Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Three Hundred Pound Gorilla?

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The readings for today are so overwhelmingly about the Good Shepherd that it seems that the preacher should not ignore this. But here’s the thing: I don’t really want to talk about sheep today. So I’m not going to. 

Instead, I want to talk about the 300 pound gorilla in the room. 

Do you know the video of the "Invisible Gorilla?"  It’s a psychological experiment that makes a pretty interesting point about what we see and don’t see, sometimes right before our very eyes. Basically it goes like this: people are asked to watch a video and to count how many times a group of people pass a basketball back and forth. Back and forth. Once, twice, three times…focus. 

And then a gorilla walks by. (Or rather, some guy dressed up like a gorilla.) But half of the people don’t see him because they are so focused on the people passing the ball.

Half of them do not see the gorilla! I know that seems unbelievable. I know you assume you would. But would you? What do we not see, right before our very eyes, because we are focused elsewhere? 

So why am I telling you this today? Well, there is a subtext that never gets talked about on Good Shepherd Sunday or even during the Easter Season usually and that is this reading from Acts. Actually, these readings have been there all along, since Easter morning, kind of like a gorilla plodding along. 

But it’s been hard to notice because we’ve been so focused on Jesus. Which makes sense, since it is Easter and all and we are Christians and it is Jesus, after all, who was raised from the dead. That is the task we’ve been given: to reflect on what that means. Concentrate. Kind of like counting how many passes of the basketball are being made. Focus. First, we noted Jesus’ absence at the empty tomb on Easter Day. And then we saw him encountering Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter. And then on the Third Sunday of Easter, eating broiled fish with his friends. And now, the Good Shepherd of the sheep. 

But here is the thing: in the meantime, Peter has been up to something in Acts each week. He’s been kind of like that 300 pound gorilla walking by us, and maybe we’ve not seen him. He has been there week after week in this Easter Season  while our attention has been on Jesus.

On Easter Sunday he was boldly preaching about the God who “shows no partiality.”  And then we got a glimpse of the community that he helped to shape and that shaped his emerging spirituality: a community where no one claimed private ownership, where all things were held in common. There was not a needy person among them. Can you imagine that? 

And then we saw him healing in the same way that Jesus healed. That’s pretty amazing when you stop to think about it: the disciples weren’t just sitting around remembering Jesus. They weren’t just sitting back praying to him. They ultimately got up and out of that room where the doors were locked; and they overcame their fears to do the work that Jesus had been doing—the work God now gave them to do. Peter is the lead guy: preaching, teaching, healing in the name of Jesus. 

What I want you to notice with me today is that this is Peter at his very best. We are used to seeing Peter at his worst, whenever he gets it wrong. (Which is a lot of the time.) We are used to Peter who swears he will be faithful to the end and then denies knowing Jesus when the chips are down. But something has changed. 

It’s like when you run into someone who used to have a beard and has shaved it off; or used to be clean shaven and now has a beard. Or has gained thirty pounds, or lost thirty pounds. Or has gone gray, or found their original color in a bottle. You look at them and you think: I know you. But something has changed. 

Peter has changed. And the narrator is clear about what it is: it’s the Holy Spirit. Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit. He’s not so scared anymore. He’s stopped twitching every time the rooster crows. He and the other disciples are now doing the work Jesus called them to do in the first place when he called them by the Sea of Galilee: they really are fishing for people, healing the sick, bringing good news to the poor, announcing God’s salvation for the world.

So today, Peter is addressing the Sanhedrin, the very same religious authorities that previously scared him into running away and denying Jesus. Annas the high priest is there and Caiphas; remember them? Peter has been arrested by the Sadducees who are “much annoyed” because he has been “teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” (4:2)

The work they are doing is drawing people to Christ—in fact the healing of just one man in chapter three led to five thousand people coming into the community. Now that sounds great until you remember that Peter is not centuries away from the crucifixion at this point, but just weeks and months from it. The very same people who had Jesus killed, the very same leaders who didn’t want to see people laying down their palms on Passover when Jesus came into the city on a donkey, those very same people are not all that thrilled about a crowd of 5,000 people who are now proclaiming: the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia!

So the Sadducees are very much annoyed and probably pretty anxious. One might expect the Peter we all love and know to say: “sorry, my bad…I don’t know the man.”

