Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome
Mark 16:1-8, Acts 10:34-43
April 5, 2015 Easter Sunday
At the end of their long night of waiting, the women made their way to the tomb. They had been there on Friday when Jesus died. The sky turned dark; they looked on from a distance. The evangelist Mark remembers all three of them by name: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Mary Magdalene had been there when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ lifeless body in linen and laid him in the tomb.
Now the Sabbath is over; the women make their way to the tomb. They have a plan, a ritual of anointing that will mark the death of their friend and teacher. Now they can begin the mourning process. The reality of Jesus’ death weighs on them. They worry about how they will get into the tomb. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” But as they get closer, they see that the stone has already been rolled away, the tomb is already open.
We would like to think that then, seeing that miracle, the women shouted in joy and praise, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” But they don’t. Even after they enter the cave and see the young man in white and hear him say “He has been raised!” -- even then, they do not shout. They do not cry out in wonder. There are no alleluias, no Easter acclamations.
We wish they had done that. And according to the other Gospels they did, eventually, do that. But Mark, the earliest of all four gospel accounts, tells us no such thing. Biblical scholars have long agreed that the “shorter ending” of Mark, the one Mike read for us this morning, is the original. And that the “longer ending” was written later by someone or some group of someones who just couldn’t leave Mark’s ending as it was. We understand! According to Mark, the women did not behave as we would like them to have behaved. Instead, Mark’s gospel ends with the good news of God’s resurrection power unshared. Instead of “alleluia!” they said “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Why? Why were they afraid? Why did they flee and then tell no one?
Turn to your neighbor – especially a neighbor you didn’t come here with – and share your thoughts. Why did the women flee the tomb and say nothing? Why were they afraid?
It could have been that the women were afraid of what people would say if they tried to tell them about the empty tomb. “What will people think?” “What if no one listens to me?” “What if they think I’m crazy?”
Maybe they felt unsure of what they had just experienced. “What if I’m wrong?” “What if they come back to look, and his body is there?”
If we can set aside the rest of the story that we know, and the women didn’t know, we can understand their silence. Because what all of us know is that the dead stay dead.
In 1986, my father died suddenly, of a heart attack. I was 27 years old, he was 56. It was a traumatic experience for all of us in my family. I knew 56 was too young to die, but, from my 27 year old vantage point, he had lived a long life. Now I am 56 years old. And so I have been thinking a lot this year of how very young my father was when he died.
For months after Dad’s death I would have vivid dreams about him. They were so real I woke up feeling that I’d really visited with him. It was as if he had been, briefly, alive again. Sometimes I would walk down a busy street or through the aisles of a busy store, and see ahead of me the back of a head: a man tall and balding, someone my father’s size and shape. And instantly, before my conscious mind could catch it, I would think “There he is! He’s not dead! He’s here!”
But in that brief, subconscious moment – in the not-yet-fully -awake haze that comes after a dream or in the half-second after spotting him ahead of me – I would not only feel amazement, I would feel fear. Had my father’s death been a lie? Had he been playing some sort of horrible joke on us, just pretending to be dead? The dead are supposed to stay dead.
In contrast to my experience, this isn’t a dream or a case of mistaken identity for the three women at Jesus’ empty tomb.
Mark writes that the women fled from the tomb “for terror and amazement had seized them.” The words are even stronger in Greek than in English: tromos (trauma) and ecstasis (ecstasy). They fled from the tomb, for trauma and ecstasy had seized them.
Maybe the reason they told no one after this traumatic, ecstatic experience, is not just because the dead are supposed to stay dead…but because it is occurring to them that Jesus meant what he said. The realization is dawning that he had been right: all that he had said about the cost of discipleship, about carrying a cross, about suffering and death. If his body were still lying cold in the tomb, they could forget all that and get back to their lives. But his body isn’t there and now they must contend with the reality of being his disciple. The ministry he’d started was theirs now…and God only knew what was ahead.
The terror and amazement of the empty tomb, the trauma and the ecstasy, means that Jesus isn’t just a great rabbi. Something bigger, something cosmic – even – is going on. The mental ways that they kept God under control aren’t going to work anymore. They are going to have to re-think what they think about God. Re-shape what they believe. This God who has presented them with an empty tomb is a God who doesn’t allow boundaries to be maintained.
We keep rolling stones in front of tombs, but this God keeps rolling them away.
We know that eventually the women must have recovered from the trauma and ecstasy of their discovery because it is not too much later, according to the Book of Acts, that Peter is preaching – not just to the people of his own community, but to the Gentiles of Caesarea. People who knew nothing about Holy Scripture or Commandments or Rabbis or Tradition or any of the other ways we define who God is and who we are.
The shape of Peter’s sermon, commentators say, is like an hourglass.
- Jesus came for all, he says, every nation. Jesus is Lord of every nation.
- After he was crucified and rose from the dead he appeared not to all, but to a few. “We who were chosen as witnesses,” Peter says.
- And now those witnesses are commanded to preach to all, to testify to all about the forgiveness offered in his name.
Peter defines the ministry of Jesus’ followers as witnessing to the whole world about who and what Jesus is. The church’s ministry is as broad as Jesus’ was, as wide as the whole world.
But for many of us 21st century Christians, especially we in what used to be called the “mainline” church, and is now sometimes called the “old-line” church, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. We are present all over the world, we serve in many vital, helpful ways all over the world, but we’re nervous about witnessing….all over the world and here in our own communities. Maybe especially in our own communities. We tend to be very quiet about our faith.
In terror and amazement, the woman who found the tomb empty fled from it and told no one about their experience. We good United Methodists also seem to prefer to tell no one about our experiences of faith. Why is that? What is it that is keeping us quiet?
Turn to your neighbor again, and share what you think. What makes it hard for us to witness to others about our faith?
- Perhaps it is the fear of being intrusive or insensitive. We don’t want to be – and we don’t want to appear to be – judgmental or condescending.
- Maybe we are afraid that speaking of our faith will make us vulnerable to criticism. “What will people think?” “What if no one listens to me?” “What if they think I’m crazy?”
- Witnessing to our faith might expose our own doubts and questions. “What if I’m wrong?” “What if they come to look at the church, and don’t find what I’ve found? I see an empty tomb. They just see a cold cave.”
It is easier, and safer, to keep our faith, like our money and our politics, private.
But while Jesus’ ministry was for the whole world, and the church’s ministry is for the whole world, Christ’s resurrection is directed to the individual, to each one of us. “Christ is alive! Death cannot hold him.” Now how do you respond to this?
And the response that question asks of each of us, like the women’s and the disciples’ is not to prove it, but to witness to it. A witness is someone with a story to tell. A witness is someone who contributes to the community’s discernment of what Christ’s resurrection means. A witness is someone who says “I don’t have all the answers, but I know what God has done in my life.”
It would be neater and more satisfactory, if Mark’s Gospel ended the way the other three do. We want to bring things to a conclusion, to tidy things up like a good mystery novel. But Mark doesn’t allow us to do that.
He leaves us with the women, to experience the trauma and the ecstasy of an empty tomb.
He leaves us at the thresholds of our faith, at the limits of our experience, to trust the One who is beyond death.
He leaves us to speak for ourselves.
Barbara Kay Lundblad. Mark 16:1-8: Beyond Fear and Silence. Posted on the Huffington Post 04/04/2012, updated 06/04/2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-kay-lundblad/mark-16-1-8-beyond-fear-and-silence_b_1402710.html
Matt Skinner, Karoline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson. #412 - Resurrection of Our Lord. Posted at Working Preacher March 29, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=612
Martha Spong. “Living by the Word: April 5, Easter Sunday.” The Christian Century. April 1, 2015, Vol. 132, No. 7, page 18.