A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
An Unfinished Story
April 9, 2015
I was raised in a tradition that celebrated Easter as a single day of the year. On that day we blew out all the stops in celebrating the Risen Lord. It was glorious and grand, a day unlike any other. We wore our finest, sang our loudest, and more people showed up than on any other Sunday. It was the climax of the Christian year. The next day we went back to the grind of ordinary life. Only as an adult did I discover the more ancient tradition in which the day of resurrection is celebrated as the beginning rather than the climax of Easter.
The Easter stories in the Gospels present an event so extraordinary that none of them even tries to describe the event itself. The lead story in each of the four Gospels is not the resurrection per se, but the discovery of the empty tomb. Inquiring minds would like more information. Where is Paul Harvey when you want to know “the rest of the story?” Indeed, the most notable consistent feature of these Easter stories is how little they tell us.
This year’s lectionary cycle follows the Gospel of Mark, which offers the briefest resurrection story of the four. The earliest manuscripts and commentators end Mark’s story with the report that the women who discovered the empty tomb “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
Disorientation. Amazement. Fear. Secrecy. And there the story ends.
How could Mark do this to us? He has described in exquisite detail the events leading up to Jesus’ death. But just as the story of Jesus takes this stunning turn that changes everything, Mark suddenly goes mute. What did the risen Jesus look like? How did his disciples respond? What happened to him after his resurrection? Tell us everything, Mark; don’t spare a single detail!
Scholars generally concur that Mark’s was the earliest of the Gospels to circulate in writing. Subsequent Gospel stories filled in a bit of detail concerning Jesus and his disciples after his resurrection. A few verses added to the end of Mark bring some resolution to the book. But even taken all together, these later accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection words and deeds are maddeningly slim. Paul reports that on one occasion Jesus spoke to a crowd of more than five hundred, but gives us no idea what he said. Luke testifies that the risen Jesus offered “many convincing proofs” that he was indeed alive, yet records none of them.
One might consider the Gospel-writers derelict for omitting so much that the reader yearns to know. But perhaps these omissions reflect not dereliction, but inspired wisdom. By leaving their stories unfinished, might they be saying to us who read them, “Okay, now you continue to live out the Easter story”?
In portraying the witnesses to the empty tomb as fearful, disbelieving, and unsure where Jesus is, Mark in fact describes us all. We too wonder where Jesus is present in our world. We too brace ourselves fearfully in the face of events and forces beyond our control. As we consider the empty tomb, we too struggle with “fightings and fears, within, without” (Charlotte Elliott, “Just as I Am”).
These struggles assail us not only individually, but even more so collectively. As a congregation, presbytery, denomination, community, and society, we face a constant stream of that which dismays rather than comforts. We seek comfort in health and wealth, security and certainty – though we know they offer only passing relief at best, we grasp after them as though they were our salvation.
Precisely in this swirl of dismay, disorientation, and misdirection, we find ourselves in the heart of the Easter story. We hear heaven call out, “Fear not!” Jesus comes alongside us in due time, though we have a hard time recognizing his presence even when he does appear. “Fear not! Peace be with you!” This is the heart of the Easter story, a word from heaven that suffuses the closing scenes of all four Gospels.
Oh yes, there is plenty of good reason to fear. The news confirms it daily. There is much to fear in our church – loss of things that are precious, confusing new pathways that lead us to destinations unknown, uncertainty of where Jesus may be in the picture, or even if he is present at all. Amid our disorientation, we hear heaven speak to us again what the angels proclaimed at Jesus’ birth and echoed at his resurrection: “Fear not!” Jesus’ resurrection is heaven’s assurance that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted, even by death itself. “Fear not!” Let us embrace our part in the ongoing Easter story, sticking together even when assailed by fear and doubt, waiting together like the disciples of old, ready for the Spirit to transform us into bold witnesses of God’s prevailing love and justice for the world – a love supreme that is revealed, offered, and sealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In Easter gladness,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters.