Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Look at This Sunday's Gospel Lesson

[This is meant to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, to prepare for worship. But because we use Biblical texts used from the Revised Common Lectionary, I hope that others will get some benefit from reading this post too.]

Easter Sunday
April 12, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

Prayer of the Day:
O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A Few Thoughts on Mark 16:1-8
1. There are several theories about the ending of Mark's Gospel. (1) Some say that its ending is precisely as we have it in our Bibles, including vv. 9-20; (2) Others, maybe a majority of contemporary scholars, believe that it originally ended at v. 8; (3) Still others, most notably the well-known N.T. (Tom) Wright, hold that, based on the development of the rest of Mark's Gospel, the book couldn't have possibly originally ended at v. 8, but that the original ending is lost to us.

There are other theories as well, but hardly worth going into at this point.

2. Whatever the case, the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, has included vv.9-20, in our Bibles.

3. Nonetheless, Mark 16:1-8, gives us a stunning picture of the first events of the first Easter, one that doesn't tell us what to think or feel, but instead puts us in the places of the three female disciples who had come to anoint the body of Jesus, discovered an empty tomb, and a mysterious young man in white who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Verse-by-Verse Comments
1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
1. Remember that the sabbath ran from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, as is still true of the Jewish calendar. So, on the evening before they went to the tomb, these three disciples of Jesus purchased spices for anointing His body.

There's a little irony here in that Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew) or the Christ (Greek), meaning Anointed One.

You remember that Jesus was quickly buried so that those who handled His body wouldn't be rendered ritually unclean for the celebration of the sabbath.

It was customary to anoint the body with spices--the verb in the original Greek of Mark's gospel is smear, rather than anoint--before it was placed in the tomb. Because multiple bodies might be placed in a tomb, it was important to do whatever was possible to combat the odor associated with decaying flesh. Tombs weren't usually the final resting places of bodies. They were left there to decompose long enough before being placed in ossuaries.

2. These are the three women are specifically mentioned in Mark 15:40-41, as witnesses of Jesus' death. That passage also mentions that they "provided for him when he was in Galilee." One commentator I consulted this week pointed out that care for the body of the deceased was, in those days, seen as expressing love for neighbor, on a par with giving to the poor.

3. In the Old Testament and Jewish law, the testimony of three witnesses was sufficient to certify the truthfulness of an assertion. But only the testimony of men was valid.

Yet, God chose women to be the first witnesses about Jesus' resurrection. The world might doubt their testimony. But all who are open to the Spirit of God know that in Jesus' kingdom, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

4. By the way, there is no evidence that Jesus ever married. But had He chosen to do so, there would have been nothing wrong with that. I bring this up because of the occasional author who insists that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
(1) In pointing out that this day--what would be Sunday on our calendars--was the first day of the week, Mark is pointing to the new start that creation is given through Jesus Christ. "So if anyone is in Christ," Paul writes of those who believe and are baptized, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17) In Jesus, the world starts over!

They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
(1) These women had no idea how they would complete the task they'd decided to take on. They went to the tomb anyway.

(2) We might wonder where the men were. Are these female disciples of Jesus more courageous than their male counterparts? Well, maybe.

But, keep in mind the status of women in that society. Women weren't regarded as fully adult human beings. Men didn't view women as threats and so women could go about with greater freedom and less chance of encountering trouble for their association with Jesus than the men would have had.

On Good Friday, even these three women watched Jesus' death "from a distance" (Mark 15:40).

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
(1) Problem solved? Not really. Now, other problems must have suggested themselves to the women, including the possibility that Jesus' body had been taken away.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
(1) Mark doesn't tell us that this is an angel. It's safe to surmise as much, though.

(2) A "certain young man," often thought to be Mark himself, makes an appearance in the garden of Gethsemane. Some suggest that this is the same young man who meets the women in the tomb. There are numerous theories about the significance of the young man in Mark 14:51-52, as well as about his possible connection to this young man. But none of them seem to cut it to me.

But he said to them, “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.
(1) The "young man" uses the same verb Mark has just used to describe the women's reaction to all that they've seen. "Don't be alarmed," he tells them. This is similar to the first words often used by angels in their Biblical encounters with human beings, "Don't be afraid."

(2) Notice that the young man affirms the reality of Jesus' death. He was crucified.

(3) He tells these witnesses to "look"--note well--that Jesus' body is gone.

7But 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.”
(1) The young man commissions these women to be witnesses, telling the other disciples and Peter to meet Jesus in Galilee.

(2) You may have heard me say it (or may have read where I've written it) before, but it's a fact: Dead men don't run.

The risen Jesus had gone ahead to Galilee, some sixty miles from this spot in Jerusalem, and the disciples were invited to catch up with Him.

(3) There's a deeper significance in this directive too. Biblical faith only looks back in order to gain guidance and inspiration for our lives. Biblical faith is primarily a forward-looking faith. God calls us to trustingly move from day to day in the certainty that Jesus is blazing a trail for us. Hebrews 12:1-2 get at this idea: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

(4) Why is Peter singled out as one to be informed? There seems to be a lot of informed speculation, but no real consensus on this question.

Is it because Peter is the designated leader?

Or is it because he denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest?

Is it to assure us that Christ always seeks reconciliation with us, no matter how we may deny or betray Him?

Maybe all three explanations are true.

8So 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.
(1) Their fear was understandable.

(2) If this is the original ending of Mark's Gospel, it would fit with its strange start. In that case, the entire book would be seen as "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God," only made complete by our willingness to believe in Him and His resurrection.

(3) On this basis, I believe that there's sound reason to argue, contrary to what most scholars say, that Mark was not the first gospel written, that it may have been the last one written. It appears to have been composed not to evangelize non-believers, as is especially true of Luke's and John's gospels, but to Christians, already familiar with the story of Jesus. Mark only cites about nineteen words from all of Jesus' sermons. Again, I think that he assumes the church's familiarity with Jesus' words. His gospel comes as a reminder that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are only the beginning. Jesus' followers are called to complete the gospel by repenting and following Him in His kingdom daily (Mark 1:14-15). Of course, I could be wrong. Nothing, in fact, is more likely, because I'm no scholar.

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