No Risen Jesus on Easter Morning

As a teen and young adult, I never slept much between Good Friday and Easter. I spent a lot of time and energy wrestling with the story of Good Friday and Easter and the theology that I had absorbed surrounding it.

I had learned—like many of us—that Jesus was sent by God to die for our sins. As a teenager, it didn’t make sense that Jesus died so that I would believe in God. Jesus being sacrificed on the cross didn’t have any personal connection to my life but I had learned from evangelical friends that I needed to be saved in order for to establish my permanent place in God’s love.

My United Church didn’t have a lot to say about Good Friday. Jesus died but there wasn’t an emphasis on personal salvation but there also wasn’t any other explanation for the death. We often skipped over Good Friday. Who wants to spend time dwelling on death? And why do we call it “good” when someone has died?

And then there’s the resurrection itself. There’s the whole question of whether Jesus really was raised from the dead. Was it a physical resurrection or a spiritual resurrection? Maybe someone just moved the body and the whole thing is a big hoax. What does this story have to do with anything in my own life?

You can see why I didn’t sleep much over Easter weekend. Every year I would wrestle with these same questions or variations on them. And the gospel of Mark that we heard this morning doesn’t actually help answer the questions except to leave us with more questions.

The earliest manuscripts that we have of Mark’s gospel end after eight verses. We have a group of women going to the tomb. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance. Someone speaks to them and tells them that Jesus is raised. The women are afraid and run away and tell no one about what happened. End of story.

In this version, the raised Jesus does not appear to anyone. And the women who went to the tomb are so terrified that they will not speak. Is this because of the awe of the moment or fear that the Romans may want an explanation and having been at the tomb the women will be the first suspects?

The story ends and leaves us with questions: Who rolled away the stone? What happened to Jesus? If the women didn’t say anything, how do we even have this story? The story doesn’t try to prove that Jesus was raised to life.

But later writers weren’t satisfied. Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written. So as the other gospels are being written, someone else decided that Mark needed a better ending. So over the next 200 years there were additions made to Mark.

The second ending is short but it does tell us that the women overcame their fear at least enough to tell Peter and that Jesus appeared and gave the disciples a task. This is a bit more satisfying. Some loose ends are being tied up. The women followed through. Jesus was sighted and therefore alive and we are given a reason to believe the story.

The third ending is longer and embellishes the story even more. This later addition to the gospel is where we begin to see the theology that surrounds the resurrection being developed. In this version, there is no fear and angst on Easter morning. Jesus appears right away to Mary Magdalene. And Jesus appears to the disciples and here he supposedly offers salvation in baptism and gives super powers to the disciples. Then Jesus goes to heaven with God. So much of our understanding of that first Easter comes from these later additions to this gospel and the other gospels.

But the original writer of Mark didn’t try to prove the story. It was enough to affirm that Jesus died—we have the witnesses who were at the cross—and the tomb was empty on Easter morning. It isn’t important whether Jesus was actually raised or how he was raised but how the story has meaning for us. I can only tell you what this story means for me. Part of the wonder of the story is that it has a slightly different meaning for each person. What is central and what most Christians can agree on is that there is something powerful and transformational in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

You may have already guessed that personal salvation in the sense of believing in Jesus so I will have eternal life in heaven isn’t central to my theology. I do believe that we have a spirit that continues after our bodies die but I don’t know what form that takes or what that experience will be like. For me the transformation comes in allowing parts of myself that are unhealthy, that prevent me from thriving, to die so there is space for new life to be created. I also believe that Easter has far reaching implications for the world. The transformational power of Easter doesn’t stop with individuals. Jesus’ ministry was about changing this world. Mark particularly focuses on the political aspects of his ministry. Mark places Jesus in direct conflict with the Roman and religious authorities.

We might argue that empire existed in Jesus’ day and that there has always been poverty, violence and oppression. We might argue that there is nothing we can do to change these things. But if there’s nothing to be done, then what was the purpose of Jesus’ life and death? Jesus died for a cause that had no hope of succeeding. But it is in the resurrection that the meaning becomes more clear: Jesus stood against the authorities, against violence and while it appears that the evil won out, the resurrection asserts that good does overcome evil, that life does overcome death. Thanks be to God for this story of  hope.

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