Spirit Driven

A sermon based on Mark 16:1-8
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on Easter Sunday April 21, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Once upon a time a group of preschoolers gathered for Sunday school the week before Easter and the teacher asked “Does anyone know what today is called?” One little girl raised her hand and said, “I know! It’s Palm Sunday.” “Very good” the teacher replied, and added “Now, does anyone know what next Sunday is ?” Another child raised his hand and said “Next Sunday’s Easter!” “That’s right. You are all so smart.” the teacher said. “Can anyone tell me what makes Easter special?” This time the teacher’s very own child answered, “Easter is special because Jesus rose from the dead and left his tomb.” The teacher beamed with pride but had to laught when her child added “And if Jesus sees his shadow he has to go back in for seven weeks.”
I am not sure if that cute exchange actually happened, but I like it. It brings a lightness to the narration about Jesus’ death and tomb, which objectively speaking you’d think would be pretty hard to do.

Actually in reality Christians – forgive this illuminating pun– but, Christians have been making Light out of the tomb for 2000 years. As a consequence we have all grown up with Easter being so buoyant and full of light that we tend to take it for granted that Easter’s naturally bright and cheerful. But if we think about it, it is, of course, pretty unusual to have such light and joy over death and tomb. At Easter the shadow of Jesus’ death is there – not in a Groundhog Day kinda way– but it is there as a memory and remarkably, and counter-intuitively, as a part of the good news. We dance and have joy on Easter because death was, and is, defeated.

Jesus is risen, risen indeed, and he is risen from a very certain death. The shadow of Jesus’ death is not background noise to Easter, it is the obstacle overcome. Mark’s telling of the Easter story literally has in it grave news. The graveness is upsetting to the women thar morning. We are told that Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome (sal o may) those brave women flee the tomb with so much “ terror and amazement” that they are fearfully speechless.

In Mark’s telling there can be no doubt that the shadow of death haunts those women. It includes the death of their beloved Rabbi Jesus for sure, but also the scary mystery of death that haunts all of our mortality. Death to our way of thinking seems a vast and frightening darkness which presents an all to real finality to life as we know it.

And yet paradoxically in the shadow of Jesus’ death, at Easter we rejoice. None of us of course wanted Jesus to die. And despite what we might otherwise hear, God did not desire Jesus’ death. We are not joyful today because Jesus died, we are joyful because despite Rome wanting him to die he did not. He really did not. God would not let Jesus die. God worked in his followers so they would not let Jesus die. God works in us so we – to this day– will not let Jesus die. The end result is that we rejoice. Because in less than three days after Rome caused him to die, God caused Jesus to arise to have an everlasting experiential reality for so many people on so many levels for so many years.

Because God so loved the world Death’s sting was removed, replaced with the sweet honey of Jesus’ Way and His love-soaked-being continuing on and on and on. It started out small and unsure. The few women who left the empty tomb did not know what to make of death’s absence from the tomb or God’s message . Nor did the other male and female followers when they first learned of it. But the women and men of the early Jesus following eventually comprehended and fully embraced that Jesus and the Jesus Movement did not end, could not end, would not end. That was the message God sent with the angel but they had to gather themselves to comprehend it. It took some doing . . . as it still does.

Despite Rome’s efforts, from Easter forward God was understood and experienced by the first Jesus followers to have resurrected what was briefly buried in the tomb. Those few followers spread the word that somehow, some way they experienced God having risen Jesus. And somehow someway more and more people experienced Jesus’ presence, and joined the following that we now know as Christianity. Ever since many, many more have experienced the risen Jesus. Some have experienced Jesus’ influence on human cultures for two thousand years as he has led the way to more justice and care and compassion in the world. Some have experienced Jesus resonating in their personal encounters with him in his recorded teachings and exemplary life and in their efforts to follow his teachings and in his footsteps. Some have experience Jesus beyond history and Sacred story finding him present in remarkable spiritual encounters through Holy Days (like Easter and Christmas), through Sacraments (Baptism and Communion), in worship (like church servces), and in dreams, visions, prayers, as well as other means.

All of these experiences coming out of the life of a one time obscure itinerant rabbi whom history would have been forgotten if Rome had its way . . . But Rome’s way lost. Jesus’ Way won. And so the wonderful truth is, Jesus lives on in one form or another–each form meant to bring – and very often bringing– love into the world.

Love is the essence of God’s Realm breaking in that Jesus taught about, it is the care and desire for the well-being of others. It is peace on earth good will to all. In the battle of Rome’s earthly way of brutal violence led by Caesar Tiberius and his henchmen in Palestine versus God’s heavenly way of love led by God and his Son Jesus, Love won. Love wins! We rejoice because love wins . . . and there is no greater proof of that than Easter.

