Last revised: April 4, 2021
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THE RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD — YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 25:6-9, or Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18, or Mark 16:1-8
RoCa: Acts 10:34, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
Opening Comments: Redeeming the Christian Religion
The resurrection changes everything. Literally. Everything. On Good Friday, we began, “The cross changes everything. Literally. Everything.” Technically, each is true because both are true — but in opposite fashion. In Mimetic Theory, the cross changes everything because of the resurrection, and vice versa, but the former is universal and the latter singular. The cross, because it is the cross of the Resurrected Forgiving Victim, is in solidarity with all human victims. As such it is universal, representing all human suffering, especially that caused by sacred violence, by the oppressive structures of the Scapegoat Mechanism.
The cross is universally representative, on the other hand, because the resurrection is singular. It is the historical event that enables true history. Prior to Easter morning, all history was mythological in the sense that it has been told from the perspective of the dominant group, the “Victors.” Because the Crucified Forgiving Victim is raised from the dead, history may now be truthfully told from the opposite perspective — what James Alison calls the “intelligence of the victim.” This is what changes everything. Whoever writes history gets to shape the meaning-making at the core of human culture. All that meaning-making — what Anthony Bartlett explains as “semiosis” in his essential new book Theology Beyond Metaphysics — is now being subverted from the viewpoint of oppressors to that of the oppressed. History is now being truthfully written by the Loser. It is why the Howard Thurman quote that launches my website is true: “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” It is why the Black Lives Matter movement is true and Trumpism is not.
Perhaps this helps to explain the apostles’ reactions on that first Easter, especially in Mark’s Gospel which simply ends with the women running away afraid. The event which sparks the subversion of all human meaning-making should be a scary thing. The means-to-Order in which we human beings have come to put our faith is being revealed as the road to our ultimate self-destruction. The sacred violence in which we’ve put our faith may have saved us from profane violence . . . so far. But it is still violence and, backed by technology and militarism, will eventually become our demise.
Yet it is all we’ve known, so to put our faith in a wholly new Way of Order, based on love and forgiveness instead of sacred violence, is a frightfully challenging ask. In any case, that’s exactly what the apostolic writers do . . . after they’ve recovered from their own fright, with the Resurrected One standing before them, “Peace be with you.” They ask us to have faith (pistis) in a new Way, nothing less than a new Way to be human. A new Way to practice religion. A new Way of ordering our common life through politics and economics. Frightening stuff.
In Easter 2021 this frightening post-Easter ask-to-faith comes at a poignant moment. Effective vaccinations are making life-after-a-pandemic imaginable. But the immense suffering of the pandemic — suffering which has once again revealed the terrible inequities wrought by the Scapegoat Mechanism at the heart of our culture — provides a similarly frightening invitation to great change. Will we gloss over what the suffering reveals about ourselves, about our unjust ways of ordering our communities, and simply move back to life-as-usual with great gusto? Or can the pandemic become the frightening invitation to real change? Can our eyes be opened to the new Way of being human?
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 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.” (Mark 16:6-7)
Scary stuff. May the peace of Christ be with you!
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Every Easter we celebrate nothing less than . . . a New Creation! But many recent generations have celebrated less than that. Easter has been celebrated more as a defeat of death for human beings so that a select few, “believers,” can go to heaven when they die. As we have emphasized in recent weeks (especially Lent 3B), one of the central pillars of a New Reformation must be the work of our era’s foremost New Testament scholar N. T. Wright‘s mission of restoring the message of New Creation. Given today’s readings the best treatment of that comes through John’s Easter story — his entire Gospel being structured to convey Easter as the dawning of a New Creation through the image of the beginning of a brand new week. The old Creation finishes as Jesus dies on the cross at the end of the week, on the seventh day. The New Creation begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark….”
The Acts 10 reading brings to light what New Creation means for human beings: There is no longer us and them; there is only us. Our time is characterized by a neo-imperialistic pseudo version of such unity. In the first century the Imperial Good News of Lord Caesar promised salvation and peace through unity — a unity imposed through the force of military might. In our day, there is a new Lord of faux unity, the religion of “free market” capitalism that gives the vast majority of the freedom to multi-nationalist, globalist mega-corporations run by an oligarchy of kleptocrats — backed by huge military industrial complexes, of course. And backing the economic power is a political agenda of rising white nationalism — a dramatic obsession with Us vs Them, also backed my militarism (and the worshipping of the Second Amendment to back the proliferation of arms).
The only true alternative to Us and Them is a mass movement of nonviolent resistance, which follows in the Way of Jesus the Messiah and his lonely nonviolent resistance on the cross. How can these mass movements lead to a true situation of no longer us and them, only us? They can’t directly. Any changes initiated from nonviolent resistance to imperialism and nationalism cannot lead to an immediate unity. They will typically begin with changes to the law which grant rights to increasing numbers of peoples. But those laws must also be backed by military might to have any meaning. For example: It means vigorously prosecuting insurrections like the one on January 6 at the Capitol, and a general policing of white nationalist movements.
