Text: Mark 16:1-8
It is one of the most powerful and studied stories in all of literature. It is the story of a young peasant man who had a vision of a world defined by peace and loving one’s enemies, by love conquering hate, by the last being first, and by the very idea that God’s love is so radically inclusive that no one stands outside it. It is the story of a man who would gather around him a motley crew of outcasts—a few fisherman, a couple of tax collectors, a pair of preachers, a Jewish nationalist that had his own agenda, a zealot, and some questionable but extremely dedicated and loyal women—to carry his message to anyone who had ears to hear and would take the risk of following along. With this ragtag band of followers this young revolutionary would change the narrative of human history.
People from all walks of life have tried to understand the story of his life—what is historically factual about his life; did he really perform miracles of healing; did he really say what’s printed in red in our Bibles; what was the real story of his relationship with Mary Magdalene or with John, for that matter, the beloved disciple? These questions have captured the imagination of people religious and non-religious for centuries, including this preacher. But possibly, nothing about his life has been more intriguing, baffling, or powerful than the story of his death, burial, resurrection. It is this part of the story that brings more people to church on this Sunday than any other Sunday of the year. The very thought of death being defeated by life, of hope rising out of the ashes of despair, and of new life breaking forth from old dead dreams is enough to get any of us out of bed on this Sunday. Alleluia! Christ is Risen: our imaginations are primed. Is this story magic, myth, or as I would submit to you on this Easter Sunday, a mandate?
Mark’s Easter gospel leaves us wondering and longing for more when it comes to understanding the proclamation: Christ is risen. Is it magic—or in the language of our faith, a miracle? Only magic or a miracle could explain how someone could be executed, then buried in a tomb, and in three days be raised from the dead. It’s the only explanation if you read this story as literal or as historical fact as many people do. My father, whose faith I deeply respect, is one of those people, and in no way do I have need to stand in judgment of his faith conviction. For him, Christ is Risen is a miracle, it is a statement of his faith that gives him great comfort and strength.
But such belief, this kind of supernatural understanding of faith is not for everyone. So the way that many of us have chosen to appreciate the faith declaration Christ is Risen is to understand it as myth. Myth seeks to relay meaning and purpose, not what is factually true or historical. It tells of an idea or story that is believed by people but that is not true in that it happened just so, but true in that it portrays a truth. Here at Pullen we say myth this way, “just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Through myth we search out the meaning in the narrative. We know that resurrection is real because we have experienced resurrection—from our own lives we know something about life coming out of death, of hope rising from despair, of new possibilities being born out of loss and grief. And so the meaning of resurrection is not dependent on a literal resurrection.
Magic, miracle, and myth. But what about Christ is risen as mandate? I ask this question because I am most interested in what it means for us today in 2015 to proclaim those words, Christ is risen. Two weeks ago as I was driving with Walter Brueggemann to dinner we were having a conversation about some theological issue having to do with Lent and Easter when he asked the question, “What does it mean to say Christ is risen?” Thinking he had a well-thought out answer, I waited holding my breath for his response. He said nothing. Taking my eyes off the road for a moment I looked over at him as if to say with my look, “Go on, I’m listening.” He said, “You know Nancy, most of the time we think of it as magic or not real.” And that was it. Nothing more. This past week I emailed Walter to share with him my sermon title. I told him how our conversation had inspired my Easter sermon thoughts and wondered if he had anything else he might add to the conversation about what it means for us to proclaim Christ is risen. Here is what he wrote back: “Nancy, I think Easter as mandate is a good one, but I know much less about preaching Easter than do you. I rarely have done it, a deep challenge. I hope it goes well for you; my recall of being with you remains strong and happy. My love, Walter” That is a true teacher telling his student to “work it out for herself.”
So, here is why I think the proclamation Christ is risen can only be understood as a mandate.
As I said earlier, Mark’s gospel leaves us wondering and longing for more. He is the only gospel writer who ends the story with silence rather than “Alleluia!” “He knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending. He knew that readers of his gospel, if they were paying attention, ought to be more than a little uncomfortable at the idea of this convicted criminal coming back to life. Mark believed [it seems to me] that this story isn’t over yet, and he writes an open ending to his gospel in order to invite us to jump in and take up our part in continuing it. The story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb. It’s only just getting started. Resurrection isn’t a conclusion, it’s an invitation…Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world.” (David Lose)
Barbara Lundblad, professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York says it this way: “Of all the Easter Gospels, Mark’s story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood. Those three women didn’t see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn’t hear Jesus call their names. Neither have we. They weren’t invited to touch his wounded hands. We haven’t touched Jesus’ hands either. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters. The narrative is left for us, the readers, to complete.” And that is why I say to you on this Easter Sunday that for us to proclaim that Christ is risen we must understand it as a mandate—not magic, not miracle, not myth but mandate. The narrative is left for us to complete.
I want to leave you today with a message of incredible hope. A modern day story of resurrection. A real life example of what it means to hear and bear the proclamation Christ is risen as a mandate. Many of you know Nation Hahn, a member of this church. Nation has given me permission to share this story with you today. Two years ago his wife, Jamie, was brutally murdered. In ways that we can’t even imagine, Nation struggled after Jamie’s death to find a reason to wake up each day and keep on living. He has been honest with those closest to him about just how difficult every single day has been since Jamie’s death. And he has been vulnerable in sharing how painful, and sometimes even impossible it has been to hold on to any measure of faith these past two years. Just last week, Holy Week, with the promise of Easter morning coming Nation wrote:
What is my faith today? My faith is wrapped in hope. The hope that one day we will be reunited with those we have loved and lost. The hope that on that day, and forever after, we will love, yet never lose again. My faith teaches me that our lives are comprised of light and darkness. I have learned that in the light it is easier to believe, but that even in the darkness it is possible to choose optimism. And it is those choices, often guided by faith in things unseen, that will define our life. My faith today tells me to follow the Gospel of Luke by, “resisting the powers of death, of standing up for the little and the least, of turning cheeks and washing feet, of praying for enemies and loving the unlovable.” My faith doesn’t promise miracles of healing, but it promises the miracle of living. And what a miracle it really is to find yourself alive when you have prayed for death. What a miracle it is to discover rays of hope lighting your way from the abyss. What a miracle it is to love and to be loved in return. Ultimately I have learned to embrace even the darkness because it is darkness and light that comprises the fullness of our life. After all, life is for the living, not just for the light.
Christ is risen is the mandate that life is for the living, not just for the light. Christ is risen is a mandate to not let the darkness overcome the light. It is the mandate that it is up to us to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world. Resurrection is not a conclusion, it is an invitation. The narrative is left to us to complete. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.