Sermon from Easter V: In Sum

In Sum
Easter V; May 2, 2021
Mark 16

Sometimes it’s hard for people to leave well enough alone. All of the oldest manuscripts we have of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 8: “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 feel the urge to talk to you about that a little bit, and then we’ll see if I can add something that may help your life in God.

People who study the Bible have puzzled over this: Why did Mark end his Gospel with the women running from the tomb in fear, not saying anything to anyone? Well, one possible answer to that is, “He didn’t.” Now, given its absence from anything older than the fifth century, we can be quite confident that he didn’t write the portion in our Bibles labeled as verses 9 to 20. Mark didn’t write that. But some folks suggest that he did write more after the part about the women running from the tomb, but it got lost somehow. Somehow every copy of Mark lost the last page and we don’t know what he wrote but he probably wrote something. Have you ever read a good novel and got to the end and discovered the last page was missing? Imagine you’re reading the most important thing ever written – the Gospel of Jesus – and the last page is missing!

But there is another possibility: that Mark really did end his Gospel with the women running from the tomb, frightened and not speaking to anyone. Now, it’s obvious that they did tell the disciples, because we know what all came after. But perhaps Mark intentionally ended the story there. Sometimes you read a real good story, and the last page isn’t missing, but just the same there are threads left dangling, loose ends not tied up. For all the completeness and massiveness of the “Lord of the Rings,” at least one question is left unresolved: Did the ents ever find the entwives? So maybe Mark, who is without a doubt a skilled story-teller, left us hanging at the end quite intentionally.

Well, whichever may be the case, somebody was unhappy about it and wrote an ending. Actually, there are three different endings, but I do not want to bog down in detail today. Let me say only that, in contrast to the rest of the book, this ending (verses 9-20) is clumsy and grabs material from the works of Luke, and also has some very strange teaching. This is the only place where Jesus says that his followers can drink poison and handle snakes and not be harmed. You may have heard of the practice of snake-handling among some Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia; a former colleague of mine did her PhD dissertation on Appalachian Holiness churches and she showed me video she had taken of worship services in rivers, where the minister handled poisonous snakes, and of people bringing cages of rattlesnakes to church and letting them out, dancing among them and even lying down, using the snakes as a pillow.

For them, it is a testimony of their faith. Yes, many are bitten. Yes, some die. But because of this verse in Mark 16, they believe it is something they should do. I do not wish to say anything unkind about another’s practice of faith, but quite apart from whether this verse really belongs in the Bible or not, this is what troubles me: it feels as though Jesus isn’t enough, but something more exciting needs to be added. It hits me the same way as the practice in many churches of making sure they have perfect sound systems and a great band: we have to get people’s pulse throbbing. We have our issues too, I know; there are always some who can’t leave well enough alone but have to make it more exciting.

But back to Mark. What if he really did leave a cliff-hanger at the end of his Gospel? What if he did tell us the women ran from the tomb and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid?  And then stopped? What would that do?

I think it would force you and me to decide if we’re going to do something. Are we also going to avoid saying anything to anyone about Jesus because we are afraid?

From time to time we have to make decisions. This is true not only in the rest of life but also in our spiritual lives. What is real? What isn’t? What do I believe? And then, crucially, what am I going to do about it? Do I believe what the young man dressed in a white robe said, that Jesus is raised from the dead? And if I believe that, what then? Will I simply run in fear from the tomb and not say anything to anyone?

I know that belief and action come easily to some people. God bless them. Belief has always been a struggle for me: what to believe, why I should believe it, and what I should do about it. From the time I started thinking for myself, probably about twelve years old, I have wondered about the things we say as people of Jesus. It forces me to ask whether to believe what the young man in the white robe said, and what then to do about it. Those of you who have been participating in our journey through the Bible this year have run into a lot of things that you have thought about and talked about and you have raised some wonderful questions about them.

A lot of this came to a head for me when I was in college, and it was then that I heard some of the best advice I recall from a pastor. I was talking to my pastor about my struggle, about what to believe, and she suggested that I decide what is fundamental for me. That is, even if everything is taken away from my faith, what will I hold onto? At that time, at the age of about twenty, I decided that the key for me was “God so loved the world as to give the only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” I didn’t need to understand God; I didn’t need to understand the nature of Jesus as the Son of God; I didn’t need to understand what the phrase “eternal life” meant. I just needed to hold onto the love of God for whole world – me included, but not just me – a love that gives us God’s own Son for the sake of our lives.

Most or all of you recognize that line; you sometimes see it cited on posters at football games: John 3:16. To an extent it is still the sum of the Gospel for me, what I stand on and what I am willing to tell people, even if I’m running in fear from Jesus’ tomb. But there’s another line, too, that is important to me. It isn’t so much a rock I stand on as it is the attitude I have while I’m standing there. It comes from a story we read last week (Mark 9:14-29; April 23 in the Year of the Bible).

A man has brought his son to Jesus to be healed; the boy has a demon that causes convulsions. The man says to Jesus, “Please heal him, if you can.” “If you can!” quotes Jesus. Then Jesus says, “All things can be done for one who believes.” And the man cries out, probably weeping, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24).

I believe; help my unbelief. The power of faith to move mountains, as we read in Mark last Sunday; the power of faith to tell people that Christ is alive and rules over us, even if we are running from the tomb in fear: the power of faith does not depend on your and my ability to summon up more of it. The power of faith is in our willingness to say to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I can go this far; please, Lord Jesus, take me the rest of the way.

I’m calling this sermon “In sum” to evoke these three thoughts (Maybe some of you thought it was about Chinese food, that I meant to say “dim sum”). Three thoughts:

  1. Take Pastor Janet’s advice; what is foundational for you about our faith?
  2. For everything else, ask Jesus for help. “I believe; help my unbelief!”
  3. The sum of the Gospel, at least for today, is in the words of the young man in white: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

Despite my earlier reliance on John 3:16, it doesn’t stand alone for me anymore; it is accompanied by another rock to stand on: the words of the young man in the white robe. Yes, God loves the world; yes, God gave us the Son; yes, those who believe in the Son have eternal life. But what is it to believe in the Son? I say to you that it is to believe that he is alive. Whatever else you believe about him – even if you believe he wants you to play with rattlesnakes – the fundamental thing to believe is that he is alive. From time to time over the years I have preached and taught reasons for believing in the Resurrection of Jesus and I think once I even made it something of a snoozer of an Easter sermon. That’s not my point today. My point today is not to sweat the rest overmuch. In sum: Christ is alive.

I believe that. I’ve staked my life on that. I’ll say that, even running from the tomb. You don’t need to add another twelve verses of follow-up to try to round out the story. As long as you believe and I  believe and everyone who comes after us continues to believe, the story isn’t finished.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska