Monday, April 23, 2012

Forget the church?

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Delray Beach, Florida
3 Easter – Lectionary Year B (RCL) – April 21/22, 2012
Acts 3:12 – 19; Ps. 4; Luke 24:36b – 48
Preacher:  The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

Forget the church?

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  (Luke 24:36 – 38).
            “Forget the church, follow Jesus!”  Those disquieting words were on the cover of the April 2 issue of Newsweek Magazine.  Anyone see or read it? 
Inside the issue was a provocative essay by Andrew Sullivan, British self-described conservative who is the former editor of The New Republic and current author and editor of the blog The Dish.  The Dish, which Sullivan describes as “biased and balanced,” is featured on The Daily Beast website, a partner of Newsweek.[1] 
Sullivan takes Thomas Jefferson and his famous Jefferson Bible, which is currently on exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, as his point of departure.[2]  As Sullivan reports, Jefferson created his Bible himself taking a razor to traditional Bibles.   “Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants.”[3] “What did he edit out?”[4]
Sullivan writes, “He removed what he felt were the ‘misconceptions’ of Jesus followers, ‘expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.”[5]  Sullivan says that it wasn’t hard for Jefferson.  “[Jefferson] described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as ‘diamonds’ in a ‘dunghill,’ glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…”[6]  Sullivan states, “this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy.”[7]  Sullivan quotes Jefferson as asserting, “I am a real Christian…That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”[8]
            “What were those doctrines?” Sullivan asks rhetorically, answering, “Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, programs, reformations and counterreformations.  Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.”[9] 
Sullivan continues, writing, “Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection – and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday – Jefferson’s point is crucially important.  Because it was Jesus’ point.  What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?...If we return to what Jesus actually  asked us to do and be – rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was – he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.”[10]
Disregarding the obvious contradiction of Jefferson definition of “being a Christian” and the fact of his having been a slaveholder and someone who never wealthy person who never gave up his material wealth, it is in this last paragraph that Sullivan’s essay reveals the difficulty and conundrums of both his and Jefferson’s project.  Determining what sayings of Jesus have not been affected in transmission by one of the four evangelists we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all of whom came decades after Jesus, is enormously difficult and challenging.  Biblical scholars and critics have been wrestling with this question since the Enlightenment and before.[11]  Discovering the “real Jesus” or what that term “the real Jesus” even means is no easy task and especially if he is divorced from such key doctrines as the incarnation and the resurrection.
 In the remainder of his essay, Sullivan turns his eye to what he labels “the crisis of the church,”[12] offering a scathing critique of both the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy and the current expressions of  Evangelical Protestantism which have become so dominant in the United States.[13]  Interestingly, Sullivan ignores traditional mainline churches, like the Episcopal Church, noting in passing, “For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years.”[14]  
This past Thursday, a rejoinder piece to Sullivan’s essay titled “Returning to the Sermon on the Mount” was published in the on-line Opinionator section of the New York Times.[15] It was by regular Opinionator columnist Gary Gutting, Chairperson of Philosophy at Notre Dame. 
Gutting observes that Sullivan’s idea of following the moral code of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “freed from dubious theology and corrupting politics that have plagued the history of the institutional church,” is “widely attractive.”[16]   But Gutting also points out the challenges of trying to accomplish this.  “What is this code [of Jesus]?” he asks.[17]   
“There is no doubt,” Gutting writes, “that the core message is love.” “But what does it mean to love someone?” he asks provocatively and appropriately.[18]  He follows up by citing Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, “to love is to will good for someone; that is, to do what we can, to see that a person has a good life.”[19]   As philosophers are want to do, he then he asks another question, “But what is the good life?”[20]  “We might, thinking of the core message of Jesus, say that it’s a life of loving others.’  “But this response,” Gutting writes, “just takes us in a circle. Jesus tells us that to lead a good life we should love one another, but loving one another requires helping one another lead good lives.  Unless we first know what it is to lead a good life, Jesus’ law of love gives us little guidance in how to live.”[21]
“The Sermon on the Mount…does not offer a clear view of what makes for a good life…” he observes, then continues, “Many seem to think Jesus is saying little more than be nice to everybody.  Others see a call to heroic life of total non-resistance or self-sacrifice.  Still others hear him as requiring little more than an enhanced version of The Ten Commandments (e.g. avoiding not only murder, but also anger, not only adultery, but also lustful desires).”[22]
            “Almost all Christians ignore many of the things Jesus said on the Mount,” Gutting writes.  “Who literally takes no thought for their lives or for tomorrow?  Who never resists evil?  Who gives to anyone who asks?  Who says, ‘Hit me again’ to an unjust attack?’  “There may be ways of integrating such injunctions into our morality without reducing them to banalities,” he notes, “but the bare text of Jesus’ sermon doesn’t tell us how to do this.”[23]
            He later observes, “None of this is to say that the Sermon on the Mount is not a source of profound moral truth.”  “But,” he states, “this truth is accessible only by reading the sermon in light of 2,000 years of interpretation and development.  Much of the history of Christianity consists of trying to develop a viable way of life from Jesus’ puzzling sayings.  These efforts, moreover, had to go far beyond interpreting Jesus’ words in their own terms.  Augustine and Aquinas, for example, used ideas from Plato, Aristotle and other pre-Christian thinkers to help them understand the ‘law of love.’”[24]
Returning to Sullivan, Gutting observes, “Sullivan is right that Christian churches, as fallible human institutions, have often been obstacles to fruitful understanding of Christ’s moral message.”  “But, he writes, “these churches have also been central in sustaining the traditions of thought and practice that transformed Jesus’ passionate but enigmatic teachings into coherent and fruitful moral visions.  They have been the air – however polluted – that has fed the fire of his message.”[25]
