The Story’s End – a sermon

Sunday, April 20th, 2014 – Easter Sunday
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Hymns: “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today”, “In the Bulb There Is a Flower”, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”
Special Music: “King of Glory”, by Third Day

“The Story’s End”
Every story has an ending.
Stories may go on for a long time. The exposition of a story might take hundreds of pages, several episodes of a TV show, or most of a movie. The building action leading up to the climax might take hundreds more pages, seasons of a TV show, several movies. And the denouement – the ending – could well take just as long. All you have to do is watch the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Return of the King to know that that’s true. I mean, how many endings does THAT story go through?
What if a story didn’t have an ending, though? Think about the final episode of M*A*S*H – up until the Superbowl six years ago, it was the highest rated program in broadcast television history. What if the story had ended with Hawkeye Pierce in the asylum? What if it had ended with him falling victim to his psychoses and being locked away? What if he had never returned to the 4077th, and we had never seen resolutions to his relationships with the rest of the staff there, had never seen where they went in life, had never seen Hawkeye depart Korea to return home?
Of course, we did see all that and more. But think about how very different the perception of M*A*S*H would have been had that story not had an ending. Think about how different the show’s story itself would have been without that last hour.
And you know, there are some stories that might have been better served without their ending. I am among MANY fans of the TV show How I Met Your Mother who believe that it would’ve been far better off to go without the final half of its final episode (really, they would’ve been fine without the final two seasons, but that’s neither here nor there). But the reality is that stories – whether in book form or screen form – are made or broken by their endings. Without the ending of M*A*S*H, we’re left to believe that Hawkeye Pierce lived out the rest of his days in an existential hell; conversely, without the ending of How I Met Your Mother, we’re left to believe that Ted Mosby finally, at long last, got over Robin Scherbatsky and moved on with life.
If you take away the ending of a story, it becomes a completely different story. Same characters, same general plot, sure, but the story itself is irrevocably changed.
So let’s change the end of the story, just a little bit.
From the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to John:
But Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside of the tomb. As she wept, she reached out and touched the stone sealing it shut. She saw two Roman guards, standing on either side of the tomb. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked.
“They have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and he has been laid here.”
When she had said this, she turned round and saw the gardener standing there. He said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”
Seeing that he was the gardener, she said to him, “My Lord, who cast a demon out from me, and who I anointed with oil, has been crucified. It was prophesied that he would rise from the dead on the third day, but alas, he remains in the tomb.”
The gardener said, “Many have come claiming to be the messiah. I, too, believed this one to be the son of God, but now see that I was deceived, as many have been before.”
And Mary returned to the apostles, weeping bitterly in her disappointment.
Here ends the reading.
Not a whole lot of fun, is it? Take away the ending, and it becomes a story of a great man who turned out to be wrong. Take away the ending, and it becomes a collection of teachings and miracles that may have been inspired by God, but who knows. Take away the ending, and you have the story of a man who journeyed across Israel, gathering huge numbers of followers in his wake, and going to the cross…
For no good reason.
Without the end of the story, it all seems kind of pointless.
So, let’s try again.
Jesus of Nazareth was the son of the virgin Mary. Conceived by the power of God’s spirit, he was born into a manger. He grew as a man of great stature and reverence, considered a rabbi by the people of Israel.
Jesus called a group of disciples to follow him and help him in spreading the word of God. Traveling throughout Israel, he taught through parables and miracles, giving the people a new Gospel by which they should live.
Unfortunately, he was distrusted by the leaders of the Jewish people, who saw to it that he was betrayed and handed over to the Roman authorities for crucifixion. However, before he could be executed, Jesus was bodily ascended into heaven. Some day, he will return to the earth in glorious triumph. On the day of his return, he will defeat the Beast, and all persons on earth will believe in him. He will reign over the earth in a time of universal peace and justice.
That is a condensed version of the story of Jesus in the Qu’ran, the holy scriptures of Islam. Jesus is revered by Muslims as one of the great prophets, second only to Muhammad in importance. Conceived by the power of God, born of the virgin Mary, teaching, preaching, performing signs and miracles throughout Israel, the Muslim Jesus is virtually identical in concept to the Christian Jesus. Even his return in the Book of Kitab-ul-llm – when he shall defeat the beast, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess their belief in Jesus – is very much like his return in the Book of Revelation.
