Easter B: Only the Beginning

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I’ll be completely honest and just admit that I totally sympathize with the monks. The monks, that is, who just couldn’t believe that Mark really ended at verse 16:8a in such an awkward, unsatisfying, and distressingly incomplete way.

Here’s what we know about this ending: Although there are numerous later manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel that have alternative and longer endings, all the earliest manuscripts end right here. Which means that this is most likely where Mark wanted his story to end, with a final sentence that is grammatically awkward, ending rather abruptly and with a preposition – an unusual construction in Greek as well as in English. Here’s what we also know: The women disciples – after hearing the good news of Jesus’ death and being commissioned to go and tell – utterly fail, leaving in fear and saying nothing to anyone. And, perhaps most distressing, here’s the last thing we know: if this is indeed the last part of Mark’s original story, then there is no scene with the resurrected Christ to confront the disciples’ doubt and call forth their faith.

It is, by all accounts, a really lousy ending. Which is why I’m sympathetic to those monks (or whoever it might have been) who perhaps were given the job of copying Mark’s Gospel and, upon reaching such an unsatisfactory conclusion to this otherwise tightly-paced, riveting and important story, decide to take matters into their own hands and add an ending (or two!) to clean things up. And so our Bibles have what has come to be called “A Shorter Ending to Mark” and “A Longer Ending to Mark” which tie a narrative and theological bow of sorts onto this abrupt ending in order to make it neat and tidy and to sound like the other gospels.

But let’s take seriously for a moment that Mark wasn’t just having writer’s block and so impatiently sent his manuscript off half-baked. Let’s imagine instead that Mark knew exactly what he was doing. That he crafted an incomplete ending by design. That he left the story hanging on this moment of failure and disappointment for a reason.

Why would he do that?

Maybe because he knew that no story about death and resurrection could possiblly have a neat and tidy ending. Maybe because 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. Maybe because he believed 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.

There is a persistent two-part pattern throughout Mark, you see, that comes to its climax in these last verses. The first part is that those who are closest to Jesus and should tell others about him often don’t. So the disciples hear Jesus predict his passion three times and regularly end up dazed, confused, and arguing about who is the greatest. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah but completely misunderstands what that means and actually rebukes Jesus when we explains. Again and again those who should understand just don’t understand what is going on and so fail to share the good news.

The second part of the pattern is that those who do understand what’s going on and perceive who Jesus is aren’t reliable witnesses. Several of the various demons that Jesus casts out of people, for instance, instantly recognize Jesus and grasp the import of his ministry. But you can’t really count on a demon for a good testimony, can you? And the Roman Centurion, having just put Jesus to death, acknowledges him as the Son of God, but isn’t likely to share that news with anyone else.

And so this two-part pattern should prepare us for the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the desertion of his disciples, and finally even the failure of these women, who up to this point had proved the most faithful of his disciples. They are afraid, too afraid to speak of the wonders they have heard. And so Mark ends here, right here, inviting us the reader to pick up where these women left off and share the good news announced by the messenger at the empty tomb.

The story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb, you see. It’s only just getting started. Resurrection isn’t a conclusion, it’s an invitation. And Jesus’ triumph over death, sin, and hate isn’t what Mark’s Gospel is all about. Rather, Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world.

Mark gives us a clue to that in the very first verse, in an opening sentence that is almost as abrupt and awkward as the closing one. Mark, you’ll remember, doesn’t give us the long genealogy of Matthew; the tender story of shepherds, angels, and a mother and her newborn together in a stable as in Luke; or the theologically soaring and totally wonderful hymn to the Word made flesh of John. Rather, Mark says simply, even pointedly, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Goodness gracious, but that doesn’t even sound like an introduction (and, indeed, some have wondered if it was Mark’s title rather than opening line). But the key thing here is that Marks says straight off that all of Mark’s writing is only the beginning of the good news of what God has done and is still doing for the world through Jesus the Christ.

It’s only the beginning; this story isn’t over. It’s only the beginning, and we have a part to play. It’s only the beginning, and if you wonder why there is still so much distress and pain in the world, it’s because God’s not done yet. It’s only the beginning, and Mark is inviting us to get out of our seats and into the game, sharing the good news of Jesus’ complete identification with those who suffering and his triumph over injustice and death with everyone we meet. It’s only the beginning, and we’re empowered and equipped to work for the good in all situations because we trust God’s promises that all will in time come to a good end even when we can’t see evidence of that.

It’s only the beginning….

This is the word we’re invited to offer, Dear Partner, this and every week. That what we read, preach, and confess is only the beginning, and the rest – and perhaps even the best – of this story is unfolding before our eyes and, indeed, through our lives. Please know of my tremendous gratitude for your consistent, faithful, and steadfast proclamation of this word of resurrection and grace. Thank you and, even more, thank God for you on this Easter Sunday.

Yours in Christ,