But something has changed. Peter has found his voice. He doesn’t care anymore about what the Sanhedrin might do to him.  He knows now who he is, and that with God’s Holy Spirit empowering and equipping him for the work of ministry he does not need to live in fear anymore. He proclaims Easter: not as an intellectual affirmation, but in his guts he knows that death really does not get the last word.

We spend so much of our lives in fear of what will happen next. What will happen if we do this or if we don’t do that. We might get sued or we might get reprimanded. Peter models for us a different way to be in the world. He is no longer afraid of what people may say about him or do to him. Something has changed.

The old Peter would have said: “I don’t know the man, I don’t know the man, I don’t know the man.” But now, filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter says, “let me tell you about my friend Jesus. Let it be known to you all that this isn’t about me, this is about Jesus Christ. The one you crucified. The one that God raised from the dead…”

Now here is the thing about this 300 pound gorilla. I think it’s the Easter story we need to be living. Because we can tell people with our lips that Jesus is risen from the dead. We can tell them that the tomb is empty, that Thomas put his hands in Jesus’ side, that Jesus ate some broiled fish. We can even tell them that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.But until people see us living like Easter people—until they see us changed, Easter is nothing more than a theory. The story in Acts is in fact the Easter story we need because it is focused on what the risen Christ is doing in and through us as we find our true voices, rooted not in fear but in trust. 

Now here is the thing: not everyone will be able to see that, even if it’s right before their very eyes. But that is not our concern. Our concern is to be living it out. Our work is to be Easter people. 

And maybe even to be as obvious as a 300 pound gorilla about it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Courage of Alphege

Today is the Feast of Alphege who served as Archbishop of Canterbury in the early years of the eleventh century. Here is a prayer for remembering his life and witness:
O loving God, your martyr bishop Alphege of Canterbury suffered violent death when he refused to permit a ransom to be extorted from his people: Grant that all pastors of your flock may pattern themselves on the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep; and who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
For the past seven and a half months, I have served as the Chair of the Search Committee for the ninth bishop of my diocese, Western Massachusetts. Today the slate of names we came up with has been passed along to the Standing Committee and my official duties now come to an end as the Transition Committee picks up the next phase of that work of introducing the nominees to the diocese. I was invited to preach the homily at our cathedral today as we passed the baton. Here is what I said:  

I have been ordained since 1988, but I cannot recall every having the Feast of Alphege fall on a day when I have had a midweek liturgy. If it has, I’ve blocked it from my memory. 

If our goal had been to coordinate this important moment in the life of our diocese with a great saint of the Church we might have done better: F.D. Maurice was earlier this month, Anselm and Catherine of Siena are just around the corner. The Feast of Richard Hooker or George Herbert would have been nice, but they didn’t have the good sense to die in April.

So here we are, on the Feast of Alphege, who was an Archbishop of Canterbury during troubled times. Rowan may be feeling like he’s been put through the ringer, but he hasn’t had to deal with the Viking invasions like Alphege did, and now he gets to go back and punt on the Cam. When Alphege was captured by the Danes in 1011, he refused to allow a personal ransom to be collected from his already over-burdened people. Seven months later he was brutally martyred. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that the Danes were “much stirred against the Bishop, because he would not promise them any fee, and forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also much drunken … and took the Bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Saturday after Easter … and then they shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow. And his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.”

I hope we don’t have to expect, or require, that degree of courage from our next bishop. Even so, we do expect courage. When people like Alphege heard Jesus saying things like, "I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more,” they took it to heart.

And it’s true, you know. What would happen for each of us as baptized persons—in our work in the world, as deacons and priests and bishops if we worried less about the small stuff and more about fidelity to Christ? What if we reminded ourselves, daily, when we face a tough decision at work or in church: “hey..what’s the worst they can do to me, kill me?” I am humbled by such a witness. And they lived not only in ages past, you know—there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the saints of God. 

You just need to know where to look. I think of another Archbishop half way around the world and nearly a thousand years after Alphege, standing at an altar in San Salvador celebrating the Holy Eucharist, and gunned down because he refused to back down from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I hope that whomever we elect as our ninth bishop, that we will get at least some of that courageous faith of the martyrs.  

Most of us in Western Massachusetts do not lie awake at night worried about being martyred for our faith. But I think we do worry a lot about failure. We worry a lot about the future. We worry a lot about what people might think. And all that worry can paralyze us from being the kind of Christians of whom Alphege might be proud. 

