The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - April 8, 2018
Sermon Title: The Doubtful Disciples
Larry Upton


     On the Sunday after Jesus was crucified, three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) went to the tomb where Jesus had been laid.  The stone blocking the entrance had already been rolled back. 


     As they entered the tomb, they were greeted by a young man, dressed in a white robe.  The young man said: “Jesus is not here; he has been raised.  Go tell his disciples that he is going ahead to Galilee, and they will see him there.”  The women were seized with terror and amazement.  They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


     The oldest versions of the book of Mark end right there.  The women said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  That’s not very satisfying.  The women learn that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead.  They are instructed to pass the word on to the disciples, but they don’t.  They are too afraid.  THAT’S HOW THE STORY ENDS.  THERE’S NOTHING MORE.  {Perhaps a couple of scrolls from Mark’s manuscript fell off the cart on the way to Damascus or wherever.  I don’t know.}


     It’s not just the three women who are found lacking.  The disciples themselves are often portrayed as weak, indecisive, and unreliable.


     Back in February I delivered a sermon titled, “Listen to Him.”  It was based on the passage from Mark (9:2-10) where Jesus took three of his disciples to the top of a high mountain.  There Jesus is suddenly transformed into a blaze of white and joined by Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament.  The disciples are terrified and don’t know what to say.  God’s voice booms from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”


     To understand what motivated Jesus to take three disciples to the mountaintop, you need to look at the passage immediately prior.  In that earlier passage, Jesus tries to convey to his disciples that this is not just a walk in the park.  They are on a mission from God.  This is serious business.  And it’s going to end with suffering, death, and resurrection (Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection). 


     Mark 8: verses 31-32:  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering -- and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes -- and be killed -- and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly.


     The disciples just sat there with blank faces.  Peter went so far as to scold Jesus for being so negative.  Jesus rebukes Peter in return, saying in verse 33:  Get thee behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.


     I’m sure Jesus is thinking:  What in God’s name can I do to get through to these people?  Maybe if I took them to the mountaintop and they saw me commune with God and the prophets of old, they will start to understand.


     So Jesus takes his three most promising students (Peter, James, and John) to the mountaintop.  Do the disciples have an epiphany?  Do they finally achieve that flash of insight and understanding?  Probably not.  It’s an on-going battle for Jesus. 


     On two more occasions, Jesus tries to tell his disciples how it’s all going to end.


     Mark 9, verses 30-32:  They went from there and passed through Galilee.  He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  But they did not understand and were afraid to ask him.


     Maybe the third time will be the charm.


     Mark 10: verses 32-34:  They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed and those who followed were afraid.  He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying “See we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”


     More blank stares.


     It gets worse.  There is, of course, the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.  Jesus and the disciples are gathered for the Last Supper.


     Mark 13, verses 17-20:  When it was evening, he came with the twelve.  And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”  They began to be distressed and to say to him, one after another, “Surely, not I?”  He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.”


     Jesus foretells the denial of Peter:


     Mark 14, verses 27-30:  And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’   But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 

     Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.”  Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”  And all of them said the same.


     Later that night, after Jesus is betrayed by Judas and hauled away to the high priest, Peter is accused three times.  A servant girl says: “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.  Later she says to some bystanders:  “This man is one of them.”  The bystanders accuse Peter: Certainly you are one of them.  On all three occasions, Peter swore an oath:  I do not know this man you are talking about.  After the third denial, the cock crowed twice. 


     Jesus is crucified, dies, and on the third day is resurrected.


     In the earliest versions, the Book of Mark ends abruptly.  Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome go to the tomb where they learn that Jesus has risen.  They are instructed to alert the disciples and tell them that Jesus will meet up with them in Galilee.  The women said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.  END OF VERSE.  END OF CHAPTER.  END OF STORY.  Really? 


     Well, yes and no.  The other three gospels give differing accounts of who saw, who heard, who they told, when they said it, and who did or did not believe. 


     Regarding the Book of Mark, later writers (later authorities) took it upon themselves to compose alternate endings to the gospel.  Two alternate endings appear in your Bible.  One is just a paragraph long, the other about half a page. 


     Here follows a summary of the longer of the alternate endings:


After visiting the tomb, Mary Magdalene met up with some of the disciples (those who had been with Jesus at the end) while they were mourning and weeping.  She told them what she had seen and heard.


     Mark 16, verse 11:  But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.


     Mark 16, verses 12-13:  After this (Jesus) appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.  And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.


     Mark 16, verses 14-15:  Later (Jesus) appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 


     Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  THE DOUBTFUL DISCIPLES


     But here’s where the twist comes, at the end of the alternate ending:


     Before departing, Jesus instructed his disciples to “go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”


     Mark 16, verses 19-20:  After he had spoken to the disciples, Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”


     In the end, the doubtful disciples became the redoubtable disciples.  “Redoubtable” is not a word we hear very often these days.  It means:  Formidable, inspiring; deserving respect or deference.  The doubtful disciples became the redoubtable disciples.  The bad news bears became the good news bearers.




     For the most part, the disciples come across poorly in the gospels.  Too often, they are timid or afraid.   They are indecisive and unreliable.  They are wishy-washy in their faith.  Too often, they don’t listen, they don’t hear, they don’t understand, they don’t believe.    They do things they shouldn’t, and leave undone those things that God requires.  In short, they are far from perfect.  In short, they are human.


     Yet we hear in the alternate ending of Mark’s gospel that with the help and guidance of Jesus and the grace of God, they were able to spread the good news everywhere, from east to west, to the whole of creation.


     Like the disciples, we are far from perfect.  We have not always been good followers, good servants, of Jesus.  But with his loving guidance, we too can accomplish great things in his name.


     Please join me in the Unison Prayer that appears in your bulletin: 


     We confess, Lord, that as your disciples we have often dishonored the holy name we bear.  We ask your forgiveness for the times when we have failed to labor for your kingdom; when we have not followed your admonition to seek first the kingdom of God; when we have hidden our light from the world; when we, as the salt of the earth, have lost our strength.  Have mercy on us, and restore unto us the joy of faithful discipleship.  Amen.


     This prayer is from the Moravian Liturgy of Discipleship in the Moravian Book of Worship (1995).