Note: This year Easter (Apr 5) falls close to the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (Apr 4). This is an abridged excerpt from the conclusion of Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis, 1994); it appeared in Sojourners (April 1994, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 20-23; King pictures added).
VERY early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, Mary, Mary, and Salome went to Jesus’ tomb (Mark 16:2).
Sooner or later, we who have tried to follow Jesus find ourselves weary and broken like the Galilean women, on our way to bury him. It is the morning we awake to that inconsolable, aching emptiness that comes only from hope crushed. This dawn does not bring a new day, only the numb duty of last respects.
It is a terrible moment, this “end of the road we seek to tread.” But we come to know it as surely as we did the kairos moment that once launched us on our discipleship adventure. “Come follow me and we’ll catch some big fish!” Jesus had said, firing us with visions of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:17). “These great edifices of domination will be dismantled stone by stone!” (13:2).
But that’s not how it turned out. Let the record show that Jesus was summarily executed in the interests of empire. Perhaps, after all, his vision of a new human order of justice and love is a dream deferred indefinitely by the powers that were, that are, and it appears ever will be. (Right: moments after Martin Luther King is shot in Memphis, April 4, 1968.)
Yes, we recognize this storyline. Do we not have our own experiences of betrayal and tragedy, of apathy and oppression and senseless suffering? And does not our cynical history sooner or later force us to concede that the world cannot really be transformed? So do we join those Galilean women for the last, pitiless leg of the discipleship journey, ending at the cemetery of hope. All that remains is the duty of proper burial. We bring flowers, come prepared to offer last rites, to salvage some dignity before we go rejoin history-as-usual.
They were saying to one another, “Who will roll this stone away for us from the door of the tomb?” (16:3).
Yet cruelly, even this is denied us. The entrance to Jesus’ makeshift tomb is sealed shut by a huge boulder. We halt in our tracks, pulled up short. What is left of our faith, tutored to dare interrogate every arrangement of privilege and power, is one, halfhearted question. “Who will roll away this stone?” we cry in anguish, to no one in particular.
We feel orphaned and bereft. Is there not here an echo of Sisyphean tragedy? This stone is our final ignominy. Put there by the authorities to certify Jesus’ defeat, it serves also to ensure our separation from him (think yellow police tape: Do not cross this line).
We are not even granted the presence of his corpse to comfort us in our therapeutic ritual of grieving. We cannot weep over his casket and muster brave eulogies. This stone blocking our way terminates, without explanation, our discipleship journey. What an abrupt and bitter closure: a stone we cannot go around and we cannot move. (Above: King lying in state after being assassinated, April 9, 1968. Photo by Bill Preston.)
There is, however, one more kairos according to Mark’s story. And upon it hinges the possibility of the Christian church
But when they looked again, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away (16:4).
Improbably the story, like the tomb, is re-opened. Tentatively we move forward—but only to find that our noble mission of mourning is no longer needed. Peering around in the dim light of the cave, we make out the figure of a young man sitting alone, dressed in martyr’s clothes. He is speaking to us.
“Don’t look so incredulous! You’re searching for Jesus of Nazareth, the one they executed? He’s not here.” He gestures, shrugging, to where the authorities had placed the corpse. “See for yourself.” (16:6).
We look around frantically, our heads swimming, our hearts grinding to a halt. Incredulity does not begin to describe our confusion at this inconceivable news, this absurd contention. Is it possible that neither the executioner’s grip nor the imperial seal have prevailed? Then, as we gasp for air, comes one last, chilling word from this mysterious messenger. “Go tell the disciples—and Peter—that He’s gone on ahead of you. You know where to find him” (16:7).
Our knees buckle. Here is a prospect we never considered, one too terrible to contemplate. It is a challenge to resume following Jesus—the consequences of which we now know all too well. Even for those of us who, like Peter, have abandoned our discipleship and taken refuge in Denial.
Suddenly from deep within us, out of that unexplored space beneath our profoundest hopes and fears, roars a tidal wave of trauma and ecstasy all at once (16:8). We race out of that tomb as if we have just seen a ghost. And so we have.