I hope and pray that from this slate we elect a bishop who is not afraid: not afraid to fail, not afraid to die and therefore—and most importantly—not afraid to live and to embrace the Easter life that is ours in Jesus Christ. I know that you join me in asking God to grant Doug and Mark and Nancy and Ron and Rich wisdom and courage for the facing of these days. 

Why should we ever fear in times of trouble? (Psalm 49:5) The answer to the question raised by the psalmist is self-evident to those who put their trust in God. It is found in the life and witness of people like Alphege, who reveal to us something of the love of the Good Shepherd upon whom we are all called to pattern our lives. As we gather at this Table, in this Cathedral, we know that we truly are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And they sing, and they cheer us on, and they remind us who is at the center of it all. 

Because we don’t have the whole world in “our hands”—and because it is a form of idolatry to think we do—we are free to pay attention to the things that we have been entrusted to care for in this little corner of God’s realm here in Western Massachusetts. And to do that work that God has given us to do with courage and hope, with a little less fear—or at least a little less paralyzed by our fears. 

What’s the worst they can do? Kill us? We have already died with Christ, and we are already being raised to new life in him. We have nothing to fear.

Let’s live like we believe that.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Doubting" Thomas

The star of most homilies on this Second Sunday of Easter (at least in congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary) is good old “doubting” Thomas. In some of those homilies he will be presented almost like a villain, who gets scolded by the preacher (though not by Jesus) for being such a doubter. The message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, don’t be like him!

For others (and I think this is far more likely to be the storyline in most Episcopal congregations) Thomas will be presented as a kind of courageous hero, as the “patron saint” of doubters everywhere. This version of the story suggests that doubt and questions are good and when expressed can lead us to faith. So here, too, the message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, be like him!

As the story is told by John, a week has now passed since the Spirit first came to the disciples last Sunday night, on Easter Sunday. Thomas wasn’t with them, so this is round two.  Exploring the meaning of just one Greek word can lead us to a deeper understanding of Thomas. In English we tend to associate faith with belief—which has caused us all kinds of problems right up to the present day. We tend to think that what we think about our faith—our belief system—is the same as faith. That grows directly out of the Enlightenment, which means it’s been around for a while. But don’t forget that the Church is older than the Enlightenment and we need to go further back than the eighteenth century to make sense of Thomas.

I think the Church as a whole got confused along the way. Fundamentalists, and the liberal theologians who call themselves the Jesus Seminar, as well as those atheists who are certain that because they can’t prove that God exists, therefore God does not exist are all (it seems to me) stuck somewhere in the nineteenth century. They continue to fight old battles about why Jesus died, or how he was born or about the right way to read the Bible or about who can get married—and then think that their beliefs are what make them Christians. (Or not, as the case may be.) But I believe we have taken a wrong turn...

As we just remembered again ten days ago, on the night before he died for the sins of the world, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, telling them (and us) that the world would know we are Christians by our love and by our willingness to be servants in a world bent on the use and abuse of power. You will know Christians by their practices, by how they behave, by how they treat each other and the poor. It does not say anywhere that I can find in the Bible that “you will know they are Christians by their doctrines.” St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth (who were fighting about doctrinal issues) that what makes us Christians is faith, hope, and love—but that the greatest of these is the last. We may have all kinds of gifts or knowledge or even orthodox theology, but if we don’t have love we are clanging cymbals. That’s what St. Paul says.

So what does this have to do with our friend, Thomas? The Greek word, pistis, is not referring to the content of faith—to what we think we know. It’s not about doctrine or a belief system, but something much more primal. Pistis is really best translated as “trust.”  And trust is a much better synonym for faith than belief is.

I think that the key to understanding Thomas is about whether or not he can bring himself to trust Jesus again, the one on whom he had previously staked his life, but then who went and got himself killed. Thomas is not struggling with his doctrine of the resurrection. Thomas is not asking (as far as I can tell) whether or not God still exists. He’s wondering whether he can still trust the God revealed in the life of Jesus.

