Monday, April 26, 2010

Appearances of the Risen Christ (3 of 5); Mark; for 2010

Related posts in this series on Resurrection Faith may be found in the column to the left of this page under The Christian Calendar Series. This essay originally appeared here in May, 2009 and has been extensively edited for 2010.

I have told you that I believe that the appearances of the Risen Lord after the resurrection are the easiest way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus.

Yet, we are told in the Bible, in Matthew, that even Jesus' personal appearance before his followers after his resurrection was not enough "proof" for some. Matthew says that, even as the Risen Lord appeared to them 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 allow them to believe the truth of the resurrection.

Today, these appearances do not provide proof that would satisfy a scientist or a skeptic, but they do provide the testimony of trustworthy eye witnesses, which is proof enough for some, but certainly not all.

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.

These Gospel narratives containing stories of the Resurrection Appearances are explanations of the truth of the faith proclaimed by Paul and accepted by the earliest Christian communities. They provide for us, and for all later generations of Christians, testimony that we use to help support our own belief in the truth of the resurrection.

We should be clear, however, that no testimony by any witness from 2000 years ago is likely going to be considered "true" unless we first have taken a "leap of faith" and are willing to believe that the stories in the Bible are true.

Biblical truth may in many cases be seen as metaphorical or even as mythical. Some Biblical truth is clearly meant only for the community for which it was written and not intended to be universal dogma for all time. But in other cases, such as the basic proclamation in First Corinthians 15 1-11, the clear intention of St. Paul is that the resurrection be taken as literal truth.

There are not all that many "essentials" of the faith but that passage certainly is, as are two non-Biblical statements, or creeds, of the Church, the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds, both of which rely heavily on St. Paul's testimony in First Corinthians.

So, for the purposes of these discussions, I assume that the resurrection is true through faith. That assumption comes from first having faith and then studying this event in depth within the Biblical and extra-Biblical witness of the Church.

This way of study, my way of study, is orthodox and traditional and follows in the footsteps of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Kempis, Hus, Luther, Arminius, Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Barth, Lewis, and both Niebuhrs and hundreds of other theologians throughout the centuries. And, as such, it begins with faith, and then seeks an understanding of that faith.

Interestingly, there are no resurrection appearances in the original manuscript of Mark, the first Gospel written.

The Gospel as written by the original "Mark" who wrote the rest of Mark's Gospel ends with chapter 16, verse 8, as follows:

Mark 16: 1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 8 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.

Later writers added first a shorter ending and then a later longer ending which does have resurrection appearances. Both added endings appear in most modern Bibles, with appropriate footnotes indicating that they were not part of the original manuscript of Mark.

These later redactors likely did this because not only does verse 8 end on a preposition which was not common in Greek writing, but also because it is obvious that eventually the women had to have told someone or else Mark would have not been able to write about what they heard and did. Some scholars argue that the original ending of Mark was lost. Most others, including me, argue that Mark's Gospel ended at verse 8.

If Mark does end at verse 8, and therefore has no resurrection appearances, bothering with this Gospel in this series may seem strange. But it is one of those cases where the "null curriculum" can tell us much about Mark's intention. In other words, what can we learn from what Mark chose NOT to write? We shall see that NOT writing about the appearances of the Risen Christ is wholly consistent with what Mark has insisted that we understand about faith in Jesus from the beginning of his Gospel.

Mark's Gospel dealing with the resurrection is little more than a repetition of the earliest kerygma, proclamation, that Jesus was raised. Mark's story ends with the empty tomb.

The proclamation of the angel, that Jesus is not in the tomb, that he has been raised, and is going ahead of Peter and the disciples to Galilee, where they will see him, is, of course, a divine explanation of the meaning of the empty tomb. And, for many, that is "proof" enough. Many church leaders to this day rely on the empty tomb as sufficient "evidence" that Jesus was raised. Others, like myself, find that to be less that compelling. And that was true from the beginning.

Obviously, for the women to whom the angel spoke it was only enough to terrify them, for Mark tells us that they did not obey the angel, but rather fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, and told no one! And, interestingly, on that strange note, Mark ends his Gospel!

But the empty tomb "proves" nothing, other than that the body was missing. And that is why the later Gospel writers recognized the weakness of the empty tomb argument, and sought to strengthen it by including "guards" at the tomb, and, of course, by supplying evidence of the appearances, as did the writer of the longer ending of Mark.

But Mark's original ending is not so strange when we think about it. We need to focus on what the purpose of Mark's entire Gospel was, and how he repeatedly, urgently and consistently pushed this one purpose throughout the entire book.

Mark, much more than any of the other Gospel writers, from the very beginning of his Gospel, insisted on the need for each individual person to make his or her own decision about who Jesus is. And that decision is to be a decision of faith, not of empirical knowledge.

The very heart of the Gospel of Mark is found in the question Jesus asks, exactly in the middle of his Gospel, in the eighth chapter, "But you, who do you say that I am?" If you recall, Peter gets it right for a brief moment, only to immediately misunderstand Jesus' statement that he must suffer and die, and, after three days, rise again.

And, recalling Mark's Gospel as a whole, we must remember that all of the disciples desert him in his darkest hour. The key question for us from Mark is, "Who do you say that I am?" In other words, Mark asks us, "Will you have faith without evidence?" Or will we, as constantly pointed out by Mark, be like the Pharisees and Jesus' own disciples, demanding signs and wonders which might lead us to believe? Will we believe through faith, or will we insist on "proof"?

Mark's Gospel, then, is not for the reader who demands proof of anything in order to have faith. He would have us look at the information that he provides in his Gospel and decide without even the comfort of human testimony about seeing the Risen Christ.

No testimony is allowed by Mark other than the words of Jesus himself. Even at the end, Mark demands that we have faith based on no more than the word of Jesus before he was crucified and that of an angel after he was risen.

If you think about it even for a moment, perhaps that should be enough, provided we already believe that Jesus is who he has said he is all along.

Mark, then, lays the groundwork, via the statement of the angel in the empty tomb, for the later narratives of the other three writers, which will include specific descriptions of and by eye witnesses to the appearances of the Risen Lord.

Those writers knew that while faith without proof would satisfy some, others, many others, would be more likely to believe if they included the stories of the appearances of the Risen Christ in their Gospel accounts. Those Gospels, written much later than Mark's Gospel, were already dealing with attacks on the faith by those who questioned the reason why the tomb was empty.

And so the angel's declaration in Mark that the Risen Christ is "going ahead of you to Galilee" sets the stage for the later Gospel writers, who will tell us "what happened" after Mark's gospel ends, with the intention to quell the arguments against the meaning of the empty tomb and to share the stories of the eye witnesses to the Risen Christ which had been told in their communities from the beginning.

I have always found it fascinating to speculate about what might have happened to Christianity if all the Church had to offer to people was Paul's proclamation at the beginning of Chapter 15 of First Corinthians and Mark's original gospel that ends with Chapter 16, Verse 8.

We would not have the details of the Resurrection Appearances that Mathew, Luke or John gave. What we would have would be the simple proclamations of Jesus himself and of Paul and Mark.

I think that people may well have had a much harder time coming to belief, to making that "leap of faith" necessary to then study and learn about God's redemptive love in Jesus, the Christ.

We know that Christianity would have arisen because Paul had planted many churches with only the proclamation of faith which he lays out in First Corinthians, which includes no details at all. But we know that even within the church in Corinth there were believers who were having second thoughts, which is why Paul wrote what is now Chapter 15 of is first letter.

This is why I always come back to my original contention, that "the appearances of the Risen Lord after the resurrection are the easiest way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus." Strange as some of the appearance narratives may be to our modern eyes and ears, they provide solid testimony that Christ did appear to many, and do not require what Mark insists on: what we would today call "blind faith."

For many blind faith is enough; but for many others it is not. This is true today, just as we know that for some even were Jesus to appear to us today they would not believe it. And that brings us full circle back to the essence of faith: trust in things unseen, which is precisely the point Mark makes in his Gospel by what he does NOT say, rather than what he does say.

Mark's test of faith is not for the faint at heart.

Nor was Jesus' test. His most troubling question for the believer today remains "But you; who do you say that I am?" Ultimately, with or without the aid of the stories of the Resurrection Appearances, that question lies at the heart of Christian faith and hope.

Next week we will look at the resurrection appearances in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

In the meantime, I encourage Christians to contemplate the essence of your own faith. If you, for instance, were living in Mark's community and had available to you only the statements of Jesus while he was ministering among us on this earth, the proclamation of St. Paul in First Corinthians, and the brief statement of the angel in the empty tomb, what would you believe about the resurrection?

Mark felt that we should believe based upon only that indirect evidence and the statements of Jesus that he provides in his short Gospel. Could you?

May God bless each of you.