Beyond Christianity’s Imperial Endings – Mark 16 the Long and the Short of It?- a sermon for Mountain Sunday

The Season of Creation was established in 1989 by European Christians and embraced by the Roman Catholic Church as recently as 2015. It is the newest addition to the Church year, designed to respond to the groaning of creation as the Earth suffers at the hands of humanity. We hear at Holy Cross have been observing the Season of Creation since 2011. The Season begins on Sept 1stand ends on October 4, which is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi – the patron saint of animals. Today is the 4thSunday in the Season of Creation – the day for the celebration of Mountain Sunday.

When I began my preparations for this Mountain Sunday I was more than a little perplexed by the prescribed readings for this Sunday. I must confess that I struggled to understand why the powers that be chose to prescribe such strange readings. So, I changed the first 2 readings. I was about to change the gospel reading, from this strange and dubious text to something like a reading from the sermon on the Mount, when I thought, “No” let’s stick with the prescribed reading and see what we can learn from it.

When you go home today, open up your bible to the very end of the Gospel According to Mark and you will discover a biblical chapter unlike any other chapter in the Bible. (click here to see chapter 16) The last chapter of this gospel is chapter 16. When you get to the end of verse 8 you will find a note from the editor of your bible. Some editors tell you that “The gospel ends here.” Others simply put in a note that says two other endings were added by later writers. The Shorter Ending or the Longer Ending. The prescribed reading for Mountain Sunday is the Longer Ending which was added by a later writer. The Gospel of Mark was written by an anonymous storyteller that was given the name Mark by something called “TRADITION” We don’t know who wrote it.  We do know that it is the first of the gospels to be written. We also know that it was written sometime after the year 70. That’s some 40 years after the execution of Jesus by the Romans and about 20 years after the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; Paul’s writings about Jesus that we have.
The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we know as Mark was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. He wrote his story sometime after the Roman Empire destroyed the city of Jerusalem. The Romans leveled the city and sent Jews and followers of the Way running for their lives. His gospel is the shortest of the gospels. There is no Virgin Birth in this gospel; no birth narrative at all. Joseph is never mentioned in this gospel. Jesus is referred to as the “son of Mary” which at the time would have been an insult that implied that Jesus was a bastard.

This sort gospel ends very abruptly with the women fleeing the empty tomb. There are no appearances of Jesus following the visit of the women. Let me read for you the ending of the Gospel according to the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Mark:

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’  When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back. On entering the tomb, they saw a young person sitting on the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but the youth reassured them: ‘Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the One who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. No go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’ They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid.” The end.

The women fled from the tomb and told nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid. Then we have the editor’s note: The gospel ends here. Two different endings were added by later writers. The Shorter ending reads: “And immediately they reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. After this, through them, Jesus sent forth the holy and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Now, that is very different from saying nothing because they were afraid. This shorter option is followed by the Longer Ending which is today’s assigned reading.

Now, there are a more than a few problems with both of these later endings. First of all, the language and style of the Greek in the later endings is not the same as the rest of the gospel. The oldest manuscripts of this gospel do not include either of these endings. The oldest manuscripts end with the women fleeing the empty tomb. In the third century neither Clement of Alexandria nor Origen seem to know anything about these later additions. As late as the fourth century Bishops Eusebuis and Jerome attest to the fact that neither the shorter nor the longer ending appeared in the manuscripts. Remember these copies of the gospel were written by hand.

We know that in 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which began the coopting of Christianity. We know that Jesus of Nazareth embodied non-violence. Indeed, after Jesus’ execution by the Romans, his followers refused to take up violence. You could not be a Follower of the Way and a soldier. Once Constantine coopts Christianity, not only does Christianity become an imperial religion, the Roman Empire marches to war with the cross of Jesus going on before. From non-violence to militarism in just a few decades of power.

The New Testament Canon was established at the end of the fourth Century. It was the Holy Roman Catholic Church that determined what made it into the New Testament. The powers that be were not called the Roman Catholic Church back then. They were know as the Holy Roman Empire and it was Empire that determined what made it into the New Testament.

This original ending of Mark was viewed by Imperial Christians as so lacking in authority, so inconclusive, that not only was Mark placed second in order in the New Testament, but various endings were added by editors and copyists in some manuscripts to try to spruce things up.  The longest concocted ending, which became Mark 16:9-19, became so treasured that it was included in the King James Version of the Bible, favored for the past 500 years by Protestants, as well as translations of the Latin Vulgate, used by Catholics.  This meant that for countless millions of Christians it became sacred scripture.

Does it really matter? Well think about. For those early followers of Jesus, the ones who only had the story as it is told in Mark, resurrection remains a mystery. There are no birth narratives and no post execution appearances. Only mystery. And yet, the story of Jesus of Nazareth is so compelling that even after his execution the Markan community of followers of the way, are inspired to hope. What was it about Jesus non-violent resistance to Roman oppression that inspired such a following?

