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Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 1: Tests of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 27, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Mark 16:1-8
One of the songs that young people sing attests to the reality of this glorious Easter morning.
“Every morning is Easter morning, from now on!
Every day is Resurrection Day, the past is over and gone!
Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear, good riddance!
Hello life, hello sun! I am one of the Easter People!
My new life has begun!”
Easter, then, is resurrection. Easter is the day that “stone was rolled back.”
As Mark tells the story, this glorious proclamation of Easter comes only after a terrible weekend of despair and hopelessness. The disciples, including the women, who were with Jesus, have endured his shameful and devastating death. And since God had not intervened as Jesus hung on the cross, it seemed that evil had won and that the message and ministry of Jesus had been overcome by people of the status quo. But then Easter happens!
Mark begins by stating that when the Sabbath was over three women brought spices so that they might go and anoint the body. Jesus had died on Friday. Consequently, there had not been time for a decent burial or preparation of the body for entombment. The Sabbath began on Friday evening. Thus, the new week started as chapter 16 opens.
Now, Mark identifies the three women who come to the tomb as Mary Magdelene; Mary, the mother of James; and Salome. As scholars remind us, we know Mary Magdelene from early stories, though there is no good reason to identify her with the woman who is caught in adultery. The identity of the other women is less clear. The mother of James may also be the mother of Jesus, but that is uncertain. And Salome must have been well known in the early church as a witness to the resurrection.
For Mark, the important thing is that these three faithful women disciples are returning to the tomb to show their love for Jesus. While the Twelve had deserted Jesus, these women had stayed at the foot of the cross and witnessed his death (15:40-41). At this point, they are the ones with courage enough to be identified with him even after his apparent defeat and death.
In no way did these women disciples come to the tomb expecting the resurrection. Rather, they are bringing spices to anoint a dead body. They are convinced that the dream Jesus brought is now over. The kingdom has not come and God has not intervened. In their devotion, all that is left to do is to express their love by anointing the body of their prophet and friend.
The absence of any expectation of a resurrection is fairly obvious from the women’s chief worry expressed on their way to the tomb. They asked, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (16:3).
You see, Jesus had been buried in a tomb that was carved out of soft rock and so it was something of a cave. The most recent person to die would be on a stone bed in the chamber. That person would lie there for about a year. At that point, his or her bones would be gathered into a box or placed on a shelf to make room for the next person who died to occupy the bed. So the body of the recently deceased would, then, be available for treatment such as anointing it with spices. These devoted disciples of Jesus, out of respect, simply want to grant him the proper treatment of his body for burial.
Messenger and Message
But much to the women’s surprise, when they arrive, they find that the stone has already been rolled away and the tomb empty. Rather than finding the body of Jesus, they see only a young man who, for the most part, has been identified as an angel. This messenger tells the women that Jesus has been raised.
We might think that these women would be joyful and show some excitement. But we are told only that they are alarmed. They simply do not know what to think. In 1,000 years they would not have expected a resurrection. But here they are, face-to-face with an empty tomb.
Note here that for Mark, the proof of the resurrection is the absence of a body. In Mark, there are no resurrection appearances, just the proclamation that Jesus has been raised. That is enough to give hope and point out that God has acted in the most powerful of all ways.
In addition, the messenger also gives these women a task! He send them to tell the disciples, especially Peter, that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Why Galilee? Scholars inform us that the command to go to Galilee makes one thing clear: Jerusalem is not the center of God’s movement. The disciples’ future lies elsewhere. Jerusalem has become the city of the fruitless and doomed temple, the strong hold of hostility to the gospel, and the place of Jesus’ savage execution.
In the Gospel, scholars point out that Galilee has been the place of calling, faith, compassion, healing power, and authority. By going back to Galilee where Jesus will be, the disciples go back to the promising birth of their call to discipleship. There they can regroup and begin again the journey of discipleship.
The late Paul S. Minear, biblical scholar, puts it well when he said, “God does not disclose the Resurrection fact except to enlist people in a task.”
