Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Appearances of the Risen Christ (4 of 5); Matthew; 2010

Originally published on Open Salon, MAY 3, 2010 2:31PM


This essay originally appeared here in May, 2009 and has been extensively edited for 2010.

A Review of Mark's Handling of the Resurrection Appearances

Mark says nothing about specific resurrection appearances. Instead, he essentially repeats the kerygma, the proclamation, of the earliest Church, as first recorded by St. Paul in First Corinthians 15: 1-11.

In Mark a proclamation of resurrection faith is stated within the empty tomb. There, an angel says 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.

This speech by the angel is a divine explanation of the meaning of the empty tomb. But angels aren't humans and and human reaction is not necessarily one of casual acceptance. Rather, Mark records that the women to whom the angel speaks are simply terrified and flee from the tomb in amazement, and tell no one!

There, on that strange note, Mark ends his Gospel!

I believe that Mark intentionally ends his Gospel this way. Mark wants each individual reader to make his or her own decision about who Jesus is. Mark would have us look at the evidence He provides in his Gospel and decide without the comfort of human testimony. Mark demands that we have faith based on the word of Jesus, and that of an angel after he had risen.

But not many are blessed with such trusting faith. And so, without realizing it, Mark lays the groundwork, via the statement of the angel in the empty tomb, for the later Gospel writers, who do include specific descriptions by eye-witnesses to the appearances of the Risen Lord. The three later Gospel writers tell us "what happened" after Mark's gospel ends.

Matthew's Account Differs Greatly from Mark's

Matthew, who wrote decades after Mark, is the Gospel writer who adheres closest to Mark's story, building his entire narrative on Mark's Gospel, but expanding it greatly and adding a lot of other material as well.

Mark wrote primarily for a gentile audience. Matthew, on the other hand, is the most "Jewish" of the Gospel writers and his small church was a Jewish sect within a Jewish world. As such, Matthew knew first hand the harsh accusations of the Jewish leadership and the condemnations of orthodox Jews against the upstart Christian sect within Judaism.

The hardest accusation of all was that the resurrection was faked by the disciples. Thus Matthew is interested in telling details of the story that Mark chose not to tell; or, perhaps, did not even know.

In any case, Matthew reports two separate appearances by the Risen Lord, the first immediately outside of the tomb in Jerusalem and the second later appearance on the mountain in Galilee, where the disciples worship him, yet some doubt.

It is there on that mountain in Galilee where the Risen Christ gives them what we know as "The Great Commission." We'll come back to these two scenes in a moment, but first, let's look at something else that Matthew reports of which that Mark says nothing.

Matthew tells the story of what happened at the tomb quite differently than does Mark. Matthew weaves into the story of the death of Jesus the undoubtedly true idea that the Jewish leaders were afraid that Jesus' followers would fake his resurrection.

Thus in Matthew we learn that the Chief Priests and the Pharisees go to Pilot and tell of an alleged plot by the Christians to steal the body and to claim that Jesus was raised. Pilate, in turn, tells them to place guards at the tomb to keep that from happening and to "secure" the tomb.

They do; and we are told that the guards "seal" the tomb. This extra caution is to no avail, and Matthew describes a far more dramatic scene at the time of the resurrection than Mark reported. Matthew tells us that the two Marys go to the tomb at dawn on Sunday - and everything goes crazy!

There is an earthquake; an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone and sits on it! The guards shake in fear and then go catatonic. And, in typical angelic fashion the angel tells the women not to be afraid!

Then the angel proceeds to tell them exactly what the angel in Mark told them. And, the women do not run away in terror, although this scene is far more terrifying than that depicted by Mark, but leave in both fear and "great joy", running to tell the disciples!

To say the least, that is different than Mark's report. But then it gets even more different, for Jesus suddenly appears before them, saying simply, "Greetings!" Matthew tells us that they are not afraid of him, or of him having appeared to them; but rather, that they come to him; fall at his feet, worshiping him.

He, like the angel, tells them not to be afraid, but to go tell the brothers to meet him in Galilee. Thus, in Matthew, we see not only that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee, as he promised, but that he first meets the women in Jerusalem, reassuring them of the truth of what the angel had spoken.

Why does Matthew Expand on Mark and add new material?

