Mark 16:1-8

March 31, 2002


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Mae is an African-American grandmother living in a run-down neighborhood of the Bronx. She is tough, and she remains to this day fiercely determined to help her family and friends survive. Over the years, Mae has experienced one difficulty after another–the pain of a self-destructing community, a son hooked on drugs, a nephew in prison, an unsupportive husband, and now a deteriorating eye condition that will soon leave her blind. Yet Mae continues with alarming commitment to carry her family and her neighborhood on her seemingly tireless shoulders.

When I was in Mae’s home the last time just this past summer, nothing had changed. Children from all over the block sat on her porch, and her house continues to be an oasis of sorts in the middle of her community. Mae had just received a major award from the city of New York for her involvement in the lives of so many people, and although she was slow to tell me about it, I could see the satisfaction written all over her face. Mae cares deeply about people, regardless of who they are and what they might have done. Mae, as I have observed her over the years, loves people back to life.

We have traveled a good number of miles with Jesus in recent weeks, and we have stood by him during a wide variety of experiences. With Mark as our guide, we witnessed Jesus’ baptism and temptation. We watched in Galilee as he taught the crowds and healed the sick. We listened in on private conversations between Jesus and his disciples, particularly as they made their way south to Jerusalem. We entered the city with the shouting throng, and we endured the pain and anguish of our Lord’s final week, a week of rejection and suffering. Now, in our final passage here in Mark 16, we find ourselves standing beside the empty tomb. As we stand there, our thoughts quickly turn toward two groups of people: the women who stand with us, and the disciples who do not. I can’t help but wonder, will Jesus love them back to life?

Throughout his gospel, Mark repeatedly uses women–typically nameless women–to depict faithfulness and commitment to Jesus. As many people pressed in upon him in a Galilean village, for example, an unnamed woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years fought her way through the crowd to meet the Lord. “If I but touch his clothes,” she said, “I will be made well (5:28).” Sometime later, another woman–a Gentile, Mark informs us, a foreigner of Syrophoenician descent–threw herself at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cast a demon out of her stricken daughter (7:25). When Jesus hesitates, suggesting that the food he offers is for the people of Israel first, the woman remarkably responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Impressed by her insight and faith, Jesus grants her request.

Such scenes are seemingly endless in Mark. A poor widow, with virtually nothing to her name, drops her last two copper coins in the offering plate (12:42). On another occasion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon in the village of Bethany. There, in spite of the angry protests of various onlookers, she breaks open a jar of priceless ointment–worth nearly a year’s wages for a common laborer of the day–and pours it over Jesus’ head (14:3). “This woman has performed a good service for me,” Jesus said, “and what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

As Mark continues to share story after story of faithful and devoted women, he finally attaches a few names to faces when he discusses the closing events of Jesus’ life. While our Lord hangs painfully on the cross, various women intently look on. Among them are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (15:40). These women, Mark informs us, had followed Jesus throughout Galilee, caring for him all along the way. They had, along with many other women, made their way down to Jerusalem to be with him during these closing events. Shortly after the crucifixion, these same women, at least the two Marys, watched as Jesus was laid into the tomb (15:47). It comes as no particular surprise, then, to find Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome standing by the empty tomb here in Mark 16. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, one woman after another demonstrates devotion and dedication to Jesus. What began with an attempt to touch his cloak leads now to an attempt to anoint his body.

While weaving together this moving theme of women’s devotion to Jesus, Mark also portrays the contrasting struggles and failures of Jesus’ disciples–it’s a theme we have at least alluded to before. Although the disciples immediately leave their nets and follow Jesus when he calls (1:16-26; 2:14), they seem continually to trip and stumble. They fail to understand his parables (4:13; 7:17), panic in the boat when a storm arises (4:40), demonstrate no imagination when confronted with a hungry crowd (6:37; 8:4), and grow distressed when they themselves fail to bring food for their journey (8:14). They stand helpless and impotent when asked to cast an unclean spirit out of a young boy (9:19), and in spite of the fact that they have been told three times about the Lord’s upcoming death, they continue to seek power and self-advancement (9:31; 10:33-34). Day after day, both in Galilee and in route to Jerusalem, these disciples of Jesus never quite catch on.

Once Jesus and his followers arrive in Jerusalem, things go from bad to worse for the disciples. Now, rather than just doubting the Lord, they desert him. Judas sells him for a few pieces of silver (14:10), they all fall asleep repeatedly when a deeply distressed Jesus merely asks them to watch and pray (14:37-41), and Peter denies–not once, but three times–that he ever even knew Jesus (14:66-72). When Jesus was caught in the middle of the excruciating week leading up to his death, Mark informs us that the disciples “deserted him and fled (14:50).” While Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome watch with the other women as Jesus hangs on the cross, the disciples vanish into thin air. And although Mark tells us that the two Marys saw where Jesus was buried, he offers no comment about any of the disciples–not a single one of them. It again comes as no particular surprise, then, to note the total absence of the disciples as these three women stand by the empty tomb. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples again and again fumble the ball and run away. What began with the simple misunderstanding of a parable leads now to their total disappearance.

Here we are, then, standing by the empty tomb. The disciples are apparently nowhere to be found, but the women–Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome–are with us. For the time being. Soon, even they will run away, and we will be left alone to watch and wonder. The disciples never showed up at the empty tomb. The women came, looked, listened, and ran. And what explains both the disciples’ absence as well as the women’s departure? The words of the messenger, the young man dressed in a white robe: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he said. (16:7).”