We’ve heard from Thomas on two previous occasions in John’s Gospel. In the eleventh chapter, when Jesus decides to go back to Judea to raise Lazarus (even though it is clear at that point that the authorities are out to get him) Thomas is the one who says to the other disciples: “let us go with him that we may also die with him.” (John 11:16) So he is willing to follow Jesus to death; to stand in solidarity—to become a martyr if necessary. The Easter question before us today is a harder one, however: is he willing to embrace the new life Christ brings? Is he willing to live for Christ? That will require trust.

And then one of my favorite Thomas moments, in the fourteenth chapter of John, as awesome as the one we get today. Jesus is talking about his impending death. He is telling the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, but their hearts are troubled. He tells them that it’s going to be alright, because he is going to prepare a place for them and that in God’s house there are many dwelling places. And then Jesus says, “and you know the way where I am going.” 

Do you remember? That is when good old Thomas pipes up and asks the question that all the disciples want to ask. It’s like men and directions: Jesus says “you know the way” and everyone is nodding, oh yeah, we know how to get there, we don’t need no stinkin’ GPS! And it is Thomas who says, “excuse me, Lord but no…we don’t have a clue where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) That’s when Jesus tells his disciples: keep your eyes on the prize…keep your eyes on me! Don’t lose me, I’ll get you there: “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

So Thomas the twin, at least as he is remembered in the fourth gospel, has some history. He’s not afraid to die. He’s clearly the one who is not afraid to ask the hard questions. And he loves Jesus. I don’t think he is looking for proof today so much as the fact that his sense of trust has been shaken. He wonders if Jesus is still the way, still the truth, still the life—or is he just another dead martyr?  

So literally, the Greek should be translated like this, when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds: Jesus says to Thomas: do not lack trust; trust. 

It's fine to talk about belief and doubt but the problem is that we tend to hear those words only in our heads. And faith - as trust - is a gut issue. 

Our faith goes nowhere until we figure out and navigate our way through trust issues. Some people will struggle with trust issues their whole lives. But you really can’t mature in faith until you find your way through those issues. Nothing else can really happen in the spiritual life until we begin to learn to let go and let God.  

Is Jesus worthy of our trust? Is he really the one who can show us the way to the Father? But how can that be if he is dead? Where do we put our trust when our world has been rocked? If we translate “do not doubt, but believe” I think we miss that in English. Rather, what I think Jesus says is this: do not lack trust…trust me. You can still trust me.

When Jesus comes to that room, he seeks to transform fear into trust. The disciples are hiding out beyond locked doors for fear of the religious and political authorities. The gift of the Spirit gives them a way forward: a renewed sense of trust. Now here, though, is where I want to move away from the traditional focus on Thomas that is at the center of most homilies this weekend including most of those I’ve preached in the past and this one so far. We can become so over-focused on Thomas that we miss something else.

So step back and check out the whole room. Let’s go back one week and backtrack to last Sunday night when Jesus first appears in that room to meet the other ten disciples. And as we heard today, Thomas wasn’t there. (He’d gone out to Dunkin Donuts or something because as everyone knows, grieving people drink a lot of coffee.) What I want you to notice is about the other ten disciples is this: the doors are still shut one week later. The Spirit came, and breathed on them, and the risen Christ came through doors that were locked, because they were still afraid.

So we spend a lot of time thinking about Thomas this weekend but here’s a question I want to ask: why are those doors still shut? I think the answer is that they are the ones who don’t yet get it. They had the experience, but they missed the meaning. Good old Thomas gets it, bless his heart, the first time around.

The Spirit is given to cast out fear. The focus here is on the Spirit as the one who looses sins. That’s a big part of trust: learning to let go and forgive in order to move on. Because when we do not forgive we get bound up in the past. We get stuck. We let people take up residence in our head rent-free. The Spirit helps us with that work, casting out fear in order to make room for faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit comes to empower and equip us for mission. That begins with trust.

The danger every church faces is that we keep our work focused on what happens behind closed doors. The point of Easter as we heard last weekend is that we are called to “go and tell.” We are sent into the world where Christ has already gone ahead of us. God has a mission and is already at work in the world. The Spirit comes because we are called to open the doors, and then sent out to share that work. We have become so accustomed to thinking that “church” is about what happens inside of a building. So Jesus comes not once, but twice, to deliver this message to the other ten, who in truth are slower than Thomas. 

