Saturday, April 7, 2012

It Is Not Yet Finished

RCL Easter B
8 April 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            When I was twelve years old, my parents took my sister and me to see the film, The Agony and the Ecstasy.  The film tells the story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, commission by Pope Julius II (played by Rex Harrison) and undertaken by Michelangelo (played by Charlton Heston).

            The project was frustrated by many delays, partly caused by Julius’ many wars, and by artistic tantrums on the part of Michelangelo.  At various points during the film Julius asks Michelangelo impatiently, “When will you make an end?”  “When I am finished,” replies Michelangelo.

            Of the various accounts of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth the version in the gospel according to Mark is the shortest and ends on an unfinished note:  “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  (Mark 16.8)

            Since Mark is considered the oldest surviving gospel and the foundation upon which Matthew and Luke built their versions of the Jesus story, such an abrupt and confusing ending is most unsatisfactory.  Later writers tried to improve on Mark’s narrative.  One writer contributed a short ending in which the women tell those around Peter of what they had seen.  Another writer contributed a longer ending which includes the infamous reference to picking up snakes, a practice known among some Pentecostal groups primarily in the southern region of the United States.

            But maybe, just maybe, Mark’s gospel ends just the way it’s supposed to end.  The women find the tomb empty.  They have a vision of an angel who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is back in the ‘mission field’ of Galilee.  The angel commissions the women to share the message of Jesus.  That’s the end of the story.

            But the women are afraid.  Who wouldn’t be afraid to spread the news that God refuses to allow death to claim the rabbi the authorities have executed, that this rabbi is alive and continuing his mission and that the turmoil of the last few days is likely to go on for a lot longer?  Perhaps Mark is encouraging his original audience to similar acts of faithfulness so that they might succeed where the first followers of Jesus did not (cf. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1844 n.).

            Perhaps, just perhaps, Mark is saying that the resurrection of Jesus is not an event but an ongoing movement.  Perhaps the resurrection is not yet finished because the message of the resurrection, a stumbling block to some people and foolishness to others, still needs to be shared throughout all time and space.  Mark’s gospel is unfinished because God is not yet finished, because we are not yet finished, with the work begun in the ministry of Jesus two thousand years ago.

            Recently I attended an event featuring Karen Armstrong, the English religious scholar, and sponsored by the Ismaili Muslim community here in Metro Vancouver.  Her present project is known as the Charter of Compassion.  Her hope is to create a network of individuals and communities worldwide who sign on to the Charter and commit themselves to the life-long task of living and encouraging lives of compassion and respect.  Her work is, I believe, a manifestation of the call of Mark to share in the unfinished work of God, begun in Jesus of Nazareth and continued in us.

            As we look around us, we can see the evidence that what God began in Jesus has yet to be accomplished in its fullness in our world.  To some people this situation is a counsel of despair and they withdraw from any activity intended to change the world.  To others the world’s situation is a license to serve their own interests and ignore the needs to others.

            To those who are held in the embrace of Jesus of Nazareth and emboldened by the resurrection, the needs and concerns of our world only renew their commitment to live gospel-shaped lives and to work with other people of faith in the healing of creation.  But this is not easy work and there are many pressures upon us to conform to the world as it is rather than help to mould the world as it can be.

            When Paula and I were in Indiana, our Saturday nights were often spent listening to Garrison Keillor’s radio programme, “A Prairie Home Companion”, on American Public Radio.  Among its fictitious sponsors was ‘Powder Milk Biscuits’ which ‘gave shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done’.

            My friends, we know what needs to be done.  In Jesus of Nazareth we have seen who we are meant to be as creatures beloved by God and made in God’s image.  But there is still work to be done if all human beings are to come to know who they as God’s beloved.  If there is any ending to Mark’s gospel, then it is not written with pen and ink on a parchment page.  Those who were not satisfied with how Mark brought his story to a conclusion have, perhaps, missed its point.

            The ending of the gospel according to Mark is written in the lives of shy people, refreshed by the waters of baptism and fed with the bread and wine from this table.  It is written by shy people who get us and do what needs to be done:  Go tell all the world that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that he is working in us to enable every human being become truly and fully alive.  Amen.

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