We discussed last week how there can be no Easter without the shadow of the darkness that violently roiled in during Holy Week. That first Holy Week the light at the start of the week shone brightly not just in Jesus, but in the parts of humankind that celebrated with great joy on Palm Sunday the then living human Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Realm of God was brought into high relief as Jesus entered Jerusalem to challenge the earthly realm, Rome. As Rome’s governor, Pilate, marched in with pomp and military might on one side of town, Jesus humbly rode in on a donkey with joy and love on the other. Pilate was greeted with fear and subdued throngs. Jesus was greeted with cheer and shouted out songs. One represented man’s reign, the other represented God’s Reign.

We know now that that first Palm Sunday began a head on collision between man’s earthly realm and God’s heavenly realm Jesus left the light from the humanity that greeted him and glowed that first Palm Sunday and he entered into the tunnel of darkness that Rome plunged him and his following into. When Jesus challenged Rome with his peace parade on Palm Sunday and followed it up with a his protest in the Temple on Monday, Rome and its cronies had had enough. The rest of the week Caesar Tiberius and his henchmen threw everything they had in their arsenal of terror at Jesus. As a result, Jesus died, his followers had to hide, and they and God and all creation cried. Yet we do not call it unholy week. We call it Holy Week, because thank God, Love triumphed. Love won. It was awful what Rome did. But it was awesome what God did. Jesus was vindicated by God. Any way we look at it the tomb could not hold him. Jesus lives. Jesus is risen . . . risen indeed.

All of the ways of experiencing Jesus that God blessed and blesses the world with, are truly worth being joyful and bright and singing hymns about. Easter offers hope in God’s victory over Rome with love. Easter offers hope in Love incarnate in Jesus being uplifted, risen up . . . vindicated by God. Easter offers hope in Love being incarnate in those who follow Jesus’ Way. Easter offers hope in God’s Reign continuing to break in through Jesus’ Followers– through us!

Jesus who cared so much for all and breathed love so courageously opened a door, paved a road, created a Way to God being incarnated in human form. After the first Easter we know that God’s here now in Jesus in the levels of experiential reality that I have mentioned. Whether it be the reality of Jesus’ influence on human cultures; Jesus resonating in recorded teachings and exemplary life; or Jesus being present in remarkable spiritual encounters and in his followers striving to love as Jesus loves.

What Easter did for Christians is create a Way to God through Jesus, a fully human full-of-God person whose being lives on so powerfully through time that no book or words, or traditions or dogma can trump Jesus. For Christians you see, “Jesus is the decisive revelation of God.” (Borg, Marcus, Conversations with Scriptures, Mark, p3) There are other ways to God, but on the Christian Way it is Jesus who “reveals, discloses, [and] embodies what can be seen of God in a human life” (Borg, p3). Not just in an “out-there-beyond-us” or “deeply-buried-inside-us” Jesus, but Jesus motivating and guiding our actions so that we love as he loved.

In this morning’s Easter story Mark tells us an angel said to the frightened followers

“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. 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.”

Jesus is going ahead of them. Just as Jesus led his followers before, he leads them still. When the angel finished his instruction, the women followers

“went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

As Mark was originally written that’s how the story ends. The women being driven from the tomb Mark has the Jesus followers being driven out of the empty tomb to follow Jesus’ Spirit that has gone before them in the past, and now in the present, leading them into the future with the promise He will be there.

You see, Mark, the earliest Gospel, has a different ending than the other Gospels. And it is an ending that matches Mark’s beginning, which is also different. Mark does not begin with a Christmas Nativity story. Mark begins with the Holy Spirit driving Jesus from His baptism into the wilderness to start what we now know as Jesus’ Way, where Jesus relentlessly and courageously pursues the Reign of God. That reign is where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven– God’s will is Shalom– PEACE– well being for all.

Just before the words at the end of Mark that we heard Rev. Young read so well, Rome appeared to have stopped that drive and Way by leaving Jesus lifeless in a tomb. But that’s not the end. Instead of the lifelessness of Jesus in the tomb His followers find a lively message from God that “Jesus . . . who was crucified . . . has been raised . . . he is not here.” And the followers are commanded to go and tell others that Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Earlier in Mark 14 at verse 28 Jesus told his followers that he would be raised up and he would go before them to Galilee. All the circumstances in Mark that lead up to Easter – Jesus’ holy Spirit driven actions, Jesus’ Way, Rome’s killing Jesus, the empty tomb, and message from the angel– all of that in turn drives the Jesus’ Followers from Easter onward. The Spirit of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection now leads them.

Just as Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit to pave the Way of love that brings in the Reign of God– ever since the very first Easter Jesus’ followers have been driven by Jesus’ Spirit to follow him on the Way he set out. On that Way the experiential reality of Jesus may be encountered in varying degree but not in effect. Jesus leads us all to both experience and participate in the Reign of God. The angel’s promise of Jesus’ appearance has been, and is, fulfilled– generation after generation– by following the risen Jesus.

May we follow the risen Jesus to bring in the Realm of God for ourselves and others. May we follow the risen Jesus so well that we become the hands and feet and voice of Christ in the world. May we do that so well that others experience the joyful Easter news that Christ is risen . . . Risen indeed.