On Easter Sunday morning, four years ago, a member of this church sent me this cartoon from The Australian. The context being, of course, that we were in lockdown, unable to leave our homes unless we were essential workers! Raising questions about how the life-giving, life-transforming work of Jesus has always been viewed!

But I found myself thinking about that cartoon again this year, in a different way, thinking about the weight of that stone at the entrance of the tomb and the weight of the trauma being experienced in our world at this moment. As Megan prayed, so beautifully, in our Good Friday Service, “Sometimes it feels like the sorrow of Good Friday has never lifted. Despair, abandonment, hunger, thirst persists…”

Which is what these three women – women named and therefore known in the early church: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – were thinking about and talking about as they approached the tomb. Verse 3: “They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’”

But when they reach the tomb, the stone – the very large stone – has been rolled away, and instead of a corpse, they find a messenger (in other words, an angel) who tells them that Jesus of Nazareth, the one who throughout Mark has had a ministry of “raising up” people from illness, unclean spirits or even death, has been raised! That the life of God in Jesus is “unquenchable”, as scholar Walter Brueggemann says; it is “newness beyond our achieving”. That we, as his followers, are to walk in this way of unquenchable new life. “Go,” says the angel, “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

But, in the very next verse, the gospel runs smack into a giant narrative roadblock! 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.”

What are we to make of this? What is the writer of Mark doing here?

We know, from our Bibles, that the ancient scribes were not happy with this ending, adding an amalgam of other Easter stories, the shorter and longer endings of Mark.

And we also know – and maybe this is what the writer of Mark is drawing attention to in this strange way – that these women did not stay silent for long about this message of unquenchable life. For them, the stone had well and truly been rolled away and their lives were transformed.

For it is a wonderful truth that, in every gospel account, women are the first witnesses to the resurrection! In Matthew, it is Mary Magdalene and the ‘other’ Mary. In Mark, the three women we have mentioned. In Luke , “the women who had come with him from Galilee”. And in John, Mary Magdalene again.

And women whose lives had been transformed continued to minister in the early church. It has sometimes been obscured in the text (those pesky scribes again) or by our own biases, but women were commonly leaders in the early church. Thirty-four per cent, or 10 out of 29 people, that Paul commends in letter to the Romans are women. (That’s better gender representation in the ancient Roman church than our current Baptist Association!) Elizabeth Muir in her book, A Women’s History of the Christian Church, notes that eight of the first Christian churches had strong female leadership. As well as Rome, in Jerusalem, Mary, the mother of John Mark hosted a church. In Phillip the church was founded by Lydia, and Euodia and Syntyche were active there. In Corinth, the church had women prophets and start up assistance from Priscilla and her husband Aquila. In Caesarea the church was ministered to by Philip’s four unmarried daughters. In Laodicea there was a house church run by Nympha. In Cenchrae, Phobe was a deacon and in Ephesus, Priscilla also ministered.

There were so many women involved in the early church that Celsus, a second-century Greek philosopher, ridiculed Christianity as a religion of women, children, and slaves. “Acknowledging,” he writes, “that such individuals are worthy of their God, they [gain over] the silly, and the mean [or lowly …the stupid…women and children.”

Paul, writing to the Corinthians puts it in more positive terms, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are.…”

So apart from their joy and confidence in God, their confidence that God had chosen them, and called them worthy; their desire to serve God – what did transformed lives look like in this motley crew of women, children, and men?

They were known for their transformed behaviour; “for habitual behaviour,” church historian Alan Kreider says, “(rooted in patience) that was distinctive and intriguing”. They were faithful in marriage, not a universal value in the ancient world, honest in their financial dealings and, to different degrees, questioned occupations that involved worship of the emperor or other gods or taking others’ lives. In his attempt to find evidence for why they were not good Roman citizens, all Pliny the Younger, governor of Binythia, could find in the second century is that they “gathered before dawn to sing to Christ ‘as to a god,’ and [joined] in an oath not to commit theft, adultery, or any such sins.”

And they were known for their care of others. Around 250 CE the church in Rome was feeding 1500 widows and 155 Christian workers. In 350 CE the church in Antioch was feeding 3,000 people. Again, a critic of Christianity testifies for us to this generosity. Emperor Julien in the fourth century, complains, “It is disgraceful that…the impious Galileans [impious because they did not worship Roman gods] support not only their own poor but ours as well!”

There is another reason for the giant narrative roadblock at the conclusion of Mark’s gospel. It functions rhetorically, commentators say, as a way of drawing the listeners – us – into the story; in the same way people watching a pantomime are encouraged to shout out to the hero or heroine. (“Watch out! He’s behind you!) Here we are being encouraged to continue the story that the text says still needs to be told!

How do you feel about continuing the story; about witnessing to “unquenchable life” to “newness beyond our achieving”; to living lives of transformed behaviour and transforming generosity?

It is challenging. Perhaps you feel, as author and minister Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, that the thought of coming closer to God sounds horrible! That it “might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money.” But what I have found, she writes, is that my life is being transformed:

“when I am confronted with the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies… when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone… when I am forgiven by someone even through I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he [or she], too, is trapped by the gospel… when traumatic things happening the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the [trauma in our world]… and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalogue but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love.”

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.”

Is this our narrative roadblock invitation this morning – are we being invited to continue the story – to continue being transformed by telling and living the story of joy and life and new life and new lives and new community – as we follow the one, as we worship the one, who has been raised; who is risen indeed!

Let me close with the words of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer:

God, Christ is risen!

We give thanks for the gift of Easter
that runs beyond our expectations,
beyond our categories of reason,
even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.

We know about the powers of death,
powers that persist among us,
powers that drive us from you,

and from our neighbour, and from our best selves.

We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety,
and brutality and certitude,
powers before which we are helpless.

And then you – you at dawn, unquenched,
you in the darkness,
you [early on Sunday morning],
you who breaks the world to joy.

Yours is the kingdom…not the kingdom of death,
Yours is the power…not the power of death,
Yours is the glory…not the glory of death.
Yours…You…and we give thanks
for the newness beyond our achieving.


~ Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth.  Posted on Prayers and Creeds. http://prayersandcreeds.wordpress.com/