They Were Afraid

Mark 11: 1-8
Easter Sunday 2015

What are you afraid of? There’s a lot to be afraid of in this world isn’t there? This past Tuesday the sun hadn’t risen at Garissa University College. Most students slept in their beds. A few had woken up to head to early morning prayers when five radical Somali Islamists (Al-Shabaab) gunmen stormed their campus and slaughtered 147 students who were identified as Christians. Why kind of a world do we live in?

This week Gov. Jerry Brown of California inaugurated a mandatory 25% reduction in the use of water because of the “mega-drought” the state is experiencing. Climatologists report that the 2013-2014 rainfall season is well on its way to becoming California’s driest period in more than 400 years. Climate scientists are saying that the extreme weather patterns we are experiencing from record cold, snowfall, wildfires, and heat are only the tip of the ice berg as our climate continues to change as the planet heats up and upsets weather patterns. That scares me. And it will be worse for our kids and grand kids.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s national best seller, “Being Mortal,” has opened a national discussion on the way American’s die. His basic thesis is that ¬mortality has become a medical problem instead of a human one. About 28% our insurance premiums are spent during the final months of our lives to keep us alive through heroic, expensive measures because we are so afraid to die. Yet mortality is the one big thing medicine cannot fix.
And what about the quiet fears we carry inside of us? On the outside we can be polished, professional, and put together but inside we hear voices from our families, friends, teachers, ex-spouses that still wound us: you’re stupid, you’re too fat, you’ll never amount to anything, you’re no good, why can’t you be like your sister?

When I was the pastor of a church in Cambridge, I remember walking through Harvard Yard with a church member who was a graduate student their earning his Ph.D. in philosophy. That’s no mean achievement. I remember him telling me, “You know 75% of us still think the admissions department made a mistake.” That can be terrifying feeling. Someday everyone will find out I’m really a fraud.

So where do you go for hope during those times when we’re scared out of our wits, when the world seems like it’s spinning off its axis? The situation for the disciples between Good Friday and Easter wasn’t much different. Their world was turned upside down, all their categories were shifted, their paradigm of how the world was supposed to work was no longer useful. When they joined Jesus in his procession into Jerusalem last Sunday, the last thing they expected was that their Master would wind up being crucified. The furthest thing from their minds was a crucified Messiah.

In the ancient world crucifixion was reserved for particular classes of people: people who committed especially violent crimes, people who engaged in sedition against the Roman government, and slaves who rebelled against their masters. In other words, crucifixion was essentially a device used by the Romans to terrorize dangerous populations into submission.

Consequently, to be crucified meant you were in a class of subversives, the worst of criminals, and rebellious slaves—in other words, to be at the bottom of the societal heap, to be the scum of the earth, to be a danger to society. In the ancient world, the response to anyone who had been crucified was instinctive revulsion. This is what Jesus faced some 2,000 years ago as he trudged toward Calvary. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

For us, the meaning of the cross of Jesus is an abstract theological question. For early Christians, it was a question that turned their stomachs. For us today, the cross has become a commonplace, almost trite symbol. It is seen on top of churches, or dangling from a necklace, or added to the charm bracelet of a little girl. But this was not the case when the New Testament was written. The cross represented the most brutal form of death by torture. To talk about the cross in the ancient world would be like talking today about instruments of torture like cattle prods, acid baths, or water-boarding. To wear a replica of a cross around your neck would be like wearing a miniature electric chair or gas chamber around your neck today. It was not something done in polite company or the topic of conversation at cocktail parties.

None of Jesus’ disciples stood at the foot of the cross and exclaimed, “He died for me!” If they stood there at all, it would be in abject horror. They were in panic. They were in fear. And they didn’t have an inkling about what this awful event might mean. When you talk to someone today who knows nothing of the Christian faith and mention the cross, he or she will probably just look at you oddly. Not so in the ancient world. Just to mention the cross was in poor taste. And to suggest that someone should believe in a person who had been crucified was just a bad joke. In fact, there are a number of ancient graffiti that have been discovered which portray Jesus on the cross with an ass’s head rather than a human head. The implication is that those who worship someone who is crucified are asses themselves.

With this appreciation of the stigma attached to those crucified, we can understand the reaction of the women as they went to the tomb the next morning: “they were afraid.” That’s how Mark ends his presentation of the Easter story. “They were afraid.” Mark’s account of that first Easter is a meager and disappointing story. It does not finish with joyful tears but with confusion and fears.

Three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, went to the tomb at about dawn to place perfumes on the body. Even though it was still dark, just before dawn, when they got to the tomb they could see that someone had already rolled back the stone. There was a man in a dazzling white robe. He tells them that Jesus is alive! He tells them to go back and tell the men who were disciples what has happened. You might think that would delight them. But no, it confused and frightened them.

And they [the three women] went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark’s story ends “not with a bang but a whimper.”

If we stay with Mark at verse 8, there is no story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus near the tomb, there are no excited women running to tell the other disciples their good news, there is no Peter and John running to the tomb to see for themselves, there is no story of the walk to Emmaus and the breaking of bread, and no story of Jesus greeting his friends behind locked doors. Mark’s account is brief and inconclusive. Just three women suffering shock.

