When we read the four Gospel accounts, each gospeler has a slighter different version of the visitation of the women to the tomb. I think the most remarkable one is the one written in the shortest form, and that is the Gospel of Mark. This is the most holy of days, the Feast of the Resurrection, the Easter Event, the core of our proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is the foundation of faith and hope. It is the cornerstone of our theology and the watershed of human history. We shout with joy the Easter acclamation “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” And then we read in Mark’s Gospel an account that ends with the desolate words, “And they 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.”

There’s a very disconnect there. Aren’t we missing something vitally important? How can we go into the world rejoicing with a message that in Mark’s case focuses on paralyzing fear? Well sermons are the journey of a speaker and listeners traveling together seeking truth. We’ve come to a rough patch right at the beginning, and so this speaker bids you to take a short detour with me around some apparent contradictions in order to come back to a higher place on the road to understanding. Washingtonians know all about detours.

Mark’s is the earliest and the shortest of the Gospels written only thirty-five or forty years after the resurrection and while some of the eyewitnesses were still alive. The earliest readers might have been able to turn to Mary Magdalene or the other Mary, or to Salome, and to ask, “Was it so?” And one of those venerable old saints would nod and reply, “It was so.”

Furthermore, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of early handwritten fragments of whole texts of Mark going all the way back to about AD 250 that come from all around the Mediterranean world. Nothing remotely akin to such a magnitude of evidence or such antiquity exists to verify secular events of that era. And put all those markings and manuscripts together and they are in remarkable agreement, except for one thing. And that is the ending.

Some versions add another fifteen lines or so of good news, such as we heard today. But the best texts end with cowardly men and frightened women. The women who went to the tomb and found it empty had the opportunity to do what the men did not do, but they too failed. The women at the tomb, like the men at the crucifixion, fled the scene in fear. It’s not an edifying conclusion.

And now we’ve come to our brief detour, and are back on the main road in the task of making an Easter sermon together. Thanks be to God we do not easily tolerate awkward endings. It is true the women who stood before the empty tomb on the first Easter morn could not carry out the basic tasks of disciples, that of bearing witness. Even the presence in the tomb of a young man or an angel in white robes was insufficient motivation. The women didn’t get it. They remained spiritually blind in hiding, in a hostile community and silent about Jesus in the tomb.

Mark could end his Gospel account as he did because he knew the rest of the story. When Mark wrote he was fully aware that fifty days after the Resurrection on the Day of Pentecost the disciples were energized by the Spirit of the Risen Christ. They found courage, stepped into the public arena and spoke only of the Jesus whom they had seen on both sides of death. They had been empowered by the risen Christ.

Elsewhere in Scripture we are told that thousands in Jerusalem believed and were baptized in the months that followed. Despite hostility from the Temple religious establishment and persecution by the Roman authorities, the message of the Resurrection spread from Jerusalem out through all of Palestine, and within a few years the Good News was carried to Africa and then into the Gentile world all around the Mediterranean and possibly even to India. And within a hundred years the Gospel had reached the ends of the known world, the place we now call England.

The original disciples who fled the cross and then the empty tomb soon found the courage to speak forth the message of Jesus Christ and even to die for it. Countless others in subsequent generations similarly have been emboldened, including those in this present time. Clearly, a transforming power nothing short of a new creation touched those believers. It is the power of the Resurrection set loose in this world.

Mark ended his version of the Gospel account as he did because he knew the Church in every generation would add its own ending. It’s an open invitation to give our witness by saying, “Yes, that’s how it was.” But let me tell you what’s happening now.

I’m reminded of a prayer by a humble Appalachian woman. She prayed, “O God, I ain’t what I ought to be; thank you that I’m not what I used to be; praise the Lord for what I’m going to be.” Her words aren’t very refined, but her theology was on target. The good news of Jesus Christ did not replace the bad news in that it didn’t erase it. It resurrected out of it. The crucifixion of Jesus on a garbage dump in Jerusalem is hideous. It’s senselessly cruel and gross injustice, unspeakable suffering. The empty tomb remains a dark cavern with the lingering smell of death. But in the most glorious of all paradoxes, the Resurrection can transfer fear and foreboding into new life now and in the hope of eternal life to come.