            Gutting concludes, “Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.  To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through the traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity.  This does not require membership in any church,” he adds, “but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world.  In this sense, to forget the church, is to forget Jesus.”[26]
            Two essays, both timely…both provocative…both providing lots of grist for the mill and food for thought…Needless to say, I appreciated the challenge of Sullivan’s critique, but, as you might expect, I land with Gutting and his conclusion.
            In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus appears to the disciples who are gathered together, presumably in the same fear-filled locked room in which we saw them last week in John’s Gospel (See John 20:19).  It is one of the stories and scenes that was inconvenient and uncomfortable for Thomas Jefferson and which he excised from his Bible.  
The gathered disciples are being debriefed by two of their number who had just had an encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (See Luke 24:13 – 35).  While they were they were talking, Jesus stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”(Luke 24:36).  The text tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37).
 There is something compelling about the Christian narrative which doesn’t sugarcoat or gloss over the fear of these disciples…After all, the portrayal could have been cleaned up, made them look much more faithful, much more believing.  But the text doesn’t shield them or sugar coat the portrayal…It preserves their fear and it preserves their doubt…
In fact, the text insists on their doubt…While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"  They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:41– 43).   With its vignette about Jesus eating a piece of fish, The Oxford Bible Commentary acknowledges that Luke’s account is the most “unashamedly materialistic” of all the resurrection appearances.[27]  It was likely shaped to counter evolving accounts of Easter, especially in Gnostic circles, that suggested the resurrection was merely a vision or a spiritual experience that was absent the “real Jesus,” however you want to grapple with that term.
Today’s gospel reading is about mysterious, enigmatic, things:  the proclamation of the resurrection itself;  the meaning of Jesus’ messiahship; the insistence on his suffering and dying; the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins…  Even those disciples needed continuing explanation, continuing conversation with Jesus; needed Jesus to unfold the scriptures for them. That would not end. 
Jesus would promise the gift of the Holy Spirit so that his message and presence and teaching could continue to be mediated to them and to those who would come after them…At times the Church has been true to the Holy Spirit and done wondrous and sublime things, produced saints, Francis of Assisi (who Sullivan makes reference to in his article[28]), Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu…At other times, it has been sinful and disobedient and been guilty of great sin…
I love Christ and his Church…The Church has nurtured me in my awareness, love and understanding of God…In many ways, I was raised by the Church…The community of parish churches I have been associated with from the time I was a child has held me in its arms all my life, from Barbara Trippel who taught me in Sunday School as a little boy at St. Luke’s Church in Forest Hills, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach today…
Without the Church and its role as the repository, the glorious repository, of the story of God in Christ, as a repository of the sacraments, as a repository of the faith, I do not believe I would know or love Christ…
            To be sure, I am not uncritical of the Church, nor am I naive about its history… As I have said already, the Church has been guilty of great evils and great sins throughout its history, and this does continue, as Sullivan made clear in his article… We need to always challenge the church and hold it accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to challenge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the Church, which is, after all, made up of all of us…The Church is always about the business of reformation and will be until the end of time. 
I am also critical in my approach to the scriptures.  A historical/critical approach to the Scriptures has been a gift to us all since the Enlightenment.  I’m thankful that I am part of a church that places a high premium on reason and critical thought
But again, I love Christ and his Church.  The Church provides what to me are essentials for living:  an encounter and experience of the living, risen Christ and an awareness of my story as a Christian.  The church has given me the disciplines and rhythm for regularly engaging in the Christian life which I suspect I might not maintain without the Church’s cycle of worship, prayer and the liturgical year.
            The Church has always provided me with a rich expression of deep community…the generations gathered, praying for and caring for one another…We are, as I have often pointed out before, the only place in society where four generations regularly interact with one another...And there is deep need, and deep hunger, in our culture today for genuine, caring community…
            Through its focus on mission and outreach, the Church provides me with means by which I can try to live out the command of Jesus to love – to care for others – to try and help others have and lead a “good life.”  And so, at St. Paul’s, through Paul’s Place, our after-school program, very at-risk children and youth are given a leg up in a society where the deck is stacked against them. Families who are homeless are provided with shelter and food…A village is being built in Bondeau, Haiti and children are being educated and fed. 
            Today, we are going to commission three new Stephen Ministers…These are people who have given up 50 hours of their lives in the past few months to undergo training in how to offer distinctively Christian care to fellow-parishioners and others who are hurting or grieving…They will sacrifice more of themselves as they give time to meet with those who have lost a loved one; or who are terminally ill, who have lost a job, or divorced, or who are going through some other crisis which life inevitably throws at us…
Why does this Church do this? Why does any Church do these things?  Because Jesus commanded us to love and in our 2000 years of wrestling with his teaching and trying to live it out, we believe these things are important, just as we believe our life together as Church is important, even when the Church screws up, as we all screw up in our lives…But then, this is part of Jesus’ core teaching, isn’t it?

