Monday, December 21, 2015

The Tomb is Empty: Fear vs. Faith

It may be Christmas time, but it's never too early to celebrate Easter!  Mark 16:1-8 (NRSV) says this: "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, 'Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?'  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  But 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.'  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

We're told that just after the sun had risen, the women went to the tomb.  At this point, they had no idea that it wasn't just the sun which had peaked above the horizon, but the true son, the Son of God had risen from the dead.  And it wasn't just the first day of the week, it was the first day of a brand new age - the new creation had begun!  The most important part of God's rescue operation had been completed with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah - Jesus the Son of the living God.  These women had not only followed Jesus all the way to his death on the cross, they had followed him all the way to the grave as he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.  And now they had come to complete his burial; to wrap his body with aromatic perfumes and spices.  They, far more than Jesus' male companions, had been loyal to the end.  Yet, they must have by this point realized that Jesus' messianic movement had ended in failure - a crucified messiah being an oxymoron for a Jew of the first century.     

But, if somehow, as the empty tomb and the man in white claimed, God had raised him from the dead, then that would have been the sign of God's vindication.  He was in fact who he had claimed to be. In fact, he was even greater than anyone could have imagined him to be.  He wasn't just the Messiah, he was the risen Lord, the Savior of the world!

It's interesting that it was a group of women who were the first to arrive at the tomb.  Women weren't considered to be credible witnesses in the ancient world.  If someone was going to make this story up, they wouldn't have chosen a bunch of ladies for this important role.  But, here again, we're reminded that God's ways are not our ways.

Verse 6 tells us that the women had come to the tomb looking for Jesus.  But they came looking in the wrong place.  Death could not keep him - death could not defeat him.  The tomb was empty.  The tomb is empty.  Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified has been raised from the dead!  Some stories are too good to be true.  This story, and the difference that it makes for the whole world, is too good not to be true.

But where does Mark's gospel end?  Have a look in your Bible and you'll see a footnote telling you that the oldest Greek manuscripts end at verse 8.  It's safe to say that verses 9-20 were not original to Mark.  They seem to be a summary of the resurrection narratives from the other gospels.  They must have been added onto what we call verse 8 by a later scribe who couldn't figure out why Mark's gospel would end so abruptly.  That leaves us with two options regarding the ending of Mark.  Either, Mark's original ending was somehow lost.  Or, Mark intentionally ended his gospel at verse 8.  I personally believe the latter; that Mark ends his story of Jesus with the women fleeing the tomb in fear.  Why?

Fear is a major theme in the gospel of Mark.  In fact, fear, not doubt is the enemy of faith according to Mark.  After stilling the storm, Jesus in Mark 4:40 said, "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"  In the next chapter, after he had exorcised the demoniac's demons, the local townspeople asked Jesus to depart from their region because they were afraid.  Later in the same chapter, a woman suffering from a bleeding condition touched Jesus' cloak and was healed.  Jesus, realizing that power had gone forth from him, asked, "Who touched my clothes?"  The woman came and fell at Jesus' feet in fear and trembling.  His response to her was, "Daughter, your faith has made you well."  Jesus was on the way to attend to the sick daughter of a man named Jairus.  Right after healing the bleeding woman, some people arrived and informed Jairus that his daughter had died.  Jesus said to Jairus, "Do not fear, only believe."  Jesus then proceeded to raise Jairus' daughter from the dead.  Later in the gospel, as Jesus walked on the water, we're told that his disciples were terrified.  Peter, James, and John were also terrified on the Mountain of Transfiguration.  Later, when Jesus spoke of his impending death and resurrection, his disciples did not understand what he was talking about, but were too afraid to ask him what he meant.  And when they were on the road going up to Jerusalem, his disciples followed him, but they were afraid.  The disciples must have been afraid when they abandoned Jesus at his arrest.  It must have been his fear that led Peter to deny Jesus three times. 

And so Mark's gospel ends at chapter 16 verse 8 with the women fleeing the tomb, "for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."  The reader is left to wonder - will the women through faith overcome their fear?  Will they obey the command to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised?  It's obvious that the women, through faith, must have overcome their fears.  Mark's gospel and the rest of the New Testament testify to this fact.  But the question remains for Mark's original audience and the question remains for us.  Do we have faith that the tomb is empty?  Is Jesus really risen from the dead?  And if we do believe, is our faith greater than our fear?  Will we go and tell?  Will we live our lives as if the tomb stands empty?  Will we, through our lives of  faith proclaim to the world that sin and death have been defeated, that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and that eternal life is found in him?  This Christmas, as the world celebrates the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let's make sure we remind our world that though Jesus was born to die, he didn't stay dead.  The tomb is empty! - Shay

Monday, December 7, 2015

My Body and My Blood

           The following reflections are based on Mark 14:12-25.

           Many of us celebrated Thanksgiving nearly two weeks ago.  We gathered around tables with family and loved ones, we gave thanks, we broke bread, we sliced and ate turkey, and we celebrated the good life that God has so bountifully provided for us all.  There’s something deeply satisfying about holidays and special occasions.  Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, or birthdays, nothing marks these occasions quite as well as food, family, and fellowship.  For thousands of years of human history, feasts have been the way we recognize significant events in our lives.  We probably don’t do it as much as we should.

           Sharing any meal in the ancient world carried with it a great significance.  To share food with another meant that you were sharing life and sharing relationship.  It’s why Jesus’ willingness to eat with tax collectors and sinners was so scandalous.  By sitting down at the table with these outcasts and outsiders, Jesus was proclaiming that though they were on the margins of respectable society, they were to be offered a seat of honor within the broader borders of God’s Kingdom.

