The following sermon was preached in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the Festival of St Philip and St James, Apostles, by Rev. Dr Wilhelm Torgerson.
St Mark 16:18
Just imagine it for a moment: Jesus rose from the dead—and nobody took notice. He lives—and people have no clue. He is waiting on that mountain in Galilee to send his disciples into all the world—and no one shows up. Simply because nobody was informed about his rising from the dead; those who were to have told the disciples failed to do so.
I know, I know: This sounds so crazy and absurd that we have a difficult time to really imagine this. But in all seriousness, this kind of scenario is presented in the text we heard. It’s the kind of scenario that poses the question, why are you sitting here in chapel this morning, and WHY do you believe that Jesus is truly risen from the dead?
Remember? Right after Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane the disciples scattered like a bunch of scared chickens; they went into hiding. In the case of Peter there had been a terrible failure when he was challenged about his possible connection with this Jesus guy. All of them had just taken off, they weren’t even there when Jesus was crucified—John being the exception. And they certainly were not there when he was buried; they didn’t even know where. The women who had followed Jesus for some time had shown themselves much more courageous than Peter and Philip and James and all the others. But the women, they were there, at the place of execution; they were there when Joseph of Arimathea came to take down the corpse and bury it.
And now these women come to the grave after the Sabbath, on Sunday morning, and what do they see? The grave is empty! They hear the words of the angel that Jesus is risen, and they are given instruction to pass on this message to the disciples. But—so writes St. Mark: “T h e y s a i d n o t h i n g”! That’s the very last word, the close of his Gospel. (The verses that follow were presumably added at a later date.) So the only people that could have passed on the message of the resurrection—kept their mouth shut! The most important news in the world—is kept under wraps. It’s the perfect blockade and hindrance for the dissemination of the Easter proclamation. Jesus rises from the dead—and nobody is any the wiser.
What a spooky story! What an odd and strange “gospel” that is presented to us this morning. And that raises the question—I believe St. Mark does so deliberately—why are we sitting here in chapel, when everything seems to have gone awry that could have gone wrong that Easter morning? How is faith in the resurrection of Christ, and faith in our own resurrection supposed to be possible if this is the kind of odd story we are told? In his Gospel St. Mark gives us three reasons:
- our faith is not based on the fact of the empty grave
- our faith is not based on the fact that the disciples believed it
- our confession of the resurrection is based on the words his empowered messengers proclaimed
With a funeral story, a deeply sad funeral story. That’s the way St. Mark’s Gospel ends. Some women come to the grave of Jesus to show their respect by performing the last rites that they had been unable to carry out because of the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening. They wanted to anoint the corpse with perfumed oils—and two days after the funeral those should indeed be heavily perfumed in the kind of climate that prevailed in the Holy Land.
They connection of the women to their beloved master is such, that nothing would stop them from showing him these last signs of their dedication. They had bought the perfumed oils already on Saturday evening, but in their initial shock at Jesus’ execution they had not given rational thought to how they would be able to embalm a corpse that is in the process of decay. Nor did they have a solution for another problem: How are they going to get into the grave, since a heavy rolling stone prevented access; you couldn’t just push a button to move it to the side. Muscles, that’s what you needed. And the women could not expect a lot of traffic at that place and at that time to call on some strong men who would help them move the stone. After all, that was not a frequent occurrence that a deceased wanted out to catch some fresh air.
But as the women approach the grave they take note of something very disturbing: Forget about moving the stone, the grave is already open. And they have no explanation. They didn’t say: Ach ja, we almost forgot, this is Easter morning, and Jesus is risen, hallelujah. Rather seeing the open grave really shocks them. Because an open grave—to begin with—is not a good omen. On the contrary, it makes matters worse: it multiplies the sorrow of the survivors. Not only is their beloved dead, now his body is gone. And when they went into the grave, they find—nothing! Not a trace of him; the place of his final repose is empty.
Be reminded, my Friends, that the empty grave is not the cause why we celebrate this service, or why the church operates this seminary. An empty grave is nothing to cheer about and can occur for various reasons: someone stole the corpse, the body was transferred to another place, or it’s the result of a scam. The Christian Church does not proclaim the resurrection of Christ because it drew certain consequences from the fact that Jesus’ body wasn’t found.
But let there be no misunderstanding. Because the empty grave is not the foundation for our faith in the Risen Christ, that does, of course, not mean that it wasn’t empty or that it simply doesn’t matter one way or the other. If it had not been empty, if the corpse of Jesus had kept rotting away while at the same time the disciples were running around telling everyone that Jesus rose from the dead, then you would indeed have something better to do than show up for chapel this morning. And Bishop Zabel could have saved travel time, and Sam wouldn’t have to worry about his call this morning. Talk of a resurrection while the body was there in full view would be absolutely meaningless; it would have been no resurrection. It would be some kind of a delusion, a religious construct and nothing more.
Looking back on the discovery the women made that morning makes sense and describes something absolutely necessary for the proclamation that Jesus is risen: no empty grave, no Easter. But the emptiness of that cave is not what we base our faith on.
And then the moment when the women enter the grave. Why else would the stone have been rolled away other than to let people in. All the evangelists agree that the stone was not rolled aside so that Jesus would then be enabled to leave the grave. No rock, big or small, could have stopped Jesus to be where he wanted to be.
And as they enter they grave, surprise and horror: There is somebody sitting there, someone they had not expected. A messenger from God talks to them, explains what has happened, and sends them on a mission. Now that sounds very easterly and festive what the Engel said.
But the women were not in an easterly mood. They ran out of the grave with shaky knees; they’re horrified and don’t say a word about this shocking experience in the empty grave.
But what on first hearing seems to crush every bit of Easter joy, in reality gives us an important indication on what our faith in the Risen Christ is to be based and on what it is not based. How often do we hear, particular among certain liberal theologians, that the faith of the early Christians in the Risen Christ was based on the idea that Jesus is alive because the message he proclaimed is oh so important, even after he died. And therefore people like Philip and James and others like them proclaimed that such a man and his message continues to work among us, even though he may have died. And because the early Christians were convinced of that, so Christians today continue to proclaim the resurrection.
Balderdash! St. Mark isn’t having any of that nonsense. Frankly, there was no such deep conviction among the early Christians. There is not the least indication that the disciples, after the death of their beloved Master and some really deep thinking, arrived at the idea that “his message must go on” and so “let’s found a new religious society”—which then turned into an organization that has a district office in Kitchener.
It just wasn’t that way. On the contrary, the men took off and went into hiding; the women ran screeching from the grave and didn’t understand anything. All of them are convinced: once dead, always dead. And that Jesus should have risen from the dead, they just couldn’t believe that, and what’s more, they didn’t want to. And to have arrived at this idea, that the dead come to life again—what a silly notion! And then to go out and proclaim this message—you must be kidding. The women don’t even do that after the angel specifically instructed them to tell.
It is not a self-devised Easter faith that persuades us to worship here this morning or anywhere else, for that matter.
So, why are we sitting in chapel this morning? According to St. Mark there is not an immediately logical answer. For in his Gospel he gives the account of an event which by human standards he couldn’t have been informed of. The only witnesses kept their mouth shut. And at first those women didn’t go around blabbing about their experience in the grave. But by the time the Evangelist wrote his summary of Jesus’ ministry, the news of Christ’s resurrection had been proclaimed all over the Mediterranean world and beyond, despite the failure of the original witnesses. And this message—and that’s the point St. Mark is making—this message is the only basis on which our faith in the Risen Christ can rest.
Have you ever noticed that St. Mark does not report a single appearance of the risen Christ in his Gospel? He does not write about those appearances of the risen Christ because he didn’t know about them at first. But St. Paul’s letters are full of references to the resurrection and point to those who saw the risen Christ; and those letters were written before the Gospel of Mark was composed and circulated. St. Mark doesn’t report on the appearances of the Risen Christ because it is sufficient for him that the angel of the Lord announces Christ’s resurrection. When God himself speaks through the mouth of his messenger, that’s enough for him; God speaks truth, his word is truth.
“There you will see him”—that’s the promise, and that’s what the women were to tell the disciples. And that is just what happened. They saw Christ, in Jerusalem, in Galilee, and at other places. They found out how come the grave was empty on Easter morning; that it wasn’t just a figment of their imagination; it was the real thing, touchable and bodily, that the Crucified Jesus was raised to new life by his heavenly Father.
But afterwards the disciples never forgot that this message is never to be taken for granted, like many religious banalities these days. Never did they forget that they had been at their whit’s end, as low down as they could be, that they had let go of all hope, before they found out and believed that God was able to create life from death, create something out of nothing: the final victory over death in the resurrection of his Son.
It is the Word, my Friends, the Gospel message of the crucified and risen Christ, that is the reason we’re assembled here this morning, and why Christians gather for worship throughout the world. We do not worship a dead person! We should constantly remember that the message of the resurrection was first proclaimed to people and then by them that had to be dragged to this faith, people which God had to overcome, whose personal convictions he had to smash, before they were ready and willing to witness to the risen Christ.
And we’re invited to trust this Word, the disciples’ message. It’s not empty religious gibberish, not merely a beautiful but futile dream. That Jesus is truly risen and now lives is as real as the empty grave and the shock of the women who fled from it.
Rely on this Word. What it says, happens. Trust this Word, and at the time appointed your grave will open and you will get to see him, your Lord and Saviour, fairer, purer, brighter and more glorious than the disciples saw him back then and there. Indeed, your grave, too, will open and it will be said of you: He is not here, he is risen.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Halleluia!