The Sacred and Imperishable Proclamation: The Force Awakening – Br. Mark Brown
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Mark 16:1-8, with “Shorter Ending”
This evening we continue our series Salvation Revisited. Two weeks ago Br. Curtis spoke of salvation in terms of healing, salving, salvaging, particularly of memories. Last week Br. Geoffrey spoke in terms of coming home to the merciful Father, who runs out to embrace us, as in the parable of the prodigal son. The emphasis has been on the experiences we have of salvation in this life, this earthly life.
Salvation is a very big idea with many layers of meaning. One of those layers has to do with salvation to eternal life, that is, to life after death. That is this evening’s focus. The title for these reflections: “The Sacred and Imperishable Proclamation”, words from the gospel we’ve just heard, the so-called shorter ending of Mark.
Which has three endings. Originally, it seems, the Gospel ended with the women at the empty tomb fleeing in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid. This being an odd way to end a story, someone early on came up with the so-called “longer ending”, which tells how believers will speak in tongues, handle deadly snakes and drink poisons.
The so-called shorter ending is only two sentences beyond the women fleeing in terror: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
Jesus entrusts the proclamation of eternal salvation to his followers—and that’s it, the end of the gospel. Which, of course, is only a beginning, eternal salvation being an ongoing thing: it keeps on going, world without end. This is the unending story of the world to come, the life of the Great Resurrection.
Preachers these days tend to avoid saying much about heaven, partly because not much can be said with great confidence. Besides, there’s plenty to deal with in this lifetime. And heaven is not a topic that academia is much concerned with: again, because so little can be said with intellectual integrity. But, let’s pull away from the force field of all the wonderful universities in our corner of the cosmos and ponder something at the very core of our faith: the life of the world to come, salvation unto eternal life.
The “sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” came to me once in a very colorful way and in an unlikely place in the universe: a little brick house next to the railroad tracks in Champaign, Illinois, where I once lived, the home of the Rev. Hallie Armand, a tiny, elderly black woman who was a minister in the Spiritualist Church. That is, she was a medium and clairvoyant. Now she was not the kind of medium that works with dim lighting, lots of cheesecloth, floating objects controlled by hidden wires and accomplices (although I’ve seen some of that). She was Christian in orientation. Her séances always included the Lord’s Prayer and some Christian hymns—that’s where I learned to sing “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…and he walks with me, and he talks with me…”Well, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away!
Once I had a private reading. She went into her deep meditation, as she called it, and told me what she saw. When the reading came to an end she asked if I had any questions. I thought I might ask “is there life after death?”, then decided this was a ridiculous question to ask a medium—so I kept quiet. In the silence she began speaking again and told me she saw a grandmother come down, standing beside me. “She says to tell you there is indeed life eternal.” So, there it was: the “sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
But, enough about mediums and clairvoyants. Let’s enter the force field, the thought world, of the Bible and the church (at least as we know it). What can we say about the life of eternity, for which we are saved? Of course, we have the Book of Revelation and its dream-like, even hallucinatory imagery: gates of pearl and streets of gold, no more crying, a river flowing from the throne of God, bowls of incense and the hosts of heaven singing endless hymns of praise to God and to the Lamb, and so on. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of all this, but mainstream thinking these days is that this is poetic and metaphoric language and not to be taken too literally.
But might there be some other, perhaps more subtle clues in scripture? There are two key passages of the Gospels that I think may be clues, meant to lead our thinking in the right direction, even though what heaven will be like is probably beyond what our minds can fathom.
One of these passages is the resurrection itself; the other is what is often called the Summary of the Law. First, the resurrection. In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher you can see two first century tombs that are probably the kind of tomb Jesus would have been laid in. What is believed to have been his actual tomb is very nearby, but was destroyed centuries ago; what you see now is a mausoleum built over the site of whatever rubble remains. But the other tombs, are just a few feet away, for anyone to see. They’re called “oven tombs”: they’re only about four feet high and a little less in width, carved into the soft Jerusalem limestone in what seems to have been an abandoned quarry.
These “oven tombs” are small, dark, confining spaces. You can duck down and go in, but they’re very cramped. These oven tombs were not final resting places, incidentally, but only a place to put a corpse until only bones remained, which were then gathered and put in an ossuary, a sort of small stone casket.
In any event, coming out of one of these oven tombs into the dawning sunlight and into the broad open spaces as Jesus would have may be a helpful metaphor. Our cosmos is truly magnificent and expansive beyond comprehension. But, I suspect that passing through death into the next life, it will seem as though we’ve left a small, dark, confining space and entered into a larger, more expansive world, and somehow more real than this one. Was it somewhere in the Narnia series that C. S. Lewis says something to the effect that heaven will be just like England, only more so? Or maybe it will be like Dorothy and Toto finding themselves in the Land of Oz: “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!” Perhaps it will be like leaving a world in black and white and awakening in a realm of blazing color: somehow more real, somehow even more expansive than the world in which we live.
Now, the Summary of the Law, in Mark’s version: “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [12:30-31] Notice that Jesus says “you shall”. You shall love, you shall love with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. He might have used the imperative tense for this greatest commandment, but he uses the future: you shall, you are going to. He calls it a commandment, but the future tense introduces some ambiguity. We could hear this as promise, prediction, prophecy. You shall love God, your neighbor and your very self with all your being: heart, soul, mind and strength. It’s going to happen!
There’s a largeness, a bigness, an expansiveness to this that we don’t ever quite get to in this lifetime. But we shall, as he says. If we shall only know the fullness of love in the next life, we might say that the “force awakens” in the here and now. And the more we love, the more we leave behind the small, dark, confining tombs of our lives and enter a larger life, even now. When we leave behind the winding cloths of resentment and jealousy, when we leave the dark, cramped spaces of fear and contempt, we live large even now. Fear, resentment, jealousy, contempt, greed, lust for power—these are the oven tombs of our lives. And a tomb is no place for a human being.
There is a bridge between this life and the life of the world to come, and it is love itself. Love is the bridge, the communication between these worlds—and the only medium we shall ever truly need. Love is the force that awakens in us even now and connects us to all that is to come.
“The sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation”.Join me in the resurrection now, he says to us. No need to wait ‘til you’re dead.
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