It is John’s gospel that tells us that if all the things that Jesus did while on earth were written down, the whole world wouldn’t have been able to hold all the books. Nonetheless, God chose to give us four books, not so that we could hear more stories, but so we could learn different things, sometimes from different versions of the same story. The resurrection story is like that. Four different versions of the story each teach us different aspects of what the resurrection means to us.
John’s gospel, in telling the resurrection story seems to stress, among other things, how the resurrection leads us to believing in Jesus. “These things were written so that you might believe” the gospel tells us about its own mission, and indeed the post-resurrection stories in John certainly highlight the disciples’ journey into faith in the resurrected Jesus. Most paradigmatic for that within the fourth gospel is the story of Thomas. Thomas’s story begins when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples who are gathered together—all except Thomas, that is. when Thomas shows up, Jesus has gone, and he finds their story incredulous. He declares that he won’t believe it until he sees it for himself—and that is exactly what happens. This whole episode is highlighted by Jesus’ declaration to Thomas that there is an even greater blessing in store for those who are able to believe without seeing. It’s the gospel’s way of acknowledging that what it asks of us, namely belief, isn’t easy. But it’s important, because believing in Jesus is ultimately the way to truth and the realization of God’s mission in our lives and the world. So John’s story of resurrection is all about belief.
Luke’s account tells a different story. The fundamental story is not a crisis of belief, but of confusion. There’s a story of two disciples who are walking to a town called Emmaus, and as they walk, they (unknowingly) meet the resurrected Jesus. Jesus finds them confused and so he painstakingly explains to them everything that had happened, and how the scriptures had described it. In Luke’s story, we don’t just find belief in the resurrection story, but its within the resurrection that we find understanding. It’s the resurrected Jesus who reinterprets the world for us, who explains the way things really are. Everything that before seemed definitive, things like death and power, are reinterpreted and re-understood as we walk with the risen Jesus. We understand in the resurrection.
Matthew’s version of resurrection is very brief. It culminates with Jesus giving the disciples the great commission. the risen Jesus sends the disciples out. Jesus doesn’t just want us to understand his resurrection, but to understand the entire world awaits resurrection, that it all waits to be drawn back into God’s mission, back to the way things are really supposed to be. In Matthew, the resurrection isn’t just about rewriting the past, it’s about rewriting the future. The resurrected Jesus sends us out on his mission.
So we believe in the resurrection, we understand the resurrection, and we find our mission in the resurrection. So say John, Luke, and Matthew. But, of course, that leaves Mark.
If Mark’s version makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay. It has a long history of doing that.
Before we can really start into what Mark’s story, we have to make a note from textual criticism, not something I usually do overtly from the pulpit. If you notice in Mark 16, between verses 8 and 9 there is probably some sort of a note about how some early manuscripts leave out everything from verses 9. What scholars think happened is that those verses were added, probably late in the second century, by someone who thought that the original ending in verse 8 left too much unsaid. We think that someone added the longer ending so that it would look more like what we read in Matthew and Luke.
That may seem somewhat offensive, but I can understand why they would do that, because the earlier, shorter reading is hard to swallow. We don’t normally notice how hard this ending is because we typically read the gospels as a blended whole, and fail to pick up on the differences between the four versions. but this is one of those places where the differences are so stark and real that they are worth noticing. Here is Mark’s version:
When the Sabbath was past, 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. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)
And that’s it. No gathered disciples meeting with Jesus, not even a pair of disciples who have a conversation with the risen Lord. Instead, Mark tells a story about two who receive the news of the resurrection from an apparent angel, and who go home confused and afraid. Mark leaves us not just astonished at the empty tomb and the announcement of Jesus’s resurrection, but astonished at the response of these two witnesses. The Marys are so paralyzed by fear, that they don’t even fulfill the mission given to them.
This short and tough version is worth listening too, because it tells the truth—we are challenged by resurrection. Perhaps that isn’t even about whether or not the women believed or not—don’t fear and belief go together more often than we like to admit? Yet the gospel closes seemingly asking us, what will we do with the story? Will we tell and live the resurrection story, or will we just go back to our homes in paralysed fear. the resurrection story isn’t passive, just waiting to be believed, but it asks something of us.
Ultimately, what we believe about Jesus changes what we must believe about ourselves and the world around us. How we understand Jesus changes the way we understand everything, all of it given new perspective by the resurrection. The mission that Jesus sends us on awaits a response, but it isn’t a foregone conclusion. We can still go home, shut the doors, and act as if nothing happened. Perhaps that’s what we want to do.
The resurrection of Jesus simply doesn’t allow us to go along with our lives in a business as usual mode of being. If we find Jesus’s teachings such as the sermon on the mount challenging, they become ever more so when we realize that they are issued by the resurrected Jesus. In Revelation, it is from this very position—the resurrected Lord–that Jesus speaks to the churches, commanding them to turn away from idolatry and mediocrity, to abandon the things that pull our love away from him, to embrace suffering and anticipate the recreation of the world in him. Jesus says all this after announcing himself, saying, “I am the First and the Last, and the Living one. I died and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys to death and Hades.” The resurrected Jesus will not be appeased by lukewarm faith, he will not be followed from a distance, halfheartedly. He demands all that we are, and he demands it from the position of being the Resurrected One.
And yet, he doesn’t demand it as an absent Lord, but as one who is present and who works within to accomplish the mission he gives us. Paul prays that the Ephesians would become aware that the same power that resurrected Jesus works within us. We must learn to live in that place, not just of the awareness of Jesus’s resurrection, but aware of our own. We live in the resurrection. We live in the resurrection now, the new world made possible by Jesus’s defeat of death and his power to recreate the world is actively at work in us, changing us, restoring his kingdom in us, and calling us to help him restore the world.
That is our gospel, or at least our version of Jesus’s gospel. The call of Jesus to come and live in the resurrection now, to believe it, to understand ourselves anew in it, and to take on the mission that it sends us on, with the power of the risen Christ working those things into reality within us—that is our witness to the world. That is our resurrection story. But, hear from Mark this truth: all resurrection stories don’t get told. May it not be so with ours.