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Hespeler, 11 March 2021 © Scott McAndless – Second Sunday after Easter
Acts 1:15-20, 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31 (click to read)
At the end of a long day’s labour, many of the people passed through the narrow streets of Jerusalem were making their way towards one particular house. Some of them were slaves who worked in the homes of wealthy citizens, a few of them had shops and stalls that they tended, but most really went out every morning with little idea what sort of work they might be doing that day.
They went to the marketplaces with the intention of hiring themselves out to work on some building site or work in someone’s field just outside the walls. They took whatever jobs they could get, and for a full day’s work, they could be paid as much as a denarius.
Of course, many days there was no work to be had. Sometimes some of them also found that people didn’t want to hire them because they came from Galilee and spoke with a strange accent. So there were a fair number who were coming home that evening with nothing in their purse.
Nevertheless, all of them, whether they had worked hard and sweated in the fields or workhouses or whether they had languished in the marketplaces, had faced everything with a light heart and often enough with a song on their lips because of where they were going now and what it meant to them.
As they entered the door, they all took out whatever they had earned or bartered for during the day and joyfully gave it over to the man who stood just inside the door. He offered to each one a blessing that was immediately returned.
As they moved into the open-air courtyard beyond, their noses twitched and their stomachs growled when they saw the piles of bread and the dried fish. There were some olives and dried figs as well as several skins of cheap wine. There was even a hearty stew that had been made with barley, beef and vegetables. They smiled and glanced at each other as some remarked in wonder, “The Lord has provided yet again, just as he promised.” “Praise the Lord,” others responded.
When everyone had finally arrived, one of the leaders stepped forward and he took one of the loaves. “When we were with him in Galilee,” the man began, “we traveled all over the countryside with almost nothing – no staff, no bag, no bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. And I sometimes worried – we all did – that we would go so hungry that we wouldn’t make it. But Jesus promised us that, if we would only trust our Father in heaven, we would always have enough. And I’m not saying that we always had meals as good as the one you’re going to enjoy tonight, but it is true. There was always enough.
“And every time we stopped at the end of the day, no matter how much food there was, everyone was welcome at the table whether they had brought anything or not. And he always took a loaf of bread and he thanked God for the gift before he broke it and gave it out to everyone. And it was that simple meal that formed us into something special.” And with that, the man broke the bread, some people came forward to distribute it and the feast began.
A Promised Answer to a Persistent Question
When all had eaten their fill, they settled in contentedly to hear a message from one of the leaders. Usually one of those who had been with Jesus from the very beginning would come forward and tell a story of a miraculous healing or repeat one of the stories that Jesus had told while explaining how it applied to what was happening in the world. But they had been promised that, on this night, a special request would finally be answered. The sisters and brothers had heard the story of how Jesus had died many times. It was a horrible and yet beautiful story all at once.
But they always wanted to know how it had come to pass that Jesus had been arrested. They had heard that he had been betrayed and they even knew the name of the betrayer: Judas. But no one seemed to know what had happened to the man after he had acted so treacherously. The story seemed incomplete.
As much as the apostles had been with Jesus almost constantly during his ministry, they had not been able to witness everything about his life and especially about his death. They had neither been able to listen in on whatever trials had been conducted nor on the plots that had been hatched by his enemies. In the same way they had not been able to observe what happened to Judas. But that did not mean that they could not answer the question.
There were two things that allowed them to fill in the gaps in the story of Jesus. First of all, they knew that the scriptures had laid out just about everything that was supposed to happen to the Messiah. So, when they found anything in what would some day come to be called the Old Testament that seem to fit the details of Jesus’ life, they knew they could be certain that that was how it had happened.
This was how they were sure, for one thing, that it had been Judas who had betrayed Jesus. For was there not a story in the Book of Genesis of how Judas (or Judah in Hebrew), one of the sons of Jacob, had come up with a plot to sell his brother Joseph to some foreigners for a sum of money? Surely that was a prophecy about Jesus and it had been fulfilled when Jesus was betrayed.
The other source that the apostles could rely on was the Holy Spirit who would guide and inspire them. When they opened their hearts, they could be sure that the Spirit would lead them towards the truth of all things.
So, the apostles had studied the scriptures and they had opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit, and tonight they would tell the people what had been revealed to them concerning this Judas.
Joseph from Cyprus
But first, the apostle announced, there was going to be a very special presentation. He went and took a seat as another man in the gathered group rose and came forward. It was Joseph. A member of the tribe of Levi and a native of Cyprus, he had been a part of the growing community that gathered in this house for a few months. In that time the gregarious and generous man had come to be well known and loved by all, so they all greeted him warmly and then quietly waited to hear what he might have to say.
“My dear sisters and brothers,” he began, “I know that you are amazed, as am I, by how the God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead also provides for us our daily bread when we gather. These are the miracles by which God creates our community and it is marvelous in our sight. You know very well that the money you share from your daily labours is not sufficient to cover all that is provided, as well as the other things that are necessary to our common life.
The other day, as I was thanking God for this miraculous provision and marveling at how it was possible, the Lord spoke to me. He gave me the conviction that I was to be a part of that miracle. He set me to thinking about a piece of property, a field that I had inherited from my father. The Holy Spirit has revealed to me that that field no longer belongs to me, but it belongs to Jesus who has claimed all of me. It is part of God’s provision for this community. And so I have sold that field and I brought the money that I gained and have laid it here, at the feet of the Apostles. It is what has provided your feast this evening and it will for many evenings yet to come.
The whole group cheered this surprising and heartwarming announcement as Joseph returned to his seat and an apostle stepped forward. “We rejoice in our brother Joseph today. You all know what an incredible blessing he has been to our community and this is made all the more certain today. In fact, we have decided he deserves a new name. We think that he should be called the son of encouragement.
The whole group clearly agreed with this idea and they took up the new name as a chant in their native Aramaic tongue: “Bar Nabas, Bar Nabas!” and indeed, the name of Barnabas did stick to Joseph from that day forward.
Finally, the time had come. The apostle sat in front of the gathered company and hugged his knees as he began to tell the story. “Who can say why someone would choose to betray our Lord, to hand him over to those who sought his death? We only know that, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against God’s holy servant Jesus to do whatever God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. And was Judas’ role also so predestined? Perhaps, but surely Satan must have entered into him to make such a thing possible.
“But this is what happened to him after he carried out his unspeakable betrayal. He was paid and paid handsomely. And he looked about to try and decide what he should do with his ill-gotten gains. He went out and he found a field. You know that field just outside the city to the south, the one where the soil is red? Well Judas went and he bought that field. And then he thought he was content and secure – that his field would provide him with all that he needed for the rest of his life.
“But know this: God is not mocked. The very day when he took possession of his field, he walked into it. And as he walked, he tripped on a root and he fell headlong. And such was the wickedness and greed inside of him, that his middle began to swell up until finally it burst and blew up and his entrails flew all over the field that he had bought – a field of blood. And that is how that piece of land shall be known from now on.
The company stirred as they heard this harrowing tale. It was very disturbing, but it also seemed so fitting for one who had carried out such a crime in order to enrich himself.
The Difference the Resurrection Makes
The apostle continued, “Tonight you have heard the story of two men, one who bought a field, and one who sold one. And in the difference between these two men, between Judas and Joseph, you will find the answer to the question that many of you have been asking me: what difference does it make if Jesus really rose from the dead?
Judas died without knowledge or belief in the resurrection of our Lord. And without that knowledge, he could have no hope or security beyond this present world system. For this reason, he knew he had to have property and that he had to have it at any cost, even at the cost of the life of his friend and Lord. He thought that that could make him safe, but God thought differently and we all see the folly of the choice that he made.
But Joseph lives with the knowledge and reality of the resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, he knows that nothing has more value than the community of the resurrected one, nor can anything else give him any security in this world or any world. And so, for Joseph, the field that he had was of little worth in comparison and he has chosen to act accordingly. This is the difference that the resurrection makes for us all.
Respecting the Biblical Authors
The fact that there are two accounts of the death of Judas in the Bible, one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the Book of Acts, has created a bit of a problem down to the centuries because the two accounts contradict each other. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas committed suicide. According to Acts, he kind of spontaneously exploded.
Both accounts associate his death with the purchase of a field called the field of blood, but according to Matthew, the priests in the temple bought the field and according to Acts, Judas bought it for himself.
Now, some people will say that the two stories are not really in contradiction with each other and that if you push and shove at these two passages you can force them to agree. And perhaps you can, but if you do, you end up twisting what the original authors actually wrote, and missing much of what they were trying to say. And I have too much respect for the Bible to twist it to suit my needs.
As a result of these attempts to reconcile two different accounts, what has often happened is that people have tried to downplay the fact that, according to Acts, Judas bought the field because that contradicts what it says in Matthew. And that has made us miss a key part of the story of the Book of Acts – because I don’t think that it is just by chance that, in the first chapter of Acts, somebody buys a field and then, three chapters later, somebody sells one. That simple contrast, is meant to illustrate so much to us of what it meant to the church of that age to know and believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead. And I wonder, how much difference does that knowledge make for us today?