Easter is about flinging the doors wide open—about rolling away all of the obstacles that keep us entombed.  It’s about making sure that the doors stay wide open in both directions: so that others can find their way in, but also to remind the gathered community that after the worship each week, the service begins: as we are sent out of this place to do the work God has given us to do, not to hide out here in fear.

So I love Thomas. But I think the real good news here is that Easter lasts for a season, not just one day. And that gives us all the time we need to breathe it in, to breathe in the Spirit as we uncover the true meaning of Easter, which is about finding our voices in order to go and tell. It's about flinging the doors wide open. Easter is about facing our fears and becoming more faithful witnesses to the gospel, and then continuing to do the work that Jesus started.  

So do not lack trust; trust! And then, together, with God’s help, we can take the next steps toward becoming God’s Easter people.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Sermon

Celebrating Easter is different from both Christmas and Good Friday. We have some experience with birth and death. So even if lingering questions remain around the details of Jesus’ paternity, or we feel compelled to avert our eyes from the gruesome nature of the cross, we nevertheless have a sense of what to do with Jesus' birth and death. Births include wonder and amazement—and gift giving. Death includes grief and sorrow and tears.

But we gather today to speak of new life and of the resurrection of the dead. What does that mean? What does it look like? And how would we know it if we saw it?

Even though Jesus never wrote anything down, the Jesus scholars can take us back to first-century Judaism and reconstruct with amazing skill the contours of the teachings of Jesus. They can also tell us what crucifixion was like, the Romans’ preferred method of carrying out the death penalty. Essentially these scholars function like the theological equivalent of the team from Cold Case as they go back to re-examine all of the archeological evidence in an attempt to figure out what happened.

But it is by faith alone that we dare to insist that isn’t the end of the story. It is by faith alone that we dare to proclaim that “on the third day he was raised from the dead.” You can argue that such a claim is credible, but there is no way to prove it—and if you could, then it would cease to be a matter of faith. Of the four gospel writers, Mark is most brutally honest about this. There is no Road to Emmaus story in Mark where the disciples’ eyes are suddenly opened and their hearts burn. There is no encounter with Thomas, who gets to put his hands in Jesus’ side. Just these few women at an empty tomb, and a message that he is not there. And we must be honest – for if nothing else this day compels our honesty—there are other, more logical explanations as to why a tomb might be empty than resurrection.

We walk, therefore, by faith. Especially today. That doesn’t mean that we don’t get hints and guesses along the way; we definitely do. But it does mean that you cannot prove in a courtroom, under the laws of evidence, that Jesus was raised from the dead. So what, then? Should the preacher just sit down and let it be? (Maybe, but I’m not going to take that route!)

This year it is Mark’s turn to tell us the story. You may or may not be aware that from year to year we rotate, and listen to each of the four gospel writers in turn. (Unlike Christmas, when we are always hearing the same story from Luke.) Last weekend, when we heard again Mark’s Passion Narrative, an astute listener questioned me at the door of this church about why Jesus didn’t forgive the thieves on the cross. I told her that was in Luke’s Gospel, not Mark’s. Without missing a beat, she responded: those four really should get their act together!

Perhaps. But I tend to think of the four gospel writers as four different testimonies, four different angles on who Jesus was and the differences make it interesting. As a pastor, when I am preparing for a funeral and the deceased has four grown children—I expect to hear many of the same stories as they remember their mother. But what I find most interesting are the unique experiences or the unique interpretation of shared memory. The gospel writers are the same, I think. None of them (with the possible exception of John) claim to be eyewitnesses. They are second-generation witnesses who are passing along the story they heard. Each of us tells us the Easter story in his own way.

And so in Mark, we get this strange ending—an Easter story that feels at first as if Mark never got the memo that we would be coming here to get a word of “good news” from him. Notice that those women who come early in the morning to do the work of preparing a body for burial don’t actually get to see the risen Christ himself. They are simply given a message to pass along:  

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.

Go and tell.” But, and this is the kicker: they don’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid. This is pretty funny stuff because throughout Mark’s gospel every time Jesus heals someone and is recognized as the Messiah, he tells them they must be quiet. He tells them not to tell anyone until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. And yet he is constantly ignored and whenever he heals someone they immediately go and tell anyone who will listen, which creates this challenge of the crowds and Jesus finding it hard to ever get a moment alone.

And so now the moment has finally come. It is time! It is Easter morning. “Go and tell,” says the messenger. But they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Happy Easter!

It hardly seems promising. And yet it leaves the reader asking questions and that, I think, is what is so brilliant. If we are paying attention then we want to know, what happened next? That can’t really be the end, can it? Inquiring minds want to know:  

¨     Did those women ever overcome their fear and tell somebody?
¨     Did Jesus in fact go ahead of them to Galilee?
¨     What happened when they got there?

Compared to the three other gospels, Mark’s ending seems abrupt and maybe even a little bit disappointing. After forty days of Lent we expected something bigger. We went through this lent worrying again about race relations in this country as we try to understand what happened that awful night between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. We wait to hear what the justices of the Supreme Court have to say about President Obama’s healthcare plan. According to The Landmark, fights lie ahead for us locally as we try to figure out our level of our commitment to public education in tough economic times. Not to mention all of the stuff that maybe no one else even knows we may be carrying right now: news that the cancer has returned or we’ve just lost our job. Younger people who are sleep-deprived as they navigate the transition to parenthood; older people who are trying desperately to stay in the homes where they have decades of memories, even as their grown children lie awake at night worrying about their well-being and trying to convince them to explore a decent nursing home.

So we get up and dress up on Easter Sunday for some good news, some hope. And we get: 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.

Only here’s the thing: of all the endings, Mark’s remains my personal favorite. I can honestly say that I look forward to it when it’s his turn to speak. And I love it precisely because he does show so much restraint, and because he requires us to write our own ending, or at least the next chapter of the story.  Mark is like “The Never Ending Story” and we are invited in. We are invited to become the ones who “go and tell;” unless, of course, we are too afraid.

The fact that we are here today is living proof that that those women did overcome their fear and did find their voices. Maybe it took them a minute and a half or maybe it took them longer than that. But somehow they figured it out. They did “go and tell.” Otherwise the story ends right there in Jerusalem. And our being here today is proof that that wasn’t the case. They definitely found their voices. Those women are the first preachers of the gospel.

And those who first read Mark’s Gospel knew that, too. Even though it is the earliest of the four gospels, Mark wasn’t written down until four decades or so after all these things happened. Think about that. Those of you who were around forty years ago: think about what was happening in 1972 in your own life and in this country. That’s the time gap. By the year 70 AD, Mark’s community was a small community of house churches struggling for survival in the midst of a decaying Roman empire. And yet they were still talking about all Jesus had done and still breaking the bread. They were still gathering together to baptize and to form the next generation of disciples. Those who first heard this Gospel knew that the Lord was risen indeed the same way we do: because they had their life-together in Christ. They knew that Christ was alive because whenever two or three of them gathered together in his Name they felt his presence in their midst. And when they went into the world to serve in his name they found him true to his word—he had indeed gone ahead of them. He was already there whenever they went on mission trips—in the faces of the poor, and the hungry and the naked and those in prison.

The genius, I think, of Mark’s ending is that he means for us to see that we are the sequel.  Or more accurately, that every generation of Christians faces precisely the same choice on Easter Day that those women did. Will we let our fears paralyze this so that this becomes the end of the story? Or will we find our voices so that it can be the beginning again? Will we recognize (even in the midst of all that is wrong with the world) that we have a story to go and tell, and work to be done in Christ’s name? Because if we do, then it is Easter.

In the other gospels, it is tempting to think that the first disciples had it easier than we do: Thomas got to put his hands in Jesus side and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus got to sit at the Table with the Risen Christ.  Surely if we had those experiences we would believe, right? But Mark rightly sees that this is an illusion. And besides, the truth is that we do get to sit at the Table every week with the Risen Christ. The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread and we do too, if only we have eyes to see.

And so we walk by faith. Christ is always going ahead of us to prepare the way, not just in Galilee two thousand years ago, but in the places where we live and work as well. Christ has gone ahead of us, and is already at work in our world. God has a mission, and is in search of disciples who will share in that work. So if we want to find Jesus we need to go where he is…ahead of us. The lives of those first hearers, and of our own lives hold within them the seeds that, if tended, will grow as we become the next generation of witnesses of Easter. Our lives, with God’s help, will testify to the fact that Mark’s ending was in fact a new beginning—which is, after all, what this day is all about. 

So don’t look for Him in an empty tomb; he isn’t there! He has already gone ahead of us. Do not be afraid. Go and tell somebody!