Repentance, and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in my name, Jesus said to those disciples so long ago and says to us today (Luke 24: 47).  God in Christ is always calling us to turn again to him, to turn again to him anew….”You’re not quite there yet,” he always seems to be saying to us, as the Church, and as individuals…
“Keep listening to me….Keep reading what I said and what others think I said…Keep wrestling with it all….Keep trying to figure it out…More important, keep striving to live the life I commanded you to live, my kind of life; the life of love, sacrifice and service…I know you can do it…Remember, you need one another, and you need me…Oh, and remember that promise I made to you…Thomas Jefferson didn’t include it in his Bible, but I said it…
“I am with you always, even to the end of the ages” (Matthew 28:20)…You can count on that!”

[1]  See website at .  Biographical information from Wikipedia “Andrew Sullivan.”
[2]  Sullivan, Andrew  Christianity in Crisis, April 2, 2012 found on the Daily Beast website at
[3]   Sullivan – printer friendly edition (pfe) – p.  1
[4]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[5]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[6]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[7]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[8]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[9]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1 – 2.
[10]  Sullivan (pfe)  p. 2. 
[11]  The quest for the “historical Jesus” was an Enlightenment project of the 18th century and began in earnest with Hermann Samuel  Reimarus, a German philosopher and Deist.  Albert Schweitzer is a significant figure in detaling the quest in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus published in 1906.  His modern succesors are members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” founded in 1985 by scholar Robert Funk and including biblical luminaries John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.   The Jesus Seminar has also been the object of scholarly criticism for its “reductionist” tendencies, tendencies exhibited by Jefferson  and his Jefferson Bible.  This was well artcilulated by Roman Catholic layman and author Gary Willis who wrote,  “This is the new fundamentalism.  It believes in the literal sense of the Bible—it just reduces to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size...the sayings that meet with the Seminar's approval were preserved by the Christian communities whose contribution is discounted.  Jesus as a person does not exist outside of the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors' faith in the Resurrection. Trying to find a construct, ‘the historical Jesus,’ is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”  (from Willis, Gary What Jesus Meant, New York: Viking Press, 2006) p. xxv – xxvi – quoted in Wikipedia “The Jesus Seminar”)
[12] Sullivan (pfe) p. 3. 
[13] Sullivan (pfe)  p. 3. 
[14] Sullivan (pfe)  p. 3.  For a thorough, thoughtful and well-research treatment of this decline and theory for the reasons behind it  see Putnam, Robert D. and Campbell, David E. American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York, London, etc:  Simon & Schuster, 2010).   
[15]  See Gutting, Gary “Returning to the Sermon on the Mount”, April19, 2012 Opinionator – The New York Times at 
[16]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[17]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[18]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[19]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[20]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[21]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[22]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[23]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[24]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[25]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2 - 3.
[26]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 3. 
[27]   In the oral delivery of this sermon I mispoke and attributed this quote to Fred Craddock.  It was actually written in The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001). P. 958.  
[28]  Sullivan (pfe) p. 4 ff. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's your Easter ending?

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach
 Easter Day – Lectionary Year B - April 8, 2012
Acts 10:34 – 43; Ps. 118; 1 Cor. 15:1 – 11; Mark 16: 1 – 8
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