In the first place Matthew's community has entirely different stories that have been handed down within it than the stories told in Mark's community. In addition, Matthew is determined to undermine any idea that the followers of Jesus had stolen the body. Matthew highlights God's heavenly power: the earthquake, the angel, the angelic rolling away of the sealed stone from the tomb, and the trance placed on the guards. All of these actions are to indicate that Jesus being gone from the tomb has nothing whatsoever to do with human mischief, and everything to do with God's divine intervention.

And, to top it off, in case there are any who still think that the dead Jesus has been carried off; we see a very alive Jesus who is actually called "Jesus" not "Lord." In other words Matthew makes it clear that this is the same Jesus who was dead that we now see speaking calmly to the women.

Whatever lapses Matthew found in Mark's account which he thought would allow the claim of the Jewish leadership that the body was stolen, are completely covered here by Matthew's detailed defense of what happened.

What Matthew is doing here is trying to turn the tables on the accusers: arguing, in effect, that the hoax is not the resurrection, but rather the real hoax is the attempt by the Jewish leadership to cover up the resurrection!

So Matthew reports that the guards awakened from their catatonic state and went to the chief priests and told them what happened. Not content to let the truth prevail, the priests then bribed the guards with a large sum of money and told them to lie about what really happened! Listen: "You must say, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.'"

Matthew says that the guards agreed, and took the money; and that "to this day" -- meaning when Matthew was writing his Gospel some 30 years later -- this lie still was circulating among the Jewish leadership.

Thus we see Matthew taking head-on the argument against the truth of the resurrection. Matthew becomes then the first great Gospel apologist (defender) for the Good News of Christ.

Why Matthew Admits that "Some Doubted"

Matthew ends his Gospel on a much more positive note. The eleven remaining disciples, less Judas, go to the mountain in Galilee to which Jesus directed them. Matthew is unclear here as he never says when or how Jesus told them to go to a mountain, rather than just to go to Galilee. In any case they go there and see him and they worship him.

Interestingly, Matthew admits that "some doubted." This is undoubtedly reported correctly because Matthew would be very reluctant to put that in had it not been a key part of the testimony that was passed forward to him. Our text implies that some of Jesus' own disciples doubted, even after seeing him, since there is no indication that anyone other than the disciples was on the mountain top, although "disciples" can include many followers other than the original twelve, and we know that Jesus had a large group of followers when he entered Jerusalem.

This idea was so repugnant to later redactors that some translations say that "others" doubted, implying that there were others on the mountain who saw Jesus, and those who doubted were not followers. Which may be true, but the text does not support it. The harder translation to swallow, that even after seeing him some of his own disciples doubted, is more likely correct.

Both Mark's and Matthew's Gospels are full of times when the disciples did not understand, and often doubted, both what Jesus was doing and what he said, including that he must die and be raised.

While we might wish that all of us were of one convinced mind on all important matters of the faith, the truth is that we are not. We are all individuals and are at different places in our own faith journeys. And each of us go through personal periods of doubt. I am comfortable with that as you know. I believe that doubt is a normal experience of faith development.

But many people are not comfortable with any doubt, including their own. You will have to make up your own minds, however, because there is no way to confirm the text.

What is clear is that when you read differing accounts of things that happened long ago, the logical thing to do is to accept the account that would be the hardest for the writer to accept, but could not leave out since it was part of the story as handed down.

Matthew's Account of the Giving of the "Great Commission"

What is far more important, however, than the question of who doubted that the Risen Lord was indeed risen was the instruction he gave them. We now call that instruction "The Great Commission."

The Great Commission is the basis for the mission of the Church, and is literally Christ's own instruction about what his disciples are to be doing with our lives. The fact that lay Christians most often do not do what he instructs us can be disheartening to those of us who like to think that we all should be trying to live as Christ would have us live. Regardless of how we respond to it, his message is clear and unequivocal.

Jesus' last words before his ascension are:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Christ is clear. And it is equally clear that his resurrection was for the purpose of reestablishing relationship with us, and, through Christian ministry, with all humankind.

After he was risen Jesus said very little to us that is recorded in the Bible. This is by far the clearest message that the Risen Christ sends to those who call themselves Christians.

Sadly, very few lay people in the Church pay much attention to me when I tell them that the Great Commission is what we should be doing with our lives. It is, they tell me, what we hire pastors and missionaries to do. But that is only partly true.

When I was a pastor I hated to be the one to tell them, they were wrong to think that the commandment of Great Commission could be foisted off on paid staff. The truth is that there is nothing a Christian can do in his or her day to day life that is more important than trying to fulfill the Great Commission.

The Abuse of the Great Commission
and What Christians Should be Doing Instead

I am painfully aware of the fact that the Great Commission has been abused countless times when Christians have tried to cram their faith down people's throats. But the mission is to create disciples, then to teach those disciples to obey the teachings of Christ. It is not to force, coerce, intimidate or insist upon making disciples of people who have no interest in the Christian message.

Christians are to offer the message of Jesus by teaching; offering what Jesus said and did during his ministry on earth as an example for all humanity. That is a far cry from the fervent proselytizing and "in your face" demanding of faith that has gone on over the centuries, and continues to this day.

Yet, ironically, that Christ wants lay people to do anything at all about sharing the faith is not a comfortable idea to most modern Christians. But at the very least Christians can show the way to Christ by the examples of how they live their lives. The best evangelism is living a godly life.

They can invite people to "come and see" what Christians do, how they worship, what they get out of being followers of the Way, which is what Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry. They can be warm, open, friendly and loving to those who do come and see. Perhaps those seekers will decide that they want some of that love, compassion, caring and learning that they see when they visit our churches.

Next, in the final post in this series, we'll look at Luke's story of the resurrection appearances.

God bless you.


Original post: 1312 page views as of 2010 05 02

Contrarian Thoughts about Mother's Day

I first posted a version of this essay on May 9, 2009. The response was large and quite a bit of previously layered over feeling was shared by the commenters. I think that is all to the good. Sometimes we stuff in things that we do not want to deal with, and while not always so, bringing them to the light can be an important, if difficult, way of finally sorting out some issues that have haunted us.

For many of us Mother's day, and Father's Day for that matter, are difficult times. And, far too often, they are times when the society, our families, and, yes, our churches, are blissfully unaware of the problems our "celebration" of these days cause for people we otherwise love and would never think of hurting.

This post has been extensively edited for this year to take into account the comments on it posted last year. If you have not yet read it I urge you to do so. If you read it last year I urge you to read it again to remind yourself of the need to be aware of and sensitive to the feelings of those who do not fit the stereotype of those who see Mother's Day as a time of great joy.

Your feedback and comments are welcomed, and can be an important part of the discussion I think that we owe ourselves as we seek to sort out the issues these "holidays" raise.

As is her habit, on Friday Sue will fly out to St. Louis to see her Mom and siblings on Mother's Day. I will be a bachelor with three "cat kids" for three long days and nights, which will seen like an eternity after a few hours. I can't figure out who will be happier when she returns, me or the cats.

Since Sue is the glue that holds things together around here she is missed as soon as I can't find something that "goes missing." It really isn't missing, of course. It is just filed away in some code that I can't break. Its a man thing.

She loves to see her Mom and her sisters and she has a good time every time she goes. And I am very glad that she does it.

Sue and I don't have any children together. She can't, and I already had three grown children when we married. So the cats are our "kids." That works out well for us, but is not everybody's cup of tea. I always figure that Sue deserves some special attention at Mother's Day and so I am really happy that she spends it with her mother.

In the past, before she started the ritual of going to visit her mother in St. Louis on Mother's Day, I was also happy when she has picked an older friend to be her companion at the "Mother-Daughter" or "Mother's Day" banquets at the churches we served. She always picked someone who did not have any children, or whose children could not visit their mother.

Not many women are as courageous as my wife and would not feel comfortable "crashing" the banquet. I am not so sure how comfortable Sue was doing so, but I know she was trying to make a point about the day, without saying a word.

As a pastor I always insisted that the Mother's Day recognition in church be about all the women in the church, not just the ones who were actually mothers. That made sense to me. Why should the women without children be left out of the recognition and the small gifts that the children hand out to the "mothers" in the congregation?

Many of the single women or married childless women would come and thank me for including them. But you would be surprised, at least I was, at how many people would come to me and tell me that they resented extending the Mother's Day recognition to those who were not mothers.

I was always miffed at their insensitivity. I often looked them straight in the eye and said something like, "You know, don't you, Harriet, that Mother's Day is not a church related event? In some churches they ignore it."

And there are always small children and teenagers at such communal celebrations who have no mothers, whose mothers have died, or have left the home, and will not visit them, who want nothing to do with their children. And there are children there whose mothers treat them terribly. What about the feelings of those children?

So if we are going to celebrate Mother's Day we should recognize all women and not be so insensitive that we exclude women who have not had children. Ditto with Father's Day. And we should be sensitive to the feelings of the children who are not having a joyous childhood. It is easy to see who we honor and why, all the while forgetting who we ignore and hurt unintentionally.

The truth is that there will be a lot of people reading this post, and the many Mother's Day tribute posts which will show up here in the coming days, who have very bad memories of the way they were treated by their mothers and/or fathers. I happen to be one who has very mixed memories of my mother, and they are mostly negative.

I would be lying if I said that I loved her in the way that I know many of you love your moms. For decades I tried to pretend that I loved her like that, wondered what was wrong with me when I didn't, and kept trying to rewrite history to make her fit into the idealized mother that we are supposed to have.

The truth is that my mother, on occasion, could and did smother me with love. But many more times she beat me, hit me with any weapon that was close, pulled my hair, washed my mouth out with soap, grounded me for weeks on end for the slightest reason, knocked me down, and locked me in my bedroom.

More times than I can count she grabbed me by the hair, pulled me into my bedroom, slammed the door and made me suffer by saying "Wait 'til your Dad gets home and he will show you that I mean what I say!" And in terror I would wait until Dad came home, be called into the living room and she would scream at him about all the evil things I had done that day. Dad would try to talk her out of the spanking but she would insist that he take off his belt and spank me with it.

So I would have to lean over a chair and he would hit me with his belt until she said to stop. And if he didn't hit hard enough or long enough to satisfy her she would scream at him to hit me harder. If that didn't work she would rip the belt out of his hands and do it herself. I have always loved my step Dad. But, as a child growing up, I hated that he always gave in to her.

And there were many, many more ways that she manipulated the family and kept us all in fear. But as the oldest son by nine years I was the one she hurt the most.

I did not defend myself until the day she hit me in the face with a wooden coat hanger, cracked it, and went to hit me again. I grabbed her wrist and said, "never again." I was 17, and was thrown out the next day, but the damage was done during the time between my 6th year when she took me from my grandmother and my 17th year when I left.

It was not until just before my mother died, when she was 59, that I came to grips with my relationship with her. I finally recognized that she had her own demons to wrestle with and that she did the best she could given who she was.

Her best was not good enough, but I could not change that and finally accepted that fact and forgave her in my heart. So my personal devils were finally exorcized, at the age of 43. I wish I could have done it sooner, but at least I did it.

So, and this is important, this post is not about my continuing issues. It is about what I had to learn the hard way about closure and forgiveness. And it is in recognition that many people that we care about have not come to resolution and still have to deal with the pain they still feel on Mother's Day.

How do people who have little love for their mothers deal with this day, people who desperately want to remember shreds of the good times, because they are elusive in their memories, overwhelmed by the bad memories which are vivid to this day?

One thing I know is that for those who have few good memories of our mothers, or of our fathers, those who struggle to find some small remembrances of love and good times as we read all the really wonderful tribute pieces that are posted here about our mothers; well, for them it is hard to do.

They are happy that so many of their friends had good childhoods. They rejoice in that happiness. And, yes, they know that there were good things about their mothers. There really were. But when they are honest with themselves they would have to say that, on balance, the scales tip clearly toward the negative.

Most of these people are not jealous. Most are no longer wounded. Most are not frightened. We were all of those things during our childhood. And, yes, some are still. But even those of us who have made peace with our past, have come accept the reality of our childhood, and have moved on, are keenly aware that many have not yet been able to do that.

And that means that we are simply not part of the Mother's Day outpouring of love, and we will never be. The truth is that to say that we cherish our mothers would be lying.

So when some of your friends don't post tributes to their mothers this week, please try not to wonder why, or judge them. Be patient with them because none of us can get inside another person's mind. And the truth may be that they simply may have had a very different childhood that you had.

God bless the child, regardless of the memories.


Original posting: 1556 page views 2010 05 05