          So it makes sense that as Jesus approached the climax of his mission that he would choose to mark the occasion with his disciples through a meal – and not just any meal, the Passover meal.

          The Passover was the most significant of all Jewish festivals and more than any other ritual or action, it defined and marked out those who were the people of God.  As important as the giving of the Law was, God’s deliverance and rescue of his people from Egyptian slavery is what formed the nation of Israel to begin with.  The Law did not make Israel God’s people; the Law was given to Israel as a gift because they had already been redeemed as his people through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the miracle at the sea.

          Each year when the people would gather to celebrate this foundational meal, they were reminded that YHWH, the God who had acted in the Exodus, who had provided for them in the wilderness, who had given them the Promised Land, who had established the Davidic Kingdom, who had chosen to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem, and who had brought his people back from exile would one day act again in a dramatic way to free his people from their current bondage under pagan rulers.  The God who had acted in the past, would act again in the future.  When that great day occurred, then the glory of this one true God, YHWH would extend from Jerusalem to the very ends of the earth.  Isaiah 66 looked forward to that time and described it in the following way. “I will send survivors to the nations…to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.  They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord…to my holy mountain, Jerusalem…For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain.  From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord.”

          Many Jews of the first century believed that God’s deliverance would come to them through a descendant of David who would establish God’s Kingdom on earth in ways that it had previously not been realized.  The pagans would be defeated and kicked out of the land.  True worship would once again be established in the temple.  The heathen nations around the world would either be destroyed or would submit to the one true God, YHWH, and his representative on earth, the Messiah, the Davidic King.  Those who acknowledged God and his Messiah would stream to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and worship.  Then the world itself would be transformed and God’s will would finally be done on earth as it was already being done in heaven.  For Jews of the first century, when they celebrated Passover, they not only looked back at YHWH’s past deliverance, they also looked forward to such a time as this.

          Of course, the chief priests and many of the other religious and civil leaders in Jerusalem were quite happy with the status quo.  They had a sweet deal in place with the Romans and any “kingdom of God” talk that threatened Rome’s control inevitably threatened their own position and status.  So, they, like the Romans, were on high alert each year at the time of Passover.  This is why Jesus had to so stealthily make arrangements to celebrate the Passover with his disciples.  He was already public enemy number one in the eyes of the Jerusalem establishment, so if they became aware of his whereabouts during the Passover meal, his arrest might have occured before the appointed time.       

          So, how ironic it was that as Jesus sat down to feast with his closest companions, he was surrounded by a betrayer, a denier, and 10 deserters.  But despite the fact that these flawed and fallen followers were to soon abandon him in his darkest hour, Jesus unreservedly extended grace and understanding to these mostly well-meaning, though na├»ve and fearful friends. 

          It is with this Passover that Jesus inaugurated the first celebration of what we call communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.  The recollection of God’s past deliverance bled into the imminent expectation of God’s present and future redemption of his people.  The hopes, dreams, and expectations of a Messiah, a King, a deliverer would finally be accomplished, but in ways that no one, not even his own disciples could imagine.  A new exodus and a new covenant would be established through his death and resurrection.  It would only be in hindsight that his disciples could look back on this moment and understand its full significance.

              As would be done just a few hours later with his own physical body, Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take; this is my body.”  And knowing that his own blood would be violently spilled the following day, Jesus took a cup and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  Actions speak louder than words and Jesus’ actions here would have continued to speak loudly to his followers after the dark hours of this moment cleared and the light of the resurrection shone brightly in their hearts.

          And his actions were not just for the 12 in that upper room; his actions on that night continue to resonate some 2,000 years later.  Like his first disciples, our participation in the Lord’s meal continues to be a rehearsal of all God has done for us, in and through Jesus Christ.  As we share this feast each week, it’s an expression of our relationship with Jesus and with each other.  When we share communion, the Lord’s Supper, we are sharing in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – his life and his mission.  Jesus is spiritually present with us in the meal and so we not only remember what he accomplished in his death and resurrection, we also celebrate his continued presence among us. 

          But Mark’s account of the Last Supper serves as a warning for us too.  Like Judas, we can sit down to eat with Jesus and turn around and betray him.  Like Peter, we might find ourselves moving from fellowship with the Master to outright denial.  Or like the other 10, rather than conquering our fears through faith, we may simply run away.  If we find ourselves failing Jesus in any of these or other ways, we can be sure that the Savior is still willing to extend us grace and understanding despite our many flaws – he’s faithful, even when we’re not.  But the meal ultimately anticipates victory, not defeat.  There’s a reason that the early Christians celebrated the Supper in a special way on Sundays and not on the Sabbath.  The tomb is empty, and though, as disciples, we’re to live lives under the shadow of the cross, we are always moving towards the light of the resurrection. 

          The new creation has broken in on this present age through Jesus’ resurrection, but the fullness of the age to come is still to come.  God’s will has not fully and completely been done on earth as it is done in heaven.  Christ’s already reigning as King at the right hand of the Father, but the final consummation of God’s Kingdom is still in the future.  As we break the bread and sip from the cup as citizens in Christ’s Kingdom, we look forward to that day when God will come and make his home among us again.  He will dwell with us and we will be his people.  He’ll wipe every tear from our eyes, because death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more.  He’ll make all things new and Jesus will drink new wine with us in the Kingdom of God.  We anticipate this Messianic banquet every time we commune with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus invites us to this meal and to eternal life in the age to come with these simple words: “Take; this is my body…take; this is my blood.” - Shay