So this brings us finally to the riddle of the ending of Mark’s Gospel. Can this represent for us the evolutionary (slow and gradual) nature of human transformation? Yes, the New Creation has begun! Good News! But even two thousand years later this is still only the “beginning of the Good News” (Mark 1:1), of which disciples of Jesus are the continuation. Easter, in Mark’s Gospel, represents a constant return to the beginning of the Good News of the Messiah who lovingly suffers the violence instead of inflicting any violence. But here’s the not-so-Good News: Even as our violent systems of law slowly grant a more equal share of life to increasing numbers of people, they remain systems of sacred violence. Even laws that aim to move humanity forward to greater opportunity for all will meet resistance and need to use force. We cannot do away with armies, police forces, and courts yet.
Is it a step forward, then, that the “eternal return” might at least be increasingly shifted away from the victims who represent the least power among us to ‘victims’ who represent nonviolent resistance in the Way of Jesus? The kingdom of heaven choosing to suffer violence? (Matt. 11:12; see Advent 3A) And can the Church, through a New Reformation, return to being a sacramental presence of a community based in love as the fulfillment of the law? Can the Church be a persistent presence of nonviolent resistance following in the Way of Jesus? (In other words, Gandhi’s Ashram and King’s Beloved Community is what we mean by Church living in true faithfulness.)
The central element of New Reformation these Easter readings, then, is a new idea/proposal of what it means to be Church: the persistence of Jesus’ cross-shaped nonviolent resistance in the world, working a constant transformation of Human Being as no longer Us and Them, only Us.
1. James Alison; the story of Peter and Cornelius, an Easter reading all three years in the lectionary, is also prominent throughout James Alison’s corpus. I begin with a listing: Knowing Jesus, pp. 76-79; Raising Abel, pp. 104-05, 128; The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 218; Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 177-78; On Being Liked, the Introduction makes ample use of this passage, pages vii-xi, and then again on pages 101-102; Broken Hearts and New Creations, p. 50; Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 7, “Induction into a People,” pp. 317-27 (Book 3 of 4).
In The Joy of Being Wrong, the chapter entitled “Hope and Concupiscence,” Alison shows how the Resurrection breaks down many former dualities. Chief among them is the social duality such as that between Jew and Gentile. Acts 10 is an example of the gradual process: Peter has to be pushed by God into entering Cornelius’ house and then has an “Aha!” moment. One theme for preaching might be that the Resurrection provides a new basis for human sociality that does not depend on having a common enemy, that does not pit some against others.
Alison’s most extensive, detailed treatment of this passage is in Jesus the Forgiving Victim. Acts 10 is the centerpiece of the entire chapter. He sets up the questions and the reading of the passage:
So, given that the standard mechanism for group formation is one in which the quickest shortcut is “Who am I supposed to be not like?” or “Give me difference!” what is it going to look like to start not to be over against anyone at all? What is it going to look like to start finding the similarity with the other, rather than being able to grasp onto some pseudo-difference in order to make yourself feel good? Well, we’re given a picture of exactly this happening in the passage at which we are now going to look.
The passage in question is Acts 10, and it is Luke’s account of an extraordinary anthropological earthquake. Perhaps the most important day in history outside Judaism. For this was the day when the Hebrew religion went universal, and what we now know as Catholicism, Universal Judaism, was birthed into reality. (317)
After a close reading of Acts 10, Alison draws some lessons and conclusions, including:
We’ve seen how a single anthropological earthquake, an act of communication which was a turning around from within all the normal markers of human culture, instantiated something, began a new “being together,” and a new being together which is in principle over against nothing at all. This means that the new “being together” is universal, or catholic, which is just a Greek word meaning “according to the whole” or “universal.” We are of course used to the word “Catholic” having acquired a tribal meaning — something like “loyal to the Pope” or “as opposed to Protestant,” or meaning some kind of spiritual or liturgical flavour within Christianity. However, this is a debasement. Because the notion of catholicity is not an add-on to the Gospel, it is not an optional extra, once you’ve got your basic Christianity sorted out. It is an essential dimension of what Jesus was about.
What Jesus inaugurated was the possibility of a being together in which there is, in principle, no social “other.” There is no group, or nation, ethnicity, gender, or any other identity that we typically create in a binary fashion (slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female, black or white, straight or gay and so on) that is in principle not able to be brought into the gathering, the ekklesia, the new people of God. For such people live in a reconciled way thanks to their living Forgiving Victim. (332-33)
2. Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine, Acts 10-11 is the text for chapter 5, “Sitting with Jesus,” pp. 93-102, one of my favorite chapters on Contemplative Prayer. Zahnd begins by relating an experience of a vision he had while in silent prayer, where Jesus showed him that his stance on the Iraq War was his “greatest sin.” It’s a vision that changed Zahnd’s entire theology relating to war and peacemaking — which he details thoroughly in his book A Farewell to Mars. Here, he cites his own experience in comparison to the world-changing vision which Peter receives in Acts 10-11. As many times as I’ve read this story, it had not registered that both Cornelius and Peter are given visions while in prayer — likely, contemplative prayer, the kind that leaves room for be given visions. Zahnd is bold to ask and answer:
Peter’s new perspective opened the door for the gospel of Messiah to be preached to Gentiles, and this changed the world. But how did Peter arrive at this new perspective? How did Peter become open to a revolutionary concept of inclusion that would challenge all the established norms of his religious worldview? The answer is contemplative prayer. (95)
In fact, the import of Peter’s vision is intimately connected with a central purpose of contemplative prayer: to unthink our usual dualistic thinking in terms of us-them so that the oneness of God can break through and teach us reconciling ways in which to think. Zahnd describes this beautifully:
Contemplative prayer is prayer without agenda, and largely without words. But this is not to be confused with just “thinking” about something. This is bringing the issue into the presence of Jesus — the Light who coming into the world enlightens every person (John 1:4). It’s during contemplative prayer that we can begin to move out of the darkness of fear-based bias into the light of Christ. It works like this — when we feel hurt, threatened, or angered by a person, people-group, opinion, or situation, we instinctively look through the lens of self-defense. It’s like looking at something through the sights of a gun — it’s a narrow perspective framed in fear and held in hostility. Such a perspective is certainly not the full or true perspective. But if we are dualistic, non-contemplative people, we will think of our highly limited perspective as total truth. It’s all we can see. This is the black-and-white world where everything is framed as win-or-lose, us-versus-them. This was the perspective of the circumcision party when they heard the audacious claim from their preeminent apostle that Gentiles were acceptable to God as Gentiles. As long as they viewed the world through the lens of win-or-lose and us-versus-them, Peter’s claim that Gentiles were accepted by God would be deeply unsettling. All they could see was the loss of privilege and a threat to their sense of identity. To change that kind of perspective requires a contemplative breakthrough. This is why debates between non-contemplative people are so intractable and fruitless. (97-98)
And this on the goal of prayer:
The ultimate goal of contemplation is not just a new way of seeing, but love. Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought — as the Enlightenment told us — but love. For the Christian, true enlightenment doesn’t come from empiricism but from Christ. Christian enlightenment is not about rationalism, it’s about love. You don’t really know a thing until you love it. You don’t really know people until you love them. But if you see a person or group primarily as a rival posing a threat to your self-interest, you cannot love them. You will only fear them, and reacting in fear you will lash out at them. A contemplative breakthrough makes love possible. This is what happened to Peter. Jesus’ disciples had to learn to love Samaritans and Gentiles. Prior to Pentecost they were comfortable excluding them and at times even advocated violence against them (see Matthew 15:23 and Luke 9:54). But when Peter and the rest of the Apostles came to see the Gentiles as accepted by God, they could learn to love them. That’s when Peter could preach the Gospel to Gentiles. Peter could not preach the gospel in the power of the Spirit to Cornelius until he could act according to love, until he became open to seeing and accepting Cornelius as a human being loved and accepted by God. (99-100)
3. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, pp. 276-78, 337. In a chapter on human transformation, Warren brings in James Alison’s treatment of Acts 10-11 from On Being Liked (OBL). He concludes his comments on this passage:
Seriously weird indeed, by all the standards of sacred holiness. It means that the story Peter tells is not holy at all; not, at least, in terms of a sacred understanding. Quite the contrary. As Peter is learning, the story of Jesus is the beginning of the end of the sacred and the divisions it erects to exclude the other. Alison calls this moment “a cultural earthquake of immeasurably great proportions.” It is a moment in which Peter himself is learning the significance of his own message, and learning it from people his sacred religiosity had deemed profane. Cornelius and his family, meanwhile, have just gone from excluded, second-class outsiders to cozy insiders. “[W]e see the dawning realization that God likes the impure people, that God wants them to be on the inside of God’s story just as they are. God is not confronting them to get them to repent, or even inviting them to become something else. God is possessing them with delight, and they are delighting in being possessed” (OBL, p. x). It is not, Alison says, that these previously impure Gentiles are seeking the approval of the authorities in order to be included: “They just find themselves on the inside of the story, starting to work out what it means. The ‘authority’ on the ‘pure’ side finds his world being deconstructed in what must have been a very muddling and painful way before recognizing that that deconstruction and that pain was a good thing, come from God, and not a loss of face, or of argument, or of principle” (OBL, pp. x-xi) (277-78)
4. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, p. 208. Commenting on Peter’s preaching of repentance in Acts, a repentance Peter himself has undergone, Heim writes:
A key example of this repentance is the vision he receives from God to regard no foods as unclean. When the Gentile Cornelius sends for Peter to come to his house, Peter says, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). Thus he enters the house that is ritually impure for him as a Jew, and eats there, sharing the gospel with Cornelius. The work of the Spirit, testifying to the risen victim, is to bring Peter across the very barrier that would otherwise mark Gentiles to him as outsiders and likely scapegoats. This is the shape of the good news of the resurrection we have seen repeated in many texts. (208)
5. Brian McLaren, several places, beginning with Naked Spirituality, ch. 22, “Behold: The Emergence of the Meditative Mind.” Similar to the Zahnd resource above, McLaren ties this story intimately to the new sight accorded to thinking enabled by contemplative prayer:
Once we stood with Peter, seeing Cornelius and his friends as “unclean,” because they were different from us; now, in the light of a new day, we behold people “in Christ,” beyond the old categories of us and them, clean and unclean (Acts 10:1-48). This new way of seeing is so different from our old way of seeing that we now say, “Though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Behold, a new creation! A new reality! A new universe! In the old, flawed, egotistical mind-set, I used to see some people as my friends and others as my enemies, some as superior and others as inferior, some as clean and others as unclean, some as worthy and others as unworthy, some as “us” and others as “them.” I judged their value in relation to me and my safety, my interests, my opinions, my pride, my profit, my lust, my affiliations, my fear. Behold! Now I am able to escape the black-hole gravity of my old egocentric perspective, aptly described by novelist Walker Percy as “the great suck of self.” Instead, we rise to see with the living God, seeing others with the living, loving, holy God’s compassionate eyes. (196)
In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, this passage plays a key role in ch. 24, “How Subversive Friendship Can Change the World”:
Peter realized in their encounter that the good news of Jesus subverted and transcended the old laws of insider-outsider, us-them, sacred-profane, clean-unclean.
Even after this experience, Peter slipped back into his old ways, and it took a former Pharisee named Paul to confront him about his hypocrisy (Gal 2:11-14). Following Peter’s checkered example, the Christian faith has over the centuries repeatedly gained and lost ground in our willingness to participate in transgressive friendship. I’ve felt the ambivalence myself, knowing that if I befriend “them” — whether they be the denominationally, religiously, sexually, culturally, economically, ideologically, or politically other, some of “us” will be suspicious of me. But time after time, when I dare to risk friendship across barriers, I experience the Spirit just as Peter did with Cornelius. I’ve come to accept it as axiomatic: a Christian moves toward the other in friendship. (229)
Finally, Acts 10 is the initiating text in ch. 43, “Spirit of Love: Loving Neighbor,” in We Make the Road by Walking:
Where the Spirit is moving, love for God always, always, always overflows in love for neighbor. And according to Jesus, our neighbor isn’t just the person who is like us, the person who likes us, or the person we like. Our neighbor is anyone and everyone — like us or different from us, friend or stranger — even enemy. As Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, the Spirit wants to break down walls of prejudice and hostility so that we stop judging us as clean and them as unclean, opening the way for strangers and enemies to become neighbors, friends, family.
That comes as a shock to many of us who were taught that same is safe and different is dangerous. That belief probably served our ancestors well at certain points in our history. Their survival often depended on maintaining trust in “our” tribe and fear of other tribes. That’s why they used paint, feathers, clothing, language, and even religion as markers, so everyone would know who was same and safe and us, and who was different and dangerous and them.
Driven by that belief, our ancestors spread out across the world, each tribe staking out its own territory, each guarding its borders from an invasion by others, each trying to expand its territory whenever possible, each driving others farther and farther away. No wonder our history is written in blood: wars, conquests, invasions, occupations, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. The winners take all, and the losers, if they aren’t killed or enslaved, escape to begin again somewhere else.
Eventually, because the Earth is a sphere, our dispersing tribes had to come full circle and encounter one another again. That is our challenge today. We must find a way to live together on a crowded planet. We have to graduate from thinking in terms of “our kind versus their kind” to thinking in terms of “humankind.” We must turn from the ways of our ancestors and stop trying to kill off, subjugate, or fend off everyone we judge different and dangerous. We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one human community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation. (216-17)
Reflections and Questions
1. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” Here is the heart of the matter: Humankind declares Jesus guilty and executes him; God declares Jesus innocent and raises him. One thing I’ve wondered about in these typical sermons of Acts, however, is that they never quite get to universalizing what happens to Jesus. When Peter speaks to Jews at the outset, he tells them that “you” killed Jesus. Here, in addressing Gentiles, he says that “they” killed him. When does the revelation of the cross as universal get to the point of saying “we” killed Jesus? St. Paul takes this latter tactic due to his personal experience of having persecuted Christ; he is able to identify himself as a persecutor. But this is in his own letters. Luke’s accounts of Paul’s first sermon in Acts follows the same pattern of blaming the Jewish leaders (13:27-28). It begins to change a bit with his sermon in Athens (Acts 17).
