There are ancient copies of the gospel of Mark that finish with an appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene and then to two unnamed disciples and then to the whole group except for, of course, Judas; after which Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles hit the road to the four corners of the earth with the good news, miracles trailing in their wake. Some of the earliest copies we have of the gospel of Mark, however, end where we did today:
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]
As we gather to remember that day, we do it with flowers and new clothes and candy and organ music and a choir. We hold egg hunts and there’s a ham in the oven. The people who were actually there at the tomb were scared and paralyzed, and the rest of the disciples were hiding in a locked room back in Jerusalem, trying to figure out what to do next and if the coast was even clear to get out of town.
Yes, there was good news. There was the best kind of good news. There was unbelievably good news, and it was delivered by no one less than an angel of God. But the initial announcement didn’t sink in just like that, because they were terrified. “Terrified”: there’s a word that we separate far too easily from its sister-words “terror”, “terrorist”, and “terrorized”.
The land where those people lived was under the control of a government that ruled by terror. The Romans killed people on a regular basis just to keep the locals under control. Crucifixion was popular with the Romans not only because it was simple and painful and slow, but also because it let them leave the bodies up as a warning. The historian Josephus tells how during a rebellion of the Jews against Rome, the general Titus was allowing the crucifixion of about five hundred people a day. It may have been an exaggeration, but he says that they had trouble making enough crosses to keep up with demand.
Do you remember a few months back when a picture came out of Syria following one of the bombings, a picture of a little boy who had survived attack after attack that had killed his family? There was blood running down from his head and he looked more than halfway to starvation, and when someone found him and carried him out of the rubble, all he did was stare straight ahead. Imagine a nation full of such children. Imagine a nation where they are supposed to be cared for by adults who have that same look in their eyes: the vacancy, the nothingness, the just-let-me-alone-to-die blankness. That was Judea not long after Jesus’ own crucifixion.
Terror wasn’t just the byproduct of the Empire. It was its method and its goal. First you fill people with fear. Then you can make them do whatever you say. Just ask any other gangster-state. Ask the Taliban. Ask the Bolsheviks. Ask ISIS or the Nazis. Pol Pot was especially effective at that in Cambodia.
That could never happen here, though. Right?
How much of our current public life is controlled by fear? It may or may not be deliberately created, this fear. Once it is in the air, though, it can be manipulated and used by anybody willing to go down that path. There is the fear of the other, whoever that might be. It divides the world into an increasing number of “us”es and “we”s, “they”s and “them”s, “those people” and “the rest of us”. There’s the fear that if I don’t get my way, you will get your way, and it will be at my expense. There’s the fear that resources are growing less while need is growing greater, so if I don’t get mine now, you will take it all from me later on. There’s the sense that whoever is a stranger is by definition dangerous. Trust is gone. Security is everything, and security means protection, and protection means weapons. We cannot even talk to one another when people refer to facts and statistics as “weaponized”.
Good news comes to the disciples and they are so caught up in the terror of their world that they don’t know what to do with it at first.
“They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]
Eventually, though, it did sink in. Jesus was alive. What was that the angel had said?
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” [Mark 16:6]
The entire Roman system of rule by terror, epitomized by crucifixion, was ineffective and bankrupt. It didn’t work. God would not allow that.
“Do not be alarmed.”
Even if you have spent your entire lifetime being alarmed, you don’t have to live that way. Guess what? Not everybody is out to get you. Some folks really are honest. Kindness isn’t always the bait in a trap. There really is such a thing as truth.
Not every situation has to be win-lose, and if it is, it is still possible to be happy for someone else. There’s an old story (I’m sure you’ve heard it before) of a man who died and was given a tour of the afterlife. The first stop was hell, where he saw hungry souls sitting around a big pot of the most delicious soup anyone had every smelled. Each soul had been given a spoon, but every spoon had a long, long handle and when they tried to spin it around to drink the soup would spill off the spoon and they were facing an eternity of both starvation and frustration. The next stop was heaven, and there was a similar pot of the same soup and a similar crowd of souls and the same utensils. But these souls were laughing and smiling, because they would lift the soup up for the person across from them, and someone would lift another spoon to their mouths, and everyone had enough, and more than enough.
When Jesus rose, the power of sin was broken. The cycle of fear and death was disrupted for good, forever. The crazy stuff out there in the world? Sure, it’s real. It has to be faced and it has to be dealt with, and it takes both wisdom and guts to do it, and anybody who tries to make a real difference is going to get hurt in some way at some point – physically or emotionally or economically. But terrorists only win if they make you live in fear.
I mentioned that someone at some point tacked a longer ending onto the gospel of Mark. It may have had to do with that, and put the message in somewhat poetic terms (so don’t go picking up any copperheads you see on your lawn during an Easter egg hunt). It says to serve the Lord without fear. They killed Jesus, but that didn’t keep him down, and they haven’t been able to hold him back since.
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” [Mark 16:17-20]