Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The End is the Beginning

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Mark 16:1-8

Have you ever read a really good book, a book in which you were deeply invested maybe, or a mystery with several interesting plot twists? And you loved this book, right up until the end, and then the ending was so unsatisfying that it ruined it?  Maybe you were mad at the author for letting you down, or at the publisher for printing such a bad ending.  Or at yourself for wasting your time. 

Do we feel like that now, at the end of Mark’s gospel?  We read from Mark 1 back in January. The story started out with so much action.  Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John from their fishing, and they dropped their nets and followed him.  Mark’s favorite word through this story has been “immediately”.  Immediately they did this and immediately they did that. With a beginning like that, surely, we are right to expect a powerful ending.

Listen again to how it ends: “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”   

The End.

In Bibles today, there are some more verses after that.  Those verses are some other people’s attempts to make a happier ending.  The earliest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8, which is what I just read.   

It ends in failure.  Utter failure.  On Thursday night, the disciples fell asleep while Jesus was praying.  Three times he asked them stay awake with him.  Three times they let him down.  Then Judas betrayed him with a kiss and when Jesus was arrested, they all ran away into the night.  The women stuck with him longer.  On Friday, they watched him die and noted where he was buried.  Now, on Sunday, they have gone back to the tomb, to bury him properly and to mourn.  They stick with Jesus beyond his death, but resurrection is the deal-breaker. 

The young man at the empty, open tomb tells them to go tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from death.  He says to deliver the message that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee.  But they don’t do it.  In Greek, it literally says this, “they said nothing to anyone; they were afraid for . . .”  The story stops in the middle of a sentence.  Mark breaks the rules of grammar to emphasize his point.  In English, it might sound like “They did not say nothing to nobody.”[1] 

Mark’s gospel ends in failure.  For all anyone knows, Jesus is dead and his movement is defeated. Utter failure. 

Maybe you think you have failed.  Maybe you think you are failing at something important right now.  Here is one piece of Easter’s good news:  everyone fails.  Even Jesus’ closest disciples failed -- big time.  “Resurrection grows only out of failure.”[2]  The men flee.  The women don’t tell anyone.   “It is left to God to resurrect us, to complete the story.  It is left to God to overturn failure and re-create us.”

Someone had said that the women did not tell the men because they would not have been believed.  If you think that is unrealistic, consider what is happening two thousand years later in the #MeToo movement.

Maybe their first response was incredible joy.  “Jesus is alive.  Pilate did not win.  Herod did not win.  Hate is not the last word.  Death is not the last word.  Jesus is alive.”[3]  

But then, as the Rev. Fred Craddock notes, “then came the fear.  He’s alive?  If he’s alive, now what?  Are we going to have more trouble?  Will there be more killing?  Will we have another assignment? . . . Will we be killed?  If this is God’s way in the world, what next will be asked of us?”[4]

By ending his gospel mid-sentence with fear and silence, Mark leaves us asking those questions of ourselves.  If we have invested ourselves thoroughly in the story of Jesus and we are not satisfied with this ending, what are we going to do about it?  If this is God’s way in the world, will we do what is next asked of us? 

 “Go to Galilee.”  That was the disciples’ next task.  It is ours too.

Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee.  It’s like Mark picks up again with the “immediately” refrain.  As soon as he is raised from death, Jesus is immediately on the move again.  Back to Galilee.  Where it all began.    The place where he taught the crowds, healed the sick and called his disciples.  It was the border land -- the place where cultures clashed and merged.  It was the place of revolutionaries, rebels and thieves.   It was not a center of power, but a place where ordinary people lived and struggled to survive.

Galilee was also home for the disciples, the place where their friends and families and jobs were.  Galilee was where they had lived their ordinary lives, . . .until the day they responded to a call from Jesus.  And now, he has gone ahead of them, back to Galilee, where it all started, where there is still work to be done.   It becomes the implicit “invitation for every [one who reads]this Gospel: Go to Galilee, continue the work of the kingdom that Jesus left unfinished, and there you will see him. He is not in the tomb.”[5]

Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee, to Albany, to Center Square, to your neighborhood and mine.  Jesus goes ahead of us in life.  Jesus goes ahead of us in death.  Jesus goes ahead of us into resurrection.  In our everyday lives, in our struggles to love ourselves and our neighbors, Jesus is out in front, going ahead of us.

The Rev. Samuel Wells is an Anglican priest.  For more than a decade, he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.  Now he serves a church in London.  He got a phone call last year from a man who asked if he remembered Easter 1992. 

During Lent that year, Wells had given everyone three nails. He told them to keep the nails close every day and then to bring them back on Easter morning and put them in the baptismal font as part of their Easter celebration. 

Now, twenty-five years later, this man called Wells after hearing him on a radio show.  He is a firefighter and he called to confess that he did not follow the instructions.  He said, “I never brought the nails back.”

“When I took the nails home,” he said, “I knew what I wanted to do. I picked up my firefighter’s overalls and I sewed each one of them into its own pocket across my chest. And then I gave each one of them a name. “The first one, the largest one, I called Faith.  The second one, the rusty one, I called Courage. And the third one, the twisted, almost broken one, I called Hope. And from then on, for the next 20 years, every time the bell went and we jumped down the chute into the fire tender to go out on a job, I would put my hand on my chest. My hand would cover the pocket with the first nail, and I would say, ‘Be close to me, I need you with me.’ I would move across to the second nail and would say, ‘Give me the strength to do what I need to do today.’ And then I’d find the third, twisted, smaller nail, and I’d say, ‘Help me make it through to live another day.’

“I kept those three nails in my overalls until I retired. And when I heard your voice on the radio, I thought it was time to tell you why I never brought them back that Easter Day.”

Wells reflected, “Twenty-five years ago I’d had an idea for a way to help members of a congregation get a glimpse of Christ’s passion. Turned out one of them spent the next 20 years living resurrection every day. There I was thinking I was in the thick of ministry. Turned out the Holy Spirit took the stumbling, forgetful gestures I made and, through the wonder of the paschal mystery, embodied salvation without me ever knowing it. There I was thinking going on the radio was my chance to preach the gospel to the nation. Turned out it opened the door for someone far more faithful, courageous, and hopeful to preach the gospel to me.”

Wells concludes, “And what is that gospel?  That Jesus donned the overalls of our flesh and, though we were hard as nails, painstakingly sewed us into his heart that we might be close to him, be safe around him, and dwell with him forever.”[6]

Jesus has gone to where we live our ordinary lives.  Failure is not the end of the story. Silence is not the end of the story.  The empty tomb is not the end of the story.   It is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ . .  which is still unfolding across time, within our life and time.  Thanks be to God, for Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, “And the Witnesses Said Nothing” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), p. 136 

[2] Diane Roth, “Living by the Word” for Easter Sunday, The Christian Century, March 14, 2018

[3] Fred B. Craddock, “And the Witnesses Said Nothing” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), p. 136

[4] Craddock, p. 136.

[5] Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark, (Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2007,) p. 597 

[6] Samuel Wells, “The Three Nails” in The Christian Century, February 28, 2018