It’s unclear whether the Gospel of Mark should be read with a mullet or a beret. It was ignored for the first six centuries of Christian history because it is clumsily written and has an odd narrative structure. But now we have post-modernism and what was considered clumsy is now considered a point of view; what was odd is now considered innovative. Which way we land probably says more about the reader than the text, but I guess that makes po-mo the winner.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Mark ends weird. Mark 16.8 is the original ending of Mark. It is abrupt and confusing. It ends on a preposition, “for.” The last line has a double negative, so a not unreasonable translation would be: “They told nobody nothing; they was scared was what for.” One point for the mullet. But Mark also chose not to include any resurrection stories, no appearances of Jesus. The effect is to leave us in the empty tomb, not knowing if the resurrection is real, wondering if we really will see Jesus in Galilee. In the end, we are like the women, struck with fear and anxiety about what exactly will happen.
It might be an interesting thought experiment to imagine the experiences of the disciples in Galilee, but before we can do that, it’s important to understand how resurrection was understood in the Jewish culture of the time. For most of the period in which the Hebrew Scriptures were written, there wasn’t much though of the afterlife. People died and went to Sheol, which is literally underground. It’s as if all the tombs of the world are giant retirement community. It’s neither good nor bad, punishment nor reward; it’s just where the dead are.
There wasn’t much need for a robust idea of the afterlife because good and evil and their consequences were understood to be pretty clear cut. My Hebrew Bible professor, Dr. Roy Heller, characterized it as “do good, get good.” If you do the right things – follow the law – good things will happen to you. That is how a just God works in the world.
But around the middle of the second century BCE, a Syrian king named Antiochus IV Ephiphanes turned this upside down. He controlled Israel, but was sandwiched between the threats of Egypt and Rome, so he wanted to make Jerusalem into an economic powerhouse. He thought that the Jews traditional ways were hindering his ambitions, so he gave them a choice of renouncing their faith or dying. All of a sudden, faithfulness was no longer the key to prosperity. Instead, faith is your doom. The Deuteronomic worldview had no way to make sense of this, so they began to think about an afterlife in which God would vindicate the faithful. There are three characteristics of this afterlife that I want to highlight, that help make sense of what people might be thinking when they heard that Jesus was raised from the dead.
First, this is a bodily resurrection. This is not about our souls flying up to heaven to live with God forever. The injustices suffered were embodied, so their redemption must also be embodied.
Second, this is a communal resurrection. It is not the kind of individual salvation that we tend to think about today. This was for the people of God. What started as a sense that those martyred by Antiochus must be vindicated was easily extended to include all of the people of Israel who had suffered injustice. Then someone remembered the prophets’ claims that all nations, all people, would stream to Zion because they would see that God is a God of justice and peace. It opens the door for a universal resurrection. All people are, in the end, God’s people.
Third, the resurrection is the restoration of justice. A just God could not let injustice stand. Suffering is acceptable because someday it will be made right.
When the disciples go back to Galilee, it may seem like a defeat. Going back to the beginning is not what they had imagined. But they are going back transformed by the journey to Jerusalem. They now know the cost. So I imagine their resurrection experiences are a lot like their experiences before Jesus died. At least, a lot like what Jesus had intended for them, but they never understood. Regardless of whether they met the risen Jesus in Galilee walking around as a person, they got busy embodying God’s justice in their community. They made sure the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the homeless were housed, the sick were healed, and the captives set free. Paul did the same.
Paul named Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection. Jesus appeared to people physically in a body that can be touched, in a body that eats bread and fish. His resurrection was a rebuke of the powers that killed him, a rebuke of the system that made his death inevitable, and a rebuke of those who participated by remaining silent. His resurrection was the embodiment of God’s justice. Paul thought it was clearly the beginning of the end, the beginning of the communal resurrection of God’s people. But by the time he is writing his first letter to the Corinthians, twenty years have passed. What was supposed to be a singular, instantaneous event, was turning out to be an ongoing process. More importantly, it was an ongoing process in which we can and must participate. Paul didn’t just wait for Jesus to return; he got to work restoring God’s justice. Each church he established, each Christian community he nurtured, was a little pocket people living God’s way, caring for one another, making sure everyone had what they needed. We see the same in the early Christian communities depicted in Acts. The church embodied God’s justice in community.
Whenever we do that, whenever we rise up to embody justice in community, we raise the dead. The early Christians rose up against a system of oppression that impoverished and disenfranchised the people of Israel. Jesus rose up with them. When we rise up for justice in Jesus’ name, he is right there with us.
When we rise up, we raise the dead up with us. When we rise up against white supremacy, not only Martin and Malcolm and Medgar Evers are raised from the dead, but Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and Stephon Clark. When we rise up against toxic masculinity and male domination, we raise from the dead the five hundred to six hundred women who are killed annually by domestic partners. We raise from the dead the victims of mass shootings, all committed by men. When we rise up against heteronormativity, we raise Matthew Shepard from the dead. We raise from the dead the twenty-seven transgender people who were murdered last year. When we rise up against American colonialism, we raise from the dead the people who make our phones in China, the refugees forced into flight because of our misadventures overseas, those just across the Rio Grande who died in the desert seeking a better life. When we rise up against the powers that killed them, they live again. They transform us and transform the world into God’s dream of justice and peace. They are the resurrection.