4 April – Discombobulation
In a sentence
The resurrection is the surprising Jesus simply being consistent.
Preamble to the sermon
There is a textual-come-literary question as to whether Mark intended to end his gospel at 16.8. The textual question arises from the fact that the oldest manuscripts end at v.8, while other manuscripts have one or both of the two shorter endings included in our Bibles. The literary question is whether there is enough evidence internal to Mark to settle the textual question: could Mark conceivably have meant to end his gospel here, or has his ending been lost and replaced by the other two endings? Perhaps these questions matter less than might first seem. Indeed, the question of where Mark intended to end is important for assessing his literary stature – even genius. Yet, in the end, it is not Mark who is the subject of the gospel but Jesus. Even if there were originally a couple of concluding ‘pages’ now lost, we would still have to make sense of these few verses as they stand – the ‘terror’ and ‘fear’ in response to the report of the resurrection, in particular. This is the assumption of our treatment of the passage in what follows.
Following chapter upon chapter of Job’s crying against God, God finally speaks: ‘Who is this who darkens counsel by words without wisdom?’
The stage is set, God has announced his intention: now comes the divine wisdom.
And what we get is Shock and Awe: no engagement, no argument, nothing that looks like the wisdom which Job and his friends have wrestled to uncover. Chapter upon chapter now of rhetorical questions from the divine whirlwind. And Job, filled with the fear of the Lord (cf. 28.28), will be crushed and will repent in dust and ash.
Today’s gospel reading is not different:
‘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’
Shock and Awe.
When we pose a question about the reported resurrection of Jesus, we usually consider ‘resurrection’ before considering Jesus. For reasons which seem obvious to us, the possibility of resurrection is considered independently of anything else the gospel says about Jesus. We understand life and death as natural categories, apart from Jesus: we are alive, we have seen the death of others and fully expect to ‘be’ dead ourselves one day. A report of a resurrection is only a radical violation of our lived experience of the natural world, on these terms.
Yet, it is alien to the New Testament to separate life and death as natural phenomena from what is said about a person as a historical phenomenon. We might say that, instead of adding resurrection to Jesus, the New Testament adds Jesus to resurrection. Instead of saying something unnatural about Jesus, the New Testament says something historical about resurrection. And what is important to keep in mind here is that ‘historical’ here does not first mean ‘what actually happened’. It means human cultural, social and political existence. The New Testament adds the cultural, social and political existence and action of Jesus to ‘resurrection’.
This means that what the New Testament says about Jesus, it says about resurrection. Here Mark’s Gospel is particularly illuminating. The word ‘discombobulation’ comes to mind from a close reading of Mark. Mark’s Jesus is surprising, confusing, even shocking. We hear, throughout, of what we’ve come to call the ‘messianic secret’: the active suppression of premature attempts to understand – and so to ‘box’ – Jesus with prepared labels. Against this, the secret enables that Jesus be heard and observed before labels can be applied, so that the labels are ultimately changed in their application to him. Jesus warps the world and its expectations: ‘Christ’, ‘Lord’, ‘Son’ are twisted around him to become something quite new.
Of central importance here is that ‘risen’ is one of these labels. ‘Jesus is Lord’, ‘Jesus is the Son’, ‘Jesus is the Christ’ and ‘Jesus is risen’ are all the same kind of affirmation. ‘Resurrection’ is an idea bobbing around in the cultural soup alongside other religious and political ideas. To say that Jesus is risen, then, is not a statement about nature applied to what is otherwise a cultural, social and political identity. Jesus – and all that he has said and done – is now added to ‘resurrection’, so that resurrection becomes warped and twisted into something new. Jesus is the surface from which the expectations of ‘resurrection’ are echoed, and they come back to us re-accented, in the way that a foreigner accents words familiar to us but which we are now not sure that we’ve heard correctly.
What Jesus does and says, and what is done to and said about him, are then, not a collection of independent affirmations but are ‘of a piece’: a single, seamless garment. To tear that garment into teachings here, miracles there, is to do violence to the integrity and identity of Jesus as the New Testament presents him. Jesus has no parts.
So too, then, is the response of the women to the tomb of a piece with the responses of Jesus’ friends and enemies as a whole, throughout Mark’s account: surprise, disorientation, discombobulation everywhere. The resurrection is no more – or less – problematic than ‘sell all your possessions and follow me’ (10.21) or ‘whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery’ (10.11f) or ‘the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified’ (10.33). Jesus the Discombulator: At. It. Again.
We are, of course, very tempted to pick and choose between this and that bit of the story, because the crosslight of Jesus illuminates dark places in all of us. And, more than tempted, we simply do pick and choose – whether it is this or that teaching from Jesus we don’t like or this or that element of the Creed. In this is manifest our own fears and terrors – not so much in response to the proclamation of the resurrection per se but to the claim that everything which matters has its substance here, in the seamless Jesus who asks – and is – too much, and so about whom too much is said: he is risen. Shock and Awe, terror and fear.
To return to the specific question of the resurrection: we only begin to comprehend the proclamation of the resurrection when we see that the gospel has no ‘parts’. The gospel and the Jesus it proclaims are of a piece.
Jesus has no parts. The Jesus who is the beloved Son is the one who rails against God’s abandonment, is the one who is said to be risen, is the one we will become around the Table.
Jesus has no parts, that we might have no parts – we who divide ourselves into body versus soul, male versus female, doubt versus faith, conservative versus progressive, today versus yesterday, Job versus God; we who are fractured within and without, and who tear and spill God into parts along the way.
So partitioned are we and what we do, that integrity astounds and confuses.
What is the meaning of the terror of the women as they run from the tomb after having heard the amazing, disorienting declaration that he is risen? ‘Bloody Jesus. He’s at it again. Discombobulating. Won’t. Even. Stay. Dead.’
The resurrection is just Jesus being consistent: his life and death and life are one.
But this consistency runs in two directions – or perhaps many directions. If the resurrection is just Jesus being consistent, then we need not consider it to be the last thing he does. It is possible – on the basis of consistency – that the resurrection is the first thing Jesus does, the defining thing which gives colour to all else said about him.
If Jesus is ‘of a piece’, we can go further: his story begins everywhere: in the resurrection, in the crucifixion, in the confrontations, in the teaching, in the desert temptations; in Job, in the exile, in David, in the Exodus, in grace after the way back into the Garden is barred, in the creation of order out of chaos. Jesus begins, even, today with us – in our gathering around a table which is not ours but his, which gathering brings together as one what is not consistent but lumpy and skewed and divided: us ourselves. A little more resurrection fear and trembling as a grateful people extends its hands to receive its Christ would not be out of order.
The resurrection is Jesus before us and against us in the same moment, as is the cross, as is the proclamation of the kingdom and the call to repentance.
This is what we need, and it is the gift of God.
Shock and Awe: God and us, of a piece.
Come, says God. All is prepared.
Christ is risen.