Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 12, 2009
WRITING THE RESURRECTION CHAPTER OF YOUR LIFE
Texts: Mark 16:1-8
Lutheran tradition, or so I’ve heard, says that pastors should begin Easter Sunday sermons with a joke: After all, death, sin and the devil have been conquered. It goes back to Luther, who said that after music the devil hates laughter more than anything. You may not believe in the devil, but my guess is you agree that laughter can help chase the demons inside away.
I’ll not tell a joke but I’ll comment on the Tar Heels national basketball championship. In 1982 they won the championship on the Monday before Easter led by All-American James Worthy. The next Sunday, when people came to worship, the banners declared Worthy is the Lamb. And the choir sang the same. A number of the congregation, most of whom were Louisville and Kentucky fans, accused me of working the Tar Heel championship into the Easter service.
At the conclusion of today’s service we will sing, Blessed Be the TY That Binds!
Enough foolishness. On to Easter!
Today’s Easter gospel from Mark begins with a literary mystery -- which turns into an invitation. Here’s the literary mystery. Most of us grew up with Mark’s Gospel ending at verse 20, but it appears to have originally ended with verse 8. But could a gospel really end with the words: “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Could anything called a “gospel” or “good news” end like that?
The earliest manuscripts we now have of Mark end the Gospel at verse 8. Verses 9-20 appear to have been added in the second century by the church nervous about such an ending. These verses are a Cliff Notes compilation of resurrection appearances including some really odd verses about picking up poisonous snakes without being bitten and drinking poisonous drinks without being harmed. This is where the snake-handling Baptists you’ve heard about get their warrant. Of course, snake-handling churches are not a growing segment in American Christianity. It just takes a bite or two to subdue the enthusiasm.
So verses 9-12 were added, and we also have a couple other alternative endings to Mark floating around.
But the ending of verse 8 is not only odd because it ends with the women terrified and saying nothing. It is also odd because it ends with a preposition, gar, for, which any good grammar teacher will put a red circle around. Or “around which any good grammar teacher will put a red circle.” The last word of the Gospel literally read: “And they said nothing to anyone for....”
So is Mark The Unfinished Gospel like Schubert’s Eighth Symphony famously named, The Unfinished Symphony? Did the writer mean to write it that way, or was the original ending broken off and lost? Ancient scrolls often had beginnings and endings broken off because those were the parts which got the most wear and tear.
The other Easter gospels from Matthew, Luke and John each had a Part A and a Part B. Part A was the Empty Tomb scene, like the one we have in Mark. But the others had a Part B: a set of resurrection appearances where the Risen Christ meets people; for example, Mary Magdalene (always Magdalene), Peter, the disciples huddled in a room in Jerusalem, Thomas, the disciples back fishing in Galilee.
We would have no Easter faith, we would not be here today, if all we had was Part A, an empty tomb and bewildering words from a blinding figure. We needed something more -- and we got it: Jesus’ appearing to friends and disciples. He appeared to them in a mysterious form, not as a resuscitated corpse -- like Lazarus coming out of the tomb smelling of death and bound in linen cloths -- but in a form we can only call a “resurrection body,” a transformed body not bound by time, space or flesh. If I could say more, I’d say it. We cannot exhaust this mystery.
But Mark ends, or appears to end, with Part A. It is a literary mystery. Was the original ending broken off and lost? Did Mark intend to end it that way? Did some agnostic professor of religion at the University of Jerusalem snip off the ending because, of course, such things could not happen?!
But here is where the literary mystery turns into an invitation, and a quite wonderful one at that. You get to write your own ending to Mark’s Gospel, your own Part B. To whom did Jesus appear? What were these encounters like? And even more importantly, you get to write the resurrection chapter of your life! How has he come to you, might come to you? How has resurrection come? God is preparing for us all a resurrection chapter at the end of our lives, bringing us from death to eternal life with God. But I’m speaking today of this-life resurrection.
Paul had one of those after-everybody-else resurrection appearances. It was on the road to Damascus. “Breathing threats and murder,” he was on his way to kill Christians. And there amid blinding light and amazing grace the Risen Christ appeared to him.
Paul was fighting a losing battle with himself and his fervent desire to be righteous. He was a tormented and conflicted soul who was living out his torment by becoming a tormentor.