So 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

            A couple of weeks ago, members of our youth group, ages 15 – 18 took a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral and other sacred and secular sites in England.  One of their first stops was Westminster Abbey in London.   It is an incredibly beautiful church, rich in history.  As their website notes, the Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066.[1]  The current sanctuary was built in 1245 by Henry III and 17 monarchs are buried there including Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.[2]  
No visit to Westminister Abbey is complete without stopping at Poet’s Corner….It’s in the South Transept of the Abbey Church…The 14th century writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales is buried there….So are poets Edmund Spencer and Alfred Lord Tennyson…Shakespeare is not buried there, his grave is at Strattford-upon-Avon; but there is a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner.
Charles Dickens is buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey…Did you know that this year is the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth?  He was born on February 7, 1812.  This has received a lot of attention in literary circles…And why not?  Dickens has given us some of the great works of English literature:  Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield as well as his beloved A Christmas Carol with the memorable characters Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and, of course, Ebeneezer Scrooge. 
Dicken’s died on June 8, 1870 from complications of a stroke.  Wikipedia reports that “Contrary to his wish to be buried at Rochester Cathedral ‘in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner,’ he was laid to rest in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.”[3]
At the time of his stroke, Dickens had been working on a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood… It was never completed… It’s not among the most widely read of his works, probably because it is unfinished…It’s a murder mystery and Dickens never told anyone who the murderer in the story was…This makes for an unsatisfying read…If you  read a murder mystery, you usually want to find out who did it!  Since Dickens’s death, several have undertaken to provide a solution to the mystery and to complete the story.[4]
In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a musical adaption of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  It soon moved to Broadway and ran for 608 performances, winning five 1986 Tonys, including Best Musical.[5]
The producers were clever and creative in managing the unfinished ending of the work.  They opted for audience participation. Toward the conclusion of each night’s performance of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one of the actors came out on stage and announced, “Here Mr. Dicken’s novel ended…” and then invited audience members to vote for the murderer from among several possible characters in the show.  Once the audience had selected their person, the cast finished the story using the audience’s solution…Needless to say, the cast was prepared to present several endings to the story…Hmm
            Did you notice anything peculiar about this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark?  I hope you did….There is a lot that is peculiar about it!  To begin with, it’s a missing person story…Jesus is missing…His body is not in the tomb.  Well, we expected that, after all, we’ve celebrated Easter before…But this is not the strange thing.
What’s strange is that Jesus never appears in Mark’s account of Easter morning.  Doesn’t that strike you as odd?  An Empty Tomb, but no Jesus!  We hear only an assertion from a young man dressed in a white robe, “He is not here; he has been raised”  (Mark 16:5).  Clearly this young man is an angelic messenger:
After telling the women that Jesus has been raised, he offers them an assurance, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).  Jesus is spoken of, his resurrection is proclaimed, but he himself never appears.
The reaction of the women in this account is also strange…Mark tells us that after hearing this message from the young man dressed in a white robe, “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).   At this point, Mark’s Gospel apparently ended…It ended at chapter 16 verse 8… So 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 16:80.
What kind of ending is this? What’s going on here?  If the women didn’t say anything to anyone, how did word of Jesus’ resurrection spread to such an extent that we are all here 2,000 plus years later still celebrating it; still talking about it and him?  And where is Jesus?
Now, some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t end at chapter 16 verse 8, there are other endings; endings in which the resurrected Jesus appears.  Isn’t it in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus appears to the eleven and upraids them for their unbelief?[6]  Isn’t in Mark that Jesus tells them they will cast out demons and even handle poisonous snakes??”[7]
