The summer movie season is already upon us. I heard a movie critic say Hollywood is starting summer earlier in order to prolong the huge box office profits. What this largely looks like is loud, big-budget superhero and sci-fi blockbusters. Captain America and Spiderman are already out, and more Avengers, X-Men, and Transformers will be visiting soon. Interspersed among these will be the quieter, some would say deeper films.
A key difference between the blockbusters and the deeper films is whether or not they stay with us. So called “high art” typically has us wrestling with its meaning long after our initial exposure to it. These are the movies that get to us, that we’re still wrestling with the next day or next week or for the rest of our lives. On the contrary, lower or pop art is typically good for a couple hours of blow-em-up escapism and then we’re done with it.
Mark’s telling of Jesus’ resurrection is art of the highest order. More than this, the resurrection itself is of such complexity and beauty and power that we spend the rest of eternity working out what it means for our lives and for the world. We think the resurrection gives us answers. But it really leaves us with more questions. Look at this mysterious way Mark ends his Gospel:
As [the women] entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’“
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (16:5-8).
There is considerable scholarly debate as to whether or not there was more to Mark’s original ending. Almost all agree that the present verses 9-20 were not written by the author of verses 1-8, but were added later. But whether Mark had a more “complete” ending like the other Gospel writers, or if he left it with the frightened women presumably going secretly to set up the appointment with the disciples, is a mystery for the ages. This open end, however, leaves much for us to work out. The over-arching question being: What does it mean?
If Jesus is Dead…
Sin and Death Are Undefeatable
Which means that life in this world as we know it is pretty much all there is. Maybe there’s a spiritual afterlife that demands some vague, abstract ideas of “goodness” from us – adherence to some religious code, fear of some unknowable god, acts of spiritual valor – in the hopes that we’ll be good enough to experience otherworldly blessing. But most likely our sin would keep us from this god and his otherworldly blessing. And maybe there’s just death and dirt and decay…for us and our loved ones and, ultimately, for all creation.
Jesus’ Way is Questionable…At Best
Jesus’ teaching, primarily about God’s kingdom coming into the world through him and looking like his ministry, doesn’t seem to have much credibility or usefulness. There might be parts that make for some decent moral ideas for getting along with others. But, mostly, the way of mercy and forgiveness and love – and especially allegiance to a dead, insane king – is really pretty futile and even self-defeating if sin, death, and decay have the last word.
Because Jesus is Risen…
Sin and Death Are Defeated
Which means there is something more for our lives and for this world. The way of sin and death is not the true, lasting way of things. Nor is our only hope to escape to some unknown spirit world, even if we call it “heaven” (a big common mistake, even by Christians). Death and decay are replaced by new, everlasting, physical life. So, yes, while we go to be with the Lord in heaven when we die, this has very little to do with Jesus’ resurrection. He isn’t resurrected as a spirit and he isn’t resurrected into heaven. He is resurrected in a very physical body and into this world. We mustn’t miss this.
Jesus’ Way is Right
Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom coming on earth, his ministry showing what that looks like, and his insistence that he is the one through whom it is coming, are all attested to in his resurrection as divinely-ordained and correct. This, indeed, was and is God’s Son. His is the way of this new thing God is doing in and with the world – indeed he is the Way of this new thing. All are made for life if only we will follow the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
So what of Mark’s mysterious open ending?
We Must Leave Behind the Way of Sin and Death
What does life look like if we are going to be resurrected to help make this world all God intends it, and us, to be? What if earth and heaven are to be joined and we are to live forever in actual physical bodies, doing work and enjoying creation and building communities – all alongside the risen Lord? What if that life begins here and now?
We Must Follow the Way of Jesus
This kingdom life he was teaching about and modeling must become our life, our way of being. And he must be our King above any other would-be power. His command to love God completely and to love others redemptively – sacrificially putting their best above even our own – must be our rule of life. And his invitation to become one with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit must be accepted and embraced with utter abandon. Not just so we can go to heaven when we die. But so heaven can come to us here and now.
That’s the urgent message of Mark’s mysterious ending: the King and his kingdom are here and now. Go! Seek it! Live it! Tell others! Go! It’s the kind of deep message that sticks with you and takes forever to work through. But it isn’t just for thinking about. It’s alive. He’s alive! So how about us?