The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for a divine service on the occasion of the Festival of St Mark, Evangelist, Monday, 25 April 2016. The text was Mark 16:9-20.
It is deeply ironic that the Feast of St Mark falls without exception within the season of Easter—ironic because St Mark, by any human measure, does the poorest job of proclaiming the resurrection story of Jesus Christ. The manuscript names and dates are a matter for the classroom not the pulpit, but every Christian should be aware that the most likely original ending of Mark’s Gospel, cutting off the story prior to today’s Gospel reading, is famously unsatisfactory: “And [the women] fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had taken hold of them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk 16:8). Mark records no appearance of the risen Christ to them, only that of a messenger-angel. They are reduced to trusting the angel’s word that Christ had arisen, and that word is just not enough to overcome the very understandable fear brought on by a crucified Saviour and a missing body. To make matters worse for anyone hoping to understand Mark’s final word on the resurrected Jesus, in Greek it’s just the conjunction γάρ “they were afraid for …”. It’s not even good grammar.
Now, there are lots of explanations floating around for why Mark would end his story this way. Some think he intended to write more, but that his work was cut short by sudden death or martyrdom. Some think verse 8 is precisely the way he wanted to end His Gospel, not in glory but in deepest sympathy with the fear felt by an early community of persecuted Roman Christians. But what intrigues my mind and fascinates my faith is the deutero-canonical longer ending that probably represents the earliest Christian response to the women’s famous fear. Yes, today is probably the only day in the church year when we read as Scripture and preach from the pulpit a text that most likely does not belong to the original text of Scripture. (One might call us “liberals” for doing so except for the fact that it’s the historic Christian church that read this text as Scripture for some 1500 years.) And why the church received and read it as Scripture, despite early evidence that it was not authenticate, is part of our fascination with these words.
Let’s get to the point. If the longer ending of Mark was not written by Mark himself, then it surely is the very earliest commentary on Mark’s resurrection story that exists. Think carefully about that. If the women were afraid that first Easter morn, how much more did the next generation of Christians have the right to be afraid, who were so often threatened with persecution, even to the point of death? And yet they couldn’t abide a Gospel that would end with fear. Someone somewhere drew together the words of Matthew and Luke and John and Acts and confessed clearly Christ’s resurrection and His mandate to proclaim it to the whole world. Those words were written by and for Christians like us. Certainly, our kind of fear is caused neither by the absence of Jesus’ body from the tomb, nor by the thought that Jewish or Roman authorities might persecute us for believing in Him. Yet our fears are no less real. Our fears are a response to a profoundly hostile world, where not Romans but atheists and humanists want to stamp out the followers of Jesus and silence their voice. It’s a world where Islamic aggression is starting to make Roman rule look quite benign. Though we haven’t been dismayed by finding an empty tomb, our fears are likewise rooted in the apparent absence of Christ, the absence of His soothing voice and serene presence, the absence of His ability to calm storms and speak peace and heal the sick and defend us from the hostile world. Our fears arise from financial worries rooted in debt and unemployment and job insecurity. Even the church, which once seemed to offer a guaranteed livelihood, an escape from the uncertainties of the uncaring secular world, now seems shaky. She is declining in membership, financially weakened, internally divided. No present or future pastor can long remain blissfully ignorant of a troubled life. We would be fools to expect the peaceful life of a country priest from a 19th-century romantic novel, if such a life ever existed.
So if Mark’s short ending is precisely where he wanted to end his Gospel, leaving us joined to the fear of the first Christians, then the longer ending speaks directly and forcefully in response to this fear. The Lord appears to the disciples on Easter Eve with words of, well, Law and Gospel. He first “upbraids” their unbelief, as it’s traditionally translated. He chastises, reproaches, finds fault with them. And so also with us. Why, oh, why, can we not simply trust His Word? For fear is unbelief. It arises from our sinful nature, which deceives and misleads us “into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice” (SC 3, 5th petition), as Luther puts it. But if that’s the true origin of fear, then the true solution lies in the forgiveness of sins and renewal of life that the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection brings. And so the resurrected Christ directs them back to this Gospel. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (v. 16). How impoverished the Christian Church would be without that great confession! That’s the message we’re given to carry to the ends of the earth. To preach the resurrected Christ is to proclaim the Gospel of Holy Baptism, that sacramental gift through which we’re joined to Christ’s death and raised to life with Him. For the message isn’t just for our ears to hear and our minds to understand. Holy Baptism makes Easter our very own Easter; it takes us up entirely in body and soul and leads us through the tomb and into life with Christ. It is, to be sure, a hidden reality. That’s why we must believe and be baptised. Never one without the other. But faith, nonetheless, needs something concrete to cling to. And here it is: the resurrected Lord, testified to by the ancient witnesses, confessed by the earliest martyrs, passed down to us through Holy Scripture, and made ours through sacramental rebirth. Against such things fear cannot stand. Amen