(6)…Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. (7)But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. (8) So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
And so ends the gospel of Mark – a funny note to end on really – the disciples of Jesus ‘running’ from the tomb terrified and confused. ‘Go and tell his disciples…’ says the man in white, but the women don’t tell anything to anybody. ‘Terror’ and ‘amazement’ had seized them, it says, and so the gospel closes with this picture of the friends of Jesus, not joyfully celebrating the wonders of the resurrection, but rather running about with dumb looks on their faces, wondering what to do next!
This is an odd sort of way to finish the gospel. Perhaps as you look through your Bible you’ll notice a longer and more detailed ending that indeed gives details about the actual reunion that took place between Jesus and the disciples, but read the fine print (which may be in the margin of your Bible). You’ll see there that these longer endings (and you may have a couple of them) were early endings that were added to the gospel of Mark to give it a proper finish, but they these were not the original ending.
Most likely the original ending was lost, or perhaps it originally just finished here – on this note of fear and confusion! However we try to reconstruct the facts, this is the conclusion of the gospel story as we have it – ‘they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’.
What sort of ‘Easter note’ is this to sound?We sing about the resurrection this morning, and we sing of joy and happiness. Read through the hymns and you may find some other emotions expressed, but fear and confusion are not likely to feature prominently amongst them! Easter is a wonderful event, is it not? It’s God’s great ‘act of magic’ (as it were) that says ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life. It’s the great and comforting reminder of the truth that death does not have the final say in this world, but that there is life beyond the grave.Indeed, the apostle Paul does say that in the resurrection of Jesus we see something of our own future resurrection (1 Cor. 15).What is disturbing and confusing about that?
To grasp the full reality of the resurrection of Jesus though, we have to see it in the context of the life and death of Jesus. I suspect that if we look at the life of Jesus and death of Jesus, we may well see why those who lived with Him through those last three years of His life, found his resurrection initially to be, not just a basis for happy celebration, but something deeply disturbing and confusing.
If you had to think of one word that summarised the life and ministry of Jesus, as we read about it in the gospels, what would it be? ‘Conflict’ is the word that comes to my mind. I know some people depict Jesus as someone who just went around helping people and telling them to be nice to one another. Be realistic! If this is what you do, you don’t get yourself crucified.You get yourself invited to be a speaker at a Rotary dinner!
Jesus’ life and ministry, over the three years we read about in the gospels, is a life of constant conflict with the authorities – the civil authorities, but especially the religious authorities. As we read through the history of Jesus we see that conflict gradually intensifying, as religious leaders and teachers initially question Jesus, then challenge him, and finally try to kill him. It’s a story of frustration and anger, of conflict and betrayal, as Jesus forges a path that increasingly diverges from the official line taken by the official religious leaders of His day, to the point where the authorities decide that they can no longer tolerate his existence!
And what is the conflict about? Its about lots of things at one level – it’s about Jesus’ flagrant disregard of tradition, it’s about his failure to keep to the rules about what you do and don’t do on the Sabbath, it’s about the attitude Jesus takes towards sinners and prostitutes, and perhaps most especially about the company Jesus keeps. At one level it’s about all these things. At another level, it’s about one thing – it’s about Jesus’ conception of God, and how that clashes with the Pharisee’s (the religious leaders’) conception of God. Jurgen Moltmann, in his book ‘The Crucified God’ characterises the life of Jesus in this way – as a battle between two Gods, or perhaps we would rather say a ‘battle between two different conceptions of God’.
On the one hand we have the God of the Pharisees – the religious leaders. This is the ‘God of the law’, the ‘God of Moses and the commandments’, the God who is the righteous judge and who sits down with his notebook in heaven keeping accounts of all the right and wrong things that everybody does, so that when the time comes for the final settling of accounts, all the tables can be added up and those who score a passing mark can be ushered into heaven, and those who don’t can be pushed off into hell.
This is the god of the righteous man. This is the god who loves the upright citizen and who shakes his divine head and wags his divine finger every time he hears someone swear or tell a dirty joke, or sees someone smoking, drinking or chewing.This is the moralistic god of the middle-class, the traditional god of official religion, who loves good law-abiding citizens, and who is sick to the teeth of law-breakers and drop-outs.
On the other hand we have the god of Jesus, who, as Moltmann might put it, is the ‘god of the little guy’.This is a god who has a lot of time for sinners and law-breakers. Indeed, this is a God who would lay down his life for people that most of us don’t even want to associate with.
Let’s get specific here. We’re looking at the end of the gospel of Mark today.Do you remember that story that came near the beginning of Mark’s gospel in Mark 2 about the calling of Levi?
Levi was a tax-collector, you may remember – a low-life, money-grabbing, thieving tax-collector. Tax-collectors were as popular in those days as persons who sell drugs to school children are today, and for roughly the same reasons. They were greedy, unpatriotic traitors, who cared more for lining their own pockets than they did for the good of their own people.
Jesus comes upon this grubby little man sitting in his grubby little office and He says to him ‘follow me’. And Levi drops everything and follows Jesus.
And the scene concludes with a great big party back at Levi’s house, where all the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and other social low-life are present. And the Pharisees – the good religious folk – see what is going on and they stand outside and ask Jesus’ disciples ‘what the hell is your master doing?’And Jesus hears their question and calls out to them: ‘people who are well don’t need the doctor.I didn’t come for righteous people, but for sinners.’
And this seems to set the tone for the rest of the gospel, and indeed for the whole ministry of Jesus – Jesus who soon becomes labelled as ‘the friend of tax-collectors and sinners’ and who furthermore soon gets labelled as a drunkard!Why? Because he didn’t just sit and speak to these people. He drank with them!
This brings us to the heart of the conflict that characterises the life of Jesus – the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, the conflict between the theology of Jesus and the theology of the Pharisees, the conflict between the God of Jesus and the god of the Pharisees.
The cross, in this context, is the apparent victory of the god of the Pharisees over the God of Jesus.‘Cursed is he who is hung on a tree’ says the book of Deuteronomy – cursed by God! The death of Jesus showed who was right all along. Jesus’ god was not the real God. The real God had shown his disgust with Jesus in the very way he had died!
‘Come down and save yourself’ they jeered at him during the crucifixion. ‘If your God is the real God, why isn’t he doing anything to help you? Do you think you might have got it wrong after all? Could it be that the God of the law is indeed Lord of heaven and earth, and that this God of the tax-collectors and prostitutes is only a figment of your rather sick imagination?’
The crucifixion seems to be the final word on the theology of Jesus, but then … the resurrection! ‘Up from the grave he arose’ says the hymn ‘with a mighty triumph o’er his foes’, and the triumph of the resurrection is not simply the triumph of life over death in some metaphysical sense, or the triumph of Jesus over his adversaries in some human political sense, but the triumph of the God of Jesus over the god of the Pharisees – the triumph of the God of the sinners and tax-collectors over the God of the upright!
This is the triumph of the resurrection. The resurrection is the great ‘yes’ of God to Jesus, and hence the great ‘yes’ of God to all that Jesus said about God. Who really spoke for God? Did the Pharisees speak for God, with all their learning, their rules, and all their uprightness, or did Jesus speak for God? The cross seemed to say one thing, but the resurrection was the final word – the verdict of God falls squarely in favour of Jesus. Jesus spoke for God. What Jesus said about God was what was true about God. Jesus’ God was the real God. And this, to bring us back to where we started, can be a deeply disturbing and confusing thing!
You see, the ‘god of official religion’, the ‘god of the Pharisees’, the ‘god who sits in heaven keeping all the accounts of rights and wrongs’ might be a bit of a pain to deal with at times, but I think he’s actually a lot easier to deal with than is the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
The ‘God of the Pharisees’, while he might be a bit exacting and painful at times – at least you always know where you stand with this god.
‘All good children go to heaven’.That’s straightforward, simple. You do your bit and God does his. You keep doing the good stuff, and build up your account of good deeds, and God is obliged to reward you appropriately and let you into heaven when it’s all over. And OK, it might be hard work at times to keep the ledger leaning in your favour, but it’s not impossible, and it’s nothing a good hard-working, upright citizen shouldn’t be able to achieve.
The God of Jesus, on the other hand, is a little less predictable. He will have mercy on those upon whom He will have mercy, and He promises forgiveness to all who turn to Him in faith! This might sound like a bit of a soft option at first, but ‘turning to God in faith’, in the teachings of Jesus, means dedicating your entire life to the service of God and to the building of the Kingdom of God on earth!
At least with the God of the Pharisees you can work out how to fulfil his demands while at the same time getting on with the more important things of life – building a career, accumulating wealth, establishing a reputation, starting a family. When it comes to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, on the other hand, He apparently wants our entire career, our wealth, our reputation and our family – He wants it all!
If you’re going to follow the God of the sinners and tax-collectors, you’re going to have to broaden your social circle too, to include those that you were busy trying to avoid. Indeed, you may well be called upon to open not only your heart, but also your home, to persons who could put you, your career, your reputation, and your family at risk!
‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ says the writer to the Hebrews. Hey, most of us have a difficult enough time making a commitment to come to church each week, let alone having to deal with a God like this!
Yes, if we were going to go with the god of our own choosing, the god of the Pharisees is definitely the easier option. Being a moral, upright, good citizen may be a bit boring, but it’s not too hard. With the god of the Pharisees it all makes sense. With the god of the Pharisees you know where you’re at. With the god of the Pharisees you can live your own life and have your religion too. But friends, the god of the Pharisees doesn’t really exist!
This is the great and disturbing truth of the resurrection; Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, He is alive, and therefore the god of the Pharisees is dead! Be afraid. Be very afraid!
I have a nagging fear that with most people who say ‘I believe in God’ – it’s the God of the Pharisees that they actually believe in.
I had one friend say to me just the other night ‘I believe in God’, and then he added the strange comment ‘but that doesn’t mean I have to like him!’ He was a friend, so I pushed him further. He said ‘look, I’m a decent guy, and I’m sure that one day when I die that God will look at me and, being a decent guy himself, will say ‘yeah, you’re in’.’
That’s the God of the Pharisees. Mind you, I have a feeling that most people who say ‘I don’t believe in God’ as another friend said to me the other day – that it’s actually the God of the Pharisees that they don’t believe in too.
Will the real God please stand up? In the resurrection of Jesus, God has stood up, and now we know that the God of Jesus, the God of the little guy, the God of the sinners and tax-collectors – is the real God, and we know that He is not one to be trifled with. Be afraid. Be very afraid! Or make the step that the disturbed and confused disciples would eventually make themselves – turn to this God in faith, and celebrate the resurrection with joy.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 23rd April, 2000.