2014 Convocation Sermon: Unfinished Gospel

2014 Convocation Sermon: Unfinished Gospel

By Andrew Foster Connors
2014 Columbia Theological Seminary Convocation held on September 4, 2014
Text: Mark 16:1-8

You don’t have to have been in seminary for long to know the way this Easter story is supposed to end: “he is not here. He has been raised.  Christ is Alive!  Hallelujah!” If you don’t know the way this story is supposed to end they probably shouldn’t have let you into seminary in the first place. So it’s a shock to hear the actual ending of Mark’s Gospel. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”


That is not the way this story is supposed to end. It can’t end here – not like that. We’re counting on Mary, and Mary and Salome to demonstrate to us that the gospel message – he is raised – makes all the difference for them and for all of us.

That’s why we’re here, I hope, at this con-vocation. Because somewhere along your journey, you got the notion that “he is raised” changes everything. That “he is raised” means you weren’t sick in the head when you decided to throw your lot in with Jesus and his troubled church. “He is raised” changes everything, right? “He is raised” means you don’t have to fear Pharaoh’s ubiquitous message – there’s not enough. It means when the marriage falls apart, or the doctors tell you there’s nothing more they can do, or your local Mayor tells you and your ministerial colleagues she’s got money to invest in casinos but not afterschool programs, you know there is a different story that trumps them all. A story that will pull you through this life triumphantly! Victoriously! A story that will end the way it’s supposed to – that’s why we all gather here from east and west and north and south: to hear those words that are supposed to change everything.

But it doesn’t end that way in Mark’s Gospel. The first three witnesses say nothing to anyone.

It can’t all end like this. We can’t all go home with Jesus’ closest followers seized by terror and amazement, unable or unwilling to tell anyone about what they had seen. We can’t leave it like this. Not at a time when our church is already shaking at the knees. Not at a time when our world is desperate for undeniably good news. This is not the way the story is supposed to end.

Apparently we’re not the only ones who refuse to leave without a better ending. More than once in the life of the early church, somebody added a different ending to the Gospel of Mark. Right there past verse 8, there are two optional endings. I’m not making this up. Right in my Bible it says “the shorter ending of Mark” and “the longer ending of Mark.” It’s one of the only places in the Bible where you can choose which ending you like better!

The shorter add-on ending is just two sentences. According to this ending, the two Marys and Salome didn’t stay silent for very long. One verse after they fled in silent fear, they find their courage after all. In the original ending, there is no proclamation of the good news. The witnesses are too afraid to tell anyone. But with this supplemental ending the proclamation is carried on from east to west.

The second addition is a little longer, but also gives a happy ending. There are some weird bits about handling poisonous snakes and drinking poisonous drinks unharmed, but by the time Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples go out and proclaim the good news everywhere and everyone lives happily ever after.

You take your pick – two different supplemental endings to choose from, because some in the early church couldn’t believe that Mark really means to leave us in terror and fear, unable or unsure of whether or not the first witnesses to the resurrection would find the courage to say something to anyone. Two different add-on endings, all because we can’t leave the Resurrection story uncertain as to whether the good news is going to keep going after Jesus’ death.

Even some of the scholars who readily admit that these supplemental endings do not belong to the earliest manuscripts have a hard time believing that Mark would really end the gospel right here. People do not end stories with conjunctions, like this one. Mark ends like this: “and going out they fled from the tomb, for fear and trembling had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone. They were afraid, because. . .” Part of it must be missing, they say.  Part of it must have been misplaced because there is no way that the gospel can end right here – not like this, not in the middle of an unfinished sentence, not without a happy ending.

But I can see why Mary, and Mary, and Salome would be afraid.  They came to the tomb to sprinkle a few spices. They came to the tomb to pay their respects to a dead man. They came to anoint their friend and give him a decent burial. They came like so many come to church on Easter Sunday – to pay respects to the faith of the past; to sprinkle a few spices on a freshly dug grave where the faith of our ancestors is now buried; to anoint a dead man who used to mean something special to the world – to anoint him with our presence before getting back to our old routines.

And I don’t think that just because most of us here are seminarians, or pastors or professors, or church workers that we come with expectations that are all that different. Sometimes I think we prefer Jesus dead in the tomb – embalmed in 16th century confessions, entombed in rigid orthodoxies – liberal or conservative, buried in simple, stale theologies that lead us to believe we can handle Jesus and keep him right where we choose to put him. The church sometimes prefers our Jesus as dead as we can get him so we can prop him up for a viewing whenever we feel like we need to use him for one of our agendas, or whenever we feel like we need to pay our respects to the faith of the past, whenever we feel like spending some extra money on a few spices to sprinkle on the grave of a cold, dead faith.

There’s not much for a disciple of Christ to fear with Jesus dead in the tomb. There’s nothing for us to fear with the outrageous claims of the kingdom of God now put to rest. There’s no reason to be afraid with Jesus’ demand for courage in the face of the cross now buried in the ground. There’s nothing to fear with Jesus’ call to follow him nonviolently into the corridors of power standing up with the poor, the aliens among us, the oppressed – with that call hidden safely underground. There’s no reason to fear God’s claim on your life with Jesus locked away in the tomb.

But a Jesus who is not here in this tomb? – who is loose in the world? -who’s already gone ahead to Galilee expecting these three women – to run and tell the powers that crucified him that he is not dead? That the vision of the kingdom is not dead? To run and tell a beleaguered church that the expectation of courage still stands? That the expectation of witness is still alive?

Peering inside the empty tomb, with Jesus somewhere on the loose, I begin to feel what these women might have feared – not only is Jesus’ Gospel mission not dead – part of it is on the shoulders of three witnesses who didn’t come to the tomb that day to take on any mission! They didn’t come because they felt they were uniquely qualified to preach the dangerous Gospel that led to the cross. They didn’t come because they had any inkling of an idea that they could carry on the work begun by their Lord. They came with a few spices to pay their respects, to anoint a dead friend, to remember his stories, and his healing, and his courage.  They didn’t expect it to become their own. Of course they were afraid!

He is not here. He is risen!” He’s already gone ahead of us and he expects us to meet him there – in the dangerous world that crucified him for his faith.

And that is enough to make me afraid every time I hear this story. Afraid because I’m not always so sure I have the guts to keep announcing God’s way of peace in a nation so invested in the ways of war. I’m not always sure I have the courage to proclaim Christ’s Lordship in a world that bows down to the invisible hands of the market that still hasn’t saved us. I’m not always sure I have what it takes to announce the good news of God’s power to the community of the church so accustomed these last decades to lamenting what we can’t do instead of telling the people just what miracles God performs when a people find themselves in the wilderness. I’m not always sure I have the strength to announce God’s grace when my own family and yours gets hit by illness out of the blue that leaves the people we love suffering.

And maybe that is why Mark’s Gospel leaves us in fear and trembling. Maybe Mark leaves us afraid because that’s what every disciple feels at some point when you realize just what Christ has called us to do. When you realize that Jesus believes in your capacity for radical discipleship more than you do. When you realize that Jesus has some crazy notion that the church has much more of a future than most of us allow ourselves to believe. When you realize that Jesus didn’t call us here for us to sprinkle our respects on the grave of God’s salvation story. Jesus called us here to carry on what Jesus taught; to bear the burden of discipleship; to take up his cross; to announce news of his resurrection that changes everything.

It’s no wonder Mark’s Gospel ends with a conjunction. The story’s not over with the announcement that he is raised. It’s only begun and who knows where it will lead you! I don’t know where that story will lead in your lives anymore than we are told where it finally led in the lives of those three women.

I can only testify to what “he is risen” means to the lives of those who hear and receive that announcement. I know what it means to a city like Baltimore addicted to many things, but most of all to a narrative of cynical despair. I can only testify to what it means to a family that lost their college-aged child; to a congregation that’s been told it’s dying; to a married couple that can’t repair the wounds. I’ve seen what it means to a CEO who’s decided to risk the bottom line for what is right; to a city kid who’s lost 13 of his family members to murder; and to a well-rounded, kind atheist who was as astonished as I at how Jesus drew her into the church. I know what it means to the teacher who refuses to give up on his students, to a breadwinner who’s lost her job. I know what “he is risen” means to me – cancer survivor this year, walking with my brother through the hell of pancreatic cancer – “he is risen” means everything.

And I don’t know where this story ends. This vocation would be so much easier if Mark or someone else had given us that information. I only know where it begins – Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go on ahead and tell the others what you’ve seen. Go on ahead and follow him into the contested spaces of the world. Go on ahead and proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind. Go on ahead and live your calling with a courage that only comes when your future isn’t clear, when life isn’t assured, when death is close at hand. Go on ahead and heal the sick, strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, hold fast to what is good. Go on ahead and stand up with outcasts, with the newest immigrants when it might cost you something fierce. Go on ahead and preach like you’re desperate for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Go on ahead and talk about love in the middle of a world consumed with hate; preach forgiveness in a nation that can’t find satisfaction in retaliation; announce Christ’s peace in a world torn by never-ending war. Go on ahead – answer your calling – and do not be alarmed in this fear-full world. Do not be alarmedJesus has already gone ahead of you – there you will see him, just as he told you.

“They were afraid because. . .” The last words of Mark are not the ending, they’re only our beginning. The ending still has to be written.

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One thought on “2014 Convocation Sermon: Unfinished Gospel”

  1. kmoody84@yahoo.com says:

    This is the sermon from opening convocation

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