But Christ appeared and called him to be an apostle, of all things. This is how Paul described his resurrection experience. He almost sings it:
But God, who is rich in mercy,
out of the great love with which God loved us,
even when we were dead through our trespasses,
made us alive together with Christ
-- by grace you have been saved! --
and raised us up with Christ
and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
This was to show for all ages to come
the immeasurable riches of God’s grace
in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith;
not by anything of your own; it is the gift of God;
not by works, lest anyone should boast.
For we are God’s work of art,
created in Christ Jesus for good works
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Has the resurrection chapter of your life begun? Is there more to come? Stanley Kunitz wrote a poem called “The Layers.” It looks back over a life of joy and loss. The last lines go:
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
God is not done with your life. We are not done with our changes. Even now God is coming near to help you write the resurrection chapter of your life.
You may be at a dead-end place in your life, but God has other plans. Easter plans. You may be at the end of your rope, but God lives at the end of our ropes. Anne Lamott writes:
Grace means you’re in a different
universe from where you had been
stuck, when you had absolutely
no way to get there on your own.1
Easter comes when our lives are stuck, when we can’t get to resurrection.
Easter comes when we have absolutely no way to get there on our own.
But now we get to write the resurrection chapter of our life; or is it God who is writing it?
Paul ends his passage with the most extraordinary words: “For we are God’s work of art, [in the Greek poiema, poem] created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Does “poem” work for you? Maybe this, You are God’s lion, leopard, dancer, swan! You are God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus for good works. To glorify God in our minds, bodies, and spirit, to be God’s partner in the redemption of the world. “The glory of God,” wrote Irenaeus of Lyon, “is the human being fully alive.”
This is the chapter God is writing for your life, with your life. And God did not only write it “beforehand” as Paul conceived it. But God is also writing it on the fly, according to your final design, in the midst of your real life, as you grow and change, meet accident and ill fortune, act and are acted upon. God and you are writing the resurrection chapter out of the real stuff of your life. Scars and all. It is no incidental note that Jesus’ resurrected body still had its scars.
Do you know what a palimpsest is? It’s an old manuscript where what has been written first is erased and something new is written over it. You can see faint marks of the earlier writing underneath the new. You are a beautiful palimpsest; God is writing your life anew.
The resurrection God has for you is coming from the future, not the past. Can you conceive that the power of the future is greater than the power of your past? It is the future God is even now creating. You are God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus for good works which God is even now, at this very moment, planning for you!
So the angel pointed the women to Galilee, to the future. Go tell the disciples and head to Galilee. Jesus will meet you there.
He is going ahead of you. We’re not headed back but headed forward.
The women left the tomb in fear. We don’t know where they were headed. But Matthew’s Gospel says that when they left, on the way to wherever they were going, the Risen Christ appeared to them. “Hello!” he said, an everyday greeting. Then, “Do not be afraid” -- which is how Easter always begins, Do not be afraid. Then, “Go and tell the disciples.” But first they knelt to worship, and held his beautiful scarred feet.
So we go to Galilee, and as we go we open our eyes, the eyes of our hearts, to the appearing of the Risen One.
I think we make our “gospel” way too small, and “resurrection” too small. We could say, “Where Christ is, there is resurrection.” That’s a theologically correct and safe thing to say. But we could also say, and this is a bit riskier -- it demands discernment -- “Wherever resurrection is, there Christ is.” Wherever there is joy and hope and new life, there is Christ. Wherever beauty and justice and love, there is Christ. The poets lead the way. Hopkins proclaims: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / ... through the features of men’s faces.”2 And women’s and children’s. And in his poem the “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” about the sinking of a ship when five Franciscan nuns died, he prayed in fervent supplication: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, / be a crimson-cressetted east, / More brightening [us]...as his reign rolls.”3
Do you come with hope this day, and joy and thanksgiving? Give Christ praise. Do you come with the dimness of you, your life darkened with pain or loss? Not knowing how to get to anywhere that feels like resurrection? Join the pilgrimage to Galilee. We will travel together. Christ is waiting for you there. Walt Whitman ends his poem “Song of Myself” by saying to his readers:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.4
I stop somewhere, says Christ, waiting for you. And we say, We’re on our way, Lord. Don’t leave before we get there. We’re on our way.
1Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.
2Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers catch fire,” The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 90.
3"The Wreck of the Deutschland,” The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, op.cit., p. 63.