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
1. I’m not aware of direct references to 1 Cor. 15 in Girardian works, but I will lift up several references to what I consider the theme of 1 Cor. 15: the necessity and importance of belief in the resurrection. Most importantly, the first three of James Alison‘s books begin with the Resurrection as the starting point for both the Christian faith and theology. Knowing Jesus is a great example of beginning with the Resurrection as the basis for theology. His other two books follow in the same pattern. The Joy of Being Wrong also uses a polemic against Eric Gans‘ Science and Faith. Gans is correct, he says, in using an a posteriori methodology that constructs a theory from a given starting point. But he goes on to say:
I differ somewhat from Gans. Gans posits the moment of the constitution of human monogenesis [i.e., at the birth of human culture] as, in itself, a moment of revelation. By this he means the birth, through a particular event, of an entirely new form of awareness. It seems to me that he is right about the birth of the new form of awareness, but wrong to call that a revelation. A revelation implies that something that had been covered, hidden, is now dis-covered, unhidden. However, in the moment of the constitution of a properly human consciousness there was nothing previously human to be uncovered. By definition, what led up to, and permitted, the forming of the human representational awareness was not, itself, human. The constitutive event itself is not dis-covered, or revealed in the birth of the new human awareness. Rather, it is exactly this event that is hidden, or covered, in the structure of the awareness which it has made possible. (p. 66)
Alison is differing from Gans on their accounts of the birth of human culture, which is itself the point of hominization, the point at which those primates who were not yet human took the step of becoming human. For Girard, that point of hominization is founded in the real events of collective murders that give rise to feelings of awe at the peace created, and begin to spawn religion of the Sacred. And one of keys to Sacred religion is to hide the human reponsibility for the violence behind a veil of the Sacred. The gods are given credit for the violence, the birth of the idolatry at the heart of all religion. The birth of human awareness, then, includes the covering over, the veiling, of the nature of its genesis in violence. In Alison’s terms, as opposed to Gans’, there is a veiling, not an unveiling, or revelation. It is only in the cross and resurrection of Christ that we begin to dis-cover or unveil the truth of our origins. The resurrection thus becomes the starting point for the revealing of all truth, both about who we are and about who God is.
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John,” tape 11. Before unpacking John’s story of the crucifixion, Bailie begins by emphasizing that the resurrection actually comes first, in the sense that we cannot come to understand the meaning of the cross without the resurrection. Otherwise, the cross is simply another tragic scapegoating. He cites 1 Cor. 15: Paul experienced resurrection as conversion. Similarly in Luke, on the road to Emmaus: the risen Jesus explains the events of the cross by pondering Scripture in light of these events. The resurrection experience seems to be a gradual process of coming to understand the crucifixion. The early apostles came to understand the crucifixion as at the heart of the meaning of Jesus’ life, not the destroyer of it. It was the event of full revelation.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 20, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), sermon from April 16, 2006 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. St. Paul speaks even more directly in the verses immediately following, vs. 12-19. The Christian faith without the resurrection is quite simply in vain. I think that the Girardian emphasis on the revelation of the cross and resurrection helps make sense of St. Paul’s insistence in this matter. As we said of Alison’s argument above, it is in the nature of human consciousness to be conceived in a process of delusion. Only a radical intervention on God’s part could break us free of those delusions. That act of intervention was the resurrection, God’s bold declaration of innocence upon one whom we had tried once again to reconstitute our human solidarity through collective murder.
As an option for the Gospel in all three years of the lectionary, I have put together a separate page for John 20:1-18.
The biggest decision exegetically is whether you believe Mark 16:8 is the original end of the Gospel. I don’t see many scholars claiming one of the alternate endings, from less reliable manuscripts, as original. Scholars such as N. T. Wright are arguing in favor of an original ending that was lost, based on Mark’s story needing another ending (see, e.g., How God Became King, p. 121, or his interpretation of Mark 16:1-8 in Mark for Everyone). But I disagree with Wright, for the following (non-all-inclusive) reasons:
- I find compelling Mary Ann Tolbert‘s (Sowing the Gospel) basic thesis about the centrality of the sower parable in mapping out the characters in Mark’s Gospel: Jewish and Roman leadership as the hard soil, Peter and the disciples as the rocky soil, Herod and the rich young man as thorny soil, and unnamed suffering characters who show faith as the fertile soil (more below). Mark’s community was possibly one that lacked any apostolic connection, and so the members of Mark’s community may be represented as the fertile soil, by those unnamed sufferers who step out in faith. Their response to the Resurrection comes from hearing the Good News of God’s Son and is not represented by any characters in the Gospel itself — thus, Mark ends it in Mark 16:8.
- John Dominic Crossan‘s recent The Power of Parable paints Mark’s Gospel as itself a challenge parable to apostolic authority, through its negative treatment of the disciples — thus accepting 16:8 as the original ending.
- I agree with many of N. T. Wright’s arguments concerning the Historical Jesus, yet I might argue against him that accepting Mark 16:8 as the ending to his Gospel fits just fine with his other arguments. For those unfamiliar with Wright, his recent books (Simply Jesus and How God Became King) portray Jesus as very intentionally acting as God’s Messiah who fulfills the promise of God taking charge and becoming king of the world. But he does so in a way that completely redefines what kingship is. The crucial move is that Jesus understands and reads the Hebrew Bible as prophesying a Messiah who takes on his people’s suffering. Perhaps the two most important passages are in Luke’s Easter Day stories (passages also very important to Mimetic Theory; see the homepage essay on this site):
Then [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. — Luke 24:25-27
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…” — Luke 24:44-46
Couldn’t we interpret Mark’s sudden ending as his way of portraying how foolish and slow of heart we are to accept suffering as integral to the Messiah’s mission in the world? The women running away in fear is representative of the typical disciple’s fear of accepting suffering as part of the call.
- In Mark’s Gospel those who step out in faith, mostly unnamed, are those whom Jesus encounters in suffering: the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit (1:23), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30), a leper (1:40), the paralyzed man with four friends (2:3), a man with a withering hand (3:1), the Gerasene demoniac (5:2), Jairus and his daughter (5:22), the woman suffering hemorrhaging for twelve years (5:25), the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter is ill (7:25), a deaf man (7:32), a blind man (8:22), the man with a son who suffers seizures (9:17), people who brought their little children to him (10:13), Bartimaeus the blind beggar (10:46), one of the scribes who agrees with Jesus’ Greatest Commandment (12:28), a widow who puts her last coins in the Temple treasury (12:42), the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (14:3), and the centurion at the foot of the cross who proclaims him God’s Son (15:39). Some stepped out in faith to approach Jesus or to act in faith such that Jesus commends them; others stepped out in response after being healed, often spreading the Good News even when asked not to.
- Nadia Bolz Weber has an 8-minute video presentation in the Animate Bible adult education series on the Gospels, in which her main focus verse is Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Near the end of the video she emphasizes the word beginning. Her points can be summarized: ‘It’s not the whole story. It’s not even most of the story, because it doesn’t stop there. The stories of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have done its work in people for centuries — to right now here in this place where you’ve gathered. . . . Mark was right. Hearing is only the beginning of the Good News. His declaration of the Good News was meant to elicit a response. Those who have heard the story become part of the story. We are agents of the continuation of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’ I think this makes a good case for what Mark is trying to do by ending his story as he does. His listeners are to be the continuing Gospel of Jesus Christ — which is the theme on my 2015 sermon “The Continuing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 57-59. A good snippet: “The announcement is not, ‘Here he is!’ but rather, ‘He is not here!’ (16:6). What the resurrection symbolizes is not simply part of the present order, but something that belongs to the future.” Hamerton-Kelly also begins the next chapter explaining how Mark’s gospel is circular, the sudden ending bringing the reader back to the beginning.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 8, entitled “Hope: Where Boldness Blossoms out of Fear.” Alison frames this whole chapter with the fear of the women running from the tomb in Mark 16:8, a fear out of which hope is born. I highly recommend reading this chapter before preaching on this passage.
3. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, pp. 48-50. Beck’s most general outline of Mark’s Gospel is to divide it in two: rising action into increasing tension and conflict, Mark 1-13, and the falling action of conflict resolution, Mark 14-16. What distinguishes Mark’s Gospel from other conventional stories is its nonviolent conflict resolution.
Both halves of Mark’s story use his favorite device, bracketing. Mark 1-13 is bracketed by cleansing episodes: Jesus’ initial act of ministry in 1:21-28 is the cleansing of a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue; and the climactic act of Jesus’ ministry, especially in terms of heightening conflict, is the so-called cleansing of the Temple in 11:15-19. The second half is bracketed by anointings: 14:3-9 and 16:1. They both are mis-timed:
The Bethany anointing (14:3-9) is sandwiched between a pair of passages that some critics see as originally forming one unit (14:1-2, 10-11). It has to do with the council’s conspiracy against Jesus and Judas’s instrumental role in that conspiracy. The anointing is identified by Jesus as a burial anointing, by anticipation (14:8). Like the burial anointing at the end of the Gospel, it is untimely. This is too early; the later anointing is too late. This effort succeeds in anointing Jesus’ body, though his body is not dead; the later anointing fails because his body is gone from the tomb: although he has died, he is apparently not dead. Together the two anointing attempts work to make a whole. At opposite ends of the passion account, prior and subsequent to the appropriate moment, they strive to supply the necessary ritual of burial. Neither succeeds since they are shut off from access to the body of Jesus during the crucial time of his death and burial, by the Sabbath prohibition and by the hostile forces that have crucified him. They can only do homage from the edges of the arena of narrative action. (pp. 48-49)
Both anointings carried out by women, we should not miss the political dimension. These ritual actions are more than ritual show:
Like the cleansings of the holy places characterizing Jesus’ initiative in the rising action, the anointings of his body provide a powerful symbolism for the falling action of the fallen hero. Like cleansing, anointing is a ritual action we still use. At Bethany it is Jesus’ head that is anointed (14:3), which signals that Jesus dies as Messiah, as D. E. Nineham recognizes (Saint Mark [London: Penguin, 1963] 372-73). “Messiah” literally means “Anointed One” and refers to the practice of anointing the head of a new king. The political dimension of the symbol speaks to the agon — Jesus dies as Messiah, the anticipated king, the threat to the usurpers in present control (like Herod, in Matthew’s infancy narrative [Mt 2:1-11]). Jesus’ claims, backed by his actions, have resulted in his execution. Furthermore, the only anointing given the Anointed One is burial anointing. The meanings of “Messiah” are condensed in this narrative symbol. And while it brings to mind ideas of the “suffering Messiah,” the phrase is not to be confused with certain pious extrapolations of this theme. We ought not put aside its narrative context. We do not have here an “innocent victim” ambushed by the unprovoked malice of wicked enemies unable to stomach the prospect of sharing the planet with virtuous persons. Rather Jesus is experiencing the consequences of his deliberate, sustained challenge to the standing social arrangement through the first thirteen chapters of the Gospel. Any piety here is political and confrontational. (p. 49-50)
4. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, pp. 127-129. Here, Beck more directly discusses Mark 16:1-8 and its apparently open ending. The bracketing by anointing actions speaks for Mark’s intentionality in leaving the ending hanging. Beck writes:
Like the anointing that signals it, the closure of the narrative is declared by returning to the opening event, but it does not manage to be quite complete. Its unfinished quality is intended. It is both closed and unclosed. It moves into its sequel, as was seen in chapter 13, where Jesus looked ahead to the future of the disciples and the present of the reader. That is to say, the Gospel story explicitly makes reference to the yet-to-come story of the disciples. It addresses the reader and says, “This is to be your story.” When the women come to the tomb, they find the man in white who tells them, “He has been raised; he is not here.” The tomb is the wrong place to look for him. Where instead ought they look? “Go and say to his disciples and to Peter: ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee: there you will see him as he told you.'” In terms of the narrative, as we have been reading it, this advises a return to the starting point of the narrative. The disciples are invited to begin their own enactment of the story. If the portrait of Jesus in this narrative is located in the plot, the reenactment of the narrative action of the lives of the disciples is testimony to Jesus’ continued presence and the continuation of that presence. The story will not die.
In the more traditional terms of resurrection, terms that we find more satisfying because they are more familiar and not because they are less astonishing, Jesus lives. Despite the claims of cultural reality, his path through these events has been toward life. The assurance given is not unlike that offered by the story in 2 Maccabees 7, where a mother loses her seven sons to the persecuting zeal of an emperor. The brothers are able to persist in their nonviolent resistance to the very end by drawing on a tangible faith in resurrected life. They will be vindicated, not the emperor. Similarly, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lives. God vindicates him, not the emperor.
And so, in the final chapter of the Gospel, the narrator reaffirms the order of “reality” conspicuous in the irony of the passion account but implied from the very first verse. Appearances are deceiving. In the power struggle portrayed by the narrative plot, the apparent victors have lost. Violence, as seen concentrated in its most representative moment, that of killing, does not prevail. In its irony the narrative finds a way out of the mythic contradiction that would hold that violence redresses, or cures, or civilizes — the cultural trap that would claim that violence can be relieved by adding more of the same. (pp. 128-129)
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 137-38:
In contrast to Matthew, the ending of Mark’s Gospel is abrupt and enigmatic. (Mk. 16:1-8) So much so that the early Christian community added a “completion” that doesn’t connect well with what Mark wrote. There has also been speculation that an original ending broke off from the manuscript or that Mark was captured by the Romans and thrown to the lions just before he could finish it.
Mark’s conclusion where the three women who came to the grave run away in fear is so strong that it is enough to make us forget that it is preceded by a ringing proclamation that Jesus has been raised. He has already arrived in Galilee, where he is waiting for them and the disciples. When we remember this proclamation and let it sink in, we realize that this enigmatic ending is not pessimistic or skeptical about the risen life of Jesus, but it is pessimistic and skeptical about the ability of human beings to come to grips with Jesus’ risen life.
Mark is not unique in saying that the women at the tomb were afraid when they found the tomb empty. All of the Gospel accounts say as much. In fact, the risen Jesus has to tell everyone who sees him not to be afraid once they recognize him (which they usually don’t at first.) What is unique to Mark is that he only says that the women were afraid as they ran off. Matthew, in contrast, says that the women left the tomb quickly with “fear and great joy.” (Mt. 28:8) Moreover, in Matthew, they did tell the disciples. What were they afraid of? What are we afraid of? Usually fear is our response to a threat. If I think a big dog might bite me, I am afraid of it. If someone aims a machine gun at me, I am afraid for my life. But what about Jesus, who never bit anybody or fired a machine gun? Well, we can be afraid of having our understanding of the world turned upside down so that it feels like the earthquake in Matthew, and that is precisely what the Resurrection does. With Easter well-integrated into our yearly cycle of Christian worship, it can seem to be business as usual, but that is an illusion. The great value of Mark’s blunt proclamation followed by women running off in fear is that it reminds us that the Resurrection is not business as usual; it is the bankruptcy of everything we thought kept us in the business of life.
