Easter Surprises

A sermon based on Mark 13:15:37-47, 16:1-8
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 1, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

While planning for today our staff briefly discussed how this year Easter falls on April First. Devising April Fool’s surprises has been a ritual in my family for years. I did not ask for details, but it is apparently a ritual in other staff families, as I was not alone in playfully naming silly surprise ideas for today. One idea was surprising you with Christmas decor, carols and Santa. Another was putting Bruessel sprouts and carrots in the Easter eggs before we hide them.

We decided not to do any surprises. Truthfully nothing could match the supreme surprise that the Supreme Being pulled on earthly powers– and all the rest of us– that first Easter.

Rome had long used its brute power to take down opposition. Those who rebelled against the empire were lifted up on a cross to die. Violent and non-violent rebels alike were crucified to put a resounding end to rebellions and chill with fear those thinking of rebelling. And it tended to work. Last week we heard how in Mark all the male disciples betrayed and abandoned Jesus in the face of this brutality. Until Easter Rome’s chill seemed to work on the Jesus movement. Friday of Holy Week had Jesus and his movement stopped dead.

As we discussed last week the patriarchies of Rome, the Temple and the Jesus movement failed Jesus. But the good news of Easter is those failures failed . . . miserably. Not only was the rebellion not quashed, and the rebel not gone, but both Jesus and his Following became completely and utterly forever invincible. Easter vindicates God’s love incarnate in Jesus and in Jesus’ Way. Easter proves that human failure of any kind cannot stop God’s love.

So . . . Surprise Rome! Surprise earthly powers! Surprise Jesus Followers then and now! And there are many surprises in Mark’s Easter story. I am going to list a few.

God’s love incarnate on earth cannot be held down or put down. Not too long ago I mentioned that God’s love is like those weighted punching clowns we’d try to knock down as kids but they’s always bop back up. Love is like that. It cannot be put down or held down or bopped down. It always, always, always bounces back up. Love cannot be defeated. Put positively, God’s love always wins! Put Biblically God’s love is steadfast and endures forever!

Jesus, a fully human being found a Way to not only incarnate God’s love fully in his being while alive, but to also teach others that Way. One wondrous surprise of Easter is that Jesus and his Way of incarnating God’s love did not and cannot die.
Jesus and Jesus’ Way were and are about tending to the care of every human being, making paramount loving God, others and self. The Gospel of Mark in Chapter 12 (28-31) records that during Jesus’ ministry:

One of the scribes came near and . . . asked [Jesus], “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

“There is no commandment greater than these.” None. If someone tells us there is a commandment that requires acts that are not love of God or love of neighbor that other commandment is superceded, voided out and out-weighed by the greater commandments to love God and others. Love is paramount. Always. Forever. That is good news! That is what the realm of God is about.

This Lent we have been discussing Jesus’ message that the realm of God is near. It is near enough to break-in on earth for the living. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “The Kingdom of God is near.” God’s realm gives the highest priority to the commandment to love. Why? Because WE bring God’s realm near whenever WE put love first, whenever WE put love into action. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. In life we are to love. Anyone. Everyone. Always. Forever.

One of God’s surprises at Easter is that the commandment to love God and others is so great, it is not just greater than any other commandment, it is greater than death.

Another surprise that we tend to gloss over at Easter is front and center in the Book of Mark. It is that God’s love incarnate is greater than ANY human failings. Failings by empires, disciples, you, me or us– cannot stop God’s love! During Holy Week the patriarchies of Rome, the Temple and the disciples failed Jesus. But the love of God and love others incarnate is greater than any patriarchy, greater than any earthly power and greater than the failings of men whether they fail because they pursue or they fear earthly power.

Today’s story rounds out the equation. In Mark throughout Holy Week the female followers of Jesus, unlike the male followers, behaved in exemplary fashion. They did not hurt or deny or abandon Jesus, they stayed with him right to the grave.

Ironically Mark’s Easter verses are often glossed over on Easter. As we heard Mark’s Easter story has an empty tomb and a cryptic talking angel. These are such frightening sights and sounds the women disciples run out and fail to heed the angelic command to tell others. The women were strong to this point. While the men during Holy Week abandoned Jesus fearing the earthly realm of Rome while he is alive, the women abandon the risen Jesus fearing an otherworldly encounter with the heavenly realm. Easter’s mystical and spiritual side scares them. Who could blame them? Most of us would be alarmed and afraid and run from a tomb where we encounter a mystical being and a missing body said to be risen. Most of us fear and doubt the mystical and spiritual. Mark makes sure to let us know that even the strongest followers of Jesus did.

SEE! Mark’s Easter story IS full of surprises. Surprises we do not usually consider in other Easter readings. In Mark, our oldest Gospel, we are surprised that the steadfast followers who did not fail the living Jesus in the face of earthly power, fail the resurrected Jesus in the face of heavenly power. But in fairness, isn’t the empty tomb and the risen Christ always the hardest part to embrace– for everyone men and women? Truthfully, Followers of Jesus are entitled to wrestle with this and work out an understanding.

Other Gospels claim the understanding includes experiences of the person Jesus being literally resuscitated. But Mark has no detailed sightings of a resuscitated or resurrected Jesus in any form. Like Jesus’ parables, the earliest Gospel surprisingly leaves it for us to figure out what Easter means. It’s parabolic. There is an empty tomb. There is an angel who says Jesus is risen and will go ahead to Galilee, and there he will be seen. The angel commands the women to make this known – but they fail.

Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that all of humankind, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male or female, did and will fail Jesus and Jesus’ Way. Whether in fear of earthly power, or in fear of heavenly power humans will mess up and abandon God’s love and loving Ways. That might sound depressing, but the Easter’s promise, its gift, its surprise, its uplifting good news is that Jesus’ message and Jesus the Spirit-filled messenger bounce back up from any human failing— be it brutality, betrayals, befuddled fear, or disbelief; and be it failings by Rome, disciples, you, me or all of us. Jesus and Jesus’ message bounce back from all human failings. Easter recognizes their steadfast everlasting life. Regardless of the conduct of any human or institution God’s love incarnate cannot be stopped.

As we heard in the reading when Jesus was killed the Temple curtain that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the world was torn open. The holy of holies was understood to be where the essence of God specially resided in the Temple. By the time Mark was written Christians had come to realize and understand that the essence of God’s could now specially reside in Jesus’ presence in his followers – even with their failings. The rending of the curtain can be heard to symbolize that movement of God out into the world where the incarnation of God would be experienced, in every day imperfect people who can and do fail at times.
THAT movement is also symbolized by the empty tomb and the angel inside:

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said [to the women]. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

“Going ahead” means leading the way. Followers of Jesus need to follow Jesus back to the start of his Way and follow in his footsteps with him in the lead. The angel instructs, if they follow Jesus they will see him.

We can certainly choose to believe that Easter is about Jesus the person being individually resurrected, and being seen. But it is not the only way to understand Easter. Mark evidences that. Mark the earliest Gospel does not detail Jesus making post Easter appearances. It has the empty tomb and the message he is risen. For early Christians the empty tomb and resurrection had two primary meanings: (1) Jesus lives; and (2) is at God’s right hand, now. (Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p 108). For Christian Jesus becomes both Christ as God incarnate on earth, and Lord as God’s authority for us!

Reflecting on our lesson, 21st Century theologian Marcus Borg notes that in Jesus “We see the decisive revelation of God– of God’s character and God’s passion. Go back to Galilee, to the beginning of the story– there you will see him.” (Ibid., p 108).

And here is the thing, when we heed THAT Easter message and follow Jesus’s lead we become the hands, feet, ears and voice of Christ. In us– alone and together– Jesus IS risen. As 16th Century theologian Teresa of Ávila put it :

Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world …. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

That always seems to be a surprise, we expect someone more perfect than, well, us.

See the biggest Easter surprise is not necessarily the empty tomb, or defeat of death, or even love’s victory over evil. The biggest Easter surprise may just be that if we – flawed and often failing human beings– follow Jesus we can be Christ in the world too. I can think of no better or hopeful news than that.
In us . . . Christ is risen . . . risen indeed!