.
What if Mark was the only gospel you had to read? For many, this may well have been the case. The date of authorship of Mark’s gospel implies that it is, at the very least around 10 years before its original readers had other gospel accounts to read alongside it. For those in this time, hearing the story for the first time, they did not have the luxury of cross-checking with other gospels, and the earliest manuscripts of Mark finish with the shorter ending.
So, let’s look at it as if this I all we have for a moment.
What do we find?
Three women approach a tomb that they assume is shut. They are preparing to carry out a religious ritual for the sake of honoring (or so they think) the memory of Jesus. A Jesus who had already shaped their lives so much. One of them, Mary would have primarily identified herself as his mother, a role of caring for him. More on that in a sec.
They had lives shaped by a rabbi, a son, a prophet, and now, a dead man.
Ultimately, as Dr. Henry Cloud says: the external becomes internal. What we do defines our identity. When we ask who someone is, a reply will often be words like: they’re a lawyer, they’re a FIFO worker, they’re a pastor, they’re a teacher, and so on. The reason why we sing worship songs is to build the identity of a human being as a creature who worships God rather than consumes God. Every time we gather, we’re saying ‘I am not simply my own person, but what I do, and my relationship with God, has an effect on the others around me.’
What is an external habit, becomes the internal character.
So, these ladies approach a tomb. It is an act that both flow out of and reinforces their identity as disillusioned followers of a dead savior.
Then the shock: they find some sort of angelic being who seems to know why they are there. He issues them an instruction whilst referencing the fact that they should not really be as surprised as they are. And so, at the thought of a risen Jesus, they flee in fear whilst completely disobeying God’s wishes as conveyed to them through the angel.
And that’s it. The first gospel that people have to read….is not a happy ending. They were loyal to the hilt while he was ‘alive’ but at the announcement of his resurrection, they fall into rebellion and doubt. Why?
If that’s the case, what is Mark doing here? Eugene Peterson tells us what Mark is doing:
He’s telling us that now we are at the hard part. Up to now, everything has been easier than this: getting in on the healings, listening to teaching, following Jesus to Jerusalem, throwing their cloaks down for the donkey, coming to the tomb to care for his body. Attending church, deciding to live a life of faith, loving the neighbor that you don’t like. None of that is a piece of cake but it’s easier than this. Because now with resurrection the picture has changed completely. It’s different. Nothing can account for it. They are not in charge, We are not in charge, God is in charge and he’s done something without anyone’s permission, without needing any input from us. Resurrection.
If your faith is built, if your identity is built on what you do for God, the most terrifying thought in the universe is: you’re not actually needed. You’re wanted.
This is the truth that overwhelms the circuits of those coming to ‘preserve the memory of Jesus, only to find he is risen.
It is terrifying. God is truly for us; every single excuse we have evaporates into thin air, right in midst of a life where we have no idea what God is going to do next. It’s like Mark is saying to his audience, some of which could be reading this at the very moment that Ceasar Titus was marching upon the Jerusalem temple, Are you ready for everything, upside down?
You’re not needed to ritually tend to a dead Jesus, the alive Jesus is coming straight at you commanding a new life in you.
I’ll be honest. At some point, we’re going to have to decide how to navigate a time of discussing deeply, deeply divisive topics.
How are we going to maintain unity in these conversations to the point where our local community sees their local church as the most deeply compelling community to be a part of?
There’s only one way. We must focus on the bedrock of our identity. Who are we? Do we serve a risen savior? Is that enough? Or is it that plus something else?
I recently came across an interesting story in Mark Sayer’s amazing book: ‘the vertical self’ that reminded me of that verse in Revelation 2:17:
The British reality show: ‘the monastery’ featured a group of secular men, non-believers who for several weeks lived as monks in a Roman Catholic monastery. They attended worship joined in the prayers, receive spiritual direction, and spent time in silence, meditation, and ancient Christian ritual. In the last episode, it became time for the group to leave the monastery. One of the groups, a young man who worked in the porn industry had his final session of spiritual direction with one of the monks. He concluded almost to his own disbelief that he did not want to return to his ordinary life. The camera captured this discussion as it happened. The young man with obvious difficulty shared with the monk that he did not want to return home he was struggling to find the language to describe what was happening to him. He shared that his fear was that when he returned home he would lose what he had learned at the monastery. There were a few moments of silence before the monk began to speak. Slowly and gently, he told the young man that he has a name that he does not know. He described how in the Book of Revelation we are told that our true names are written in heaven on white stones that this name on the stone is that real name pointing to our real identities. As the monk was speaking the young man’s body language showed he was extremely uncomfortable, remember this is a secular British working-class bloke who is involved in the production of porn, this is not someone who’s comfortable talking about his feelings or sharing in a profound spiritual discussion. Confronted with the transcendent he wanted to flee. The monk told the young man that he would like to give him a present to take with him as he left the monastery he reached into his pocket pulled out a smooth white stone and handed it to the young man telling him that this stone represented his true name. It is a symbol of his quest to find out who he really is….before God. At this point, it becomes obvious to the viewing audience that the young man was fighting with every fibre of his being to avoid breaking down into a blubbering mess. His spiritual director sensitive to his emotional discomfort asked the young man if he wanted to end the session he replied ‘yes’ however he didn’t move but simply sat there in silence. The monk told him to sit in the moment, that he didn’t have to say anything, that what he was experiencing was a spiritual moment, a mystery to be experienced rather than explained. Eventually laying hands on the young man’s head the monk prayed a moving and beautiful prayer of blessing and the session ended. Back in his room, the young man struggled to find the language to explain to the camera what just happened to him he woke up not believing but now he believes.
I think I finally figured out why they fled in fear initially.
Before you can get a new identity, you have to receive a deep wound. What is the wound?
It’s the wound caused by the ‘cutting off’ of your prior expectations. It’s the wound to the ego when you finally admit you were wrong about someone or something. It hurts, especially if you believe that you were right, you were justified to that you just plain learned to love how life was before. I’ve realized that this is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in the case of Mary.
Luke’s gospel records a strange statement from the angel announcing Mary’s pregnancy to her in 2:35. The angel says that… “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I always assumed that this was the angel talking about mary having to one day watch her Son Jesus be crucified. But the more I think about her response here in Mark’s ending, the more I wonder if that’s only half true.
I think she’s wounded the most by the resurrection.
Until now, her primary relationship with Jesus has been…..as his mum. She never gets that relationship back. Jesus is alive, but not as another Jewish rabbi or even a political messiah. She has to approach Jesus now, first and foremost as her God, not her son. No wonder her circuits are overloaded.
She faces a choice, if she just wants to be his mum, she’ll lose him for all eternity. She must become his disciple, indeed she must learn to worship him in order to know him as he really is.
Her name, her title change. The big stone rolled away implies a ‘little white stone’ she must accept.
This IS the life of faith.