When Jesus was raised, early on the first day of the week, he appeared first of all to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told the people who had been with him, who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that he was alive, and that he had been seen by her, they didn’t believe it. After this he appeared in a different guise to two of them as they were walking into the countryside. They came back and told the others, but they didn’t believe them. Later Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves, as they were at table. He told them off for their unbelief and hardheartedness, for not believing those who had seen him after he had been raised. ‘Go into all the world,’ he said to them, ‘and announce the message to all creation. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be rescued, but people who don’t believe will be condemned. And these signs will happen around those who believe: they will drive out demons in my name, they will speak with new tongues, they will pick up serpents in their hands; and if they drink anything poisonous it won’t harm them. They will lay their hands on the sick, and they will get better.’ When the Lord Jesus had spoken with them, he was taken up into heaven, and sat down at God’s right hand. They went out and announced the message everywhere. The Lord worked with them, validating their message by the signs that accompanied them.
When I became Dean of Lichfield in 1994, one of the first things I saw as I was shown around the magnificent cathedral was the place where the building had been, as it were, stitched back together again after the serious damage it had suffered during the Civil War three hundred and fifty or so years earlier. (The cathedral tower had been used, shamefully, as a post for snipers, so it had become a ‘legitimate’ target.) At first it seemed to me really sad that the building hadn’t been mended, as it were, ‘invisibly’, in the way a tailor will mend a suit that’s had a tear. Surely that would have been better, more honouring to God?
A moment’s reflection made me think differently. Whether for good or ill, that cathedral had stood at the heart of England at one of the most appalling periods in our history. It had shared in the violence and destruction, and had come through to be, once more, a place of prayer, sanctuary and pilgrimage. The marks were still showing; but that wasn’t a bad thing. That is how the church often is. That is how, according to Luke and John, Jesus himself was: risen from the dead, no longer to suffer pain, but recognizable by the mark of the nails. There is a pro-found truth there about the nature of the people of God.
Perhaps there is a profound truth there too about the nature of scripture. Mark’s gospel, as I said, was most likely broken off at verse 8. Mark almost certainly wrote more than that, but we don’t have his conclusion. Someone else – actually, at least two other people – have added the ‘endings’ we now have, the extra bit of verse 8 on the one hand and then verses 9 –20 on the other. The marks still show. Scripture, the record of God’s messy and damaging entry into his own world, is itself at this point rather obviously messy and damaged. That seems to make the point rather well.
Anyway, the key thing about this extra ‘ending’, which someone has written and which has found its way into some fairly early manuscripts, is the double sense – which of course we find in the other gospels, as well as in Acts – that Jesus is truly now the Lord of the whole world, and that he is sending out his followers to put that lordship into operation. A word about both of these is in order.
First, Jesus is indeed Lord. This is the main point of his resurrection, as the early formula in Romans 1.3 –5 makes clear: the resurrection demonstrates that he always was the ‘son of God’, and has now been powerfully and publicly declared to be Israel’s Messiah, the world’s true king. The resurrection isn’t about ‘proving that there’s a life after death’ or ‘showing that God still loves us’ or any such thing. Those are true but, by comparison with the reality, they are trivial. Indeed, such interpretations can be, sadly, ways by which Christians have avoided the much sharper implications of the resurrection. The risen Jesus ‘was taken up into heaven, and sat down at God’s right hand’. The way this reads, it almost sounds like a physical description; but whoever wrote this passage was far more in tune with the key biblical texts than we are, and in this case we are surely meant to pick up the echoes of Jesus’ answer to Caiaphas in 14.62. The ‘son of man’ has indeed ‘come with the clouds of heaven’ and is now ‘sitting at the right hand of Power’, as in Daniel 7.13 and Psalm 110.1.
The signs that this has indeed taken place in ‘heaven’ (heaven being God’s space, interlocking and intersecting with our space and indeed taking charge of it) is that Jesus’ followers, to this day, have been able to ‘go into all the world’ and ‘announce the message to all creation’. We need to be clear at this point. As anyone who has tried to explain the gospel to an unbeliever knows only too well, announcing the message is neither easy nor straightforward. It isn’t just that people find it incredible; they find it both ridiculous (whoever heard of a crucified Jew being raised from the dead? And whoever would have thought of such a person being the lord of the world?) and offensive (if this catches on, I will have to give up a lot of things in my world-view and daily life that are central and important to me). But these surprised and unprepared messengers go out anyway, with no great skill of their own but simply with ‘the message’, the good news. And the Lord worked with them. That is the key. The sovereign power of the enthroned Jesus goes to work – Paul and other writers might add, ‘through his spirit’ – so that, when the message is announced, people’s hearts are softened, and to their own great surprise they find that they believe it.
The messengers will also do other things, some of which appear startling in today’s world, to say the least. Handling snakes and drinking poison may well be intended literally (as in Acts 28.3 – 6, where a snake fastens on to Paul but doesn’t harm him), but might well be seen metaphorically as well (as Paul himself hints when he alludes to the idea of the snake in Romans 16.20). Casting out demons, speaking in new tongues, and healing the sick are all, of course, well attested in the early church. The point of them all is not so much to perform magic tricks to convince people that Jesus is alive and well, but rather to be signs and symbols of the healing work of the gospel going out into new countries, rescuing bodies and souls from the corrupt and corrupting powers that have enslaved them.
And if the church, in following this commission, still shows signs of its own muddle, brokenness, failing and sin – God can take care of that too. Obviously it would be better if none of these things were so. But the God who can call someone to fill in the missing bits of a very early gospel can stitch up the seams of our life and witness, too. All things are possible, Jesus had said, for those who believe. That remains at the heart of Mark’s resurrection message.
Give us your power, Almighty Lord, that we may bear faithful witness to your risen life.