Good for you!  You’re right, there are, in fact, other endings of Mark’s Gospel. There are three to be precise:  A one sentence ending after verse 8; another so-called “shorter ending;” and still another ending called “the longer ending.” That’s the one with the bit about handling poisonous snakes…(Don’t try this at home). Yes, there are three endings to Mark’s Gospel…When you go home, check this out…Any reputable Bible will include all three.[8]
Nonetheless, scholars widely agree that all of these endings were later additions; later additions provided by persons other than the writer of Mark…later additions supplied because some felt that the ending of the Gospel at chapter 16 verse 8 was unsatisfactory, unfulfilling…a mystery with an incomplete denoument… like The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Even Matthew and Luke, who wrote their Gospels about 20 or 30 years after Mark and had Mark’s Gospel as a source for their own works, seemed to find Mark’s ending unsatisfactory and unfulfilling.[9]  They ended their Gospels with accounts of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples.  What do you think? What do you make of Mark’s ending? How do you solve the mystery of the Gospel according to St. Mark?
            There are some who suggest that Mark died before he could complete the Gospel…Others suggest that the church for which he was writing was suffering persecution, as his Gospel clearly infers, and that he was arrested himself and was unable to complete the Gospel.   This is all conjecture. There are a couple of additional suggestions about the possible endings, but none especially convincing.[10] 
What if Mark intended to end his Gospel just the way he did?  A number of influential biblical scholars today support this conclusion.  Mark’s Gospel, written sometime between 65 and 70 AD, some 30 years after the crucifixion, seems to assume the ressurection appearance of Jesus to the disciples is in the background.  Still, Mark seems to make an intentional decision not to portray it. Why? 
            The Oxford Bible Commentary, a very fine scholarly resourse, suggests that, perhaps, the message of the young man in the white robe “has more sigificance than its surface meeting.”   Refering to the directive that they are to go to Galilee, The Oxford Bible Commentary editors observe, “For Mark, Galilee is the place where discipleship starts, and the path of discipleship is one which leads from Galilee to Jersusalem, which for Mark, is the place of suffering and death…The way of discipleship for Mark is the way of the cross…”[11]
            They continue, “Jesus true identity is to be seen as the crucified one; Jesus’ divine sonship is seen mostly clearly and most starkly when he dies…If Jesus is risen, he is risen as the crucified one.  The gospel for Mark is, thus, the Good News about Jesus, but it is Mark’s Jesus…for Mark, Jesus is the Son of God seen most clearly in his suffering and death…”[12]
What they say next is especially provocative.  Listen.  They write, “Mark’s narrative may be only the beginning of the gospel…The rest of the gospel must be completed by the reader [emphasis added], but the reader can only complete the story by following as a disciple of Mark’s Jesus, and that means going to Galilee, being prepared to follow the way of discipleship as spelt out by him, i.e. the way of the cross…There, and only there, will Jesus be seen and experienced….” Maybe Mark’s gospel is unfinished,” they conclude.  “But perhaps that is deliberate.  It is up to the reader to supply the ending [emphasis added] – and that,” they conclude, “is the perennial challenge of this gospel to all its readers today.”[13]
            Another highly reputable scholar of Mark, Lamar Williamson, comes to pretty much the same conclusion.  He writes, “The last verse of Mark’s Gospel falls like a bomb on the carefully nurtured expectation that the women will always faithfully do what needs to be done and that predictions of Jesus will always find fulfillment in the story.  Instead of giving the message to the disciples as they were commanded, the women flee from the tomb in astonishment, fear and trembling and tell no one anything.  And instead of reporting a glorious epiphany in Galilee, the Gospel ends abruptly with no resurrection appearance at all…The crucifixion had seemed to end the story but did not.  The resurrection does not really do so either.” [14]
            Williamson concludes, “In one sense, this unfinished story puts the ball in the reader’s court.  It puts us to work; we must decide how the story should come out” [emphasis added].   Williamson adds, “In a deeper sense, however, Jesus remains in control of the ball.  No ending proposed by our decisions can contain him, any more than the tomb with its great stone could.  Always he goes before us; always he beckons us forward to a new appearance in the Galilee of the nations, in the Galilee of our daily lives.  We never know when we shall see him, we only know we shall not escape him.”[15]
            You know, you might have come to church today and heard of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalen at the Garden Tomb, heard about her mistaking the resurrected Lord for a gardener…You might have heard about her joy and her surprise at recognizing him when he called her by name (John 20:11 – 18).
You might have heard about Jesus appearing to fear-filled disciples in a locked room, showing the wounds of his hands and feet and sides to them, challenging them for their unbelief (John 20:19 – 22; Luke 24:36 – 40).

