Pass the Butter

My Dad likes to tell this story. You see, when he was a kid, he was one of three brothers. And they were pretty wild sometimes. From hearing them talk about it, my grandmother was exhausted for the entirety of her 20s.

So anyways, one night my dad, his brothers, his mom and his dad sat down for dinner. And my dad wanted some butter to put on his bread. So he says to his brother Joe, “Hey Joe, can you pass me the butter?”

And Joe looks back and him and says, “sure!” and throws the stick of butter at his face.

And that was the day that my father learned that sometimes, you can get what you want, but not what you need.

I tell you this story because the Gospel of Mark, where our lesson comes from today, often gives us, not exactly what we want or expect, but what we need.

Mark is the Gospel that is often accused of being, to put it politely, the most blue-collar of gospels. It was probably written earliest, probably around 70 CE, which we can say because Matthew and Luke both appear to have borrowed heavily from it (these days we would call that plagiarism). It isn’t written with the flowery language and high metaphor of John’s Gospel. It is written in “common” ancient Greek, the kind of Greek that my philosophy professors in college told me not to waste my time on, because nothing good was written in it.

But even setting that aside, Mark is a little odd. In Mark, Jesus is kind of strange. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus seems to want to keep himself a secret—he will heal someone miraculously, and then tell them to go home and keep it to themselves. When people start calling him the Messiah he tells them they don’t know what they are talking about. And then there’s the disciples. They never seem to get it in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is always pulling them aside to explain simple parables over and over again. Three times he tells them that he will be arrested, convicted, and killed, and they can hardly be bothered to listen, let alone understand.

And then there is our lesson for this morning. The Gospel tells us that as the sun was rising on the day after the Sabbath, the women went to the tomb. They were worried about practical matters. Things like: who will move the stone out of the doorway when we get there, so that we can anoint Jesus’ body? Who will wash his arms? Who will brush his hair? How will we say goodbye?

What they aren’t expecting is to find the tomb already open. What they aren’t expecting is a strange man they don’t know sitting inside, waiting for them.

Let me just take a moment to point out that this man clearly doesn’t know one of the cardinal rules for strangers, which is this: if you want to scare someone, tell them to not be afraid. He does an awful job of calming these women down.

The women don’t expect this man to tell them that the Jesus they knew isn’t dead but alive. How could he be? Unlike the disciples, the women were there when Jesus hung on a cross, the women heard him cry out to God and breathe his last, the women followed close behind as his body was laid in the tomb. They saw it all.

So how could he possibly be in Galilee?

Most English translations would have you believe that the story ends with the women fleeing in fear and amazement, afraid to tell anyone what they have seen and heard, but the truth is more complicated than that. One of the challenges of reading a story written in another language is that sometimes you lose things in translation. And this is one of those moments.

If you were to look at your bible right now, that last verse looks something like this:

and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

But what the Greek actually says is more like:

the women fled from the tomb, for terror had seized them. And being afraid, they said nothing to anyone, because….

Mark’s Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence.

I wonder why?

This ending was so distressing, so unsatisfying to the early Christian communities that they seem to have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake. Perhaps the last page of the manuscript got lost. So they made up their own, cleaner endings. And if you look in most bibles, they will give you two alternate endings to Mark. There’s the shorter ending, where the women go and tell the disciples, and the disciples go and tell the world. And then there’s the longer ending, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and his disciples, commissions them, and ascends into heaven. Both of them clean up the story, but neither one is original.

Now I happen to love Mark’s Gospel. I think that his skill as a writer is vastly under-appreciated by the greek snobs of the world, and I would contend that Mark knows exactly what he is doing. He meant to end his gospel this way.

Mark knows that the truth of the resurrection is that it doesn’t end. We can run to the tomb, expecting all sorts of things, but we will never find Jesus where we expect. As the man tells us again and again, Jesus is going on ahead of us. He is on the move.

Which means, that if we want to be with Jesus, we better get moving ourselves.

I once read somewhere that when the man in the tomb tells the women that Jesus is in Galilee, one thing he may be saying is that Jesus is going back to where it all began. And that if we want to know what it means to follow Jesus, we should too. That means going back to the beginning of the story, back to Mark 1, and reading it again. Perhaps we are meant to hear everything that has come before in light of what we now know—that Christ is risen, that death is conquered, that the light shines in the darkness.

It’s sort of like watching a movie with a killer twist. I remember the first time I saw “the Sixth Sense.” For 99% of the movie, you think you know what is happening, until the moment that you realize that every assumption you made was wrong. You can’t watch that movie the same way ever again. You can’t unlearn what you know, and it changes the way you see everything that has come before.

So it is with the story of Jesus. Everything is different in light of resurrection.

That ending takes on more significance too. Mark wants us to understand that knowledge is a powerful thing. By reading the Gospel, we have become part of it. And just like the disciples and the frightened women, we have to decide what we will do with the Good News we have received. Will we share the news, that the tomb is empty, or will we run and hide in fear? Will we keep living as we always have, or will we go and seek the risen Lord? Will we persist in the way things are, or will we let this story shape us, change us, transform us?

We decide whether the story ends or continues. It is up to us.

For Mark, what matters most is how we finish that sentence. You are here because someone you love found life and hope in this story, someone’s life was transformed by the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they loved you enough to share it with you. Now it is your turn. Let us go ahead to Galilee, for Christ is risen, and is going on ahead of us.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

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