What if Easter Ended With Mark 16:8?
Thomas Jefferson rejected all the miracles recorded in the Gospels. He literally cut them out of his Bible. In The Jefferson Bible the Easter story ends with this verse: "There they laid Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed." Our Gospel reading for today isn't much better, is it? "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." What if Easter ended here? What if Easter really did end how Jefferson's Bible said? What if we didn't know about Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, teaching on the road to Emmaus, or eating with the disciples Easter night? Where would we be if Easter ended with trembling and bewildered women who said nothing to anyone about an empty tomb? I'd say we'd be right about where we are.
You and I though baptized into Christ, though absolved by Christ, though fed by Christ's Body and Blood act like our sins are not paid for and forgiven. They prowl our consciences; they haunt our thoughts; they disturb our sleep. Constantly before us are the people we've hurt, disappointed, wronged. Day and night we remember all that we are suppose to be and all that we are not. Only during brief respites do we get some space from our guilt. Only during a moment of joy here, a worship service there, a day of forgetfulness and frivolity are we ever free of that hounding judgement of our consciences which says: "Sinner, guilty sinner."
Our sins are so real to us, so permanent to us, that heaven is not certain to us. O we all know the Catechism answer to, "Are you sure you are going to heaven?" We all know how to answer that evangelism question, "If you die tonight are you sure you're going to heaven?" But one can answer one things with the lips and believe something else in the heart. The conscience can contradict what the head asserts. "Conscience makes cowards of us all," someone has said. It can rob us of heaven's joy too, and it has. How many of us can only say, "I hope to go to heaven;" "I think I will go to heaven?" How many of us can say, "I know I will go to heaven," but feel uncertain all the same? How many of us feel it's downright presumptuous for sinners like us to be certain?
For us Easter ends with trembling and fear. Jesus must not be risen. This can be the only explanation for our consciences to be so troubled by our sins and for heaven to be so frighteningly far away from us. St. Paul tells us this in I Corinthians 15. He says, "If Christ be not raised, you are still in your sins." There you have it; that's the problem. Our Easter Gospel ends where Jefferson's did. With a cold, sealed, occupied tomb. Jesus is still dead. He didn't successfully pay for our sins, and so death still holds Him.
But dear friends, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, as He most certainly has, then that means our sins have all been paid for, none excepted. And never mind about going back into your conscience to seek those sins that bother you, so you can ask, "Even this one?" No, no go out into all the world. Ask about TV executive Ted Turner who publicly mocks Christ and Christianity. Are his sins forgiven? Ask about Communist dictator Fidel Castro who has persecuted the Church for years? Are his sins forgiven? Ask about the worst sinner you can think of, the one farthest from the Church, the one most sunk in his or her sins. Are even this person's sins forgiven?
And what does a risen Jesus say? Easter says every man, woman, and child's sins have been paid for once and for all. Easter is "the absolution which has been spoken by God Himself to all men, all sinners, in a word to all the world" (C.F.W. Walther). All sins were on Jesus as He hung on the cross. None excepted. None fell off. None forgotten. He suffered for each one of them. He died for them all. Now if He hadn't succeeded in paying for these sins, He would still be in the grave. If Christ's suffering and death on the cross wasn't enough to pay for the sins on His body and soul, death would hold Him eternally as it does all damned sinners. But Christ isn't in the grave. He is risen! Death only had a hold over Him because of the sins of the world. Having paid for them, death had to release Him.
Friends, the consolation of Easter is not just that your many sins, your serious sins, your pet sins are forgiven, no the world's sins have been. Drag your conscience to this fact. No person in the entire world has to be troubled by their sins any longer since Christ has risen. That means you don't either.
Let me show you how totally you have been forgiven. Look at our text. The women go to the tomb to anoint a dead Jesus. He had promised them He would rise on the third day, but they didn't believe Him. But look how forgiven sins are: The angel doesn't offer one word of rebuke not for the women or even for the disciples who had deserted Jesus in His hour of need. Not even Peter is confronted with his horrible sin of denying but rather the angel adds, "Be sure and tell Peter about the empty tomb." Furthermore, look how Jesus through the mouth of the angel still calls these Christ-denying, Christ-deserting sinners: Disciples. And this angel right here, right now calls you disciples too. Yes, I know that you've denied Jesus many ways. I know you have deserted Him in thought, word, and deed, but I say to you on behalf of the risen Jesus, "You're still His disciples."
Do you know the only sin the risen Jesus ever rebuked His disciples for? Not for deserting Him. Not for denying Him. Not for their secret sins of lust, greed, pride, and worry. No the only sin the risen Jesus rebuked the disciples for was not believing the women when they finally did get around to telling them He had risen. Jesus rebuked them for allowing their consciences to still be troubled, for thinking that heaven wasn't really open to them. Let us not go on living like Easter ends with trembling and fear before a cold tomb. Our sins really are forgiven. We really are free from them today and for all our tomorrows.
But a risen Jesus means more than a sinless conscience and an open heaven. It means the end of death. However, we live like life is no more than a dash between our birthday and our death day. We live as if a poem called "The Dash" is true. It says that the little dash between our birth and death is all that life is. Isn't this how we live? We speak of our dead in Christ in the past tense. They WERE a good cook. They HAD a good sense of humor. They ENJOYED life. Their dash has been ended by the date chiseled afterwards. Yes, are dead in Christ are like the Statler Brothers sing, "Just a name upon a wall." Death has relegated them to a chiseled name on a headstone. Rather than seeing their graves as only a RESTING place, a stopover, a temporary thing, we regard them as permanent.
But dear friends in Christ, if we think that life for those in Christ is only a dash ended by a death day, then according to St. Paul, "We are to be pitied more than all men." Yes, if only for this life, if only for this dash between two dates we have hope in Christ, then we are to be pitied more than those who have no hope in Christ at all. If hope in Christ ends at the grave, much better would it to be not to believe in Him at all.
However, though graves be so permanent, so final to us, are they to Christ? Did Easter end with a sealed tomb? No, an empty one. Christ Jesus rose. Good Friday wasn't the end of Him. O the women thought so. They went to the tomb to chisel in His death day, set the head stone, complete the burial so they would have a place to come and visit. But their unbelief didn't hinder the Lord, and neither does ours. Just because death seems so permanent, so lasting, so final to us, doesn't mean it is for our Jesus or for our dead in Jesus. He rose, and St. Paul tells you He is but the first-fruits of them that sleep. He isn't the whole harvest. More resurrections are coming.
Many of you plant gardens. You already have your tomato plants in. Soon they will have little green balls on them. As they grow, those little green balls will take on a yellowish green hue. Then one day one of them is going to be red and ripe. So your garden will be done right? You'll get that one ripe tomato and that's it. Not hardly. What that first ripe tomato will tell you is that all those other tomatoes are on the way, right? The first red tomato promises you that all those other tomatoes will surely turn ripe in turn. The first fruit is just the pledge of the rest of the harvest.
Dear friends, as one ripe tomato means the rest are on the way can, so a risen Jesus means those who've been planted in Him rise. The date we chisel at the end of the dash does not put an end to our loved ones in Christ. As sure as Christ rose from the dead, so sure do our dead in Christ. As sure as planting Jesus in the tomb like some dead seed was not the end of Him, so sure will our dead in Christ planted in Him poke through the soil again. Easter is the celebration of the firstfrruits that God harvested from the grave, but it's not the harvest itself. It's the pledge of the harvest. It's the pledge that the death days we chiseled in stone only marked an event in the life of those in Christ. It didn't really mark the end of their life.
Ah but the graves of our loved ones in Christ are so deep, so dark, so final. We cannot go to them expecting a resurrection anymore than the women went to the Easter tomb looking for one. Although we, just like they did, have a sure Word from Christ that the grave is not the end, death still seems too powerful. The stones in front of the graves of our dead in Christ seem no less unmovable than the stone in front of Christ's was. "Who will roll away the stone for us?" we ask as we go in mourning to our graves.
Not to worry. Christ didn't rise on Easter because people believed it. Christ didn't rise from the dead because people could see how it would happen. Where would we be if people had to believe in order for Jesus to rise? Where would we be if people had to understand how Jesus could rise in order for Him to do it? We would be at stone cold tombs without hope with only the dash between two dates. But the resurrection of Jesus did not depend on man's believing or man's understanding. It depended on God's power. This and this alone raised Jesus. The disciples unbelief, the women's despair, the Jews hatred didn't stop Jesus from rising or even slow Him down.
Now then dear friends, Christ Jesus is the Head of the Church which is His Body. It is a law of physics that where the head goes the body must follow. You see an illustration of this every time you see a face-masking foul in football. The body must go where the head does. Jesus our Head has left the grave and ascended to the skies without the help of our believing, understanding, or hoping. That means His entire body will follow without the help of our believing, understanding or hoping. Since death could not stop Jesus our Head from rising, it will not stop any of those who make up His Body.
Friends, the women went away trembling, bewildered, and afraid, but that's because Jesus hadn't yet shown Himself to them. Jesus, however, has shown Himself to us in our Baptisms, in the forgiving Word, in the Supper we are about celebrate. Therefore, trembling, bewilderment, and fear have no place here today. Let there be joy, relief, and thanksgiving. Neither our sins nor the grave has won. Jesus has, and all in Him, living and dead, have won too. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter (4-23-00) Mark 16: 1-8