Remember even if they had access to the letters of Paul, the apostle Paul does not describe the resurrection of Jesus as the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The story about Paul meeting the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus appears in the book of Acts which wasn’t written until somewhere between the years 75-90; about 20 years after the death of Paul. Indeed, in all of his letters Paul never mentions meeting the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

What the followers of the way are left with in the storyteller Mark’s account is a Mystery. A Mystery that gives them but a faint hope, “Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, “Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.” A faint hope that the storyteller dashes with, “They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid.” What an ending!

Will the hearer or will the reader go on to Galilee as Jesus had told them to, or will they flee? What will they do?  What will you do? What does it mean to follow a non-violent, resister of Empire when the Empire is coming down hard on you and your people? What might it mean for us to follow a non-violent resister of Empire at a time when power is everything? Are we the followers of the Mystery, or do we prefer a more imperial ending? Are we prepared to live with MYSTERY? Or do we like the Christians of the third and fourth centuries, do we need it all wrapped up and made clear?

Mystery or the longer ending: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation. The one who believes it and is baptized will be saved; the one who refuses to believe it will be condemned.”? Does that sound like the Jesus of Nazareth that in the storyteller Mark portrays as the teacher who welcomed all to follow in his ways? Does that sound like the Jesus who according to the storyteller Mark insisted that the greatest commandment was to love? “LOVE God with all your heart with all your soul with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”

One thing I do know about the longer ending: it sure has come in handy over the centuries. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation.The one who believes it and is baptized will be saved; the one who refuses to believe it will be condemned.” Armies have marched, nations, and peoples have been condemned. Just ask our Indigenous sisters and brothers about the Doctrine of Discovery and you will hear what it meant to be recipients of the so-called good news. Empires have been built thanks to imperial Christianity’s desire to baptize or condemn.

If it is indeed our desire to follow the way that Jesus of Nazareth embodied when he pointed toward a Deity who is LOVE and bid us to follow in the way of LOVE, by loving God, loving our neighbours as we love ourselves and yes that means loving our enemies as well; if this is the way we want to follow, then it’s long past time to remove the imperial endings both the shorter and the longer endings, remove them and restore the MYSTERY.

As for the anonymous gospel-storytellers Matthew and Luke, who the New Testament scholars point to as the sources of these imperial endings, let’s remember that they wrote long after Mark, perhaps as late as the year 85 or 90, in the midst of Imperial Rome’s campaign to eradicate their communities from the face of the earth. Let us forgive them their desire for certainty. Let us forgive them their temptation to pass judgement. Let us guard against our own tendency to want certainty, to tie it all up in a neat little bow, and to insist that all that is necessary is to believe and if you don’t believe you will be condemned.

We have a mountain of history to climb over so that we can see beyond the violence of Empire to the vision of God’s holy mountain; a vision shared by the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah: “A mountain on which the wolf will dwell with the lamb…where there will be no harm, no destruction anywhere on this holy mountain, for as water fills the sea, so the land will be filled with knowledge of YAHWEH.”

It is long past time for us to move beyond our imperial Christianity. Let us open ourselves to the MYSTERY that is the LOVE embodied by Jesus of Nazareth, who lived so fully and loved so fearlessly, that in Jesus we can see the way of LOVE.

Jesus had no need of empire. What will you do? Will you flee from the MYSTERY bewildered and trembling, and say nothing to anyone because you are so afraid? Will you cling to the power of empire? Or will you go on to Galilee – into the world where you will see Jesus in the people of the world? Will you follow Jesus to embody LOVE in the world?

May we all have the courage to see beyond the trappings of empire, beyond the violence that empire demands, beyond the allure of certitude that of imperial religion dangles so tantalizingly before us. May we all have the courage to embrace the MYSTERY that Jesus lived, taught, and died pointing to, the MYSTERY of the ONE who is LOVE.  The LOVE in which lies our hope for peace, not the peace that empires promise, but the peace that is the Shalom that comes when everyone has enough, enough bread, enough shelter, enough security, enough money, enough justice, enough love. May that peace come and may we be a part of its coming. Amen.





6 thoughts on “Beyond Christianity’s Imperial Endings – Mark 16 the Long and the Short of It?- a sermon for Mountain Sunday

  1. Pingback: Beyond Imperial Christianity’s Tidy Endings -Mark 16 the long and the short of it sermon | Holy Cross Lutheran Church

  2. EXCELLENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Few pastors take the time to educate their congregations on the endings of Mark’s Gospel and how they got there and how they can side track us from living in the mystery we call “faith”. Thank you Pastor Dawn Hutchings.

    Pastor Jon Fogleman

  3. Why are you using the prescribed readings from season of creation .org and not those from season of I believe the Season of Creation was started in Australia by the Lutheran minister Norman Habel and by the Uniting Church there. Seems this newer season of makes no mention of these beginnings. Go to Season of to see the origin story and of the proposed liturgies and readings.

    • Thank-you David, I am aware of the two streams. As near as I can tell they may or may not be connected. The only thing they appear to share is being inspired by concern for Creation. I will confess to being unable to resist teaching this particular reading.

      • Thanks Dawn. I liked the sermon and will use some of your thoughts when we celebrate Mountain Sunday on September 30.

  4. If we strip Mark down to its (his? her?) essentials, we meet a deliciously partial tale that cries out for completion. By us.

Leave a Reply