Now, for the rest of this lesson, I want us to consider three key points in Mark’s story of Jesus’ resurrection.
Love and Power
For many years, my wife and I would receive a letter from her mother about every week. More often than not there would be a phrase in that letter that especially appealed to me. “And tell Hal!” “And tell Hal,” she’d say. Usually some particular “good news” of special interest would follow.
This is precisely what happened on the first Easter morning. The messenger (angel) told the women to go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee …” (16:7). In all probability, these are the most precious words in this passage.
As you recall, the disciples are those who only days before had deserted Jesus in his time of trouble. Then there was the mammoth denial of Jesus by our over-confident Peter. But this special message of comfort, naming Peter specifically, removed a great deal of his anguish. Jesus still loved all his disciples, including Peter, and had plans for them all.
The truth is these Twelve disciples had failed in a big way, but there failures were overcome by an exceedingly greater power of the resurrection. And that is also true of our failures. No failure is so great that the power of God cannot overcome it.
The Meaning of the Resurrection
Mark offers no explicit interpretation of the resurrection. He does not answer the prying questions that both the skeptical and the pious might ask today: When did he arise? In what form? What evidence enables us to be sure? Mark simply argues that Jesus has been resurrected, therefore, he is not here. Jesus promised that God would raise him from the dead, and the messenger announces that God has made it a reality. So faith rests on its proclamation of the resurrection and going to see him.
One thing we do have in Mark’s presentation of the resurrection story is the messenger providing assurance of forgiveness by telling the women to prepare the disciples to see Jesus. But beyond this, Mark says nothing about what the resurrection means.
But other New Testament writers do give further interpretation to this overwhelming act of God. For instance, Paul talks about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (among other places), and he declares that the resurrection of Christ is the assurance that God has more power than all the forces of evil combined, even more power than death. Even after Jesus has been killed, God has the power to raise him. Thus, Jesus endured the worst that evil could dish out, and God overcame it to bring blessing and reconciliation to God’s people.
According to scholars, these New Testament writers further point out that this power of God has a personal and a worldwide, even cosmic dimension. The resurrection of Christ is the assurance that God will raise believers who are faithful. Whatever difficulties or losses believers endure, however difficult their lives, the resurrection of Christ is the assurance that God is not only with us in hardship but promises new life after troubles. In effect, Paul sees the resurrection of Christ as the guarantee of the resurrection of believers.
Summarizing, the resurrection declares that God has placed His stamp of approval upon Jesus and his way of life. The resurrection declares that God most assuredly will have the last word! And the resurrection declares that God has taken care of death!
The Strange Ending
The last line of Mark’s Gospel (16:8) may be the most astounding of all. The witnesses to the resurrection run away and tell no one because they are afraid. How can Mark’s story of the resurrection end like that? There is no appearance of the resurrected Christ, no recognition or proclamation of his resurrection, only fear and silence.
Scholars make clear that ancient copyists were so distressed by this ending in Mark that though wrote several alternative endings. These endings appear in some translations as verses 9-16. However, the oldest translations we have of Mark do not include verses 9-16. Consequently, we can conclude that verse eight is the final verse.
Our consolation is that the readers of Mark know that the story does not stop with the women leaving the tomb and telling no one. Simply put, we are reading this Gospel only because their silence was only temporary. Otherwise the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ would not have moved forward.
So, why this ending? Mark wants his readers to finish the story, to tell others of the power of the resurrection in their lives. He wants his readers to tell others how they deal with failure, live with ambiguity, understand the reality of God’s power in suffering and experience restoration and empowerment as did those first followers of Christ.
As far as Mark is concerned, he has said all that he thinks needs to be said. The central and clear proclamation of the good news gives his church the foundation it needs to live as God’s people. Thus, our continuing talk is to tell the story of the resurrection of Christ – of his presence now and of his all-sufficiency.
The late William Sloan Coffin was speaking for numbers of us when he said, “I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory but as a presence.”
- What stands out as something important in Mark’s telling of the resurrection of Christ?
- Ask class members to discuss the impact the resurrection has had on their individual lives.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries