Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Appearances of the Risen Christ (2 of 5) for 2010

This essay has been edited for 2010. It was first published on May 6, 2009. It is a summary of the message of the resurrection appearances and lays the groundwork for looking at the accounts in the three synoptic Gospel accounts of those appearances.

For a Christian, the appearances of the Risen Christ after the resurrection are the best way to understand the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

When Thomas was confronted by the Risen Lord, who showed Thomas his wounds, Thomas finally believed that Jesus was raised, calling Jesus, "My Lord and my God!". Many think that Thomas actually put his hand into Christ's side, but that is not true. It was actually seeing the Risen Christ and the offer to allow Thomas to reach out and prove it really was Jesus that convinced Thomas that the one standing before him was Jesus.

But Jesus' reaction to Thomas is telling. While He clearly wanted Thomas to believe, and is glad that Thomas now believes, Jesus states, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Jesus is not scolding Thomas here; but he is saying that there is something blessed about those who believe that He was raised without having such direct proof. And that can be a word of comfort to those who have not had to struggle with their faith. Nevertheless, there is still a large majority of people who struggle with their faith. And the testimony of the eyewitnesses can be the greatest comfort to them.

So, however you come to belief: through doubting and difficulty, or by trusting from the beginning, content with the simple proclamation that the resurrection is true, Jesus is also both demonstrating and saying that he will provide a way for us to believe.

Each of us must walk our own spiritual path. For some, like me, that path will be difficult. And there will be inevitable stumbles along the way. For others it will be smooth and mostly downhill. And yet, as in the time of Jesus, many will not believe and will take a path away from Christ.

We are told of at least one in the Bible who believed before any appearance by the Risen Lord, and before the eye witness testimony of others who had seen Him. According to St. John, when the "beloved disciple", who outraced Peter to the tomb, went into the empty tomb, and saw the linen wrappings that the body had been in, he believed.

And, at the other extreme, we are told by St. Matthew that, even after the appearances, and even as the Risen Lord was being seen and worshiped by many on the mountain before he gave them the Great Commission, "some doubted." For some, then, even personally seeing the Risen Lord was not enough to convince them to believe the truth of the resurrection.

Times have not changed all that much. I think that would be true today, were he to appear right now. Some already believe that he is here, with us; and yet others neither feel his presence nor would they believe it if he were to manifest himself to us precisely as he did to those disciples on that mountaintop.

Today there are, in fact, some who can believe simply because, for example, the angel in the tomb said he was raised; or who believe simply because the tomb was empty and the linens discarded. But it is likely that more of us are like Thomas than are like the beloved disciple. It is clear that God knew that about us, and therefore there were numerous appearances by the Risen Lord to many people between the time he was raised and the time he ascended into heaven. These eyewitnesses provide evidence for those who struggle.

Jesus appeared to them for many reasons, three of which are clear in the Bible. In addition to providing eyewitness acounts, he also appeared to them to re-establish relationships with them, relationships that had been severed at his death; to prove that, after death, relationships can and will be reestablished between God and man. And he appeared to them to put them to work: that is what the Great Commission in Mathew 28 is all about: establishing the Church and giving it a mission, a job to do.

But regardless of the motives of Jesus when he appeared to many, those appearances provide a foundation on which most people anchor their belief. They do not provide scientific proof, but they do provide the testimony of trustworthy eye witnesses, which is proof enough for those who see through the eyes of faith.

If you read all of the stories of the resurrection appearances carefully you will very soon discover that, just like the stories of Jesus' crucifixion and death, these accounts differ one from the other. There are differences in such things as to whom he appeared, how often, when, in what order, where, what he said, what he did, and so forth.

But if he appeared to many different people in many different places and at many different times it is not strange that there would be many different stories about his appearances.

We will be better served if we focus less on what is different about these stories and more on what their similarities tell us. While there are differences in the details, there are far more important and overriding similarities. And it is these similarities that provide the clues to us of the importance of these events in how we Christians live our lives.

So the remainder of this essay will focus on what the appearances as a whole tell us about the Risen Lord and His intentions for Christians. We will focus on their similarities and on their overall importance.

We do not begin with the Gospels, but with St. Paul. We may not realize it, but we first learn that there were appearances by the Risen Lord from Paul. Writing before the Gospel accounts were recorded, Paul, in First Corinthians 15, tells us the basic kerygma, or proclamation, of the faith.

15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me....11b.... so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (NRSV)

Although no specifics of the resurrection appearances are given here, this proclamation is significant. It was written in Christ's own generation and shows clearly that the belief in the resurrection was based on oral tradition, that is on verbal stories, not yet written down, but authenticated by still living eye-witnesses to the events of the appearances. For the earliest church then, what was accepted as true was the eye-witness testimony to the appearances after the resurrection, which was passed on verbally, from one local church to another.

Notice how Paul summarizes this witness: "[This] we proclaim, and so you have come to believe." Paul is telling them that they have heard the proclamation, and that their belief is based not upon their personal knowledge, but on their trust that the proclamation is true. It is based first on testimony and then on proclamation. In the church those two ways of communication are called witnessing and preaching.

Later in the life of the early church, as claims and counter-claims about the truth of the resurrection continued to spring up, and as the eye witnesses began to age and die, these oral testimonies were written down, along with all of the other stories and parables that we have come to know as the Gospels. As each gospel was written, and as more time passed, we see the trend moving from the simple narrative of Mark to the more complex and sometimes defensive (apologetic) gospel of Matthew, then to the attempt to clarify the stories of Jesus by Luke, and finally, to the unabashedly apologetic gospel according to John.

[Note: Apologetic here means "defending the faith" not "apologizing" for it. Apologetics is a form of Christian writing or speech that seeks to defend the claims of the church against any who attack those claims.]

The gospels are much more than the simple statement of the faith that Paul gave to the Corinthians, although the Gospels do contain clear statements of the faith. But they also seek to defend the truths upon which the faith is built against attacks from both within the church and from outside of it.

Even the first and shortest gospel, the gospel according to Mark, has far more explanation in it than does the proclamation in First Corinthians. By the time we reach the gospel of John, the explanations that defend the proclamation of faith, including God's raising of Jesus by resurrection, are much, much longer than the proclamation itself, and serve both apologetic and theological purposes far more complex than simply believing that the appearances happened.

Not counting the much later appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, the stories of the appearances are in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.

Note: Mark does not include resurrection appearances in the original manuscript. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest Gospel written, has no neat ending; but two were supplied much later, a shorter ending and a longer ending. If you look at your Bible you'll note that the "longer ending" of Mark does include appearances. But that second ending was written much later by a different author.

We will discuss the Gospel according to Mark in the next essay in this series so we can understand why he did not include the appearances.

We also will look in the last two essays in this series at the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke. With Mark they form what are called the "synoptic" gospels, that is they can be read together and come from similar original sources
We will not look at John's Gospel because while there are very detailed discussions of resurrection appearances in John, the entirety of those writings are to serve apologetic and theological purposes that go far beyond understanding whether or not the appearances happened. John simply had a different agenda than did the other Gospel writers, one that is too complex to discuss in this series.

Next time we shall explore together the resurrection narrative of the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, and seek to determine why the original manuscript of the writer did not contain any mention of resurrection appearances. Many have found that to be a strange and mysterious thing, but there is actually an elegant and simple explanation.

God bless you all.


Original post: 3381 page views 2010 04 15