Scripture Readings: Micah 6:6-8, Mark 16:1-8
There are alternative endings to the gospel of Mark, but the oldest conclude with the women who came to the tomb running away, because they are afraid. Isn't this surprising? We would expect them to be filled with joy at the news that Jesus was risen. Why were they filled with fear?
In the gospel of Mark there is a clue just three chapters earlier, for Mark 13 describes the wars and disasters that will mark the end of the world. The resurrection of Jesus was understood as the beginning of the end, and at the time the gospel of Mark was written the Jewish revolt in Palestine had either commenced (66 CE) or was about to be crushed by Roman legions (70 CE).
The first Christians, including these women, were Jews, who knew from reading their scriptures that God was the source or cause of all events including wars and disasters. The Genesis story of a flood that destroyed all human beings, except for Noah and his family, says that God sent the flood. When Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites through the Red Sea are drowned by its closing waters, this is also seen as God's will. But so are the wars against Israel and Judah, and also the exile of Judean leaders to Babylon. If all of history is from God, as Jewish scripture assumes, then it seems that every bit of history reflects either God's wrath or God's love or both.
This understanding is not only carried over into the Christian Bible in the Old Testament, but is also in the New Testament. Recall the parable in Matthew 25 of the Great Judgment at the end of time, where the risen Lord sends those who have cared for others to heaven and those who failed to do that to hell. Moreover, the Revelation to John at the end of the New Testament is a vivid account of the final battle of Christ against Satan. Given this sense of God and history, it is not surprising that the resurrection of Jesus would be taken as a sign of God's judgment of the world. And even for those who hoped to be saved, it would be hard to face such a future without fear.
Yet, there is a crucial shift in the New Testament as well. The God of all enters history in the life of a man, who becomes a victim of the historical circumstances of his time. The Christian witness that Jesus is not merely another human victim, but is also a divine victim of history, offers new insight into God. In the New Testament not all that is bad is attributed to God, for God in (or as) Jesus suffers what is bad. In the gospel stories, God does not put Jesus to death. Jesus is killed by a government led by an emperor who claims to be divine.
The God of the Israelite covenant becomes, in the Christian Bible, God in Christ, and so faithfulness to the covenant becomes faith in Christ. This faith in Christ means not having faith in Caesar, who also demands faith of his subjects. In first century Greek, both Caesar and Christ demand pistis, which means trust and loyalty and is translated into English in the Christian Bible as "faith." In the New Testament, history is split between God and the Roman Empire, with Roman rule on earth and God, in Christ, as a victim of Roman rule.
Thus, the beginning of the Christian era marks a shift in how the world and God are understood.
Two millennia later, we also live in a time of fear. Terrorist attacks and war in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect a vulnerability to violence that is very frightening. Our world is changing, and our sense of God may be changing as well. Even a few months ago, who would have thought our nation would now be bogged down in Iraq?
So, we may well be asking, where is God in our time? How are we now to discern God's will and presence now?
Many believe that God is on our side and will support us in destroying those who are evil. Certainly, this is a theme in both the Old and New Testaments, but it ignores the scripture passages that have God judging the chosen people and often using their enemies to do so. Perhaps God is not on the side of America, but is "on the side of" the poor and victims of injustice everywhere.
This would mean discerning God's presence among the victims of our time, even as God was in Jesus who was a victim of his time. Certainly, we hope to find God among the victims of terror, whether at the hands of Al Qaeda or Saddam Husain. But are we also able to "find God" among the victims of American military strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is the cross a sign of God's presence among all those who are the victims of human violence and injustice?
Those who believe that they are fighting on God's side against evil are reluctant to find God among the victims of violence and injustice, but Christians are called to see through self-serving justifications for violence that blind us to our own complicity. And with this vision of God, in Christ crucified, we may find the faith to face our own fears. If God's love for humanity includes suffering an unjust and violent death, as a human being, then surely such love will endure through a time of history marked more by hatred and violence than by love and forgiveness.
We have good reason to be afraid. Yet, we can face fear with faith. The women who fled from the empty tomb did that. They chose to live their faith in witness to a God who is not defeated by death. The New Testament tells their story, and the story of all those who put their faith in Christ rather than in Caesar.
Moreover, the New Testament breaks free from an old belief that demands appeasing a God of wrath through sacrifices and rituals. The cross marks the end of a sacrificial God, and so the New Testament witness ethical living rather than religious ritual. Teachings from the prophets, such as the passage from Micah 6:6-8, are seen by the apostles to explain why faith does not require rebuilding the Jewish temple or new forms of worship in any temple. The church, the body of Christ in the world, is a living witness to the God, who seeks justice and lives through love.
Faith is not trusting in religious rules and rituals, but trusting in this God — the God we know on the cross and the God who leaves the tomb to call men and women of faith into communities of justice and peace. With this faith, we can face the fears of our time. Amen.