Sunday, April 16, 2006

Can I get a witness?

Mark 16: 1-8
******** United Church of Christ

April 16, 2006 – Easter Sunday

Yes, that’s right; that’s all he wrote. The first gospel written, our first account of the resurrection story ends not with a reunion of the risen Christ and his disciples but with the women, the first witnesses to the resurrection, fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Most scholars agree that the shorter and longer endings of Mark were added by writers and editors other than the original author of Mark. A few New Testament researchers think that the gospel had been longer but the ending had been torn off. However, most other academics accept that this was the original intent of author of Mark: to have a dangling participle of a gospel with seemingly no resolution. But whatever the case, this is the Easter story for us and for the Church this day.

Of all the resurrection texts, this seemingly abbreviated one from the gospel of Mark is my favorite. I like the fact that we don’t get to ‘see’ Jesus raised from the dead; none of God showing off to coerce us into believing. The musical “Godspell” ends in a similar fashion. Jesus is crucified, dies, and his disciples carry his body off the stage and through the crowd singing “Long live God” but no final scene starring the risen Jesus.

I like this text because it’s disturbing as well as comforting, filled with holy terror as well as reassurance. With our scientific knowledge and post-modern minds we may find it easy to be glib about the resurrection when we say “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Are we embarrassed by this public witness, even amongst ourselves? Has the resurrection lost its’ power with us? Then perhaps Jesus was never really dead to us either. If we cannot experience Jesus as really and truly dead, then we can hardly experience him as really and truly resurrected and alive again. So I like a resurrection text that puts the burden of witness on us.

If this resurrection took place in our modern world, a group of forensic scientists would be called in to examine the ‘evidence’ pertaining to a missing body. The place where Jesus’ body had been laid and the cloth that had covered him would be tested for DNA and fingerprints. The surrounding grounds would be inspected for footprints to determine whether the body had been removed. But it is only in the past 20 years that DNA evidence has been given so much weight. Before DNA testing, investigating a death was conducted for thousands of years the old-fashioned way: witnesses would come forward and tell what had happened.

In this morning’s scripture reading we have witnesses, three eyewitnesses to this resurrection; the only problem is they aren’t talking. And frankly, I don’t want them to say anything. It’s too easy to let them do all the talking about seeing the stone rolled away and a young man dressed in a white robe telling that he, Jesus, is not here. Mark does not need a personal appearance of the risen Christ to confirm his faith. Like the lyric from Handel’s “Messiah”, Mark “knows that his redeemer liveth”.

But do we need the personal appearance of the risen Christ to affirm our faith? How is it we believe in the resurrection without actually having seen him ourselves? Do we simply trust the witness that has been given in other gospels and down through the ages? We cannot demand, like Thomas, that unless we see the mark of the nails and put our fingers in his side that we will not believe. What is the root of our Easter faith?

Somehow, somewhere in our lives we have had an experience of the resurrection, of Jesus being true for us in a very real way. Or we have heard someone give a powerful witness to their Easter faith as they have experienced it. This is what us Easter people call testimony.

Testimony is not something Congregationalists practice with any great ease, or at all, for that matter. Faith is considered a private affair, between believer and God. As the apostle Paul has preached to us, our faith is nothing for us to boast about. But there is a difference between boasting and witnessing, between calling attention to oneself and calling attention to the very real and saving presence of Jesus Christ. And as we are a part of the United Church of Christ, calling attention to Christ is exactly what we are about.

I hope that some of you have seen the new ad for the United Church of Christ; someone told me they saw it on the A&E channel. You can also go on
the church's website and see it there. This ad and the previous ‘bouncer’ ad are part of our church’s “Still Speaking Initiative”, which proclaims that the witness of the faithful and the revelation of God did not end with the Bible, that God still speaks fresh words, that we are to listen and to give witness to what we have heard and what we have seen at work among God’s people; and when I say ‘God’s people’ I mean all people.