For in Jesus’ empty tomb there is nothing but the ghost of our discipleship past and our discipleship future.
IN EASTER’S FIRST LIGHT, Mark’s story ends as it began. This is the narrative’s third call to discipleship (see 1:16ff; 8:34ff). This last kairos presents us with the most dangerous of memories, a living one; the most subversive of stories, a never-ending one. (Left, MLK memorial stone at the Lorrain Motel museum.)
But for us, standing between end and new beginning is a stone that is “exceedingly great” (16:4). It is a boulder as hard as our hearts, a roadblock of our collective addictions, a landslide of our collapsed dreams, a mountain of excuses why we can’t go on. It represents the dead end of history-according-to-the-Powers.
This stone symbolizes everything that impedes the First World church from discipleship as a way of life. We are paralyzed before it whenever we conclude that Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God was and is, for all practical purposes, a well-meaning delusion. And this is a tempting conclusion indeed: empire and war without end continue undiminished. So we seek to edit the gospel story, in our hearts and from our pulpits and among our academies, in order to make it conform to the depressive or grandiose swings of our imperial culture.
One strategy is to cut the story short. We applaud a Jesus who said and did many fine things, but who nevertheless (let us be honest!) ended up dead. There is, to be sure, both rational and political evidence for such a reading. Doesn’t science rule out the notion of corpse resuscitation? The gospel story reports the stark results of the imperial autopsy (15:44-46)—why not take the official word? There is, after all, a certain dull comfort in knowing that the weary world will continue unchanged. It also spares us the disruption of having to struggle with the “meaning of resurrection” (9:10).
This is the church’s theological strategy whenever it has conceded the right of the State to determine the horizons of political imagination and human possibility. It was often commended in the second half of the 20th century—that bloodiest of epochs—as “Christian realism.” The genius of this approach is that it sees the cross as a noble tragedy, which makes for compelling religion while offering no political guidance whatsoever. So the church joins those who erect monuments (or declare holidays) to dead prophets, lauding them as exceptions that only prove the regrettable but iron rule of history: Those who dare struggle against the Strong Man (3:27) will inevitably lose.
Such a reading places the church alongside all those at Mark’s Golgotha who wag their heads at the spectacle of the cross. (Right: Police and Civil Rights leaders gather at the scene of King’s assassination the day after. Photo by Bill Preston, The Tennessean.)
Perhaps we secretly agree with those who ridicule it as political futility: “Come down from that cross!” (15:30). Or with those who demand a religion without suffering, who equate salvation with self-preservation: “He saved others; yet he cannot save himself!” (15:31). Or with those who, like the centurion, begrudgingly acknowledge Jesus’ heroic martyrdom even as they preside over it (15:39). Or with those disciples who observe the whole debacle from a safe distance, mired in magnificent regret (15:40).
But the theology of Jesus entombed is ultimately rooted in despair and its host of related depressive conditions. In Mark’s story this is embodied by the Gerasene demoniac, the archetype of those who have internalized empire as a way of life (Mark 5:1ff). We truly live among the dead (5:3), compulsively self-destructive (5:5), possessed by the forces of domination (5:9)—our internalized oppression so great that we fear liberation (5:10, 17).
A second strategy is to push beyond the bounds of Mark’s story, rewriting it to conclude with Jesus enthroned. As has been the case since the earliest (but thoroughly apocryphal) “longer endings” to this gospel (16:9ff), the church seeks to avoid the pain of self-confrontation by injecting the amphetamine of triumphalism. Such “happy endings” are, of course, hugely successful here in North America, where all manner of personal and social contradiction is suppressed by preachers hawking individual happiness and politicians promising national prosperity. If Christian narcissism sells, say both the logic of capitalist marketing and “church growth” consultants, surely it must be religiously acceptable.
This is the church’s theological strategy whenever it has confused Christus Victor with imperial conquest. (The last two Gulf wars were, for many U.S. Christians, the most recent case in point.) It happens when Jesus’ sovereignty is restricted to our hearts—an exclusive cloister of inner peace that provides an escape from the pain of trying to achieve a modicum of justice in real history. Such readings of the story place the church alongside Peter in the palace courtyard: he denies the Jesus who stands in the dock alongside the victims of empire, while he warms himself by the imperial fire alongside the enforcers of order (14:54, 66ff).
The theology of Jesus enthroned (or incarcerated in our hearts) is rooted in grandiosity and its illusions. In Mark’s story this is, interestingly, the persistent condition of the disciples. They prefer confessional orthodoxy over costly practice (8:29ff), are more interested in building monuments than movements (9:5ff), aspire to positions of control rather than servanthood (9:33ff; 10:35ff), and live in awe of the architecture of domination (13:1).
IN UTTER CONTRAST TO resigned pessimism and manic optimism—personal and political—Mark’s Easter story faces our condition squarely, refusing to rescue us from the moment of truth before the stone. “Who will roll away this stone for us?” is the last question on the lips of Markan disciples, and it echoes the anxiety of their very first: “Do you not care if we perish?” (4:38). Both articulate the primal anguish at the core of human existence—as potent as our fear of death.
Mark’s empathy for our condition, his solidarity with our frailty, is surely welcome. Yet if empathy were all his story had to offer, it could hardly be called good news. For his unflinching realism is eclipsed by the extraordinary: “They looked again and saw that the stone had been rolled away.”
But how? Not by our muscle, nor by our technology, nor by any of our Promethean schemes. The verb here (in Greek, apokekulistai) expresses the perfect tense and the passive voice—the grammar of divine action. This stone has been moved by an ulterior leverage, by a force from beyond the bounds of story and history, with the power to regenerate both. It is a gift from outside the constraints of natural or civic law and order, from the One who is unobligated to the State and its cosmologies, radically free yet bound in Passion to us.
Theology has often called this force grace. Mark would surely agree with Paul, Augustine, Luther, and all those who have carried on the biblical argument with Sisyphus and Prometheus: Nothing we could ever do can move this stone. It has already been rolled away for us. We need only have eyes to see it.
“To look again” (Gk, anablepein) has a technical meaning in Mark’s narrative. The verb is used earlier to describe how his two archetypal blind men regain their sight (8:24; 10:51f). It is Mark’s master metaphor for a faith that looks more deeply into what appears to be in order to see what really is. We might translate it literally: “to re-vision.”
In this kairos moment of grace, the weary old story of the world in which the powers always win and the prophets and the poor always lose is radically “revised.” Jesus is risen! But where has he gone? Jesus is not in the grave (16:6). Nor is he “up in heaven” (as in 16:9). Nor does the young man suggest that the women look inward to find him. There is only one place we can “see” the Risen Jesus. “He is going before you…” (16:7). So is Mark’s story regenerated, arcing back to the beginning: “I send my messenger before you who will construct the Way…” (1:2).
Let not our churches imagine that Mark’s Easter epilogue begins a different story, one that cancels out or obviates the discipleship narrative. No, this third call to follow Jesus assumes the other two, which invite us to “leave our nets” (1:17f) and to “take up the cross” (8:34). Easter celebrates the restoration of Jesus’ practice through our resumption of the journey. We are “vindicated by resurrection,” said Markus Barth, not exonerated by it. And according to Mark, Jesus’ practice represents the only Way to deconstruct the domination system and reconstruct humane community.
So. The Good News to the world is that its story can be revised. Only the executed-but-risen-Nazarene can both hear our brokenhearted cries before the stone of impediment and call us to discipleship—as many times as it takes. The Good News to “Peter” is that there is no wayward journey that cannot be redeemed by new beginnings. As Bonhoeffer insisted, the church must “recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship.”
And the Good News to us is that Jesus is still going on ahead of the church, undeterred and undomesticated by our Christologies of entombment and enthronement. If we would join Him, He is still to be found on the Way. !Adelante!