Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Christ: The King of the Long Ending

Preached at the main service on Easter, April 24, 2011

Scripture readings:
Exodus 15:1-18; Mark 16:9-20

If you read with me in a Bible of your own, you may have noticed that these verses in Mark are often separated from the first part of the chapter. They are set in brackets, or printed in italics, or put in a smaller print, or something.

There is an historical reason for this. The earliest, most ancient copies of Mark don’t contain verses nine through twenty. Mark just seemed to stop with the story of the women running in fear from the empty tomb (in verse 8).

What we have in these verses probably comes from an ancient church that wanted to make Mark feel complete. They felt called by God to humbly add a brief list of what the other gospels and the Book of Acts said followed the resurrection of Jesus.

The meeting of Mary Magdalene with Jesus summarizes a story in the Gospel of John. The meeting of two disciples with Jesus in the country summarizes the story of the road to Emmaus told in the Gospel of Luke. The list of things added by that ancient church also tells us some things that no one else tells us.

The only problem is that these verses historically don’t come from Mark. They come from a time when most churches had a Gospel of Mark that ended with the women running away from the empty tomb full of fear.

The church historian Eusebius, who was born in the year 240 AD, and the Bible translator Jerome, who was born in 340 AD, both wrote to say that most copies of Mark ended with verse eight. They knew about the verses from the longer ending. Jerome included them in the Latin translation he was making at the request of the Bishop of Rome. Eusebius may have helped get these verses into the new edition of Greek Bibles that was being prepared in the effort to make the Bible more available in the Greek part of the empire. In their time, the empire was turning Christian, and projects like these could be safely carried out.

And so these verses are an awkward historical gift to us. They existed, but most Christians knew nothing about them and, then; there they were.

The presence of these verses is really a beautiful thing. It goes straight along with whole purpose of the resurrection. Because, here is an apparent flaw; almost like a fatal wound: the loss of the ending of a gospel and the substitution of other verses. And yet the Bible is full of examples of God taking the mishaps of his people, and even their sins, and doing something magnificent through them, and in spite of them.

This seeming imperfection in the Bible requires us (if we are willing) to treat the Bible exactly as if it were just as much a work of grace and mercy as any other story in the Bible. The kind of divine authority by which God, in Christ, makes us his true children is the kind of divine authority by which God makes the Bible his true and living word. It is in line with the way the God of the Bible works all along. Accepting the Bible just as it is goes along with accepting the God of the Bible just as he is.

It is the nature of God to take apparent flaws, and seeming imperfections, as the very path he chooses to make his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

God can take a book like ours and make it his holy word to us and to others. God can take you (with all your apparent flaws and seeming imperfections) and make you his holy people. Do you realize that these are both miracles and this is typical what the God of the Bible does? Seeing the unity of what God does calls for an Easter faith.

God’s word is truly human and truly divine. We ignore it at our peril. We are truly and painfully human, and we are truly sons and daughters of God, and we ignore each other at our peril. And we know that, as fumbling as we are, other people need to listen to us.

This is not a matter of conceit and self-righteousness. It is love that tells us this. It is our heart that tells us this, when we seek to love others as God, in Christ, loves us.

Jesus does a daring thing. Jesus sends us: “Go into all the world, and preach the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) What could be more dangerous? What could be more foolish, than for Jesus to make us the visible, vocal, physical agents of his work? If Christ is depending on us, isn’t he in big trouble?

This is why we have to be people of the resurrection. The Lord says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) This is what the Lord promised Paul; when Paul saw nothing in himself but weakness and failure. And this is how God works.

Sometimes the message of Jesus seems to have nothing to do with what people around us are looking for. No matter how well we phrase the Lords’ message, no matter how well we live it out, our message (the message of Jesus Christ and the whole Bible) can seem completely ridiculous to the world we live in.

Paul felt this way too. He wrote about the state of mind of the world of his time, and how ridiculous his message seemed to that world. “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (the nations), but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (2 Corinthians 1:22-25)

So a Book like ours, a message like ours, a church like ours, and messengers and workers like you and me are not unfit to be sent by Jesus to all the creation. We are the very type of raw material the Lord uses.

But we must live in Christ, who died for us and rose from the dead for us. This is the Lord’s power in our weakness. When we experience this, we get a foretaste of the resurrection.

The fact that the Lord was taken up into heaven does not mean that we are on our own. Jesus wasn’t taken up in order to be far from us. Jesus was taken up in order to be closer to us; closer than if he stood, in flesh and blood, by our side. Eugene Peterson translates it this way in “The Message”: “The disciples went everywhere preaching, the Master working right with them, validating the Message with indisputable evidence.” (Mark 16:20)

In Matthew Jesus told the disciples how they would go with his authority. In Luke Jesus told them how they must go with his power. Mark simply tells us how the disciples found Jesus working with them: “And the Lord worked with them.”

The writers of the long ending of Mark got the rest of Mark right about the difficult struggle of faith. The Gospel of Mark (as a whole) is full of this. It was so hard for them to believe. As Christians we slip fast out of our resurrection faith.

The disciples had the hardest time giving up their conviction that the cross and the resurrection could not fit together. You could not have a resurrection of Jesus in a world where you had the crucifixion of Jesus. This was a contradiction.

And it was a practical matter. It was a matter of solid experience. They lived in a world where the people who stood up got crucified, and that was the end of it. What changed them?

In the end they were not changed by having the answers given to them in a more convincing and reasonable way. They were not changed by creating a new spirituality or a philosophy of life that was able to handle what happened to Jesus. It was a matter of finally meeting Jesus in his resurrected self.

When we meet the resurrected Jesus we know something has changed. Our world has changed, and we have changed, and we know that Jesus lives.

Except that we struggle with faith. This is a fact written into the Gospel and that is the best thing that could ever happen to us. We think that we have to approach the world, and the people around us, as if we were people who have somehow arrived and have gotten our faith all put together, with all the answers.

It’s true that Jesus makes faith the essential requirement for being rescued by him. But this is not a matter of having all the answers. This is like the story we would tell of the time when a life guard saved our life. A life guard has no way of helping a drowning swimmer unless the swimmer trusts him. Salvation is like that.

Salvation is not given because you agree to the validity of a series of abstract propositions about Jesus and you. The old jargon that Christians often use to describe the good news has become a strange and abstract proposition.

Salvation is a matter of our deepest need and God’s arm reaching out to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The truth is that we all need to die and rise; and only the God who has come into our world in Christ has done the work to make that possible.

That is what we trust. That is what faith is about. We can share this because the power of the resurrection will give us new words to speak to people’s hearts.

Well we do not come to the world as people who have arrived in the matter of faith. We need faith and trust. But we come to the world as people who should be able to understand unbelief from the inside and so know how to speak to it. We know the obstacles. We know the difficulties. We know the faithfulness of the Lord in spite of our unworthiness, and this is part and parcel of being people of the resurrection.

The resurrection is a part of history, but it is also part of the kingdom of God, which is a power beyond time and space. So even if we knew the resurrection for ourselves, once upon a time, that is not enough. Our relationship with Jesus is rooted in everlasting life, and nothing there is never finished and done with.

The prophet Jeremiah was right when he described the grace of God like this. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

The grace of God is not real unless it is continually new, like a living thing. The resurrection of Jesus (as we must experience it) is a continually new and living thing.

Now we come to a funny part of the long ending of the Gospel of Mark. Where it says: “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18) Jesus never commanded us to be snake handlers or poison drinkers. Jesus was merely predicting the kinds of experiences his people would have in the future.

What does the gospel mean about picking up snakes and not getting hurt? This is the summary of a story in the Book of Acts.

It happened to Paul, when he was building a bonfire on the beach of an island, where he and a whole crowd of people had been shipwrecked. Paul was carrying an armload of brush for the fire. A snake was hiding in the brush in his arms. The snake bit Paul. He held out his hand and there the snake was; dangling from his hand. Paul shook the snake off, into the fire, and was not hurt. (Acts 28:1-6)

You can read about this in Acts chapter twenty-eight. It is a very funny story.

There is a story that never got into the Bible. It crops up more than once and it tells about an enemy trying to murder a Christian by putting poison in his drink; but just as the Christian went to drink from his cup, the cup shattered in his hand.

Jesus does not promise us that we will be saved from every danger, or from every loss, or from every illness. Paul’s helper Timothy suffered from many illnesses, and he was never miraculously cured.

Risk, and loss, and danger, and illness, and death are the powers of the world that we know very well. They happen all around us. They happen to us; but they do not have the final word. The power of God has the final word and we meet that power, which is planted in us by Jesus, through his resurrection. We have a spiritual source of life (living in us) that contradicts the rules and the wisdom of this world.

The world says, “Don’t bother.” It tells us to not try this, and not pray for that. It tells us that what our faith tells us to do, and what the pattern of Jesus’ life tells us to do, is not smart. It does not make sense. It is a waste of time. It will get us in trouble.

The Lord Jesus sent his disciples out to the whole creation with the promise that he would help us, and would work with us, and that the signs of his presence and his help would be with us all the time. If we keep steady, holding onto the faith that comes through Jesus, we will experience, through the course of our life, the resurrection power of God that will contradict what the world says is possible.

The resurrection of Jesus calls us to go forth and be living, breathing, speaking, acting contradictions to this world. This is an action that can never work as an act. Only the resurrection of Jesus, working in us, can make us able to contradict our world and proclaim Jesus to the whole creation.

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