But the Resurrection is a good thing, isn’t it? What is there to be afraid of? If the Resurrection is just a happy ending to a story we celebrate and then move on to the business of living, then the Resurrection isn’t much to worry about. But then it isn’t much to celebrate, either. There are other excuses for having a party. The women ran away from the tomb, not to have a party, but to get away from what had just broken apart their lives as they understood them. Remember, in Mark’s Gospel, nobody understood Jesus. And the misunderstandings of him only got worse the more Jesus healed people and taught them, until the story ended with Jesus hanging on a cross. So, how could the women or the disciples understand what was happening to them when they were told that Jesus had been raised from the dead? Maybe the disciples, maybe even the women who remained faithful to the end in tending to Jesus’ body, were relieved that the man they did not understand was gone. At least they could understand grief and resentment over what had happened. But Jesus wasn’t gone. They were going to have to go back to Galilee, where the whole story of Mark’s Gospel started, and try again without the benefit of grief and resentment.
Being sent back to the beginning suggests that God was giving them, and us, a second chance. They and we have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, and we can use that as a key to understanding what led up to it. We have learned that the world was broken apart by a God who would choose to die on a cross rather than start a violent revolution. But that God remains alive in the face of such an appalling event, and thus is a God who remains alive in the appalling events we face today. Worse than that, Jesus has broken the cycle of resentment and rage that, though painful, was tight and cozy and predictable. This means we have to redefine the ways we relate to one another. Worse yet, we are threatened with the challenge of life that just isn’t going to let up now that death is broken apart. Let us also go back to Galilee and see what else we can find.
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on this passage in 2015, “Running Away from the Resurrected Life.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 my personal life impacted Holy Week in an important way: my father died on the Friday before Passion Saturday (March 27), and because it came in such close proximity to Holy Week, our family decided to set the funeral for the Saturday after Holy Week (April 11). The Three Days came right in the middle between his death and funeral. The resulting sermon was more personal than usual, because I found myself asking how the Easter message played out for me at my own time of grief. I spoke more personally about how it is a message of comfort and hope for me. And the bottom line came with a theme from Nadia Bolz-Weber (see above) for the sermon “The Continuing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
2. In 2009 I used the theme of the sudden ending to explore new ways of faith that are calling us to lives of mission, in a sermon titled “A Surprise Beginning.”
3. In 2012 I again began with a query about the sudden ending, but this time I use the theme developed above in the exegetical notes: the women run away afraid because of the suffering involved in following this Messiah. Luke’s Gospel has Jesus tell the disciples how slow of heart they are to understand that the Messiah must suffer. Mark shows their slowness of heart by having them initially run away afraid. They are slow to follow Jesus to Galilee. See the sermon “Slow to Follow a Suffering Messiah.”
4. The young man says to the women, “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.” Why is Peter singled out? Compare this with the picture of Peter throughout Mark’s gospel. I think that Mary Ann Tolbert presents a good case in Sowing the Gospel, that the Parable of the Sower has Peter and the disciples in mind for the rocky soil, which “when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Simon is even nicknamed Peter, the Rock. In Mark’s Gospel, I don’t think this is meant in flattering terms. He’s not the rock of Matthew’s Gospel on which the Church is built. He’s the rock who exemplifies the disciples’ constant denseness to the Gospel, and who denied Jesus at his hour of trial. Yet he’s the same Peter that the young man singles out in his promise that the Risen Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark’s Jesus does not speak words of forgiveness from the Cross, but he promises to go before “his disciples and Peter” as their Risen Lord. Apparently, God’s forgiveness can begin to break apart even the rocky soil. Link to a sermon using these themes entitled “Much More than a Moral Victory.”
5. This reference to Peter, and the promise to go before him, also recalls the sermon a several weeks ago (Lent 2B) that I shared, about God the Chooser and Satan the Accuser. Part of the dynamic of that passage is Peter being in the wrong place, seemingly trying to lead Jesus. Jesus tells him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Here, there is a more gentle reminder that Jesus goes out ahead of them.
6. The preacher might consider using Mark 16:8 as a starting point for a sermon, posing it as a brief break from our celebration of the resurrection in order to consider why someone would be afraid of it. In fact, the gospel accounts primarily show ambiguous reactions to the resurrection on the part of the first witnesses, Mark’s account being the most dramatically anticlimactic. Are we ready to have Jesus intrude on our lives with the light of who we really are? Generally not, I think. But he comes anyway, and we are relieved to find out that it is as our forgiving Savior. From the word of forgiveness, new life can begin.