For my part, I am content if Mark decided to end it at verse 8, with the women confused and keeping quiet about their weird experience at the empty tomb. That seems to be nearer to what I might expect to happen. That would make it similar to Luke’s story where we are told that when the women do try telling the male disciples, but they are met with disbelief: “These words seemed to them an idle tale”. Such confusion and disbelief rings true to me. It makes an immediate connection with the world as we know it—a world full of shock.

You go down to breakfast and suddenly become aware that a seat at the table is vacant. You see something funny on television and say, “I’ll have to tell Mary about this.” But then you remember that Mary has gone, slipped into death. You pick up the phone to ask John about some business deal, only to recall that John died last month. After 24 years with the same firm, you find out the company is “downsizing” and you’re no longer needed. We shake our heads in disbelief as we read another newspaper story of parent’s killing their children. Yeah, shock. That’s a lot of life.

Matthew, John, Luke all end the story of the resurrection by telling more stories of resurrection appearances, of warm reunions with the disciples and joy. Mark says that, even though the women were told to “Go!” and to “Tell!” they didn’t because they were afraid.

Today, in our hymns, in the music of Easter you will hear joy, majesty, glory, praise, but I don’t think you’ll hear much fear. Maybe Mark wants us to think about the good news at Easter as not only joyful, majestic, and glorious but also as fearful. The women felt fear. When you think about it, being met by a once dead man is a fearful thing to contemplate. On one level, it’s the stuff of horror movies.

Furthermore, these women were among the disciples of Jesus who, just a couple of days before had deserted Jesus in his great hour of need (15:40-41). If Jesus is back from the dead, what will be his attitude toward those who deserted him and fled into the night when the going got rough?
I believe their fear lay even deeper than this. If Jesus has been defeated, crucified, dead, and buried, then what we suspected about the world is true. Evil is powerful. Yes, there are sometimes brief bursts of goodness, but eventually it all ends in death. Who cares? It all ends at the cemetery in dust, forgetfulness, finitude, and extinction.

So stiff upper lip, no need to whine; eat, drink, and be merry, make the most of the moment. Thoughtful, sober folk like you know how to get on in life even with the knowledge that you and all you love are terminal. A bit bleak, but I expect you can take it. Become a stoic, a cynic, a romantic, or just try not to dwell upon it. We all have various resources for dealing with Good Friday, the cemetery, the stone before the tomb, and so on.
But if Jesus is raised, if the stone is rolled away and life outlasts death and God has the last word then…there is some reason for the women to fear. The facts of life and death are turned on their head. Nothing is secure and fixed now. Jesus is raised. God is loose, on the move.
He has been raised; he is not here…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.

Now that’s awesome. If it’s true, then you will not walk out of here in the same way that you came in. The point is this: if God has raised someone from the dead who was crucified, whom the world pronounced as despicable, and calls him Lord, then we can no longer hold on to the common values of respectability that are characteristic of normal human society. All of our assumptions about what constitutes right and wrong, about what is worthwhile, about what really matters-—all that has to be revised and reversed. To worship a crucified and raised Messiah means an utter transformation in all that we hold important.

At the 50th anniversary of the birth of the United Church of Christ, I heard Bishop Desmund Tutu speak of the miracle of South Africa. “If you told me a decade ago that South Africa—a nation brutalized by apartheid, a country filled with hate, violence, and oppression—would be free and that Nelson Mandella would be our president, I would tell you that you were crazy.” But you know what, people worked and prayed and boycotted. The church in South Africa and the world took up its prophetic call and said No! to this heinous injustice, sometimes in the face of extreme repression. And it was done without violent revolution. Tutu remarked that sometimes Christians say to him, “I can’t believe this happened.” “Why,” he asks. “Weren’t you praying for us?” “Yes,” they reply. “Then why are you surprised?” he’ll ask. We’re surprised because it’s not supposed to work that way. Were in awe when resurrection power actually shows up.

But that power is not only out there. It’s right here in this sanctuary. It’s right here in human hearts. It’s right here in ordinary lives, like yours and mine. The angel in the gospel today says that Jesus rose, that he is not there, that he has “Gone on ahead of you to Galilee.”

Do you know where Galilee is? Well, it’s nowhere special. It is where Nazareth is, the hometown of Jesus. Why mention the name of the place at all? There is nothing special about Galilee. It could be Milton or Mattapan or Melrose. Maybe that’s why it’s mentioned. The extraordinarily raised-from-the-dead Christ returns to the ordinary Galilee. It seems to me that, in these gospel details, a claim is being made. That claim is that Easter has something to do with the ordinary. The risen Christ is raised, but he is raised into this world, our world, where everything that lives, dies; where the stock market can be at 14,000 points one week and 7,000 the next; where every day those whom we love are leaving us, departing the scene, and so are we.

So now what? Keep doing what you were doing. Go back to work. The gospels show the disciples all going back to work. After all, Easter, “The first day of the week,” was the Jewish workday. At the beginning of the workweek after the rest of the Sabbath, they go back to what they were doing in daily life. Everything was getting back to normal now, after the events of the past violent weekend. And the risen Christ was raised on that day, that ordinary, beginning-of-the-work-week day.

And it’s this same Resurrected One who shows up in our ordinary lives. Our God was raised into the ordinariness of life, in the midst of financial crises, global conflict, and human stupidity and wickedness. Now, everything has been redeemed. Death does not have the last word. The resurrection breaks out everywhere. Shocking. Awesome.

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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