The Strange Ending of Mark’s Gospel

(Is 52:7-10 / Ps 2 / Eph 4:7-8, 11-16 / Mk 16:15-20)

Collect of Saint Mark
Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ: We thank you for his witness, and pray that you will give us the grace to know the truth and not be carried about by every wind of false doctrine; so that we may truly and firmly accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

DURING THIS EASTERTIDE I’ve been particularly aware of the strangeness of the event we celebrate, of how foreign this proclamation of resurrection is to our lived experience. I’ve never seen anyone rise from the dead. I don’t expect to see anyone rise from the dead. And yet I’m willing to stake my life upon the ancient claim that someone — a very specific someone — actually did, and that even more, this one resurrection has inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven and has changed the course of human history — has put human history back on course, again. We believe that, but we do so in spite of the observable evidence, and not because of it.

I was thinking about all this in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Recently, Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the Ukrainian seaport of Mariupol. Pictures of the city show a totally destroyed, bombed out wasteland; and that is Putin’s definition of victory. It reminded me of a famous quote by the Roman historian Tacitus, who was actually paraphrasing the Calcedonian chieftain Calgacus in his condemnation of Rome:

Robbers of the world, now that the earth is insufficient for their all-devastating hands they probe even the sea; if their enemy is rich, they are greedy; if he is poor, they thirst for dominion; neither east nor west has satisfied them; alone of mankind they are equally covetous of poverty and wealth. Robbery, slaughter and plunder they freely name empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.

Rome made a desert and called it peace; Putin makes a wasteland and calls it victory. And we, the followers of Jesus, look at the devastation of the cross and call it both peace and victory, because of the claim that this one man, executed by Rome, rose again after three days. The story we tell is strange; there is no escaping that. But, if it’s true, as we believe it is, then everything has changed, even thought the world and the world’s empires seem to be going about business as usual.

The story has always been strange, even from its first telling. Perhaps no biblical text makes that clearer than the Gospel of St. Mark, with its strange ending. I’d like you to hear, again, the final chapter of the Gospel as it appears in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts we have.

Mark 16:1–8 (ESV): When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 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. 7 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.” 8 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.

That’s it; that’s the end of Mark’s Gospel: no post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, no spreading of the good news among his followers, no bold proclamations — just three women confused and astonished and afraid and silent at the vision of an angel. What an interesting choice of ending for a Gospel. What a strange choice of ending for a Gospel.

Now, if you look at the text in the English Standard Version of the Bible — and in most other translations, as well — you will see that there are twelve more verses following this abrupt ending. These additional verses — called the Longer Ending of Mark — recount an appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, to two disciples walking (likely Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus), to the eleven (probably in the Upper Room). The verses also give a version of the Great Commission and the Ascension. All in all, they seem to provide a much more satisfactory ending. But, they were likely added decades later, not by Mark, but by a scribe(s) who was dissatisfied with Mark’s original ending. The earliest manuscripts of Mark do not have this Longer Ending, and later manuscripts actually have a variety of endings. None of this presents a theological problem, and it doesn’t cast any doubt upon the inspiration of Scripture. We accept the Gospel of Mark — in its present form — as part of the inspired Word of God, because at least since the close of the second century the Church has done, and because the Longer Ending is fully in keeping with what we find in the other canonical Gospels. We believe that the Holy Spirit has superintended the work of writing, editing, and collecting the Scriptures so that the end product is precisely what God intended his people to have.

Still, it is interesting to reflect on the shorter, abrupt, strange ending. What if the church had received that as the canonical version of Mark’s Gospel, with none of the additional twelve verses? What would we have made of that?

First, it would emphasize just how disruptive to the disciples’ worldview the Resurrection really was. It is not as if they said, “Oh, yeah, great! We should have expected that all along.” The Resurrection of Jesus, in the middle of history to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, was contrary to their traditional understanding of God’s purpose and plan for Israel and the nations. It turned everything upside down and brought everything into question. No wonder the women trembled with astonishment at the news of resurrection. No wonder they were afraid. No wonder they kept silent. This was the end of the world as they had known it and the beginning of a new world that they could not yet conceive. It required a reevaluation of everything they had previously taken as true. People don’t rise from the dead, but this man did. The cross is utter defeat, but this one was victory. At the end, God will restore the kingdom to Israel, but right here in the middle of history God has inaugurated his Kingdom that will be for all the peoples. Strange.

