In September last year we began a sermon series in the gospel according to Mark. Last Sunday (Easter Sunday) we finished it. And Mark's gospel has a strange ending: 'Trembling and bewildering, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid' (Mark 16:8). In fact, it's such a strange ending that a number of scribes in the early centuries tried to add a few paragraphs of their own, which appear in our Bibles as verses 9 to 20. These verses aren't included in the earliest surviving manuscripts of Mark's gospel, which is a sure sign that they're not original. Mark himself wanted to end at verse 8...
NB. There are only two places in the whole of the New Testament where something substantial got added later - the other is John 7:53 to 8:11. Neither of these two additional passages represents a shift in what Christians believe, and both are highlighted very clearly in our modern Bibles. We don't need to be concerned by these additions. In fact, the remarkable thing is how little variation there is between different manuscripts of the New Testament, and how carefully the text was copied.
Having seen that Mark's gospel has a strange ending, the question we need to ask is why? Why does Mark's gospel have such a strange ending? One answer to that question is that it it is historically honest. If Mark was writing a fairy-tale gospel this is the point where Mary, Mary and Salome burst into song accompanied by the angel. Only someone wanting to record facts would dare to give us such an anticlimax: ...the women ... fled ... they were afraid.'
Actually, this isn't the first time in Mark's gospel that the followers of Jesus have responded to him in fear. In Mark 4:35 to 6:6 we saw that a fear of Jesus can be very positive - it's an acknowledgement of how awesomely powerful he is. The Jesus who stops the storm isn't merely a 'mate' but a Messiah. The resurrected Christ isn't someone you take lightly but a King at whose feet you fall. It's right to fear Jesus in the same way that the whole Bible tells us that it's right to fear God. But we've also seen that a fear of Jesus can be very negative - it can combine with unbelief. When the residents in the region of the Decapolis saw the awesome power of Jesus they begged him to leave them alone.
And so how should we understand the women's response of fear at the resurrection? It seems that their fear gives rise to two negative responses. Firstly, they 'fled' from the tomb. The word 'fled' isn't a positive word in Mark's gospel. In 14:50, when Jesus was arrested the disciples 'fled' (along with a naked young man). Or in 5:14 the same word is used to describe the residents in the region of the Decapolis. Secondly, they 'said nothing to anyone' despite being told by the angel to tell the disciples and Peter (16:7).
We understand that the women were afraid - it would be strange if they weren't. The news that Jesus has defeated death should make all of us tremble. But what they do with their fear seems to be negative. We should see fear and joy, and we should see them telling the disciples and Peter. And of course we read those reactions in Matthew, Luke, John and Acts. But we don't read them in Mark. Instead, Mark writes chapter 16 verse 8 and then puts his pen down. He wants this strange ending. And I think it's because he wants us to respond differently to these women - to resolve to respond to the resurrection with fear and joy. And Mark wants us to say something - or to tell the ends of the earth that Jesus is alive. Mark wants us to ask the question: how will we respond to the resurrection?