Three times previously in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had told the disciples, not only about his approaching death, but also about his anticipated resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). “After three days I will rise again,” Jesus repeatedly said in their hearing. In fact, he even went so far as to tell these disciples that, following his resurrection, he would meet them back in Galilee where they had first met a few years before (14:28). They had, in other words, already heard the very same words now spoken by the young man before–right from Jesus’ own mouth–yet they either never understood or believed what he said. The very fact that the women are here instructed to remind the disciples of this earlier promise suggests that their hopes lie crushed in a smoldering pile of both disappointment and failure. They had failed to appreciate all that Jesus had come to do. They had turned their backs on him. They had denied knowing him. They had let him down. Some no doubt even thought that he had let them down.

On all accounts, the disciples are weary and broken, and their circumstances either prevent them from believing the words of Jesus or lead them to conclude that he doesn’t want them around anymore. If they had believed, they would have pitched their tents by the tomb, anxiously waiting for Jesus to come out. If the disciples had accepted Jesus’ love and grace, they would have already been there to greet the women when they finally arrived to anoint the body. When the young man says, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you,” he insinuates that the disciples, though having the necessary information before hand, lack faith and a sense of belonging. There is simply too much guilt and too much pain and too much disappointment standing in the way.

But what about the women? Why do the young man’s words send them away in fear and terror? They, we must remember, were not present when Jesus had earlier predicted his death and resurrection. Neither the two Marys nor Salome knew of the anticipated reunion in Galilee. They had not been prepped, so to speak. To them, the young man’s announcement comes as totally unexpected news. To be sure, they had been tending to Jesus’ needs for quite some time now. They had been faithful and kind, going about their business graciously and dependably. They had been doing good things and living good lives. They had never been asked, however, to believe anything of this magnitude–Jesus raised from the dead! They came to the tomb looking for a body to anoint, not for a risen Lord to serve. These new developments are simply more than they can process and assimilate–so they run away in fear.

The disciples–discouraged, defeated and missing in action. The women–attentive, dependable, and unsuspecting. For both the disciples and the women, the words of the young man bring frightening and unsettling news. But, once the true impact of these same words begins to sink in, we find in them, not despair, but hope. Not judgment, but grace. Not rejection, but love. Isn’t it astounding that, immediately following his resurrection, Jesus longs for the company of his disciples and these women? He wants to be with them. The same Jesus who grew frustrated when his followers repeatedly failed to catch on. The same Jesus who instructed would-be disciples to sell all of their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The same Jesus who insisted that the human thirst for personal power and position must be put to death. This same Jesus, though previously rejected and abandoned, rises to new life and suddenly announces, “Get my disciples and Peter, and all of you meet me in Galilee. I can hardly wait to see everyone.”

Some of the women who gathered at the tomb are with us here this morning. You do good things, and you live good lives. You are kind and gracious, and you serve faithfully and dependably. You play by the rules, and you never try to cause anybody any trouble. I’m thankful for all of you, just as I’m sure Jesus was thankful for the many good people who served around him. But the empty tomb–an encounter with the risen Christ–that is another matter. The empty tomb, though never completely comprehensible to any human mind, remains for you primarily an unsettling thought and disturbing idea. You are “threatened with resurrection,” as Julia Esquivel phrased it. It just doesn’t fit into your tidy, little box, and you have yet to experience the power and glory of Jesus on this side of the tomb. You are more than happy to anoint his body, but you don’t sense his resurrected presence in your ongoing life. “Go to Galilee. Jesus has already gone on before you, and he is terribly anxious to see you.”

And I’m quite certain that a number of the disciples are here this morning too. You’ve heard, but you wonder if you ever really believed. You started following Jesus at one time or another, but somewhere along the way you ran away. Perhaps Jesus disappointed you–he was not everything you thought he would be, and he did not do all that you wanted him to do. He left one of your prayers unanswered, one of your loved ones unhealed, one of your desires unmet, and you thought that he must still be dead and buried. Perhaps other aspiring disciples disappointed you–you overheard them denying Jesus and making a mockery of him, and you wanted no part of the whole thing. Perhaps you are overwhelmed because you feel like you have disappointed him. You have denied him yourself on more occasions than you can count, choosing worldly things over genuine discipleship. You have made a wreck of your life, done all sorts of things that you have no business doing, and you have hurt others around you. Now, you feel guilty, embarrassed, and unworthy, and everything within you tells you to run away and hide. “Go to Galilee. Jesus has already gone on before you, and he is terribly anxious to see you.”

This Jesus who walks among us does in fact call us to a life of radical commitment. His closing word to us here in Mark’s Gospel, however, is not one of judgment and condemnation. He does not wish to see these women and his disciples one last time so that he can scold them for their unbelief, as though they are escaped convicts walking dreadfully back to stand before the prison warden. When Jesus invites us to come back, he expresses the infinite love and grace that he has in his heart for every last one of us. For the women, and for the disciples.

Traditions concerning the lives of the original disciples following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are rich and varied. James, according to Acts 12:1-2, became the first of the twelve to die for his faith. John, so many Church sources tell us, lived to an old age in Ephesus, where he proclaimed Christ for all to hear. And Peter–good old foot-in-the-mouth, deny-the-Lord Peter. He most likely did make it all the way to Rome, where he too was executed for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Something apparently happened to change these people. To be sure, the Holy Spirit had come upon them following Jesus’ ascension into heaven. I believe, however, that something happened even before that. They mustered up the courage, put aside their guilt and disappointments, and went to Galilee, where they looked into the eyes of the risen Christ. When they did, they saw love and acceptance like they had never seen them before. I have good new for you today; Jesus, like dear Mae, loves people back to life. “Come,” Jesus invites us, “I’m terribly anxious to see you.”