For They Were Afraid

By Nathan Humphrey

From the King James Version of the Bible: “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

Now, I’m no scripture scholar, but I think it’s plain from the text that not only did they say nothing to any man, but they didn’t say anything to any woman or child, either. In any event, we can say that they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Talk about a cliffhanger! With an ending like that, I could imagine St. Mark as a screenwriter for just about any TV drama or soap opera in this day and age.

A cliffhanger such as this is calculated to make the reader ask, “What happened next?” A good story, after all, is compelling; it draws us in and speeds us forward with it.

A cliffhanger such as this is also calculated to be intensely disappointing, even unsatisfactory. Mark’s cliffhanger leaves the hearer straining for some sort of resolution. It’s like cutting off a familiar tune just before the final note. Let me give you an example; feel free to provide what’s missing: “Happy birthday to —” [you].

That’s right. Without that final note, things feel incomplete, so much so that you just can’t stand it, so much so that you’re compelled to provide the final note yourself.

And that’s exactly what happened in Mark’s case. Some early Christians couldn’t stand the fact that Mark’s gospel ends, essentially, without an ending; in fact, in the Greek text the last word is “for,” as if Mark was cut off in the middle of a sentence. And so, these early Christians began to provide endings for it. The canonical text that has come down to us has both a shorter and a longer ending, but I am convinced that both endings are later accretions, inserted to give the gospel a resolution, a happy ending, if you will, consonant with the other gospels. All the other gospels have post-resurrection appearances, after all, so why shouldn’t Mark?

The problem with adding an ending to Mark’s non-ending, though, is that whatever ending you put on this gospel would only serve to let the hearer off the hook. But as it now stands, the way this gospel ends demands a response from us. So this evening, I want us to stick with the ending as Mark presents it here, for in its abrupt and disturbing way, it calls us to a deeper and ultimately more joyful response than the “happiest” of endings ever could.

And because this gospel demands of us a response, I can’t do this alone. I’m sorry to put you all on the spot, but in seeking some halfway decent mode of preaching on this text, I was reminded of the old call-and-response sermons of my boyhood. Maybe you’ve seen the movie “The Apostle,” in which there’s a scene where two preachers in tag-team fashion ask: “Who’s the King of Kings?” and the congregation responds in one voice “Jesus.” “Before Abraham was, was who?” “Jesus.” “Who’s the First and the Last?” “Jesus.” So it hit me: in the Anglican tradition, we have our own version of call and response. Let me give you a few examples. Help me out here if you will:

The Lord be with you.

And with thy spirit.


The Word of the Lord,

Thanks be to God.


Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

You get the idea. And I’ve got an idea I’d like to try out this evening. It may fall flat, but given everything Jesus has done for me, I’m more than willing to take a small risk for him.

Every time I quote from the end of Mark, saying, “they said nothing to any one,” I would like you to respond by completing the sentence, namely, “for they were afraid.” Just four little words, but I need them nice and clear. (If it helps those of us who happen to be Anglo-Catholics, think of this as merely another liturgical versicle and response, not a protestant call-and-response.) Let’s try it. Ready?

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

Good. Here we go, for real this time:

They came expecting to find a corpse; being observant Jews, they waited out the night, and, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” They came hoping to anoint his body as one anoints a king for burial, but they did not expect a resurrected Lord, and so:

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

The most they hoped for was some Roman officer or strong peasant to take pity on them and consent to open the tomb, for “very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?’” Their biggest obstacle was a cold, hard rock. They hardly expected to move cold, hard death itself, and so in the end:

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

“And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; it was very large.” At first, they might have suspected grave-robbers; this was a rich man’s tomb, after all, donated by Joseph of Arimathea. But when they realized it was God’s own hand that had rolled away the stone,

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

But that was just the beginning of their fear. For “entering the tomb, they saw a young man, sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed.” It probably wouldn’t have mattered what this heavenly messenger had said at that moment, for whatever it was,

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

“And he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” The women could sense immediately that he had authority, for he sat at “the right side,” like God’s “right-hand man.” He already knew what they were doing there, and whom they were looking for; and even though his first words to them were “do not be amazed,” still,

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

The next words this man in white spoke were words of hope and reconciliation, yet all the more frightening because of their unexpectedness: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter”—Peter, the one who had denied Jesus three times — “that [Jesus] is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” The women, faithful to the end, more faithful even than Peter and the disciples, at the last moment cracked under the weight of grief. They were unable after all the tears, the bitterness, the hopelessness, to hear the word of hope, unable to carry out even a message of reconciliation. And who can blame them? After all they had been through “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and…”

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

Fear. In the “fight or flight” mechanism embedded in every living creature, fear is its trigger. So it is no wonder that, confronted with a reality that defied comprehension, these first Christians should flee from the empty tomb. I, too, have had my moments of flight, when I have run away from the empty tomb, when I have been too afraid to proclaim the resurrection. Most of the time, though, it is not for fear of the empty tomb or amazement at the good news, but for fear of what people will think of me. I suspect the same may be said of most of us. What about you? What about us? How will our faith be judged? At the end of our lives, will people say of us:

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

Will we be more afraid of being judged as wanting in tact or sophistication or wisdom by our neighbors than we are of being judged as wanting in Christian love? Will we subscribe to the beguiling notion — so typical of New England Episcopalians — that one’s “Religion” should be kept private? Or isn’t faith important enough to want to share with those whom we love? “I don’t want to impose my beliefs on others,” I’ve heard it said. Well, believe it or not, neither do I — I would not preach at all if I disrespected you so much as to think you incapable of resisting the “imposition” of my beliefs, should you so choose.

Back when I was a school chaplain in Washington D.C., at a school where the children of the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are educated, I was asked by a Washingtonian wife (the kind with the blond helmet hair and pearls) why my Chapel Services had to be “so Christian.” “Why do you have to use the Book of Common Prayer? After all, there are a lot of diplomats’ children here from Muslim countries. We wouldn’t want to offend them, would we?”

I told her, “The word “Episcopal” is in our school name. These diplomats are educated people. They expect an Episcopal School to be Episcopal. If you were in a Muslim country and sent your children to a school with an imam, would you expect them to be less Muslim so that they wouldn’t run the risk of offending their non-Muslim parents? I don’t think this is about the Muslim parents. I think this is about your discomfort with religion.”

So if you fear offending others, don’t let yourself off the hook so easily. Most of the time, when we demur on the grounds of another’s supposed discomfort, we are only projecting our own onto that person. Rather than projections, the ending of Mark’s gospel offers an uncomfortable reflection. St. Mark holds up a mirror for us, showing us that we’ve got it easy by comparison. We refrain from sharing our resurrection faith out of embarrassment, whereas the women fled from the empty tomb out of trembling and astonishment — another translation renders this phrase “terror and amazement”—and at first, at least,

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

Yet do not despair. Mark’s gospel is not just about failing; it is not the gospel of terror! Seeing our flawed reflection as if in a mirror is hardly “good news.” But that’s not Mark’s message. Rather, the overwhelming good news of Mark’s gospel is that even when we do fail Christ, Jesus never fails us. Jesus never fails us; even death cannot hold him. The resurrected Jesus is always going on before us, “to Galilee” — in Mark an important symbol both of “the home front,” for it is where the disciples were first called at the beginning of the gospel, and of “the margins of society,” for Galilee was the border between Jews and Gentiles, a region in which both groups mixed, albeit uneasily at times.

So we, too, are called both to find Jesus at home and on the margins (not merely in one place or the other, but in both), where Jesus goes before us. Jesus is faithful in accomplishing his purposes on earth even when we fail, always calling us back into fellowship with him, always loving us—in our failings, our terrors, our amazements, our embarrassments, and our fears. Even though there’s no “happy ending” to Mark’s gospel, the oldest of the gospel accounts handed down to us, it is a consolation to know that Jesus reaches out to us beyond the cross and empty tomb, even when we are running away, even when others accuse us, even when preachers put us on the defensive, saying,

They said nothing to any one,

For they were afraid.

So much for us. But who got these rag-tag cowards to stop being afraid? I have a hunch it was Mary — not Magdalene, who eventually was the “apostle to the apostles,” but the Mary without whom there would be no Apostles at all: Mary the Mother of God, Jesus’ Blessed Mother. (You knew I’d stick a little Mary worship in somewhere, didn’t you?) As my grandmother liked to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s your Mother.”

I’ll tell you how I came to believe it might have been Mary who finally motivated the disciples to go out and preach the Good News. St. John’s hosts daily exercise classes in our Guild Hall, taught by Vicky O’Connor and her husband, Kevin. I cross the Guild Hall several times a day through their exercise classes, which I understand are reasonably priced, if anyone’s interested. The classes always have a background of energetic pop music, which I get to enjoy from my study overlooking the Hall.

Now, I don’t like it when preachers try to be relevant or timely or, God forbid, hip. I’m an Anglo-Catholic after all. We’re stuffy and boring and use words like “Bugia” and “Ciborium” just to get a kick out of the funny looks people give us. But several times, I’ve heard a particularly compelling song during those exercise classes, which I decided to download because I was struck by the refrain. It’s a song called “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, an excerpt of which may be found in your service booklet. I began to hear the words of that song as if directed by Mary to the terrorized disciples huddled in that Upper Room after the horrific events of the Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion. When Mary gets wind of the Resurrection and the fact that the witnesses to it are too afraid to say anything, I could imagine her singing these words, particularly to Mary Magdalene and Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. So I’m going to end this sermon, which has been too long already, by playing for you an excerpt of this song from my iPhone to a Bluetooth speaker here on the pulpit. Listen to Mary as she sings:

Everybody’s been there,

Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy

Fallen for the fear

And done some disappearing,

Bowed down to the mighty

Don’t run, just stop holding your tongue.

Maybe there’s a way out

of the cage where you live

Maybe one of these days

you can let the light in

Show me how big your brave is

Say what you wanna say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you wanna say…

And since your history of silence

Won’t do you any good,

Did you think it would?

Let your words be anything but empty

Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Writer(s): Sara Bareilles, Jack Antonoff
Copyright: Sony/ATV Songs LLC, Ducky Donath Music, Tiny Bear Music, Sony/ATV Tunes LLC. Reprinted under the fair use doctrine

And that, in the end, my brothers and sisters, is what I’m asking of you: I want to see you be brave.

The Rev. Nathan Humphrey is rector of the Zabriskie Memorial Church of St. John the Evangelist, Newport, Rhode Island.


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