A sermon preached on April 12, 2009 (Easter Sunday), based upon Mark 16:1 – 8, entitled, “I Believe, Help My Unbelief.”
If you paid attention to the account Bob read for us from Mark’s Gospel of the Easter story, you may have found it surprising, even disturbing. To refresh your memory, it’s quite brief: Some women who loved Jesus come to the tomb early in the morning, in order to anoint his dead body. As they go, they’re worrying about how they will get access to his body — there’s a big stone covering the tomb.
When they arrive, to their surprise the stone has already been rolled away. Stepping inside the tomb, the surprises continue. Jesus’ body is gone, and there’s a young man in the tomb, dressed in a white robe — apparently an angel — who declares to the women that Jesus has been raised, telling them to go and testify to his resurrection to the other disciples.
Unlike the women, you and I — we already know all about Easter, so in contrast to the women, we’re not surprised that the tomb is empty, and that the angel is there. The surprising part for us is in what follows in Mark‘s Gospel:
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
That’s how the Gospel ends. Fear. So much fear that at first at least, the women told no one of what they had encountered at the tomb.
This is not what we have come to expect from Easter morning.
So what’s going on here?
You may know that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, and, the earliest written of the four Gospels. There is something raw about it, and, I think, something really honest about it.
There is a moving story that occurs midway in three of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke, about how Jesus came down from a retreat up on a mountain and immediately encounters a terribly distressed father who has a very sick son — tormented by these horrible, wrenching seizures. The father is desperate.
If you are a parent, it’s not hard to put yourselves in his shoes. He has brought his boy to Jesus’ disciples, but they could do nothing for him. His desperation is mounting.
Now he brings his boy to Jesus. The three Gospels accounts of this story have a lot in common. Since Mark was written first, we can assume that Matthew and Luke took the story from Mark, and then edited their own version.
There is one noteworthy difference. After Jesus says, “All things are possible for the person who believes,” Mark records this anguished cry of the father,
“I believe; help my unbelief.”
So honest. So real.
“Yes, Jesus, there is belief in me, but I gotta tell you, there is something else inside me as well. Doubt. Fear. The temptation to despair… Help me.”
The fact that the father acknowledges his doubt and fear doesn’t seem to be a problem for Jesus. He proceeds to heal the boy, restoring him to his father.
Now I find it fascinating that Matthew and Luke felt obliged to edit out those poignant words, “I believe, help my unbelief.” It’s as if they felt the need, some twenty years later, to try and reduce faith to an either/or proposition. Either you believe, or you don’t. There’s no middle ground. Twenty years in, the institution required sharper boundaries.
But that’s not how real life is experienced. “I believe, help my unbelief,” is a pretty good summary statement for all of us.
It certainly was for the disciples themselves. Sure they had faith. They wouldn’t have been able to leave everything to follow Jesus as he wandered about the countryside if they didn’t have faith.
But there was something inside them that was in tension with their faith. Call it unbelief, call it doubt, call it fear, call it pride. But this other thing keeps showing up in the disciples throughout the Gospel.
“I believe, help my unbelief.”
The most obvious example is when they find themselves in a boat at night in a storm, and become flooded with fear, convinced they are going to die.
“O ye of little faith,”Jesus says, “Why did you doubt?”
But there are lots of other indications in the Gospel story of how hard the disciples found it to give themselves over to Jesus’ whole new way of relating to the world. Time and again they just don’t get it. For instance, the disciples come across some people who were doing ministry in the name of Jesus, but doing it differently from the way they’re doing it — they’re not a part of their group — and so the disciples tell them to shut up! Naturally.
“No, this isn’t my way,” says Jesus. “Let them be.”
When some Samaritans refuse them hospitality, their instinct is to destroy them: “I mean, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do with people treat you unkindly?”
“No, this isn’t my way.”
When these little children, so in-the-moment, came flocking to Jesus, drawn to him like a magnet, the disciples view them as an interruption, an irritant, as not-important-enough, and try to keep the children away.
“No,” said Jesus, “to such belongs the kingdom of God. And unless you learn what they’ve got to teach you, you’re going to miss the kingdom yourself.”
Not once, but twice Jesus and his disciples find themselves far from the towns and villages in the company of a huge crowd of people, and each time, the disciples get anxious. They want Jesus to send the people away so they can get themselves something to eat.
“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus.
“Wait a minute. Sharing is nice thing to do, you know, but there are limits. We barely have enough for ourselves.”
“No, that’s not my way. Give everything you have, and trust God to provide what you need.”
And sure enough, everyone managed to get enough to eat.
They were nearing Jerusalem, and this rich young man came running up to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He really wants to know.
“How hard it will be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says, “You lack one thing. Go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and then, come, follow me.” The man couldn’t do it.
The disciples were dumbfounded. “Wait a minute, Jesus, you’re telling us it’s not cool to rich? It’s not the sign of God’s blessing that we’ve always been told it is?”
“How hard it will be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples kept jockeying amongst themselves to be considered the great ones — the way human beings have always done since the beginning of history. They couldn’t let go of thinking about “greatness” the world‘s way — you know, that it means having lots of money and the power to order other people around. But Jesus kept saying, “You don’t get it, this is what real greatness looks like: it’s giving a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, as though you were that person’s slave.”
So when Jesus and the disciples finally get to Jerusalem, they reach the ultimate test of the faith that Jesus embodied. It was time to put their money where they mouth is, so to speak.
“Okay, my friends. I never said this would be easy. We’ve come to Jerusalem to stand face to face with the evil powers of this world that seek to crush life and love and hope.
“But keep this in mind. When you see things falling apart around you, what you’re experiencing is birth pain. Fear not! The kingdom of God is being born into this world.”
“So what’s it going to be? Are we going to trust God, or no? “
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
They get to the Last Supper, and the disciples try convincing themselves that there is nothing but faith inside of them. “Hey Jesus, we will stand with you. No matter what. You can count on us.” But Jesus knew. He knew that within their hearts, beside their mustard seed of faith there was also a whole lot of fear and doubt.
“This very night, you will all fall away from me.”
The soldiers came with swords to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a critical moment. Mark tells us that one of Jesus’ disciples pulled out a sword, in itself a mark unbelief. The disciple thinks to himself, “Any fool knows, when they come for you with swords, you better fight back with swords.” He swings his sword, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave.
“No!” Jesus cries. “No. This is not my way. I must stand firm, trust God, and absorb the full force of the evil.”
But the disciples couldn’t do it with him. They ran in terror — just as Jesus had said they would.
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
You know what happened from there. They take Jesus away. They tell lies about him. He makes no attempt to defend himself. The next day they nail him to the cross. He dies an agonizing death.
And so we reach the story of Easter morning. There’s something about Mark’s version that has the ring of authenticity. The women who have followed Jesus go to the tomb with spices, to anoint his dead body, full of sadness. They know the script. They have grieved countless times before in their lives. The is the worst grief ever, but it’s familiar at least.
“That beautiful Jesus, we loved him so. How we miss him. How we long to have him back.
“And yet, him getting murdered like that — well it proved something, didn’t it? In the end, he was wrong about all that stuff he was teaching us to believe.
“That way he was pushing us to live — with hearts wide open, and love that knows no bounds — well, it was all a mistake. We have permission, now, to give up — to crawl into a ball and wait out our lives for death.
“We know how to do this. It’s what we were doing before we ever met Jesus.
“What’s this? The stone’s been rolled back. How can this be? And who is that young man dressed all in white? And why do his words disturb me so?
“What do you mean he’s alive? Are you kidding me?”
And so they ran, their hearts full of terror.
Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.