Finish the Story: Follow Don’t Flee
April 18, 2019 by Lee Hinson-Hasty
Mark 16:1-8 Common English Bible
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was the Crucified One. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
In the Fall of 1994, I took a course on the Exegesis of Mark at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary with Professor Marty Soards. Our closing essay for the course was one question: Where does the Gospel of Mark end and why? I have thought about this question for decades, but I wonder what you think?
Do you agree with the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars who believe Mark’s Gospel ends at verse eight where we concluded our reading today? For a variety of reasons, these scholars say verses 9-18 were likely added much later and not by the original author. Doesn’t this leave Mark’s resurrection account incomplete? I mean, no one sees the resurrected Jesus… just an empty tomb and women fleeing in fear.
Maybe you like one the other three Gospels better:
- In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus appears suddenly to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and then again to commission the now 11 disciples. Is that your guiding resurrection story?
- In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus appears as the disciples make their way to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him at first, but when they do, their eyes are opened to new possibilities. Maybe Luke is your favorite Easter story?
- Or do you prefer the Gospel according to John, when the Risen Jesus makes multiple resurrection appearances including the famous one to Thomas who doubted Jesus was raised?
Mark is probably my favorite one… at least for today, and here’s why.
First of all, I am actually a fan of storylines and book and TV series that are unresolved: Harry Potter, This is Us, The Crown, Victoria, among other series. Sure, they are a bit frustrating, and I often pound the nearest piece of furniture to me with my fist when I turn the last page or the screen goes black and the credits start to scroll by. “How can they end it there! Come on, give me a little more!”
The fact is, I really enjoy imagining for myself what happens next. That’s one reason why I love Mark’s Gospel and ending at verse 8 in this last chapter. My imagination and yours is invited into the Gospel story. I also look around and see more death, destruction and chaos that anyone should experience and still remain in hope that the new life of Easter and the reality of the resurrection is coming… but not yet here.
As I was thinking about this empty tomb of Jesus in Mark 16:1-8 but no body to be seen, I began wondering about the influence of stories that are left unfinished. I mentioned my experience of film and TV that does such a great job of doing this in powerful ways. So I called a childhood friend of mine, Tim Kirkman. Tim is an award-winning film director, producer, and screenwriter also teaches this craft at the University of Southern California.
When I described what I was working on to Tim and wondering about open-ended, unresolved stories, he asked… or maybe concluded, you decide: “Who are we if not our stories?!” Screenwriters, he said, “embrace ambiguity when tangling with ethical and moral conundrums.” He went on to say, “It’s a better story when it is not obvious who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist, the good guy or the bad guy. … Even though most might say they want a clear answer and would find that more satisfying, the best and most honest stories ‘fade to black’ and disappoint at some level. When I get push back because some say the story is unfinished is unsatisfying, I ask, ‘Why is that unsatisfying? What is it about an ‘fade to black’ story that disappoints?’”
Unresolved stories are our stories, aren’t they? And maybe Tim is right, they are ultimately about us as an audience of Mark’s Gospel growing up. This makes me think about my 17-year-old son who, about this time last year, was waiting to hear from colleges where he had applied. He’d heard from a few, but not his top choices. Even when all the letters came in, he had some tough decisions to make. But, as you know, that’s not the end of the story and so now in his first year we continue to discern with him his major, and ultimately, his path forward.
Our own life storylines, too, are unfinished. Therein is opportunity to grow up, if you will, to mature as people and people of faith, as resurrection people even. And it all starts with unanswered questions and our role in answering those questions and finishing our story.
Finishing unresolved stories
Have any of you seen the University of Louisville Online Learning commercials featuring our colleague Troy Marables on TV? In one he is quoted as saying, “I had to go back to school to…” what? Do you remember what he says? Troy, do you remember? “I had to go back to school to move to the next level of management.” It’s it amazing when we begin to imagine and to finish unresolved stories!
But where is the resurrected Jesus in Mark? We are told in Mark 16:7 that he is in Galilee, but the Gospel end with the next verse with the women who went to the tomb leaving in terror and amazement…”and they aid nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Is that how your story ends? Is that how you believe God wants our story to end? I don’t think so… Faithful followers are instructed to go to Galilee. Where or who is Galilee?