And in some respects, Muslims revere Jesus even more than do some Christians. His teachings are treated with the utmost respect, his word is never questioned. Jesus is not used as a symbol for a movement, nor is he ever used for political gain. Finally you will ABSOLUTELY never hear a Muslim take Jesus’ name in vain. In fact, when a devout Muslim speaks the name of Jesus, he or she is then expected to say, “May his name be praised.”
But there’s still something missing. In the Qu’ran, Jesus is a great man. He is conceived by the power of God, he is ascended into heaven much like Elijah before him, and his teachings and miracles position him in a place of highest honor in Islamic belief. But at the end of the day… he’s just a prophet.
Without the end of the story, it all seems kind of pointless.
So, let’s try again.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, is considered by many to be one of the greatest – and by some, THE GREATEST – President to ever serve our country. To be certain, he had his issues, his downfalls, just as does any President, for at the end of the day, he may have been a great man, but he was still a man.
But nonetheless. For all his foibles, Thomas Jefferson was one of the smartest men to ever occupy the White House. He drafted large portions of the documents that formed the United States of America, and possessed the ability to write in different languages with his two hands simultaneously.
During the drafting of the Constitution – and later, of the Bill of Rights – Jefferson played a large role in the insertion of language about religion. Having grown weary of the institutional, nationalized Church of England, Jefferson sought to bring about a practice in the fledgling United States where persons of any religious stripe could freely practice their religion. The state would neither run or be run by any sort of Church, nor would the state tell any person that they could not practice their religion as they saw fit, within the bounds of maintaining the same rights for all persons.
Part of his weariness with institutionalized religion was the Church of England’s use of Jesus Christ almost as a club with which to beat recalcitrant, non-observant persons. And so, Thomas Jefferson set out to make his own version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – one which would be a guide, not a bludgeon.
Jefferson took the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and extracted from each of them any of the miraculous actions that Jesus undertook or claims of divinity, including the resurrection. This left Jefferson essentially with the Midrash of Jesus – the teachings of a Jewish rabbi. And to be sure, a guide made up purely of the teachings of Christ is an excellent manual for the life of a Christian. Any follower of Christ would be well advised to read the Jefferson Bible, to read the teachings of Christ unfettered by the opinions of man.
The thing is, the Jefferson Bible ends with the crucifixion of Christ. That’s it – they bury him in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and the story is over. Sure, throughout Jefferson’s version of the Gospel, Jesus is a wise teacher – perhaps the wisest – who gives us the means by which to live a life TRULY pleasing to God. But at the end of the day, he’s just a teacher.
Without the end of the story, it all seems kind of pointless.
So let’s try… one more time.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Here ends the reading.
Ah, yes. That one feels… better. In the first ten verses of the twenty-eighth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we get the end of the story.
Well, at the very least, we get the end of the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth. At the same time, the resurrection is the beginning of the story of the Church of Christ on earth.
But we have to have the resurrection in order for the story of Jesus’ ministry to end and for the story of our church to begin.
The Rev. Dr. Marcus Borg is a somewhat controversial figure in theological circles. He has spent the better part of his ministry studying what he calls the historical Jesus. But there is one part of the story of Jesus on which he has no doubt – the resurrection. To be sure, even there he invites ambiguity and controversy, by saying that he’s not sure what sort of resurrection occurred – whether Jesus’ physical body was actually resurrected, or whether the resurrection was a spiritual manifestation of Christ that appeared to his followers in the form of Jesus of Nazareth – or whether it was somehow both.
But even there, he says that it doesn’t matter in what form the resurrection takes place. The important thing is that the resurrection MUST OCCUR. “The tomb couldn’t hold him,” Dr. Borg says. “He’s loose in the world, he’s still here, he’s recruiting for the kingdom of God.”
It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that gives meaning to both stories – to his ministry on this earth before the resurrection, to his church on this earth afterwards. Without it, nothing else has meaning. “What can wash away my sins?” the old hymn asks, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I love that hymn, make no mistake, but its central conceit is sheer nonsense. Nothing but the blood of Jesus, you say? Without the resurrection, the blood of Jesus is nothing.
The ministry of Jesus had to happen to lead him to the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus had to happen to lead him to the tomb. And the resurrection of Jesus from that tomb had to happen to make all the rest of it have any meaning whatsoever.
It is in the resurrection that we are renewed and redeemed. It is in the resurrection that God has poured forth salvation on the world. It is in the resurrection that death is overcome and eternal life granted to the children of God.
With the end of the story, everything has a meaning.
Where, O grave, is your victory, where, O death your sting?
Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.
Hallelujah.

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