The women stood in fear before the empty tomb because it had not yet been revealed that the resurrected Christ stood with them on this side of death. Christ rose into this world so that we might claim the gift of resurrection beginning here and now.

Like the Appalachian woman, we have to confess we’re not what we ought to be, but with Christ’s help we need not be the victims of sin and fear we used to be. And most certainly we can claim the promise of our own transformation in this life and in the life to come.

The Resurrection of Jesus did not end suffering. But it did open the way for the struggle to make some sense. A few years ago I was the recipient of grace through another man’s suffering. My gift came from a priest who was only a few days from death after a long bout with cancer. He telephoned me to share the prospect of his imminent death and to tell me it wasn’t at all foreboding; in fact, he was looking forward to it. Fear, however, lurked in the suffering. The priest confessed that for a while he could not make any sense out of that suffering. He was afraid and bitter that he had to bear such a burden. Then he began to reflect on the cross and the suffering that Jesus bore for him. In that exercise suffering began to give way to a sense of being drawn into the fullness of God’s embrace and experience of Resurrection. It occurred to my priest friend that if Jesus could suffer for him on the cross, my friend could in turn use his suffering in terminal illness as a gift to someone else. I was the recipient of that gift. While I am humbled by my call to be a bishop and grateful for it at the same time, certain burdens of this calling have to be born alone. Occasionally, they can be a form of suffering. And my dying friend called me at one of those times and took my suffering into his. As he faced death he became an agent of resurrection for me. If it was in Christ who has given us the gift of resurrection, so we can give it to someone else.

We should be grateful for Mark’s uncomfortable ending because it is so human. Jesus was abandoned by his followers at the end of his life, and Scripture doesn’t hide either their failures or their foibles. By human reckoning it could be said the original followers forfeited their calls when they fled the scene. Fortunately God’s reasoning is not like human reasoning. The risen Christ returned to the world not to find new and more dependable disciples but to redeem the failed ones. God knows, and we know, that fear will always lurk within us. Christ’s Resurrection offers no magic solution of change without struggle because to be human is to struggle.

It was no different in the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. What we are given is a way through Christ to break the grip of fear and death. Fear may always remain, but it need not dominate. Sin is universal through our actions and omissions, but forgiveness is available if we seek amendment of life. Death still will claim us all at the end of this mortal life, but the Easter story guarantees that even death has been conquered. What was our ultimate defeat now can be the doorway to a fuller life with the risen Lord.

We end our Easter sermon with one last visit with the women who went to the tomb. We, like they, do not want to live with unfinished endings. Jesus rose not only to bless us but to commission us to continue the work that he began in this world. Whatever our frailties, we are all that God has to work with. The only Christ that most of the world will ever see is the Christ that shows forth in us.

That’s sobering. But part of the good news is that we do not have to figure it all out ourselves. God has given us ways to connect with the power of the Resurrection. We have written Scriptures, a living word. The Bible contains rules, but it’s not primarily a rule book. Nor is it a blue print for a perfect society. In the whole the Bible is a journey book of spiritual discovery and revelation through time. It builds its truth upon truth and must be applied in ever changing contexts of human life. It’s fine, even admirable, to conserve those biblical truths provided we apply them with the same liberality and compassion that Jesus did. We have Baptism that joins us to Christ and to one another. In the waters of Baptism we are buried with Christ. By them we share in his Resurrection and through them we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. As we enter the waters of Baptism we emerge into the beginning of our Resurrection. It’s not a passive process. All baptized people are called to ministry, and we are given the gifts to carry out the work that Christ has called us to do.

We have a community of faith known as the Church on earth. Institutionally, it too knows fear and sin. But it also lives out the Resurrection in proclamation and service. In his earthly ministry Jesus never once spoke of personal salvation. He always called women and men into a faith community or else sent them out to form one.

We have the gift of the Eucharist, the sacrament of new creation. We offer the bread and the wine as icons of our life and labor. We offer our prayers for all of creation, and we offer ourselves. That over all that we have offered we pray, “Come Holy Spirit, transform them and us to your glory.” We receive the body and blood for the strength to go forth to do the work that Christ has called us to do as agents of Resurrection, to proclaim Christ’s good news, to serve others, to make peace, to restore harmony and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Go now and add your Easter witness as Mark has invited you to do.

Alleluia, Christ has risen. Amen.