We have grown familiar — perhaps too familiar — with the notion of Resurrection; most of us have heard it from the cradle onward, and it is no longer strange or disruptive to us. We have incorporated it into our lives as one more standard feature, like a five-day workweek or paying taxes — just something we take for granted. Our world has domesticated Easter; we celebrate it with new clothes, chocolate bunnies, and Easter egg hunts. Christ is risen from the dead we say, then we go out to lunch as if nothing has happened. This shorter ending of Mark’s Gospel challenges us to once again see the Resurrection as astonishing, to tremble before it, to understand that our lives cannot be the same as before we received the news. It challenges us not to speak too glibly, too matter-of-factly, about this great and aweful event — this in-breaking of God into his creation to declare his victory and his dominion. It took these women, and the rest of the disciples, time to work through the implications of this strange thing that had come to pass. And they probably never would have gotten there if not for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the in-dwelling Advocate who was to lead them into the truth. This shorter ending confronts us with the strange, disruptive power of the Resurrection and demands that we see it anew.

Second, this abrupt ending reminds us that no book of Scripture stands alone, that, instead, we need the full counsel of God’s complete Word. Through early church historians we learn that the Gospel of Mark is a written summary of the Apostle Peter’s memoir and preaching; it is not a stretch to say that it is Peter’s Gospel. This close association with an Apostle is one reason that the church accepted the Mark’s Gospel as canonical. From about the mid first century onward, the Church had both the Gospel of Mark and the Epistles of Peter (I, II Peter), as well as the knowledge of what had transpired between the Resurrection and the death of Peter in Rome. And, they would have held these works and this history together — each one interpreting the others. So, the Gospel ends with the women amazed, fearful, and silent — telling no one what they had seen. But Peter’s epistles and his history tell the rest of the story: how the disciples were not silent; how, after encountering the risen Lord, Peter resumed his leadership role in the Church; how he preached the good news of Jesus — crucified, risen, and ascended — at the center of the world, at the heart of the Empire, Rome; how he faithfully followed his Lord unto death — death by crucifixion. Those reading the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel knew the rest of the story.

So, this abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel actually draws us further into the full story. We know that we can’t stop there, so we read the other Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, the Revelation. And, we see that the story continues, that it doesn’t stop even with the close of the Canon. The story continues and we write our chapter of it, leaving that for the generations to come.

Third, the shorter ending of Mark — without post-resurrection appearances of Jesus — calls us to re-think how Jesus actually appears, even long after the original event. It challenges us to think what a post-resurrection appearance might look like now. Remembering the connection between Mark and Peter, let’s hear the opening of Peter’s first epistle.

1 Peter 1:1–5 (ESV): Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Peter writes to followers of Christ spread throughout the Empire, to those who haven’t been silent and who won’t be silenced. These are the very ones who have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” I want to get the theology of this right. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of what is coming to us all: the general resurrection of the dead on the last great day, when the dead in Christ shall rise, when the corruptible will put on the incorruptible and when the mortal will be clothed in immortality. That is yet to come. Jesus’ resurrection was and is a foretaste of that, a signpost pointing toward it. But so is our new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. New birth implies — really requires — death and resurrection. We were dead in our sins and trespasses. We were buried with Christ in our baptism, united to his death. And we rise again into new life — resurrection — from that watery grave. All of this is in Christ. As Paul says, we no longer live, but Christ lives within us. That means that each faithful Christian is, in the truest theological sense, a post-resurrection appearance of Christ: partial, yes, still awaiting the fullness of the final Resurrection to come, yes, but a present moment signpost of the Resurrection of Christ nonetheless. So, the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel — an ending without an explicit post-resurrection appearance of Jesus — mirrors our world in which people can’t see Jesus, in which we are historically removed from the event. And it challenges us to be examples of the resurrection ourselves, so that, when people look at us, they see the risen Lord — a living, longer ending of Mark’s Gospel. That’s what we are and what we’re called to be: a continuing post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

So, while I’m grateful that we have the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, I also see great worth in the shorter ending. It does challenge us:

To appreciate once again how startling, disruptive, and world-changing the Resurrection of Christ actually is;

To delve deeper into the full story and to see how the story continues, how we are writing another chapter in it;

To understand ourselves — and all faithful followers of Christ — as resurrection people, as signposts pointing backward toward the Resurrection of Christ and forward toward the final resurrection on the last great day.

That is not a bad ending. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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