This dangling end of the gospel of Mark seems to imply that we who read this gospel, this good news, are to be the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. We are to give testimony to what we have seen and heard of the resurrection in our own lives and in the life of the Church. We live in a world where everyone, and everything, dies; I’ve quoted this song before: “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.” So in this finite world, where do you find your hope? Where have you and your congregation seen life out of death? Have you also felt terror and amazement in the presence of the resurrection of Jesus? Have you too been so overwhelmed by the fear of God that you could not tell a soul because you were afraid?

Author Richard Swanson, who has written a commentary on the Gospel of Mark says that “[the] task of Easter (which is every Sunday for an Easter-based faith) is to tell stories about resurrection in a world where everyone dies.” The way you have started telling these resurrection stories, giving witness to your faith, is during announcements and through prayer requests. You give witness to the life of Christ at work in this church when you make announcements. And there are so many, and yes, they take up so much time, but this testifies to the life and love of Christ that is very present and palpable in this church, in you, the people who make this church what it is. When you ask for prayers, you sometimes give some background behind the request, which is a testimony of the trust and the love you have for one another and to your belief that prayer makes a difference. And the Good News Team invites members to give testimony to why they are members here and what difference the church has made in their lives.

But if I were to ask you to give witness, to make testimony about your Easter faith, what would you say? Does this leave you too feeling like running in terror and amazement? Let’s go back to the text to see what the good news is for us.

The messenger of the resurrection, the young man in the white robe, says several things. The first is, do not be alarmed. Whenever an angel or heavenly representative appears, usually the first words out of their mouths are ‘do not be afraid’. So, first step of giving witness to the good news of the resurrection: do not be alarmed.

Second, remember why you are here today. You are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. You are not seeking evidence; you are not looking for the body. Why? He has been raised; he is not here, that is, he is not in this place of death. He is among the living. And so are you.

And where are the living? Third, Jesus is going ahead of you, to Galilee, where you will see him, just as he told you. He is going to Galilee, where it all started. This is not the end but only the beginning. We are to go back to the stories of Jesus, to his words and his life, and to read them again and again and again, so that they become real to us, as real as our own lives. Many of us, when we want to draw strength from our faith, will remember Jesus’ words that we were taught to memorize so long ago. What words of Jesus do you remember that have special meaning for you?

If we go back through the gospel of Mark we see a Jesus of action, a teacher, a healer, a man of prayer, of justice, a man of love that was not a feeling but a way of living and being engaged with this world according to God’s law of love. We hear Jesus’ repeated promise that he would rise again. At the very beginning of Mark we hear the words “prepare the way of the Lord.” And at the start of his ministry in Galilee, we hear Jesus say “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the resurrection of Mark’s gospel. It is us going back to the beginning of the story, realizing that the kingdom has come near, turning toward God and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. It is us preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight, crying out like a voice in the wilderness that God is coming. Jesus lives because he lives through us. Jesus is alive because he is alive in us and because we are alive. Not just existing, not just breathing, not just taking up space, but alive. And because we are alive we are able to give witness, to make testimony, that Christ is risen from the dead.

So, ******** United Church of Christ, are you ALIVE? How is God still speaking to you and through you? What is the good news of Jesus Christ to be found here among you and within you? Where is your hope? When have you as a congregation seen life out of death? What words of Jesus disturb you as well as comfort you, cause you to fear as well as offer reassurance? What about your faith makes your jaw drop and leaves you dumbfounded? What keeps you from running away in fear? If someone asked you why you believe in the resurrection, what would you say?

Thanks be to God for an Easter faith that still has the power to instill awe in us and make our faith a humble one. Thanks be to God for the words, the life, and the death of Jesus that make real his resurrection. Thanks be to God for speechless witnesses at the tomb so that we may find our own voices and give witness and testify with our lives and with our life together that Christ is indeed risen from the dead. Amen.


Andy said...

I was watching "Firefly" last week and River was pointing out to Shepard Book that the Bible was all wrong - too many contradictions and incongruities - and that it needed to be fixed. His response was that the bible is a matter of faith, not science and that "You don't fix the Bible; it fixes you".

Cynthia said...

Excellent quote! I'll have to remember and use that one.