Preached April 1, (Easter Sunday) 2018
In the British comedy film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are on a quest to locate a sacred relic, the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. Their mission brings them to an underground cave where they discover mysterious words in Aramaic carved into the cavern wall.
A monk is summoned to translate the writing in hopes that it holds a clue to the whereabouts of the Grail. Their hopes are raised as the monk translates the first words: “These are the last words of Joseph of Arimathea” because they know that Joseph of Arimthea’s tomb is the place where, according to the Gospels, Jesus was buried.
The monk continues to read, “He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of … but the sentence doesn’t say the name of the castle, only the sound Aarrgghh spelled out.
A debate immediately ensues among the knights as to what to make of this incomplete sentence. “He must have died just as he was going to write the name of the castle” Sir Galahad suggests.
“O come on,” King Arthur argues. “Look, if he was dying he wouldn’t bother to carve the word, ‘Aarrgghh’ in the stone. He’d just say it!”
Another knight puts in his two cents worth. “Maybe he was dictating to someone else who was writing when he died.”
They are all frustrated because the rest of the story about the Holy Grail’s location is left out of this clue. They are left hanging about where to go from there.
That’s sort of describes how the Gospel of Mark’s way of telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection has frustrated Christians through the centuries. It too seems to leave people hanging about what actually happened on that first Easter morning.
All four of the Gospels start off telling the resurrection story the same way. You have women going to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid after he was crucified. They are going to finish the task of anointing his body; a job they were not able to complete before he was laid in the tomb because Jesus died on the Sabbath.
In all four Gospels, when they get to the tomb, they find the stone that covered the entrance has been rolled away and Jesus is not inside.
In all four Gospels, there is an angel or angels in the tomb who tell the women that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that they – the women – are to go back and tell the rest of the disciples what they have seen. Or, more accurately, what they have not seen. Which would be Jesus’ body.
And in Matthew, Luke and John, the women do exactly what the angels tell them to do. They go and report to the other disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Then the disciples go to the tomb to see for themselves, and while they do not find Jesus’ body they soon do see the risen Jesus. They tell others and those others tell still more people and that is the rest of the story of how the church is born.
But in Mark, it all ends very differently. Or, you might say, it doesn’t end.
The last words of Mark’s Gospel say that the women fled from the tomb, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
There is no “rest of the story” after that.
And, if you were reading the passage in the original Greek in which it was written, the ending is even more abrupt than our English translation. Verse eight literally ends mid-sentence. Kind of like the awkward way the directions to the Holy Grail finish with the word Aarrgghh instead of the name of the castle where the relic can be found.
Now, I realize that, if you had your Bible open while I read that passage, you saw that there was more to the story after where I stopped reading. But the oldest, and therefore most reliable, manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel, do end at verse 8. Everything after that was borrowed from what the other Gospel writers said and added later on to Mark by scribes who just couldn’t stand that Mark decided to write a cliff-hanger of an ending to the most important story ever told.
Even the very earliest Christians must have been left scratching their heads at Mark’s ending to the Easter account.
Mark’s Gospel was the first of the four Gospels to be written. But even Mark wasn’t written until 30-40 years after Jesus’ death. Up until that time the stories of Jesus, including his death and resurrection were circulated by word of mouth.
Which means that there’s no way it could have really happened the way Mark recorded it. If the only witnesses to the empty tomb kept the news of what they saw and heard to themselves, as Mark claims, then the news would have died with their silence. Then how DID the rest of the story of the Resurrection get out? For that matter, how did the rest of the story of Jesus being resurrected even get to Mark for him to write about it in his Gospel?
The way people have gotten around that mystery is by going back and copying and pasting what the later Gospel writers had to say about the Resurrection onto Mark’s ending. But, maybe adding the words of others to what Mark said, or did not say, gets in the way of our hearing the message we are supposed to hear.
In that case, the key to making sense out of the last verse in this Gospel may be discovered not in adding more details to the end of the story, but in going back to the very beginning of the story.
The very first verse in the Gospel of Mark says: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
He never says that what he writes is the complete good news of Jesus Christ. Only that it is the beginning of the good news.
While we can and should appreciate Matthew, Luke and John for telling us the rest of the story of what happened after the women discovered the empty tomb, we must also appreciate the possibility that having all the loose ends tied up for us can turn Easter into a nice fable about a past event, about other people, in a different time, and so, allow us to forget that it is about us, as well. It’s possible that having the answers to all our questions about what happened back then at our fingertips, can prevent us from asking the questions that bring the truth alive for us, when and where we find ourselves now.
For all the attempts by King Arthur and his knights to explain the unfinished directions to the Holy Grail that Joseph of Arimathea left behind, it turned out to be that what was written was exactly correct, after all. The words on the cavern wall were not an incomplete sentence, and so useless in guiding them to their destination. There really was a Castle Aarrgghh where the Holy Grail had been kept. (not in the Bible, but in the movie.)
And for all our impatience about Mark not giving us the whole story of Easter, we can listen for what he is trying to tell us by his omission of details.
Which is that we are the rest of the story.
So instead of hypothesizing about how the news that Christ rose from death managed to spread if the woman at the tomb kept what they experienced to themselves, like Mark said it happened; a more productive line of inquiry might ask, “What about my life is testifying here and now to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection?”
“How is it changing the person that I am?”
“What role do I have to play in making it known to others that God is not dead, that Christ is risen, and the Spirit is still moving!”
The Gospel of Mark may not end with a neat conclusion. But it sure does end with a compelling invitation.
An invitation to all of us to be people in and through whom Resurrection life is proclaimed today and tomorrow and always, as a quest worth pursuing.
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros