And These Signs Will Accompany Those Who Believe
May 15, 2011
Putting together a sermon can be an invigorating experience. Immersing yourself in a passage of scripture and living with it for a week like it’s a loved one visiting from out of state can be a divine experience. Sometimes you come across a passage that is so meaningful, so meaty that the sermon almost writes itself. Last week’s passage about the road to Emmaus was one of those passages.
Today’s scripture is NOT one of those passages. Not even close. Before Easter, when I was putting together this sermon series on “The Next Words of Jesus,” I read over this passage and thought it would make an interesting text for a sermon. I had not preached on it before and figured this slightly bizarre subject matter of Jesus’ statements could make for an interesting sermon. Plus, it was weeks away! Surely God would give me some blast of divine insight before May 15 arrived.
To understand the challenge this passage poses, I encourage you to open your Bibles with me to page 55 in the New Testament. It will help you to look at the passage with me if you are able because of the structure of the end of Mark’s gospel. Chapter 16, the last chapter in Mark’s gospel, starts with the resurrection account and shares a lot of similarities with accounts in the other gospels. Some women go to the tomb on Easter morning, only to find it empty. The encounter an angel who tells them that Jesus has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.
Verse 8 says, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Period. End of sentence. And that’s where things start to get a little dicey. If you’ll notice, in between v. 8 and v. 9 is something called “The Shorter Ending of Mark,” which says:
Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter. After this, Jesus himself also sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.
Only then do we move onto the next section, labeled “The Longer Ending of Mark,” which tells of several resurrection appearances and gives some perplexing quotes from Jesus. Here’s what it says:
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
Did you know that Mark had three endings? The next time someone tells you they take the Bible literally, ask them which of Mark’s endings they follow. And if they say the longer one, ask them if they’d rather hold a copperhead or drink a strychnine cocktail. This passage is further proof that the Bible must be interpreted in order for it to make any sense to us in today’s world. We have to do the responsible work of translating these ancient living words into our modern-day context in order for them to speak to us again.
But how do you do that on such a bewildering passage as this? I knew I was in trouble this week when I went to several of my trusty commentaries on Mark and found that half of them didn’t even address v. 9-20. They stop at v. 8. Chickens! So I went to my ace in the hole. When I’m dealing with a particularly gnarly text, I pull out a book called “Hard Sayings of the Bible,” which always has something enlightening to say about those passages of scripture that confuse and confound. So I opened the book to the section on Mark, ready to receive the magical words of wisdom that would jump-start my understanding. I turned to the right page and started reading: “Chapter 16, verses 9-20: We have no idea. Good luck!” Actually, “Hard Sayings” stops at v. 8, as well.
So what do we do with this? Do we favor one ending over another? If so, which one? Or, as one of my Facebook friends suggested, do we just ignore it? That would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could just pick and choose which parts of the Bible we paid attention to and which parts we dismissed. I think I’ll keep the 23rd Psalm but cut out that part about “Love your enemy.” But then we’re left with a Swiss cheese Bible, and that’s no good. If we’re going to call the Bible the word of God and take it seriously, we’ve got to be willing to bear the consequences and deal with the tough stuff.
I believe every word that’s in the Bible is in there for a reason. Maybe that reason is to comfort us or to make us uncomfortable. Maybe the reason is to answer our fears or maybe it’s to challenge our assumptions. Maybe the reason is to inspire; maybe it’s to rebuke. The Bible is a divine-human collaboration, but I believe that God intended us to have exactly the Bible we have today. After all, what’s more powerful, the human ability to write and edit and translate or God’s revelation to us? Take it or leave it, like it or hate it, this Bible is what God wants us to have, so we have to do our best to make sense of it. In fact, maybe that’s how God wants it. Maybe God doesn’t present everything to us on a silver platter, because it would be easy to drawn lines around who’s in and who’s out. Then we wouldn’t have to go through the mess of actually being in relationship with people who believe differently, because there would be no “differently.” But that’s not what God gave us. Regardless of how frustrating and dense it can be, I believe there is truth in every word printed here. Sometimes we just have to dig a little deeper to find it.
While digging this week, I learned that the earlier and most reliable Greek manuscripts of Mark didn’t have either the short or long ending in them. They end at v. 8, with the women being afraid. Maybe that was intentional or maybe Mark’s original ending got lost, but for the first two centuries, that was it. But that may not have been good enough for the fledgling group of believers who needed a little more assurance. After all, if you end there you don’t even have any resurrection appearances. So at some point early on, Mark or someone else tacked on an additional ending that gave more credence to the resurrection story. That ending was modified a few times until, by the start of the second century, we have the text as it is now: an original ending at v. 8 and two additional endings, a shorter one and a longer one.
As confusing as it may be, I’m glad the editors of our Bible didn’t choose one ending or another. I like that we have the choice to decide which we prefer, or if we prefer all three. I would imagine that whoever added the additional endings had some trouble with the fact that Mark’s gospel ended with the word “afraid.” There’s nothing feel-good about that. You can’t put that to soaring music and then roll the credits. So an ending was added that brought some closure to the story.
For me, that’s an example of the human side of the collaboration. Because we humans don’t like leaving things open-ended. We want closure. We like our stories wrapped up with a nice little bow. So to end this story at the empty tomb with women seized by terror and amazement wasn’t good enough. And yet, while Mark’s version of the story ended there, the good news of Jesus Christ doesn’t end there, or at v. 20 or at the end of Revelation. The story of God’s work in this world will always be ongoing. God’s story is always “to be continued.”
The endings that were eventually added were pulled together from other oral and written sources about Jesus. We have Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and to two travelers on the road (the Emmaus story). Then, starting with v. 14 Jesus appears to the disciples and upbraids them for their stubbornness and lack of faith, because they didn’t believe the resurrection stories they were hearing.
That seems a little harsh to me. After all, these eleven have dedicated the last three years of their lives to serving with and learning from Jesus. Sure, they’ve had their moments of dumb-headedness and, yeah, they did kind of flake out there at the end, but to call them stubborn and accuse them of faithlessness seems a little insensitive. We all have our moments of unbelief, don’t we? So let’s cut the disciples some slack here.
One the other hand, maybe this is exactly what they needed to hear. After all Jesus told them what was going to happen with him and yet they still didn’t believe. Are we any less culpable? We have a whole book telling us who we are called to be, but if Jesus appeared to us would we get upbraided, as well? That question, which this passage poses to us, is one of truths it speaks about the insidious presence of unbelief that exists within modern church communities.
Phillip Gulley moves in this direction with his new book called, “If the Church Were Christian.” The chapter titles alone are worth the price of admission. “If the church were Christian…”
• Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness
• Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief
• Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers
• Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions
• It would care more about love and less about sex
• And my favorite, “If the church were Christian Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship.”
That last one is what I think the risen Jesus is addressing to the disciples. Stop worrying about what happened to me and start worrying about what’s going to happen to everyone else. He gives them a mission to go and proclaim the good news, echoing the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, and says that those who believe will be accompanied by signs of their faith.
Now, what about this stuff about snakes and poison? I honestly don’t know. Really. I don’t believe Jesus meant this literally, although some churches take it that way. One of their pastors might say to me, “Oh ye of little faith!” but I’d rather think I’m “Oh ye of a lot of common sense!” So what’s the truth here? What word from God can be unearthed from this part of the passage? What I hear is a statement about the power of faith. Jesus is saying that those who trust and believe will have the ability to live out their faith in powerful ways. But remember he’s saying this to a group of people he just chastised for their lack of faith. He’s not saying, “Go and do these things.” He’s saying, “If you truly believe, you have nothing to fear,” which is an interesting contrast to the original ending in v. 8.
So do we learn anything from Mark 16:9-20? We learn that the Bible is a book to be studied, not worshipped. Only God should be worshipped. We learn that all of us are in various stages of unbelief and still have a long way to go on our journey, but that we don’t have to wait until our faith is perfect to start living it out, starting right now. We’ve learned that with faith comes power, but we have to supply the common sense on how to use it. And most of all we’ve learned that we still have a lot to learn. Thanks be to God.