Some say Galilee is a silent character in Mark’s Gospel. (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Brian Blount and Gary Charles, 2002)
Mark’s Gospel begins and ends in Galilee [some call it a circular narrative]. In Mark, Galilee awaits us. The risen Jesus goes before us. Our death walk is over. That is the glorious news of Easter. In Galilee, Jesus wants the Judas in us, that part of us willing to betray a close friend for the noblest of reasons. Jesus awaits the James and John in us, that part of us consumed with achievement and recognition. In Galilee, Jesus awaits Peter, who confessed Jesus as the Christ in Caesarea and who denied knowing him in Jerusalem. … Galilee awaits all who are open to God’s future. Galilee awaits people who have lost their bearings whose faith flickers at best, who compromise their integrity for a buck, who sit in the pews most Sundays yet still are mostly confused about who Jesus is or how to follow him. The good news that Mark promises us is that the risen Lord awaits us not in an empty tomb or in some distant future or remote place; the risen Lord awaits us in Galilee- on our city streets, in the halls of our schools, in the wards of our hospitals, and behind the bars of our prisons. The Lord awaits us in the market and the gym, when we sit down to dinner and when we lie down to sleep. Want to find the risen Lord? Want to serve the risen Christ? Mark says, ‘Then go to Galilee.” (Blount and Charles, 272-273)
Others say Galilee is anywhere we find “[T]he hungry crowds, impoverished peasant villages, small family land holdings, broken day laborers, and estates of absentee landlords. [ and also] Where the blind gained their sight and where the broken were made whole. Where the lame picked up their mats and walked. Where believers trusted enough to cut a hole in the roof of a house and lower a paralyzed man into Jesus’ arms. Where a dead girl was given life.” (Mark and Empire: Feminist Reflections, Laurel K. Cobb, 2013) That’s Galilee. Are your ready to go there? Is your imagination engaged yet? Don’t you want to finish this story?
You see, “[Mark] is about calling faithful disciples to walk through the darkness, not comfortable Christians who want to glory triumphantly in the light.” (Blount and Charles, 262)
Brian Blount points out:
“This is why the emotional content of 16:1-8 is fear. This fear is appropriate not only to this ending but to the entire Gospel. The women now fear as Jesus says he will go before them to Galilee to restart the ministry that ended so tragically in Jerusalem.] [Fear] is a natural reaction to a discipleship whose content is the way of the cross. Anybody who truly understands what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is afraid. If you’re not afraid, you don’t understand. This is why Mark doesn’t want to stress resurrection appearance that will wipe out the fear with a victorious ending.” (Blount and Charles, 261)
Are you still ready to go to Galilee?
We are left with an obvious and core discipleship question at the end of this Gospel: “Will we follow or will we flee? Will we speak the word, or will we, who can talk all we want when we want, stay silent at precisely the time the demands of discipleship need us to open them?”
Your witness counts
In his commentary on the book of Mark, William Placher points out, “One last time, Mark privileges women as the more faithful followers and reverses the social hierarchies of his culture. In Jewish law, women’s testimony was not accepted in court, … but in Mark they are the only witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.”
You may think you are nobody… and that your voice and your discipleship doesn’t count. It does and it may be the only witness and evidence someone you know will have to Jesus’ resurrection.
Remember, as Brian Blount says so beautifully,
“For Mark, Easter comes not at the empty tomb with a mysterious messenger announcing resurrection news, nor with women on a ‘death walk’ exiting the tomb in mute fear. Easter comes not in sterile funeral parlors, nor when standing beside freshly dug graves. For Mark, Easter comes when we set our face toward Galilee to sow hope where despair rules, to speak consolation where desperation dwells, and to break wide open all tombs that the righteous have built to give keep God only for themselves. Easter comes not in discounting 16:1-8 by thinking it a fragment and desperately hunting for Mark’s real ending. Easter comes when 16:1-8 does not leave us confused, afraid, and silent but prepared to end our ‘death walk’ as we walk toward the risen life that awaits us in Galilee.” (Blount and Charles, 273)
Now the story is fading to black… not quite resolved. How are you going to finish the story? Will you flee or will you follow? And what will you and others find when you get to Galilee? Light? A new song? A more open heart? You know, I don’t know… but I’m ready to go! Will you go with me? May that be. Alleluia! Amen.
Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty is senior director for Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation after a decade of service to COTE as the coordinator for Theological Education and Seminary Relations. Ordained in 1995, he has served as a campus minister and pastor in Virginia and as director of church relations at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina.