Sunday 3 April 2016

'A Disputed Resurrection'

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11.00am, 3 April 2016

Mark 16.9-20  The Longer Ending of Mark
Mark 16.8b  The Shorter Ending of Mark
Psalm 119.18-20

Listen to this sermon here:

Do you like a happy ending? 
          If so, then the original ending of Mark’s gospel is probably not for you. 

As we saw last week, on Easter Sunday,
          Mark finishes his gospel with something of a cliffhanger. 
The women are seen running away from the empty tomb,
          and are too afraid even to speak. 

Not, you might think, the most natural place to end the story. 
          And if you think that, you aren’t alone.
You may be interested to know that there have been two serious attempts
          to fix this within the manuscript tradition. 
And there are four possible variations available to us
          for the ending of Mark’s gospel. 

The most ancient and reliable sources,
          including the wonderful Codex Sinaiticus
                   which you can go and see not far from here in the British library,           
agree that the gospel in its earliest form finished at verse 8. 

The longer ending, particularly verses 11 to 20,
          appears to be a cobbled together sequence of stories
                   based on events either from the other gospels, or from the book of Acts,
          and the best estimate of scholars
                   is that it was added to Mark’s original text
                   some decades after the gospel was first written.

It may be helpful just to recap for a moment
          what we know of the sequence of the authorship of the gospels,
                   such as who wrote what, and when,
          as a way of getting our heads around this.

We really ought to start with Paul’s letters:
          Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians,
                   Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, and so on…
          These were written in the early to mid-50s,
                   some 20 years after the events of Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Then comes Mark’s gospel, with its original hanging ending,
          written in about 60,
setting down in writing for the first time
          the stories of Jesus’ life
          that had until that point had been circulating orally. 

Mark’s gospel was obviously something of an early hit,
          and it was widely copied and circulated
          amongst the early communities of Christians. 

But it also became clear fairly early on
          that there were some problems with it. 
After all, it describes Jesus as a teacher,
          but doesn’t actually recorded much of what he taught.
It's also lacking any of the birth stories we know so well.
          And it's worth a thought that if we only had Marks Gospel,
          we wouldn't have any Christmas!
And it also, as we have seen,
          doesn't have any resurrection narratives.

There were a variety of responses to these deficiencies.

Probably the most dramatic was Matthew’s,
          who about 10 years after Mark was written,
          decided to have a go at rewriting the gospel to include extra material.
So he copied some significant chunks of Mark directly,
          but added in the Christmas story,
                   five large teaching blocks of Jesus’ sayings,
                   plus some Resurrection accounts.

Then, about 10 years after Matthew’s re-writing of Mark,
          Luke decided to have a go himself,
and using material from both Matthew and Mark,
          plus some other stuff he researched,
he came up with what he hoped would be
          the definitive version of the Jesus story,
          what we call Luke's Gospel.

Where he differed from the other two
          was that he went on and wrote a part II,
                   which we call Acts,
          describing the goings on in the early church
                   and the adventures of Paul.

We are actually planning a series on Acts for after Pentecost,
          so will come back to Luke’s part II in a few weeks.
And we can only speculate,
          but it seems likely that if Matthew, Mark, or even John,
                   had also written their versions of the story of the early church,
          they might of been as different to the book of Acts
                   as their gospels are to one another.

But I digress, although only slightly,
          because sometime after Luke wrote his gospel and Acts,
          two further things happened.
The first was the emergence of the gospel of John,
          sometime around 90, as yet another, and this time radically different,
          version of the Jesus story.
The second was that someone decided
          to add a new ending onto Mark’s Gospel,
largely, as I said earlier, cobbled together from Matthew, Luke, and Acts.

And where this brings me to, really,
          is what strikes me as an important question:
Why do people keep feeling the need
          to update and rewrite the Jesus story?

Now, don't get me wrong,
          I'm not about to call into question the scriptural status
                   or the usefulness of either Matthew, Luke, or John's Gospels.
          Neither am I going to make a case that ‘original is best’
                   and argue for the primacy of Mark’s Gospel.
Sometimes things need improving, or expanding,
          and the tradition and witness of the church
                   has been that Matthew, Luke, and John
                   got far more right than they got wrong.

But, insofar as our passage for this morning is concerned,
          this cobbled together miscellany of resurrection appearances
                   that got tacked on to the end of Mark’s Gospel
                   some decades after he wrote it,
          please forgive me if I reserve my judgement
                   as to its usefulness, or indeed inspired nature.

In fact, I might even go along with Ched Myers,
          who suggests that what we have in the additional ending of Mark,
                   is the first known example of what has become
                   'A long theological tradition which continues to this day,
                   [That of betraying] the gospel by 're-writing it'.[1]

As we saw last week
          (and if you weren't here, you can catch up with the sermon
                   by reading it or listening to it online)
          Mark’s Gospel originally, and very deliberately, ended on a cliff-hanger:
                   The tomb is empty, the women are afraid… what happens next…?

The invitation inherent in ending this way
          is for those of us reading the gospel
          to continue the narrative of Resurrection in our own lives.
Where is the risen Jesus?
          He's in your life, in my life, in our life together!
That is the message of the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.
          Will the women overcome their fear
                   and encounter the new beginning
                   that the empty tomb opens before them?
          Will we?

This is the challenge to us of Mark’s Gospel as originally conceived.

It has no need of stories about Jesus passing magically through walls
          to suddenly appear in the midst of his friends,
          like some first century version of a locked room mystery.

It has no need of a shape shifting zombie Jesus,
          rising from the grave
          to surprise doubters and tell off unbelievers.

It has no need for stories about miraculous healings,
          unearthly languages,
          or the magical ability to handle dangerous snakes
                   or drink poison with no ill effect.
And yet all these, and more, are here in our additional longer ending.

What's going on?
          Why do people keep feeling the need
          to update and re-write the Jesus story?

Partly, at least in the case of Mark’s longer ending,
          although also I suspect in the case of some of the other gospels,
          it's to do with the fact that most of us don't like to live with ambiguity.

We like closure, and an open-ended ending
          can feel like it's no ending at all.
There may be something in here about personality type,
          and it certainly seems to be the case
          that some people are much less able to cope with ambiguity than others.
Some of us crave the neat ending, the closure of certainty,
          whilst others of us find this restricting and stifling,
          and we long for the new possibilities inherent in uncertainty.

But I think it's more than this.

A neat closure to Mark’s Gospel allows those of us reading it 'off the hook'.
          We don't need to ask ourselves whether risen Jesus is in our own lives
                   because the question of where he is has been answered:
                   he is there in the text, in the locked room,
                             back among his friends, telling them off for their unbelief,
                   and commissioning them to go out and witness to the gospel,
                             doing all kinds of magical signs as they do so,
                   to prove to the world that Jesus is more powerful
                             than any of the pagan gods,
                             or the priests who vied for attention in the ancient world.

But, maybe it's actually even more sinister than this.

Maybe this isn't just an ending added by someone
          who didn't like the ambiguous cliff-hanger of the original.
Maybe it isn't even just an attempt to release the reader
          from the uncertainty of having to encounter the risen Christ
                   in their own context.
Maybe it isn't even just about galvanising disciples
          to courageous witness in the face of seemingly insufferable odds.

Ched Myers, again, suggests that what we have here
          is an 'Imperial re-writing'[2] of Mark’s Gospel,
an attempt to domesticate the wild lion of Mark’s narrative,
          to tame it and bring it into our own world
                   in ways that comfort us,
          rather than which challenge and disturb us.

Think for a moment about the way our society tells stories
          which construct and reinforce the dominant narratives of our world.

At the most basic level, we like our films to have a happy ending.
          It's rare for a box office smash to end on ambiguity,
                   and those that do are able to get away with it
                   only if they are reinforcing some other aspect
                   of our society's dominant mythology along the way.

Have you come across the Bechdel Test?
          It's named after Alison Bechdel,
                   and asks whether a work of fiction, such as a book or a movie,
          features at least two women who are named
                   and who talk to each other about something other than a man.
In many ways it is a test of the extent
          to which the male dominated aspects of our culture
          determine the stories we tell.

Recent films that fail the test include:
          The Social Network, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,
                   Avatar, the entire original Star Wars trilogy,
                   and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It is, It seems, still very much a man's world.

And in the longer additional ending of Mark’s Gospel,
          we see the narrative hijacked
          away from the named women of Mark’s original.
Mary Magdalene bears witness, but the men don't believe her,
          and so the narrative moves away from women
                   and back into the world of the dominant males,
          who then get to their own series of resurrection accounts.

And it is the men, not the women, who are commissioned
          to 'go into all the world
                   and proclaim the good news to the whole creation' (v.15).
The gender-inclusive echo of Jesus' ministry,
          still present in Mark's original,
is appropriated to the cause of patriarchy
          by the end of the first century.
And the trajectory towards two millennia of male-led
          and male-dominated Christianity is well and truly set in train.

The alternative "shorter ending" even goes so far as to name a Peter,
          who is presented as the restored head of the community
                   after his denial of Jesus just a few days earlier.
Peter of course, being the one who comes to be revered
          as the head of the church in Rome,
          at the heart of the Empire and at the heart of power.

Patriarchy wins, and wins again.

But it's not just the suppression of gender inclusion
          that betrays the darker intentions of the additional endings of Mark's gospel.
The tendency for subversive radical discipleship
          to be re-written as orthodox-compliance and power-dominance
          is visible in other ways also.

Firstly, let's think about the balance between doubt and faith.

I don't know about you, but my experience of faith
          is one of faith held through profound doubting.
I don't believe that it is wrong to doubt.
          I don't believe that it is sinful to wrestle with unbelief.
If anything, I'm always rather suspicious, and even a little bit afraid,
          of the kind of Christianity that leaves no room
          for honest doubt and integrity-filled-unbelief.

And it is this honest wrestling that we meet in Mark’s gospel,
          as we encounter ourselves in his failure-ridden portrait of the disciples.
We find ourselves identifying with the unnamed father of the sick child
          who cries out to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (9.24).

All this is undone in the additional ending,
          where, three times in eleven verses,
          the disciples are criticised for their unbelief (11, 14, 16).

We are told that salvation is for the one who "believes" and is baptised,
          while the one who unbelieves is condemned.

This is fundamentalism taking over a religion of grace.
          "Comply or be damned" is the subtext,
          and the gospel’s wrestling with the grey areas of faith is undone.

The cross, taken down this path, becomes a sword or an emblem on a battle shield,
          as Christianity begins its journey towards Imperial domination.

And still this process continues,
          as people of faith in our own world
          constantly re-write the grace of the Jesus story
          to suit their own aspirations for power and certainty.
"Believe or be damned!",
          or worse yet, "Believe what I tell you to believe, or be damned!",
remains the inauthentic hallmark
          of so much of what seeks to pass for faithful Christianity.
Give me a church of honest doubters
          wrestling their demons with integrity any day!

But secondly,
          building on the betrayal of doubt and the assertion of certainty,
we also meet in the longer ending
          the tendency to reduce a lived relationship with the risen Christ
          to the status of magical wonders as the guarantee of belief.

The ending tells its readers in V.17,
          that "these signs will accompany those who believe",
                   before listing the casting out of Demons, speaking in new tongues,
                   picking up snakes, drinking poison,
                   and laying hands on and healing the sick.

The underlying assumption behind this list
          is that being a Christian means demonstrating visible power.

The powerlessness of the cross,
          and the mystery of the empty tomb,
are exchanged for a grasping after power
          and a desire to access magic
          at the level of the pagan temple-priests and wonder-workers.

Every show of strength in the name of the pagan gods
          is matched by those who would follow Jesus
          demonstrating similar magical abilities.

It's like Moses before Pharaoh,
          with Pharaoh's magicians matching Moses trick-for-trick
          until all the children are dead.

And whilst we may laugh at those in the Bible-belt of the United States
          who take this literally, and practice snake-handling
                   as part of their religious devotion,
we need to guard ourselves carefully
          against the desire to exchange servanthood and rejection
                   for power and influence.

When Christianity in any culture seeks visible forms of power,
          it rewrites the story of the one who came to suffer and die
          to subvert all narratives of power.

Any claim that we are all should be a "Christian country"
          is a betrayal of the cross,
and any attempt to that claim cultural values have a gospel mandate
          is a distortion of the gospel itself.

But the additional ending not only exchanges honest doubt for blind faith,
          it not only exchanges service for dominance,
it also banishes Christ from the earth
          and confines him to heaven.

Mark’s original ending deliberately left the women
          seeking their risen Lord in the ordinariness of their lives,
          with him having gone on ahead of them to Galilee to meet them there.

The new ending elevates Jesus to the heavens,
          and sets him at the right hand of God on high.

The servant Jesus, known in community,
          becomes the king of the cosmos,
          ruling even over the emperor in Rome,
and in due course becoming the head of the Imperial church itself.

This is the ultimate will to power,
          as simple faith and servant living
          give way to Imperial aspiration and dominance.

And so, to return to my question
          of why people feel the need to re-write the Jesus story,
I think I'm beginning to sense an answer.

We do it because we are afraid of weakness and we desire strength;
          we do it because we want to be assured of our right-ness,
          even if that is at the cost of another person's wrong-ness.

And in our own ways we continue to re-write the story;
          as we draw our battle lines to rule others out and ourselves in,
                   as we grasp after power and influence,
          as we worship the King above all kings rather than the servant of all.

And yet…

Through all of these rewrites,
          the challenge of Mark’s empty tomb still echoes through:

Where is Jesus?

The resurrection is not the answer to everything, it turns out.
          Rather, it is the first question of the rest of our lives.

We meet the risen Christ as we follow him
          in faithful, costly, servant hearted discipleship.

This is the truth of the resurrection.

He is risen. He is risen indeed!

[1] Binding The Strong Man, 401
[2] Binding The Strong Man 402

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