In our readings today we have two different accounts of what Easter is all about. First we had a passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which was actually written before any of the Gospels or Acts and is thus a very early witness to these events. After emphasizing that he is handing on a message which he himself had received he gives us this summary of the Easter events: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (that is, Peter), then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-5) He then goes on to name various ones to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection.
Our second account, from Mark’s Gospel, is very different to Paul's version and all the other accounts in the New Testament, although it may very well be based on Peter’s teaching in the ﬁrst century church in Rome. It follows the story of Jesus arrest in the garden when his disciples “deserted him and ﬂed” (Mark 14: 50) although Peter followed to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, only to deny Jesus three times. The result was that the only friends of Jesus who were present when he died on the cross were the women who had come with him from Galilee, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome among others.
It was these women who then came early on the Sunday morning to the tomb, carrying spices which they had bought the night before, apparently because when Joseph of Arimathea had buried the body he had wrapped it in a linen cloth but not anointed it with the usual spices. It is strange that after making those preparations they should not think about how they were going to roll back the stone until they were on their way to the tomb. (Mark 16: 1-3)
As it turns out that would not be a problem. The stone is already rolled back and when they look inside the tomb Jesus’ body is not there. Instead, they see a young man in a white robe who announces that Jesus has been raised and then gives them a message for the disciples. “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.” (Mark 16: 7)
However, it is all too much for the three women and we are told that “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.” (Mark 16: 8)
And that is where Mark’s Gospel ends. No account of the women coming to the disciples as they had been instructed. No account of Jesus appearing to them in Galilee or elsewhere. Is this really the way Mark ended his book? This question has exercised the minds of Christians from the earliest times.
In the second century there were at least two different endings added to the book which are often printed in our Bibles today. New Testament scholars in recent times have put forward a number of different suggestions. Mark was arrested before he could ﬁnish his book. His ending was lost when the last page of the manuscript was lost. The lost ending is John chapter 21. And so on.
Amazingly enough, there are some scholars who actually think that Mark may have intended his Gospel to end in the way in which it does. Why would he have done that? He would have been familiar with the usual presentation of the Gospel with its emphasis on the resurrection appearances of Jesus — such as Peter’s sermon to Cornelius; why didn’t he do something similar in his Gospel? That’s what the other Gospel writers did.
There are also a number of mysterious and intriguing features in Mark’s account which are worth looking at as we try to reach a conclusion about Mark’s intention in ending his Gospel in this way.
For example, who was the young man sitting in the tomb? There is no suggestion in this account that he was really an angel as is stated by Matthew. Was he the young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth who had been present when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and only escaped the soldiers’ clutches by leaving his covering behind? (Mark 14: 51-52) I have always been attracted to the idea that that young man was Mark himself whose mother’s house was perhaps the scene of the Last Supper as it was the gathering place for the church’s prayer in Acts 12: 12. The young Mark had crept out of bed to follow Jesus and the disciples and found more than he had bargained for.
If we then identify these two young men it is Mark himself who announces Jesus’ resurrection to the women and to his readers. “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.” (Mark 16:6)
There is also a curious feature in the message for the disciples: “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.” (Mark 16: 7) This is a reference back to Mark’s account of the journey to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. Jesus had told the disciples, “You will all become deserters; But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Mark 14:27–28)
What does “There you will see him” actually mean? Does Mark mean just the disciples and Peter? Does he mean the women as well? Is he including us who are his readers? A number of commentators think that we are being included in the invitation to return to Galilee—that is, to return to the start of his Gospel and read it in the light of what we now know.
If we do that we will listen to Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of God. We will hear his call to follow him. We will watch as he heals the sick and prays to the Father. In this way we will have the opportunity to come to the knowledge of the risen Christ each one for himself or herself. We will not come to belief because of our reading about others to whom Jesus appeared, but as we ponder on the events which Mark has set out for us in his Gospel and pray to God for his guidance then we will come to know that Jesus is risen and alive in our hearts and calling us to his service. The true ending of the Gospel will then be found in us and in our lives.
In a similar, but perhaps more dramatic way, Paul was brought to know the risen Christ as he journeyed to Damascus with a heart full of hatred, not because of the accounts of the experience of others but because of his own personal conviction. As he wrote to the Corinthians: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unﬁt to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15: 8)
As we this morning recall the events of the ﬁrst Easter morning let us make our own the prayer of the Collect that Jesus will reveal himself to us this and all our days and then joyfully receiving him in the sacrament of his body and blood we can truly proclaim that He is risen indeed. Alleluia.