You might have heard about two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, walking with the risen Lord, failing to recognize him, that is, until they invited him to dine with them.. He took the bread, blessed broke and gave it to them…Then their eyes were opened…The risen Lord was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:13 – 31).  Yes, you might have heard about this morning…
You might have heard about Jesus appearing to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, a mountain to which he had directed them…You might have heard about how he appeared to them and sent them out to preach the Gospel to all nations; to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and how he promised to be with them always, even to the end of the ages (Matthew 28:16 – 20).
Yes, you might have heard all these things this morning, but you didn’t!  You didn’t hear one word about them!  Instead you got Mark’s Gospel and his non-ending ending, which put the ball in your court…So how will you end the story?
            Will you leave church this morning without the risen Christ appearing to you and in you?  Will your lives tomorrow be as though nothing has changed, as though nothing is different? 
I hope not…
            You see, as wondrous and powerful as all those other accounts of Easter are in Matthew, Luke and John, they are still about the encounter others had with the risen Christ.  That’s not unimportant…But when all is said and done, what really matters is the encounter each and every one of us has with the risen Christ…You know, people are too often focused on what the resurrection as something that happens to us after we die.  It is about that; but it is just as much about what is supposed to happen to us in this life!  Is Christ raised for me and in me?  Is he raised for you and in you?
            That’s what Easter faith is all about…Has the risen Christ been raised in you?  Does he live and breath in you?  Is his resurrected Spirit the animating reality of your life?  And living in you, will you go forth and be his hands and feet and ears and eyes serving the world in his name?….Well, will you?  Or will you be like those women on Easter morning so long ago, saying nothing to anyone because you are disbelieving or afraid, or because you feel so mired in your own sinfulness you can’t let the light of the Easter gospel into your life, or because other realities have captured your attention and your life?  How do you answer?  That’s the great question this morning.  
Yes, Christ is risen…He is risen indeed.  But the great mystery, the real question this morning is, is Christ risen in you? What is your Easter ending? 

[3]  See Wikipedia - “Charles Dickens” at
[4]  See Wikipedia – “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at
[5]   See Wikipedia – “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at
[6]   Mark – Longer Ending 16:14.
[7]   Mark - Longer Ending- 16:18.
[8]   See, for example, material following Mark 16:8 in The Oxford Annotated Study Bible – New Revised Standard Version, Third Edition ed.  Michael C. Coogan (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 91 – New Testament.
[9]   See “Mark” in The Oxford Bible Commentary ed. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxofrd:  Oxford University Press,  2001), 921 - 922.
[10]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921
[11]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921
[12]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921 - 922
[13]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921 - 922
[14]  Williamson, Lamar Mark: Intepretation for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1983) 285.
[15]  Williamson, p. 286.