 Act 4:27-28
Hespeler, 4 April, 2021 © Scott McAndless – Easter, Communion
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8 (click to read)
I can’t be the only one to feel a little bit dissatisfied with our reading from the Gospel of Mark this morning. I mean, it starts out really well. The women come to the tomb on Easter morning. They are worried that they will not be able to get in and anoint the body of Jesus because they know that the tomb has been sealed with a massive stone.
But then they get there and, wonder of wonders, the stone has already been rolled away and the tomb is empty. There’s a young man dressed in white (he’s got to be an angel, right?) who tells them that Jesus isn’t there and that he has indeed been risen. He even tells them that they should go and tell the others this incredible news.
That is all fine and what I expect to hear on Easter Sunday morning. It is the next bit that comes as a surprise. For this is how the Gospel of Mark ends: “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.” Surely you thought what I thought when we read that – that that can’t be the end of it.
Something seems to be missing
I mean, where is the part where they took a deep breath and thought about it a bit and changed their minds and decided to go ahead and tell everybody? Where, for that matter, is the part where they actually see the risen Jesus because, at this point, we’re actually talking only about second-hand knowledge, what you might call hearsay in a court of law? The young man may have seen some evidence of the resurrection, but all the women have seen is an empty tomb. And the resurrection of Jesus is a pretty important event so wouldn’t we all like to have just a little bit more evidence? Something seems to be missing at the end of the Gospel of Mark.
If you thought that, I just wanted to tell you this Easter morning that you are not alone. In fact, people seem to have been thinking that ever since the Gospel of Mark was written. But that is, as far as we can tell, the actual ending of the Gospel of Mark. The final thing that we are told is that the women said nothing to anybody.
Manuscripts of Mark
At least, that is how the very best, that is to say the very oldest, manuscript copies of the Gospel of Mark end. And the way that we know that people were not happy with that ending is that there are other manuscripts of this gospel, that are not quite as old, that have added other endings. You can find these other endings in the footnotes of your Bibles, but they were pretty clearly not written by the original author.
The so-called longer ending, for example, seems to be completely based on the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke. So, pretty obviously, some of the people who made early copies of the Gospel of Mark were very dissatisfied with how it ended and actually went so far as to try and fix the problem by constructing their own endings.
Was the last page lost?
People were very uncomfortable with the ending of the gospel right from the very beginning. So you are not alone if you have some trouble with it. So, the question is what happened here? Some have suggested, down through the years, that perhaps Mark did write a longer ending and that it was somehow lost.
These gospels were originally written on scrolls of papyrus and when you publish a book like that, if any part of the book is going to become ripped off, it’s either going to be from the beginning or the end of the roll. So, it is possible that the last page of the gospel just got ripped off. It would have had to have happened pretty early on, like before any copies had been made and spread around too far, but it is the kind of thing that sometimes happened in the ancient world. So that is one theory that people have put out there to explain the strange abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark.
But I would like to ask you to consider today that there might be another explanation. What if Mark intended to end the gospel exactly as we have it today, which is to say that he intended to make us feel uncomfortable with that ending.
The oldest resurrection story
Let me ask you, what do you think is the oldest written account of the resurrection of Jesus? Of all the stories of Jesus being seen after his death that still exist, which was written down first? Usually, when you ask that question, people will respond by saying that it must be one of the gospel accounts – you know, maybe in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But, actually, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Most scholars agree that the earliest gospel was not written until at least 70 ad, about 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And there are writings in the New Testament that are older than that. The Apostle Paul almost certainly died several years before 70 ad, so anything written by Paul has to be older than any of the Gospels.
Paul’s resurrection account
And do you know what that means? That means that the passage we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning is actually the oldest written account of the resurrection. And what a fascinating and important account it is!
Paul introduces it by saying this: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.” This indicates that what Paul is about to say is not merely his own story. It is, in fact, a fixed tradition that he has received from others and has transmitted in his turn. Now the first letter to the Corinthians is usually dated to sometime around the year 54 ad. And what the Apostle appears to be telling us is that, sometime before this letter was written, there was already an official account of the resurrection of Jesus that had been circulating in the churches.
Then, even though he has told it to them before, Paul goes on to repeat that account. It starts with the basic sequence of the events: “That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
But the next part is of particular interest because Paul goes on from there to list the people who witnessed the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. He lists first an appearance to Cephas (which is probably the original Aramaic form of the name of the man we know as Peter), – so Peter, and then the twelve (presumably the disciples listed in the gospels), then a group of five hundred, some of whom, Paul stresses, are still alive as he is writing, then James (presumably the brother of Jesus), then all the apostles and finally Paul himself.
This, my friends, is huge. Just think of it, only a couple of decades after the time of Jesus’ death, there was an official account of his resurrection, that included a list of the witnesses, that was circulating through the churches. And it was circulating even while some of those witnesses were still alive and people could go to them and ask for themselves whether it was true. This, for me, points to something fundamental about the early Christian Church: they knew the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, and they knew it firsthand.
Barring the invention of a time machine, there is really no way that we could scientifically prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead. That remains a matter of faith. But I really think that there is no denying the simple truth that the early Christians did experience the reality and power of the resurrection of Jesus for themselves. That experience was transformative for them and, I believe it remains absolutely transformative for the world to this day.
The second account
So that is the first written account of the resurrection of Jesus. Let us never forget it’s importance. The second account, however, is probably the one that we read this morning from the Gospel of Mark. Most scholars today believe that Mark was the first gospel written and that it was written sometime around 70 ad.
We know it was around that time because that was a very difficult year in Judea, a year in which the entire countryside was laid waste by the Roman army, in which the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and thousands upon thousands of people were turned into refugees. There are numerous hints in the gospel itself that these were the things that were going on as it was being written.
So that was the context in which the second resurrection account was composed. And it is quite a different account, isn’t it? As we have already noted, it seems to end very strangely without any direct appearances and with the only witnesses saying nothing at all. But what we need to understand is this. Mark wrote this account about fifteen years after Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.
Mark would have known the well-established tradition
And we know from the letter to the Corinthians that there was a well-established tradition about the people who had seen the risen Jesus. We have to assume that Mark knew that tradition. And if Mark knew about that tradition, then maybe he could take it for granted that his readers would know about it as well. And so, when Mark came to write his story of the resurrection, his concern was not to offer that evidence through the witnesses. His readers already knew about witnesses! Mark was trying to do something else.
Mark highlights the women
He chooses to tell the resurrection story from the point of view of a group of women. This is kind of the opposite of giving us eyewitness testimony because women were not generally accepted as being trustworthy witnesses in that world at that time. So, no, we are not to think of these women as witnesses, they are something else.
I believe that Mark wanted his readers to actually identify with the women in the story. They were kind of in the same situation. These people in Mark’s church identified as followers of Jesus. They were also struggling with grief and loss like these women because they were living through some very traumatic times as armies attacked, people fled for their lives and cities were destroyed. They had also received the testimony that the women receive from the young man dressed in white, that Jesus was not dead and that he had risen – the same testimony that Paul refers to in the letter to the Corinthians.
Mark writes to a struggling church
And Mark writes this account for them because you know what these Christians were struggling with at that very moment? They were struggling, not because they hadn’t heard the testimony, but because they were afraid. I mean, can you blame them? They were probably running for their lives. Of course they were afraid! And so, if Mark chose to end his Gospel with the words, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” he probably intended his readers to take that very personally.
Now, just before Mark tells us that the women were afraid and didn’t say anything, he also tells us that they were given a very specific piece of instruction: “But go, 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 then he tells us that this message was not passed on. How could it have been if they said nothing to anybody?
What Mark is saying to his church
So, what Mark is actually doing here is passing on to the church of his own day a message that he is telling us has been lost or forgotten. He is saying, look Jesus really has risen from the dead and yes, you have heard the testimony of the witnesses, but I understand that you are dealing with some really rough times so I’m going to offer you something more than just a testimony. I’m going to offer you an invitation. I know you’re on the run but, because Jesus has gone on ahead of you and he’s gone to Galilee, if you go to Galilee, you can experience the power of that resurrection for yourselves.
The power of Easter
You see, that is the real power of Easter. The Easter story isn’t just something that happened a long time ago and that certain other people witnessed. I mean, it is that, but it is also so much more. Easter is something that keeps on happening. It is something that became very real to Mark’s audience when they first received this gospel and its author invited them to go to Galilee and experience the risen Jesus for themselves. I don’t know if he was talking about the literal geographical Galilee or some other metaphorical Galilee, but that was the promise that he was giving them and I believe that that promise was fulfilled.
But the promise wasn’t just for them, it is also for us. We are living in a time of great confusion and of fear. We are living in a time when we don’t quite know what to do and how to manage this particular crisis. Yes, we have heard the testimony that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and that is the good news of this day. But Mark is telling us that we can and should expect more. The power of the resurrection is for all of you today. Go to Galilee and he will meet you there. And no, I’m not talking about the geographical Galilee. I’m asking you to go to that place of quiet meditation in your life and think on this truth. I believe that Jesus will meet you with the power of resurrection there. That is the promise of Easter.